Darrell Grant: From The Heart, Through The Keyboard
Music, indeed, runs in Grant's family. As a child, he played piano with his mother, who sang, and his father, who read Scripture, on a local radio show he recalls being titled as "Moments of Inspiration. His brother and sister also played piano. Trained classically, he was entering competitions as a teenager and also began to catch jazz gigs here and there.
" I had the benefit of a really strong music education program. I played in a jazz band from fourth grade. I was ten. There were three elementary schools and the band teacher led it and we got together a couple times a week and rehearsed and we played concerts. We did a little tour of all the grade schools around. Then in junior high, we had a great band director. We did tri-state tours. So my discovery of jazz was enhanced by that. So was his mother's record collection. And finally, young Grant found Fingerpoppin' (Blue Note, 1959) by Horace Silver, "and that just flipped me over.
He continued taking every opportunity to play out, performing with local groups that played the typical rock and pop of the day, but in high school he discovered some jazz players and gravitated that way. Herbie Hancock became his biggest influence. "Joe Sample with the Crusaders. Vince Guaraldi. Some of the first stuff I transcribed was A Charlie Brown Christmas (Fantasy, 1965). It's still some of the most swinging stuff. The Vince Guaraldi trio, man. He was so clear and so rhythmically compelling. It was easy to hear, because it was so rhythmically clear and harmonically clear. Horace Silver, Bill Evans, Chick Corea and many of the usual influences touched him. But Herbie remained the guy.
"Herbie was the guy I used to have dreams about; him playing my piano. I could see him through the screen door, says Grant over a soft, knowing laugh. "Herbie was my biggest hero.
There were local players who made an impact too. And something about the originality in the music of Denver jazz players also struck the young pianist.
"It wasn't like the east coast where there was this rigid thing where you had to play standards. When you went to a club, you heard everybody playing original music. I thought that's what it meant to play jazz. I didn't even know you had to learn standards or ever play them in public, says Grant. "Everybody I ever heard was playing their own music, instrumental jazz, but their own music. It wasn't until I got to school on the east coast where people said you had to know this tune and that tune and this tune. It turned out I knew a lot of them, because my mom used to like that stuff. But it was very different, much freer.
In high school, Grant won a scholarship to the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, NY, then moved on to the University of Miami for his master's degree.
In Rochester, he played some local gig is in addition to his studies, including playing with Joe Locke for the first time. Miami, at the time, offered more work. "I was in grad school but working, like, eight gigs a week. Mostly local people. I had maybe one hit with Ira Sullivan.
He moved to the daunting Big Apple, but that's where most of the best players were and where reputations got made. His first minor break came when he was asked by pianist Mulgrew Miller to sub with Woody Shaw's band. The trumpeter had one of the hottest bands of the day. As his name spread, he played in Charlie Persip's big band and some gigs with Junior Cook.
"Things started to happen and I started to slide into the scene. The Betty Carter gig came about because drummer Winard Harper was leaving. He tapped Troy Davis as the drummer. I had started a trio with Troy. Then when (pianist) Stephen Scott was getting ready to leave, Troy said 'You've got to hear Darrell.' So she came and heard me at this little club in Brooklyn. She called me. That was the first real thing, Betty's gig. After Carter, Grant helped keep things moving in New York by becoming the musical director for the American Tap Dance Orchestra, composing original, and also serving as musical director for singer Leslie Gore.
His first recording was in 1989, fronting a group called Current Events that played a variety of styles. They made one album for the Verve-Forecast label, and Grant moved back to the more mainstream world. In 1992, he replaced Mulgrew Miller in Tony Williams' quintet that had trumpeter Wallace Roney and saxophonist Billy Pierce, with bassist Ira Coleman. "It was incredible. Tony is just my idol, he says. In 1994 he released Black Art (Criss Cross), which got critical acclaim, as did 1995's The New Bop (Criss Cross) and 1998's Twilight Stories (32 Jazz).
It was partially for personal reasonshis to-be wife did not want to settle in New Yorkthat Grant made the move to Portland, an area they both liked.