Phil DeGreg: Cincinnati Jazz Heavyweight
Cincinnati-based pianist Phil DeGreg has made his mark in the jazz world over the past three decades as a recording artist, composer, and pedagogue. An alumnus of the Woody Herman band, DeGreg boasts ten recordings as a leader, and has appeared alongside J.J. Johnson on the legendary trombonist's video Live in Concert (City Hall, 2007). Since 1991, he has been a Professor of Jazz Studies at the University of Cincinnati's esteemed College Conservatory of Music, and his 1994 text Jazz Keyboard Harmony (Jamey Aebersold Jazz) is a standard part of the jazz studies curriculum at many colleges and universities across the globe. DeGreg's most recent recording, Amazonas (Self Produced), was released in October of 2010.
Despite his laundry list of credentials, DeGreg took a rather unique route to the world of jazz. I sat down with him recently to discuss Ivy League schooling, a sojourn in Kansas City, a stint with Woody Herman, and a life spent making music.
While DeGreg dabbled with the piano as a teenager, his interest in music at the time was purely recreational. "I didn't play professionally or anything [while in high school]. I would have some friends over and try to play Dave Brubeck songs...'Take Five' and things like that," he says. "But if you wanted to work professionally, you were playing all the top 40 stuff." After graduating from Cincinnati's St. Xavier High School in 1972, DeGreg set off for New Haven, Connecticut to begin studies at Yale University. His chosen path wasn't jazz, or even music at allit was psychology. It didn't take long, though, for his interest in his degree to start waning. "I was ready to drop out of school," he says, "not because I wanted to play music, but just because I wasn't happy with what I was doing." A visit from his father prevented him from quitting. "I remember my dad coming up to New Haven and just saying 'Just finish the degree,' which ended up being the best advice I ever got."
While DeGreg's interest in his studies at Yale was, at times, tepid, it was during this time that his interest in music began to grow. He began playing in a folk-rock duo in coffee shops around New Haven, and was exposed to music that would further pique his interest in jazz. "I had a roommate who had some Bill Evans records, and I kind of listened to that and began to enjoy that. I also listened to a lot of 'out' music, because it was just kind of around in New Haven. There were some really great free players."
DeGreg's early forays into the jazz realm were not exactly a smashing success: a senior year audition for the Yale jazz band left him on the outside looking in after a poor showing in the sight- reading portion of the tryout. Meanwhile, his connections in the folk scene paid off with a summer gig with a friend in Kansas City, Missouri. It was in this jazz-rich city that DeGreg's talents began to flourish.
"There was this guy [at Yale] that was a folk singer who was from Kansas City," DeGreg recalls. "He wrote songs and did some Paul Simon and Jackson Brown songs and stuff like that. We had a little act together. He got a gig in Kansas City [in the summer of 1976] at a place called Putsch's Strawberry Patch. We had a three-week gig booked, making 180 dollars a week playing five nights and, of course, thought that was immense money at the time." While he had no intention of staying in Kansas City long term, before long the stopover took on a life of its own. "My plan was to play there all summer, and take all the money I had made that summer and go out to California and live with another friend I had in the Bay Area," DeGreg says. "But we played our three weeks and then, no more gigs. There I was with hardly any money, and I had to figure out what I was going to do. But I knew that I wanted to study music. I worked for a year in Kansas City and lived on about 65 bucks a week and 35 of that went to music lessons."
While work was initially hard to come by, before long Phil made a place for himself in the Kansas City music scene. His first regular gig was playing gospel music at a church pastored by Emanuel Cleaver, who later became mayor of Kansas City and is currently a U.S. Representative. He began working with other young jazz musicians, including current Kansas City jazz stalwarts like Bob Bowman, Stan Kessler, Danny Embrey, and Rod Fleeman. In his free time, DeGreg would sneak in and use the practice rooms at the nearby University of Missouri Kansas City Conservatory of Music. "It was a very fertile time in Kansas City, for about three years, and it was really good for me," he remembers. "There weren't that many piano players in town at that time, and I kind of worked my way into the scene a little bit."
