In 'Jesse,' ASU alumni explore the life and controversy of renowned trumpeter Jesse McGuire

The documentary, created by Anthony Janssen and Ryan Dent, delves into the aftermath of McGuire's performance at the 2001 MLB World Series

With blankets draped over their heads while huddling around a microphone, Anthony Janssen and Ryan Dent found themselves in a makeshift recording room at South Mountain Community Library in South Phoenix.

Janssen and Dent, two filmmakers and ASU alumni, were in search of a story to document the life of world-renowned trumpeter Jesse McGuire.

Before the interview, Janssen had read a book by McGuire called “Raising Doctors on a Patient’s Salary,” and spent three hours unearthing memory after memory from his life.

But he still didn’t have the right moment to fit inside a cinematic structure. Dent said that much of what he gathered in those hours was background, like "where he came from and how he grew up." Still, he knew the story  lacked "that one thing we needed to dig in."

Then Janssen recalled a seminal moment, stuck in his mind: McGuire's performance of “The Star-Spangled Banner” at Game 7 of the 2001 World Series, where the Arizona Diamondbacks defeated the New York Yankees in walk-off fashion. 

"I was like, ‘Oh yeah, by the way, tell me about Game 7 of the 2001 World Series. I forgot that’s an epic moment of your career,'" Janssen said. 

"Do you want to hear the story?" McGuire responded. "Or do you want to hear about the real story?"

For Janssen, the choice was clear.

"Obviously, I want to hear the real story, Dr. Jesse," he said.

Just another gig

It’s Nov. 4, 2001, Game 7 of the 2001 World Series, and McGuire has one thing in mind: getting to his spot on the field.

"I made sure that I was going to get there," McGuire said. "If you’ve got 50,000 people in the audience looking at you, and you're concentrating on them while walking out, then you’ve got at least 25,000 distractions."

The crowd was roaring. Millions of people were on the edge of their seats. The Diamondbacks had fought back to tie the series by blowing out the Yankees in Game 6 after losing in back-to-back extra-inning affairs in the Bronx.

It was less than two months after the events of 9/11 and the nation was still grieving. Patriotism was at an all-time high and many Americans turned to the world of sports as a means of healing. In Game 3, then-President George W. Bush threw out the first pitch in front of a raucous crowd at Yankee Stadium.

"I can't let the magnitude of that event get inside my head and throw me off," McGuire said. 

McGuire has played the national anthem for three different presidents and in front of crowds ranging from three people to 4.5 million. But whenever the now-61-year-old plays "The Star-Spangled Banner," he treats each performance the same.

"I have to think in terms of it just being another gig," McGuire said.

For McGuire, consistency is the key to his success. By sticking to his strict mental and physical routines, the Phoenix resident isn’t distracted by the thousands watching him live, the millions more watching at home or the magnitude of the event itself — even if it is before Game 7 of the World Series.

"I’ve played that anthem when I was sick. I’ve played it in pain. I’ve played it with my nose bleeding and blood running down the back of my throat," McGuire said. "It’s a matter of being consistent. That takes all the stress out of playing.

"If you’re consistent across the board, events like that won’t overwhelm you."

While performing, McGuire said he never gets nervous. It's not until after he’s done that his nerves kick in and he begins to physically shake. When the final, wavering note was cast and the crowd of 49,589 fans at Bank One Ballpark began to roar, the moment finally hit him. He pumped his arms into the air with gusto as his slightly bluesy, embellished rendition concluded.

"Thank you, God, for helping me get through this anthem," McGuire thought to himself at the time. 

"I’m just thankful that it turned out as well as it did. That’s why I raised my hands."

The American dream, or nightmare

Almost immediately after the performance, McGuire began receiving phone calls from around the country asking for his services. 

"Jimmy Kimmel Live!" tried to book him. Schools, weddings and funerals called for his national anthem playing abilities. For the next three-and-a-half years following his Game 7 performance, McGuire was doing three performances a day. 

He had become an overnight sensation.

"The phone was ringing off the hook," McGuire said. "We’ve had busy days and busy calls and stuff. I was pretty well-known from playing the anthem before the World Series; I was known worldwide. But this was crazy."

But not everyone was pleased with his performance.

After Game 7, McGuire began to receive mail from those who viewed his performance as boastful and self-centered. For some, McGuire’s rendition of the anthem was disrespectful to the nation and the flag.

"The more polarized the country became, the more emails and phone calls I started getting," McGuire said. "A lot of people were taking their frustrations out on me because of the way I was playing the anthem. The more famous you get, the bigger the target you have on your back."

