Dave Douglas: Keeping His Eye on the Ball


Sign in to view read count
Dave Douglas isn't one to sit around watching paint dry. Since 1994, he's made 25 recordings as bandleader/composer, collaborated with a Who's Who roster of jazz "names (uptown and Downtown) and garnered seven straight wins as Downbeat's "Jazz Trumpeter of the Year, two Grammy nominations, a Guggenheim fellowship and the artistic directorship of the Banff International Workshop in Jazz and Creative Music. Douglas is also a primary force behind the Festival of New Trumpet (FONT), a celebration of the instrument taking place at multiple venues throughout the city until mid-October.

Listening to Douglas' oeuvre, one is immediately impressed with the scope and scale of his vision. Douglas explains: "I really admire people who stick with one thing and keep doing that year after year and going deeper and deeper into it, because there's a real strength in that, but it's just not who I am. Asked about his modus "boperandi for generating new ideas, he states: "I tend to write in blocks of pieces, a block of maybe an hour-and-a-half, two hours of material based on a certain idea or theme or technique [or] strategy. And so a lot of how I keep myself from repeating myself—and from feeling like I'm in a box or getting writer's block—is by really spending a lot of time thinking about the themes and the overall approach that I want to go for. Every record I've made is the result of that kind of process.

For example, to create original material for Soul on Soul (RCA Victor, 2000), a tribute to pianist Mary Lou Williams, Douglas asked himself what Williams meant to him, what relevance she had in the 21st century and, most importantly, what music could he write that effectively "answered both questions. Many of Douglas' albums followed the same process, albeit with different subjects: Booker Little for In Our Lifetime (New World, 1994), silent film star "Fatty Arbuckle on Keystone (Greenleaf, 2005) and Balkan brass bands (music written for and adapted by the Tiny Bell Trio). Douglas' "string group recordings—Five (Soul Note, 1995), Charms of the Night Sky (Winter&Winter, 1998), Convergence (Soul Note, 1999), A Thousand Evenings (RCA, 2000) and El Trilogy (RCA, 2001)—on the other hand, could be called "Middle-Eastern-European free-ish, dabbling in ethnic folk musics, Western European classical compositional structures (e.g. 12-tone rows) and unusual improvisational paradigms informed and expanded by Douglas' Downtown sensibilities. Freak In (RCA, 2003) and Keystone, on the other hand, evinced an interest in eclectic electronica.

Interestingly, of all his projects, Douglas finds writing for his quintet to be the most challenging: "Starting that band was like saying to myself, 'Okay, you're going to write just tunes, for a jazz group; you're just going to play the tunes.' And that's something that I have not done on a lot of other projects. A lot of my things before that [had] very specific instrumentation and personalities and very unusual instrumentations or unusual ways of organizing the material or different ways of trying to work with improvisation with the composition. And in this one I really feel like I try to write a book of tunes.

Thomas Edison's pithy epithet, that inspiration is 99% perspiration, seems to hold true for Douglas the composer: "[E]very single time it's a painstaking process! [laughs] It doesn't matter what theme you pick, or what goals you set for yourself...composing is always somewhat agonizing and challenging. And I get the sense that that's the only way to come up with something real, something honest: is to go to that place where you're really challenging yourself to go past your own bullshit and your own limitations, and go past the easy answer, go past the things that you've written before, go past the things that other people have written before, and to do your best to do that every day, out there, as a writer. It's a challenge.

Another factor contributing to Douglas' musical mercurialism is open-mindfulness: "There's a lot of ways you could judge music...[I]t's my own personal challenge to myself: to keep moving forward with writing...a willingness to judge things in different ways, to take different perspectives and different viewpoints on what's valid, and what's good, and what's not. So sometimes I feel like I'm working like a sculptor: putting an idea out there, and then kind of stepping back from it and walking around it in three dimensions; I try to look at it from lots of different perspectives, and then I feel that when I come back to it I'm able to have a fuller, broader picture of what the idea is, and elaborate on it. And either throw it away, or finish it. Douglas elaborates: "[I]t's the blessing and the curse of the twentieth century: that there are so many different litmus tests, so many different languages by which we can judge music, that you have to be somewhat of a polyglot to be able to go out and hear all the different things, and talk and think about them knowledgeably, and understand""or not understand""[them], by their own rules; and then...bring them back into your own process.

Compositions provide a spark, but—as Duke Ellington, Miles Davis and Charles Mingus well knew—interpersonal chemistry is required to ignite spontaneous musical combustions. Douglas reflected on a bandleader's role in collaborative group improvisation: "[A] constant in my music is the idea of musicians playing and creating together in real time, and music composition as a tool to get to that; to create that kind of spontaneous group dynamic is what's important to me...I try to invite the players that I play with into the process of creating the piece...It's a player having a style, and being themselves, and expressing what they have to say within the larger framework of compositions...[A]ny one of my projects you'd look to involve the players in a somewhat unusual way.

Examples include: Keystone, Douglas' 2005 debut release on his own Greenleaf Music, an attempt at an organic interaction between musicians and machines (i.e. vinyl beats and digital sequencing); and Mountain Passages from the same year. "Imagine a band that could actually hike to the top of a mountain and play there; so the music was very small and they were mostly sketches that we filled out in performance. (Listeners and readers interested in comparing the recordings to Douglas' original sketches can find the latter @ www.greenleafmusic.com).

Besides compositional architecture, Douglas employs on-the-spot crowd control to foster and facilitate group interaction, in both artists and audiences: "As a bandleader you really do a lot of shaping of things in real time and directing traffic and deciding how long things go and deciding who solos when and what sequence you play the songs in and how to gauge what the mood in the room is in any given moment: to figure out how to react or not to react.

Meanwhile, when the paint finally dries, it's unlikely Douglas will notice: "I just try to keep my eye on the ball, which is the music.

Selected Discography

Martial Solal/Dave Dougla, Rue de Seine (Cam Jazz, 2005)
Dave Douglas, Mountain Passages (Greenleaf, 2004)

Dave Douglas, Strange Liberation (RCA, 2003)

Dave Douglas, Witness (Bluebird-BMG, 2000)

Dave Douglas' Tiny Bell Trio, Constellations (hatHUT, 1995)

John Zorn's Masada, Vols.1-10 (Tzadik, 1994-99)

Photo Credit
Courtesy of Dave Douglas

Post a comment


View events near New York City
Jazz Near New York City
Events Guide | Venue Guide | Local Businesses | More...



Read The Great, Late Show with Dakota Staton
Read Betty Carter: Along Came Betty
Read Who's The Hippest Chick In Town? Anita.
Read Billie's Last Chorus
First Time I Saw
Billie's Last Chorus
Read Dr. Billy Taylor
First Time I Saw
Dr. Billy Taylor
Read From George Coleman to Meeco: Ten Overlooked Classics
Read Bill Frisell: Never Ending Revelations
Read Ugly Beauty: Jazz In The 21st Century

Get more of a good thing

Our weekly newsletter highlights our top stories and includes your local jazz events calendar.