Conversations: Doug Richards

by Taylor BarnettDoug Richards is the founder of the Jazz Studies Program at Virginia Commonwealth University and one of the finest jazz composers in the world. He is something of a living legend to those that know him – his intensity and virtuosic abilities are paired with warmth and integrity, which earns him devotion from […]

by Taylor Barnett

Doug Richards is the founder of the Jazz Studies Program at Virginia Commonwealth University and one of the finest jazz composers in the world. He is something of a living legend to those that know him – his intensity and virtuosic abilities are paired with warmth and integrity, which earns him devotion from many of his students and musical collaborators. I have known Doug for more than half my life as a teacher/mentor and more recently as a colleague. Doug’s official bio can be found here.
We met to talk in his home office where portraits of J.S. Bach, Stravinsky, and Duke Ellington hang on the walls. These musical heroes are the most important influences on his music and their presence provides a constant reminder of what he is striving for in his art: craft, inventiveness, color, and groove. My one-year-old daughter played on the ground between us, which led to several digressions as she and Doug alternately engaged each other in mutually enjoyable conversations. At one point during the interview Doug turned on his electric keyboard and the three of us played a spontaneous (read: dissonant) improvisation using the church organ patch. Everyone had a great time – it was hard to tell whether Doug and I or my daughter enjoyed it more!


Me: I know you are currently in the middle of recording Intercontinental Concerto, your massive suite for trumpet soloist and expanded jazz orchestra that you wrote to feature Rex Richardson and that was premiered in Australia and later at VCU in October, 2006. Can you give a brief summary of the origins of the piece, both practically and conceptually?

Doug: Sure. The VCU Department of Music was very kind to give me partial load credit for writing this piece for Rex – he had asked me about writing a piece for him before – and then this circumstance came about and I had been reading Jared Diamond’s Guns Germs and Steel, which is essentially about the development of mankind, starting in Africa and moving to Asia and then eventually moving to Europe, and to Australia, North America and finally South America. For some reason it clicked and I thought, “Wouldn’t it really be neat to write a piece with some kind of connecting elements to feature Rex?” And that was the basic idea.

Then, various things came about with my exploring the musics of these different continents. It was really like a fascinating journey for me to go on. There were certain types of music that I had only had very little to zero experience in listening to, especially musics from Asia. I’d heard Kodo live – they’re a great Japanese percussion ensemble – and bits and pieces of other things. My college roommate at Berklee was of Indian descent so I’d heard Ravi Shankar and Ali Akbar Khan and some other great Indian music but I’d never really looked into it closely. And so, upon studying Asian music, I came across this music that is supposedly the oldest form of instrumental music that we know of, called Gagaku music – which is a ceremonial Japanese music. I became enticed with that – I mean because on each continent, there’s just so much to deal with and you have to narrow it down. And I’m hardly trying to be authentic or “Catholic” with my interpretations – I’m not an ethnomusicologist by any stretch – but I heard some fascinating elements: sonorities, timbres, rhythmic kinds of concepts and I approached it that way. I’ve always had a strong interest in – I think that everyone who deals with music has certain things that are their fortes: some people are great melodists, some people have great harmonic sense, great rhythmic sense, timbral sense, what-have-you. Mine…one of my things is color. I’ve always enticed by color and rhythm – trying to make things interesting. I think one thing that we all should do is try to make art a wonderful experience for the listener, as well as for the performer and so that’s what my goals were here. And of course I had Rex to feature and I’m familiar with his extraordinary virtuosity and musical characteristics and so…ta-ta! (Laughs and cuts himself off as a conductor would)

Me: That’s great. How did this piece, due to its scope and the unfamiliar styles that you were working in, differ in the final product and in the compositional process different than your previous work for G.A.M.E. [Great American Music Ensemble]?