While living in Kansas City, DeGreg attended three of the famed Jamey Aebersold Jazz Workshops, one of which was on the campus of North Texas State University (now University of North Texas) in Denton, Texas. He was struck by the abundance of talented students at the school. "There were all these guys there who were current students at North Texas, most of them who have gone on and had nice careers. I had been thinking about the idea of going back to school, and after playing with these guys I thought this would be a great place to come," he remembers. His hard work during his years in Kansas City paid off, as he was awarded a graduate assistant-ship and performed and recorded with the famed One O'Clock Lab Band.
During his years at North Texas from 1979-1982, DeGreg also worked steadily in nearby Dallas. HIs connections at the school led to a big break in 1983, when he got the call to take the piano chair with Woody Herman's big band. But family responsibilities made his tenure with the band a relatively short one. "I [played in the band] for about ten-and-a-half months. I already had my first child at the time that I left, so I knew that it was only going to be a limited thing going into it," he explains. It was the task of raising his daughter, with the help of his wife Carol, which brought the DeGregs back home to Cincinnati to be near family.
Though Cincinnati, of course, remained familiar to him, DeGreg had few connections in the music scene in the Queen City, because his interest in jazz hadn't developed until he had left. "I had grown up here, this was my hometown, but I had never known any of the musicians because I had never thought of myself as a musician [growing up]," he saus, "so it was like coming to a new town as a musician." He spent most nights making the rounds at jam sessions around the city and sitting in with musicians at the Blue Wisp Jazz Club. Before long he was working steadily, including a six-night a week gig at the Hyatt Hotel with bassist Mike Sharfe and reed man Sandy Suskind, both of whom are active Cincinnati musicians to this day. In 1987, Rick Van Matre, who directed the Jazz Studies department at the University of Cincinnati's College-Conservatory of Music (CCM), hired Phil as an adjunct instructor, helping him more firmly place his roots in Cincinnati. "It wasn't in my mind that I really wanted to stay in Cincinnati, but it just sort of worked out like that," he recalls. "When the teaching gig opened up, even though it was only part time, I was very happy to do it because I had always taught." Over the next four years, DeGreg's responsibilities at the school grew. "Rick kept gradually giving me more things to do, so after four years I was still part time but doing a full-time load. And then the next year  it became a fulltime job. I've been here ever since."
Jazz Keyboard Harmony
One of DeGreg's early responsibilities at CCM was teaching a jazz piano course for non-pianists who were jazz studies majors. Though he had some experience teaching this type of course before, he essentially had to come up with the curriculum for the class on his own. His approach to teaching class piano for non-pianists was far different than in private lessons with students who considered the piano their primary instrument. "I decided very early on if there was going to be a piano class for our jazz majors who are not pianists, I wasn't really interested in them learning how to play scales," he explains. "What they needed to learn how to do was to play some chordsthat was going to be the most useful thing for them."
After several years of teaching the course, DeGreg had amassed so many course materials that he decided to turn his notes into a book. "There wasn't anything like this out there as far as I know," he said. "Eventually I thought I would make a book out of this. I approached Jamey [Aebersold] about it, showed him some of my notes, and he was very open to it." Turning his notes into a book proved to be an arduous task, and it took four years to actually be ready for publishing. In 1994, Jazz Keyboard Harmony hit the shelves, published by Jamey Aebersold Jazz. One of the unique aspects of the book, DeGreg illuminates, is that it displays chord voicing progressions notated and spelled out in all 12 keys, rather than being shown in just one: "I'm writing this for non-piano players, and I know from experience that you can't just give them something and tell them to transpose it into 12 keys and bring it back. It's not gonna' happen."
