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Darrell Grant: From The Heart, Through The Keyboard

By Published: July 2, 2007

I know what my voice is and I know what I have to say. To me, the question becomes: How does that fit into the world?

Darrell GrantPianist Darrell Grant believes in the power of music and art to change people, and through that path effect positive change in the world. That path may be the road less traveled, but he is not alone. After a time of learning his trade and then establishing himself as a musician with something to say he's been striving to move his art down that road over the years.

His newest music, captured on Truth and Reconciliation (Origin Records, 2007), is on the right track and it has him enthusiastic about the future of Darrell Grant as a persona and musician. This is music with a purpose that comes from this artist's heart and spirit.

"I really do think we as musicians have enormous power. We can own up to that and use it... Or not, he says with a chuckle. "For me, that's where I'm at and that's what is interesting to me. It makes me satisfied to find a way to really notice what can happen from putting this art out into the world. And hopefully do it with some intention. Other people, commercials interests, are happy to use art for their intention of making money or promoting their agenda. That means it is powerful. It can be used. What if I as an artist decide what the agenda is? And if the music really is that powerful maybe it could move the world in the direction I think it should go in, as opposed to just being used by other forces.

Grant, who cut his teeth on the New York scene—Woody Shaw, Betty Carter, Frank Morgan, Sonny Fortune, Charlie Persip, Greg Osby, Tony Williams, Roy Haynes—for years before deciding to break away to base himself in the Pacific Northwest, is onto something. He believes Truth and Reconciliation is his best yet, a double disc that carries through it a theme of redemption, optimism, hope, the value of freedom and the worthiness of the struggle to be free. It's honest. Deftly laid out, smartly done. It's executed with passion that Grant hopes he brings to whatever musical setting he finds himself (as evidenced by other albums including 1999's Smokin' Java or 2003's Spirit, both on Lair Hill records.)

Grant, 45, was born in Pittsburgh and raised in Denver. He's has been teaching at Portland State University's School of Fine and Performing Arts for the last ten years, in addition to still performing when he found time, though he no longer relies on the latter for subsistence. The experience seems to have given Grant some perspective, as well as, he admits, a sense of community. He's matured as a player as well, and his artistic vision has come to a focus on the new record.

"When you're in your twenties, it's all about proving yourself, says Grant with thoughtfulness found in his demeanor and his cadence. "Can I do this? Can I keep up with my peers? Can I master this incredibly difficult music and demonstrate my mastery of it to the point where people will employ me and where I can get a record contract and have the right to say what I want to say? In the generation I came up in New York, in the mid-to-late 1980s, it was the neo-traditionalist theory with less about freed-up expression and more about highly developed craft and a sense of knowing and being able to play within a recognized tradition. There were people who didn't do that, like Greg Osby and Steve Coleman and the M-Base musicians. But even for them, it was very much a skill-based thing.

"When everyone got into their thirties, and the reality of life, of a family to support—and also you've established yourself—you've answered those questions for yourself. Then it seems like people spend the time asking: What is my voice? What do I do? What is my sound? There are exceptions. There are people who explored those things from the very beginning and came into their twenties with a very good knowledge of what their voice was. But for me, it definitely changed in my thirties.

"And then I feel at the point I'm at now, in my forties, I've sort of found that. I know what my voice is and I know what I have to say. To me, the question becomes: How does that fit into the world? What am I supposed to do now? What do I do with my music? The interesting thing for me now is still continuing to develop as a player, and get better. Learning new languages and expanding my voice and being clearer, and being better within the territory that I feel is my own.

"The other thing is: What do I do now? How to I participate in community? What is it to be a musician? Part of my moving out of New York and moving to Portland [Oregon] and becoming an educator and working in the community here in the Pacific Northwest has been in pursuit of that question. What does it mean to be an artist?

Grant says his teaching position (he recently received tenure and has been made a full professor) has allowed him to answer that. But now he is interested in the artistic statement and how to make it sincere and important. "That's what making this record was about. What is the best that's within me and how can I get that out? Once it's out, it's: How do I use it? What is it for? How do I take that into the world and hopefully accomplish some things?

Truth and Reconciliation is brought to life by an array of stellar players, notably drummer Brian Blade and bassist John Patitucci, with contributions from Joe Locke on vibes, Bill Frisell on guitar, Steve Wilson on sax, and Adam Rogers on guitar. Grant arranged and produced it, including the writing, and singing, of some poignant lyrics. Not all of the songs run direct with the theme—Betty Carter's "Tight, for example, and Grant's ornate arrangement of "The Way You Look Tonight. There's even a song he wrote for his former boss Tony Williams. But the theme is present. In spots, Grant even superimposes—to excellent effect—clips of speeches by Gandhi, Martin Luther King and John F. Kennedy.