While millions of Americans were moved by McGuire’s performance, there were also spectators at McGuire’s event the very next night who were standoffish and refused to shake his hand.

McGuire was born and raised in a small town outside of Detroit. His mother taught him and his 11 siblings strict Christian, conservative values. As a pastor himself, McGuire’s last intention before he starts playing the national anthem was to disrespect the country or the flag.

"Anybody who would perform the national anthem should do it with a level of respect to the anthem itself and the country," McGuire said. "It’s always been a respectful act for me."

So, when the question of why anyone would take issue in how McGuire plays the anthem is raised, Janssen believes, "There are certain people that are going to hate everything no matter what."

Yearning for a new tale to tell

Janssen and Dent had been working on other projects before discovering McGuire’s story. The two had just completed a short film about a retired football player called “Overcome,” and the duo was looking for their next source of inspiration.

Searching for ideas, Janssen, an ASU men's basketball season ticket holder, decided to call a man he bonded with at a NASCAR race a few years prior: McGuire.

“I was backstage in this green room area where you kind of awkwardly have to strike up a conversation,” Janssen said. 

Janssen, who had recently attended the jazz and blues club Char's Has the Blues, asked if McGuire had ever performed there. 

His answer?

"I sent my two daughters through medical school and one of them to Stanford Medical School playing there, and I went and wrote a book about it," McGuire said. 

The two later connected again for a video Janssen produced, but after finishing “Overcome," Janssen knew exactly where to go next.

"I said, ‘Let’s just reach out to Jesse and see if he’d do a documentary about himself.'"

After unearthing the aftermath of McGuire’s performance at the World Series, Janssen knew he had found the right tale to tell.

"What does that do to you when you are at one moment at the highest of highs and the media is wanting to congratulate you, yet the people who are in the community that you trust and rely on turn your back on you?" Janssen said. "What does that do to your psyche? How do you view life at that point?

Janssen and Dent believe that filmmakers have a responsibility to themselves to make films that truly mean something in the world. Shot on film, "Jesse," their upcoming documentary on McGuire, is purposefully emotional and highly reflective for a reason.

"You’re not going to reinvent the wheel in storytelling, but do something that is at least meaningful," Janssen said. "That’s why I’m always itching to shoot something. Ryan and I were just texting yesterday, ‘What the heck are we going to shoot next?’"

Except for their work with advertisements, much of Janssen's and Dent’s works deal with sensitive and emotional subjects. 

In "Jesse," that’s no different. 

"I like films that feel real," Dent said. "Stuff that feels a little bit more raw than surrealistic."

Unanswered questions

To this day, McGuire is not sure why he received the backlash he got after his performance in the World Series. 

Perhaps it was the state of the country post 9/11, or any other set of biases held against McGuire. Maybe it was for none of those reasons.

"Sometimes, you have to act in a certain way to make some people feel comfortable about what you do," McGuire said in the documentary. "You can take the easy way out or you can stay and fight."

In the documentary, Janssen made sure to keep the answer to that question open-ended. And in reality, he doesn’t know either.

"I didn’t want to give any answers to that in the documentary," Janssen said. "I don’t know if it’s racism. I don’t know if it’s prejudice."

Nearly two decades removed from that World Series, McGuire is now at peace with himself and with those who disapproved of his Game 7 performance, or any of his other renditions of the national anthem.

"A lot of people didn’t like it, but I was consistent," McGuire said. "To me, that was OK. That was their thoughts and opinions. I allowed them to have that. In terms of all the backlash, it was to be expected."

Criticism aside, the trumpet has opened doors in McGuire’s life that most people only dream of cracking. Besides playing the national anthem at sporting events and otherwise, McGuire has an Emmy, was the lead trumpet of The Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra and has played alongside the likes of Paul Simon, Stevie Wonder and Wynton Marsalis.

To call his journey a success story would be an understatement. Having lived in Phoenix for his entire adult life, McGuire was a small-town kid who made it big in the city.

"He’s been able to constantly go further in his career and play on the big stage and not be scared," Janssen said. "Even if he was scared, he went there and did it. Even with his faith and his education, he didn’t just want to get a bachelor’s degree, he went and got a Ph.D. in theology. He wants to explore stuff to the maximum extent."

That same mindset got McGuire to his spot at the World Series, almost 19 years ago.


Reach the reporter at kbriley@asu.edu and on Twitter @KokiRiley.

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