Artistic Director Don Lucoff conducted this interview with Darrell Grant.
Q: Taking a moment to reflect on your colleagues who previously were honored as Portland Jazz Masters — Mel Brown, Thara Memory, Dave Frishberg, Nancy King, Charley Gray, Wayne Thompson, the band Oregon and Art Abrams — what is most apparent?
I would say that these musicians embody the essence of Portland as a jazz town. Individually and collectively they are emblematic of the artistry, individuality, and generosity that make our musical community so special. I’m sure I am not alone in being inspired by their musical gifts – the erudite songwriting and sparkling piano-playing of Dave Frishberg, Nancy King’s stratospheric flights of improvisation, and Oregon’s pioneering blend of musical cultures. Each of them have influenced my musical path, as they have so many others. I am also inspired by their contributions to community — the legacy of education represented by Thara Memory and my PSU colleague Charlie Gray, the advocacy and service to the art form of Wayne Thompson and Art Abrams, and the musical bedrock of Mel Brown, who is still my model for the way a jazz artist can inspire a whole city. It is an honor to be considered in the company of these torchbearers, who have done so much to make Portland a world-class jazz city.
Q: Portland as a community is rich in many ways, how has that nurtured the ecology of jazz since you arrived here?
Something that made a great impression on me moving to Portland from New York City was the deep web of connections in this community. With so few degrees of separation, Portland encourages its artists to contribute not only as performers, but as citizens and leaders. Our shared belief in the value of place, people, and quality of life makes Portland a dynamic incubator for ideas and a great place to start things. It also creates fertile ground for artists, artisans, and creative people of all stripes. We also have an incredible wealth of young musical talent and a community of jazz artists committed to nurturing the next generation. That culture of support is another part of what makes our jazz ecology thrive.
Q: I have lovingly referred to you as Portland’s Billy Taylor of Jazz, the first artist I met and worked with when I arrived in New York in 1984 to work in publicity. You spent serious time in New York, did our paths cross and was he an influence on you?
I never met Dr. Billy Taylor. I think it is fair to say, however that he is one of my most significant role models and inspirations. In addition to his indisputable place in the jazz piano pantheon, Dr. Taylor was versatile, articulate, and scholarly. A composer, a builder, an activist, and above all, a communicator, for me he was a shining example of the broad impact that a committed artist can have in the world. For me he stands as a reminder of the importance of saying yes – yes to doing many things, and doing them well; yes to being yourself, and following your own unique path; and yes to always giving back.
Q: You have led many projects, received numerous commissions and composers grants but Black Art has serious history for you and now you are celebrating that history. Articulate what is special about the recording and revisiting this music in 2019?
When I look back at Black Art from this vantage point, the first thing that strikes me is how young we all were. I was 31 when we recorded the CD. Wallace Roney was 33. Brian Blade was 23. Christian McBride was 20. I don’t think I fully appreciated what a special opportunity it was to be able to make music with those three singular musicians. In hindsight, the confluence of youthful creative energy and opportunity in New York City in the ’90s made for one of jazz’ golden ages. As my first CD under my own name, I hoped Black Art would be a meaningful addition to that conversation. Having the CD be so well received was incredibly gratifying, and also launched me on a wonderful artistic trajectory as I continued to find my place in the jazz landscape. Revisiting the music after 25 years, with the perspective that comes from age and life experience, is fascinating. i’m interested to see elements of my musical voice that remain intact from that time, as well as to add some touches that reflect where my music has gone in the interim.
Q: What have you looked most forward to in your sabbatical year away from Portland State University? Family time, writing, traveling?
This sabbatical year is turning out to be a time for exploring new directions. I feel fortunate to be engaged in some meaningful collaborative projects. Singer/songwriter Edna Vazquez and I are composing a song cycle based on letters written by refugee mothers from Central America incarcerated at the US border. I’m working with slam poet Anis Mojgani on a chamber opera about gentrification in Portland’s Albina neighborhood. I’m also happy to have more time for performing – with my MJ New Quartet, my trio with Eric Gruber & Tyson Stubelek, and my Territory Ensemble. Travel also figures largely into this year. My wife and I are planning a two-week trip to Italy and Greece with our son. And I was recently invited to perform my Ruby Bridges Suite at the Smithsonian African-American History Museum this coming June.