Grant thought about the recording for a long time, including what musicians to use. "I needed something to tie it together, to make sense of everything. About that time is when I heard this gentleman, Bishop Peter Story. He was a colleague of Desmond Tutu's, very much involved in the truth and reconciliation process with the churches in South Africa. I heard him speak. The title 'truth and reconciliation' was kind of bonging around in my head. That's when I realized that over the course of my life this South African theme was something that resonated with me.

Grant wrote the melody and lyric for "When I See the Water when Nelson Mandela arrived in New York after being freed from prison. He penned another piece after hearing from his sister about her travels in South Africa. "The idea of truth and reconciliation is something that strikes me personally what I'm trying to do musically, which is finding a way to reconcile all the different kinds of music and the different things that I played. Also it's finding a way to tell my own unique story in music, not influenced by outside expectations or commercial considerations or any of the stuff that can come in and distract you. Just trying to be true.

He got the musicians he wanted, and the engineer he badly wanted, Joe Ferla, and went to work.

"I was really trying to not be distracted by any external voices that were not true inside of me. It wasn't as though I was trying to do something that was so cutting edge or profound. But this is what I really mean, and only what I really mean. The playing, the writing, everything. Trying to go from the heart, which was a real step forward, says Grant.

Grant's playing is light and tasty; he boldly investigates melodic and harmonic paths with interesting twists and an almost understated intensity. Blade does his usual outstanding job of moving the music, creating things that embellish as well as support, helping carry out an idea or emphasize it, with Patitucci always in step. Some of the non-originals still push the theme, like Sheryl Crow's "I Shall Believe and Sting's "King of Pain. "Fils du Soleil (For Tony Williams) is an uplifting melody and rhythm that seems to express hope and joy as much as being a tribute to a fallen comrade.

"The Sheryl Crow song I've known since her first record. It's just beautiful. It also resonated with the theme of the record, with so much about what one believes in and where we've come from, where we've come to in our country. I wanted to do the song, says Grant. "In doing it, I thought it would be interesting to take away her lyrics. Because her song was king of a quasi-love song. I thought this is a real opportunity to make a statement. How do I then make this my own personal thing? Bringing in JFK and Martin Luther King brought it to another level of what this song could say. That's what I was hoping to do with that.

"There are things I try to write, looking for the opportunity to do something. Most of it, I think, is something that takes that moment of inspiration to build on. "Fils Du Soleil I wrote the day Tony Williams died. I heard about it. I was at school. I had to coach a combo. I said, 'you guys sit down with me.' I just started playing. I wrote that song in front of my students.

The spiritual quality of music and place is thoughtfully brought to bear in "The Geography of Hope (I Am Music), in which Grant speaks a poem, over his soft, steady piano riffs and some percussion. In part of it, the pianist intones:

I am music/Worship I raise in human hearts/Bonds of peace for jaws of hatred/Spirits I comfort, minds I soothe/Truth to all I serve/I am music.

It's very effective in total, and its sincerity surpasses any attempt to pass it off as trivial.

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.

Darrell Grant

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 reasons—his to-be wife did not want to settle in New York—that Grant made the move to Portland, an area they both liked.

"But also, after ten years of playing and doing what I do, I wanted to really feel like I was in a position to have a more lasting impact. It turned out that the university job just came up. I was looking into moving, but I didn't know where we were going to go. I couldn't see living on the west coast and trying to keep touring and being a New York jazz musician. When this job came up, it seemed like the right thing. I was a little less satisfied with being a performing artist. I felt like I wasn't making an impact on people that I wanted to. I guess it was more of an external thing, says the pianist.

He had some experience teaching master classes, but the change to a full-time post with a variety of classes "was certainly eye-opening. But he adapted and has become fond of the academic community and the city. "I've been here ten years now, so students that were twenty when I started are now thirty. They're out there hustling their own gigs or doing their own tours. So it's kind of cool to be in that position, to have my students out there doing the work and coming back and saying, 'Here's my record' or they've been on tour with so-and-so, or just finished grad school. That's a really cool part of it.

