Darius Jones: From Johnny Hodges To Noise Jazz
AAJ: Did you grow up in Virginia?
DJ: I grew up in Virginia, pretty much. I went to Mississippi every summer because my great grandmother was there. And that was really out actually, because almost every summer I would get bit or stung or something would happen to me [laughs]. And that was country. I'm talking dirt roads, family. The grandmother lived on the top of the hill, and all her children, like some plantation style or vibe, lived at the bottom. All her children, and then their children. So it was very like some traditional Southern thing. And then we would go to North Carolina too, where my father's mother lives. My father's half is Jamaican. So I spent time there, I spent time in Jamaica. That's pretty much my growing up experience.
From Bacteria to Boys, from left: Darius Jones, Mike Pride, Evan Lipson
AAJ: Do you like reggae?
DJ: I love it. I think a lot of those things influenced me. I grew up hearing, as a child, gospel music and reggae music all the time [laughs]. I don't know what happens to you when that happens to you but I think it's pretty intense. My parents weren't strict about that stuff. They really let me be open and check out a lot of different music. I really love reggae. I love vocal music. The vocal thing is a huge part of what I'm trying to do on my horn. Really getting to this distinct vocal quality is important to me. So growing up hearing reggae music and the sound of reggae singers, man. I mean, whoo! And in the spiritual context, a lot of guys in Jamaica, even though they really smoked a lot of ganja and stuff like that, they were so spiritual about it. The music was about getting high in a spiritual way as well. They wanted to touch God in a way. It was really important to them.
AAJ: How did you get into jazz?
DJ: My uncle played the saxophone and I spent a lot of time outside his bedroom just listening. He didn't really listen to jazz per se. His favorite saxophonist was Grover Washington, Jr.. He would listen to him, and he would put on some David Sanborn, early Spyro Gyra. He put on some Parliament, some Funkadelic, some George Clinton , so I would hear Maceo Parker, and stuff like that. It's really eclectic. So really the saxophone was the draw. It was like, "OK, I'm going to play the saxophone." And then it was just seeking out other saxophone players. So it was, "OK, who plays the saxophone? Oh, these guys who are called jazz musicians." 'Cause nobody in my family knew anything about jazz. I'm still alone out here. They still don't, They couldn't tell you anything at all.
So I went to the library, and I would get records and I would start just listening to people who played the instrument. And then we had this really great radio station, a college station, coming out of Norfolk State University campus. And I would listen to that. That's pretty much how it began. And it was very organic. Like I say, I believe in that process of organic movement, of letting things just become what they're gonna become, not forcing it to become anything but allowing it to progress the way it will progress, and that's what I would do. I was very curious; I would always be seeking out new things. If someone played something and I really dug it, I dug it. That meant that I would spend a lot of time with it, and try and figure it out and listen to it twenty four seven, until I could not stand hearing it again.
So that's pretty much my jazz beginnings. It started like that. Of course, [it was also] by meeting certain people, like going to Norfolk State, meeting Tim Zachery [Professor of Music at Norfolk State], who's this great trumpet player [who] was associated with the Marsalises. I don't know how he knew them, but he was from New Orleans. I think he may have studied with Ellis Marsalis, or something like that, and he basically took me under his wing and exposed me to a lot of music. And that was deep. He was a huge transitional force for me. And that was organic, man. I met a person and he exposed me to [stuff]. It doesn't get any more natural than that.
AAJ: Then you went to Richmond, to the Virginia Commonwealth University, and played in a group called the Klimt Experience [named after the painter Gustav Klimt].
DJ: Klimt Experience was a multimedia thing I was doing when I was there, with painters, musicians, writers, dancers. All of us would do these shows. I had live body painting one time. It was a great experience. That was something that was very organic. I was just playing free. People started gravitating toward it. I think Richmond needed that. It's a pretty artsy town. When I describe my experience in Richmond, I say I tried everything that you could possibly imagine, that a person could do musically. There was no limit. I was completely and utterly open to everything. I transferred from Norfolk State to Virginia Commonwealth University, which is in Richmond, and I was there for six years. I got my bachelor degree there.
You see, even though I was at school, I always believed that the music that I was making came from the street. I never felt jazz was academic. I don't feel it should [be] a cerebral music. I had several bands. I had a trio which was named Cud. I had a quartet with trumpet, alto, bass and drums. That was called Little Brown Boy, and we did basically nursery rhyme music. We did tunes that were based off of nursery rhymes. I believe in folk music and I'm very fascinated by folk music in general. Really, nursery rhymes and things like that are nothing but folk music.
Then I spent a long time with this electro-acoustic duo with Marty McCavitt, called Birds in a Meadow. It was just laptop and saxophone, and I did that for a long time. That truly was a huge influence on me, in the sense of really making things super organic. Dealing with electronics, you understand how electronics [are] an event-based system of improvisation. So basically, if you were to compare it to an instrument, I could hit a C but if he wants to hit C, C is a bigger world than just one thing. C could be four or three things going at once. C to electronics is "bah wah wah wah wah," rather than just [sings one note]. It's never a single thing. It can't reduce itself to [a single note], 'cause you're dealing with electricity. Electricity is more than just one thing.
Marty McCavitt was a genius. The duos that we got into, our improvisations, were literally humanistic. We were improvising like one mind. That was deep man. I have some recordings that are mind boggling. People can't understand how we are functioning as such a tight unit, interweaving, I'm going inside of him, he's going inside of what I'm doing. It's amazing. I was doing that for three years, before I moved to New York. We spent lot of time developing that project. It was very serious for me, to figure out how to connect, and create an organic experience with the electronics. Vijay Iyer heard this duo and he flipped out. There's one live recording we have. You would flip out if you heard it. I remember the evening when we did it. It was the deepest spiritual experience that I've ever had.
AAJ: Is it likely to be released?
DJ: If I was going to release it, I'd like to tour with it. It's some of the deepest interconnecting in that electro-acoustic world, because I don't use any effects and he just used the laptop and we were getting into such a heavy vibe. He's much older than me. I think at the time he was in his late 50s. I've always had this thing about working with older dudes.
AAJ: Then you came to New York?
DJ: When I came to New York I hit the ground running. Maybe within a year it was the first sessions with Little Women. I started playing trio with [the] bassist Shayna Dulberger. A lot of things started unfolding. As far as doing my own stuff, I didn't feel ready until maybe about two years ago [to say], "OK let's deal with some Darius [stuff]." It's such a big place and there's so much music. I was trying to center myself.