The book proved to find its niche in the jazz education market, helped in part by the prestige of the Aebersold brand. "I really felt like I was making some kind of a contribution, and it's worked out that way because it's had longevity," says DeGreg. "It sells pretty consistently each year. Of course, having Jamey publish it is a big advantage because he's got so much exposure." Jazz Keyboard Harmony has sold overseas as well; DeGreg once encountered his book at a music store in Sao Paulo, Brazil.
In addition to his output as an educator, Phil DeGreg has been a prolific recording artist. His most recent CD, Amazonas, is his tenth as a leader, dating back to his 1996 debut Table for Three. The new recording documents his long-held fascination with Brazilian jazz, which only intensified in 2008 when he was awarded a Fulbright Fellowship to study and teach at the University of Campinas in Brazil for four months.
Amazonas features three of South America's most highly-esteemed musicians, in addition to DeGreg. The drummer on the album, Erivelton Silva, is widely regarded as one of the premier percussionists in South America. "He's a big influence on people; people regard him as a stylistically important drummer," DeGreg explains. "He's in high demand and has played with a lot of great singers." Bassist André Vasconcellos is perhaps best-known in his home country for touring with the pop singer Djavan and mandolinist Hamilton de Holanda. "Andre's a virtuoso and Hamilton is a genius. His band is a kind of Brazilian jazz that's unique and wonderful. Andre and Erivelton both live in Rio de Janeiro now, and they're very busy," says DeGreg. The other member of the quartet, trumpeter Moises Alves, is an extremely versatile musician who has performed regularly with the National Theatre Symphony Orchestra in Brasilia since 1989, in addition to pop and jazz gigs.
The pedigree of the musicians and DeGreg's affection for their talents was largely the inspiration for Amazonas. "A lot of the recordings I've done have been just because of a desire to play with certain musicians," he admits, laughing. "That seems to be the impetus for me doing recordings. I did a trio recording Down the Middle (Prevenient, 2007) with [drummer] Joe LaBarbera. I've made disks with guys like Tim Ries, Don Braden, Drew Gress, Randy Johnston. Recording is sometimes just an excuse to get to play with really good musicians that I like."
DeGreg contributes three originals on the album to go with a mix of Brazilian and American standards. "I like to interpret other people's music, but I'm always going to have a couple of tunes of my own on a recording," he explains. DeGreg's "Inside Track" was inspired by some lessons he took with the great pianist and composer Kenny Werner years ago. "One of the principals he would talk about in terms of songwriting I applied in that tune," he explains. "It was sort of the principle of randomness, in a way...of generating bass note and lead notes in a semi-random way, and then combining things and then beginning to edit it into something that you like." "The Gulf" was written in the early '90s, inspired by The Gulf War. Other noteworthy tracks on the album include the Duke Ellington standard "Caravan," and the funky samba "Partido Alto," a staple of the Brazilian jazz repertoire.
In the coming years, DeGreg sees himself continuing to teach at CCM, but making trips to Brazil with increasing frequency due to a federal exchange program he spearheaded; starting in 2012, the school will annually send two to three CCM jazz studies students to study abroad in Brazil, and will receive as many in return. In April of 2011, DeGreg and his colleague at CCM, trumpeter Kim Pensy, will release Melodious Monk on Summit Records. "I hope to do more projects with Kim in the future, as well as traveling more to perform and to give workshops at universities," DeGreg concludes.
Phil DeGreg, Amazonias (Self Produced, 2010)
Phil DeGreg, Down the Middle (Prevenient, 2007)
Phil DeGreg, Hymnprovisation (Self Produced, 2007)
Phil DeGreg, Trio Con Brio (Self Produced, 2005)
Phil DeGreg, Brasilia (Self Produced, 2004)
Phil DeGreg, Table For Three (Self Produced, 2003)
Phil DeGreg, Whirl Away (J- Curve, 2000)
Phil DeGreg, The Green Gate (J- Curve, 1999)
All Photos: Courtesy of Phil DeGreg