Grant says being part of a university culture "has given me a platform to do things that I wouldn't have been able to do as just a jazz musician. Because nobody really knows what that means, when you say you're a jazz musician. But when you say you're a professor, you can relate to the business community and everybody relates to you in a different way. That's been the coolest thing. I've been able to create things and start things. Starting record label and booking clubs and all these things I could never have gotten the platform to do as a musician, but as a university professor I've been able to do it.

"I am not trying to make a living as a musician, says Grant. "I have a teaching position which affords me to only do the gigs I want. It also provides me a platform. I have run two clubs that have employed musicians. We book local musicians, but we also now book national musicians.

One club is called LV's Uptown, an offshoot of an institute he created called the Leroy Vinegar Jazz Institute, after the jazz violinist. "Our mission is education, outreach and historical documentation. So we've developed a bunch of educational projects in schools, done joint projects with libraries. We created A Great Day in Portland historic photograph. It's like the Great Day in Harlem photograph, with 160 Portland musicians. Things like that. That is because of Leroy and my association with him and his estate.

"The club is different than that. It turned out the university bought this building and was able to make it into a conference center. But it was empty. Nobody was coming to it. There was a room and I said, 'You know, this would make a good jazz room.' I sort of threw in with them to get some seed money to start it. It turned out the people that invest at the university put a budget in place. We usually just do duos and trios on Fridays and Saturdays. It's free. All ages. My student combos play there. They play their quarterly concerts there. Students can go and hear great musicians for free. I book it. I play there myself every month or two. But it's been a resource for the community. It's stayed open. Other clubs have closed in the interim. It's now one of the places people can play in Portland.

Grant has kept sideman gigs to a minimum over the last year or so, he says. "That's because when I came here I tried to keep my sideman gigs and I was going crazy for a couple years, trying to fly back every month and a half. It was too much. But now I have tenure. I'm in a place now where I'm going to have more time for it. Things are evolving after ten years here, maybe back toward performing. And there are still people I'd love to play with. It's coming up more now where I'm starting to say yes to things and do some more collaborative projects.

He has a collaborative project ongoing with some musicians in his region. Grant has also been in a duet project with trumpeter Dmitri Matheny for about nine years. The pair will be recording for the first time in the coming months, "which is long overdue. He also has an idea for a large-scale recording project.

"I've wanted for a while to do an instrumental recording of the music of [singer/songwriter] James Taylor. That's a more ambitious project, arranging everything from solo piano to different ensembles. It'll wind up being a bigger project than Truth and Reconciliation.

Looking around, Grant realizes musicians are struggling for work, and he's grateful that his teaching position keeps him apart from those concerns. He doesn't need to address those issues and does not toss in false pontifications about them. Yet he sees good things out in the music world coming from musicians of his generation and younger.

Darrell Grant

"There is a fertility in the music that is really great. I'm really excited about that. I think, in a way, it's precisely because there's no reason to do it now except that you really love it. Nobody's going to get signed by a major label. Since people have forgotten about that, they're saying, 'Let me just play the music I want, then try and put it out.' There's so many good ways to put it out. I feel like there's a lot of creativity. The world's getting smaller now. The different musical languages are so much more accessible because you download anything. It's a real creative period.

"I don't know what will happen, financially. I don't know how many people the music will support, in terms of musicians. I think that's true of any human endeavor. The auto industry is not supporting as many human beings. It's just not. There's going to be more cars and fewer people making them. There will be more music and fewer humans making that. That's what's happening in our age of technology. It'll never go back, I don't think. So if people want to do it, the opportunities to do it and make some really interesting stuff are very good. The opportunity to make a living at it will rise and fall in concert with how that goes with the rest of society.

Selected Discography

Darrell Grant, Truth and Reconciliaton (Origin, 2007)
Darrell Grant, Spirit (Lair Hill, 2003)
Darrell Grant, Smokin' Java (Lair Hill, 1999)
Don Braden, Fire Within RCA, 1999)
Darrell Grant, Twilight Stories (32 Jazz, 1999)
Dmitri Matheny, Starlight Café (Monarch, 1998)
Greg Osby, Art Forum (Blue Note, 1996)
Darrell Grant, New Bop (Criss Cross, 1995)
Darrell Grant, Black Art (Criss Cross, 1994)
Vincent Herring, Scene One (Evidence, 1989)
Charlie Persip's Superband, No Dummies Allowed (Soul Note, 1987)

Photo Credits Top Photo: Hiroshi Iwaya
All Other Photos: Courtesy of Darrell Grant

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