In the current jazz environment, the art of jazz expression and the world of formal education are fully intertwined. Serious dedication to either path takes powerful commitment, but fully pursuing both demands a level of diligence and focus that is immensely challenging. Jeff Denson is a man who is meeting that challenge.
Fully immersed in both worlds since the late 1990s, the bassist/composer has balanced a full career as sideman and leader while taking a full course of studies leading to his doctorate. In addition to maintaining an intense performing and touring schedule in the U.S. and Europe while in school – including a long relationship with legendary saxophonist Lee Konitz that continues to this day – Jeff has also taught extensively all over both continents.
Today he is a full professor at the California Jazz Conservatory in Berkeley, California and the Director of its Outreach Program designed to develop the Bay Area’s most talented musicians while making the local scene a productive and fertile environment for jazz. While this intensive level of activity is easily a full-time job, Jeff takes a relentless 24/7 approach, composing for and leading three distinct ensembles, participating in a few cooperative groups and working on his three-act Chamber Opera, WEBS.
At first glance, it might seem that Jeff Denson, like so many of the younger generation that has emerged in the past 20 years, is a product of the formalized jazz education system. This is simply not the case. In reality, he has developed in the age-old tradition that dates back to the earliest days of jazz – listen to the masters, sharing in oral traditions through his personal mentors, and straight-up hands-on experience in the trenches.
“I have the highest degree that a person can earn in music; however I owe a great deal of my ‘education’ to my experiences on the ‘street’ or on the bandstand.”
Jeff’s “bandstand” credentials are indeed impressive. He has recorded 11 albums as leader/co-leader and over a dozen more as a featured sideman - four with Konitz (including live recordings at the Village Vanguard and Birdland). Over the past 15 years, he has shared the bandstand with an impressive and diverse array of remarkable musicians including Anthony Davis, Mark Dresser, Joe Lovano, Jane Ira Bloom, Kenny Werner, Dave Douglas, Bob Moses, Giacomo Gates, Howard Alden and many more.
Born in Arlington, Virginia – just outside of Washington, D.C. – in 1976, Jeff grew up in a fertile musical environment and began playing the alto sax at 8 years old, switching to electric bass in high school. His mother’s love of the Beatles became his own, and he also discovered R&B, especially Stevie Wonder, James Brown & the J.B.’s and Marvin Gaye– particularly affected by the legendary Motown Records bassist James Jameson. By the time he was completing his high school education, Jeff was playing and singing with his own funk and rock bands. His interest in jazz started with fusion – Jaco Pastorius and Stanley Clarke – but shifted direction one fateful day. Like countless musicians over the past 50+ years it was a chance encounter with Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue – specifically Paul Chambers playing lead on So What – that provided an epiphany. Soon after, Charles Mingus’ Haitian Fight Song locked the young bassist into this new direction, both as a player and an artist.