Doug: Well, like I was saying before, we people who deal with creating things in an artistic medium all have our strengths. I work better in the realm of the miniature – meaning pieces that are 6-8 minutes long, sometimes shorter – and while this has six sections, the total length is about 42-45 minutes, somewhere in that vicinity. I haven’t clocked it yet. But essentially, each of these six sections are miniatures. Nothing is spun out like…well, I just got back from New York where I was hearing all of these Mahler symphonies where we’re dealing with movements that are 30 minutes plus you know? So nothing is that way. I don’t have a talent for doing that; I haven’t really tried to do that. That isn’t my focus. So I think that throughout my years of dealing with charts, as we refer to them – it’s really an odd term I don’t know how that ever come about…

Me: …and so this is basically a suite, a collection of miniatures…

Doug: It’s a suite. At the end, on the South American section, I do a very brief reprisal of the previous five sections. But there’s no interconnecting kind of process here.

Me: But when you were sitting down originally, did you map out any key areas or was there any thought about the scope or what movement might be thought of as the climax or…

Doug: Well there are climaxes of course to each of these sections, and hopefully the ultimate is during the final section – I think it probably apexes there as far as the whole thing is concerned. But yeah, I fundamentally mapped it out as I do most anything I write, you know this. I mean you give yourself a plan like we do during the day. I mean, I write my basic plan out (and I know I never keep to it, you know) and that’s what happened here too. Plans were established and some things were adhered to and some things went by the wayside when something better came up, or when I was uncomfortable with my original notion.

So, there were key schemes and that type of thing. And, as I said, each section morphs or segues into the next section. This, I think, is reflective of my development as one who writes music. I mean, yeah I can “crank” something out in a particular style: a “Basie-esque” or an “Ellington-esque” kind of thing – or a Thad Jones’ish or whatever you want to call it. But that’s not what I prefer to do at this stage of my life.

I think jazz essentially is theme and variations and it’s how you state the theme, whether it’s a mundane, “Three Blind Mice” kind of a ditty or a simple folk song or something elaborate and then, what are you going to do with it? I mean, that’s true composition to me. I’m not putting the tunesmith down because that’s a very wonderful gift to have and to develop. But I hope that the listener and the musicians find this worthwhile. It’s different; in my opinion I don’t know of anything like it. And in essence, I don’t know of anyone else who writes like I do. And that’s neither here nor there, that’s just who I’ve

developed into. You know, take it or leave it. (Laughs and shrugs his shoulders)

Me: I know that you’ve made some substantial additions and revisions to the piece since the two performances in 2006 and I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about what you changed and why.

Doug: Sure, sure. The things that are the most altered are the use of woodwinds and percussion from the initial treatment and also I’ve dealt a little bit more with guitars on here – the first one was two guitars, this at times has three – and I altered some of the writing for the plectrum instruments. And of course the woodwinds initially only used saxophones. For the original performance in Australia, Rex and I weren’t able to get enough information about the doubling capacity of the woodwind players, or I should say the saxophone players. I did find out that, yes, all of them did in fact double on soprano…

Me: That’s not a double, that’s a saxophone!

Doug: Of course!

(Both laugh)

Doug: But that was the only thing I could go on and so with that tidbit, I used of course the five sopranos in the Asian Gagaku section…

Me: And was that to emulate an indigenous instrument?

Doug: Well, the trombones and organ were emulating the Sho but the way I used the sopranos rhythmically and registrally with the muted trumpets was very timbrally in context with this type of music.

(listen to an excerpt of the VCU performance of the Asian section)

And so when I had the opportunity of rescoring this I changed the woodwind parts dramatically. This was a pretty major shift, especially during the European section, which I altered most dramatically…

(listen to Doug discuss the European section in detail)

(listen to an excerpt of the VCU performance of the European section)

Me: So, when you are done with recording the Intercontinental Concerto, what is your plan? How are you guys going to release this?

Doug: This is more or less in Rex’s lap at that time. If it turns out like I think/hope it will (Laughs), I think that there is a good chance that this is going to get a considerable amount of positive attention.

Me: So it is going to be released on a label?

Doug: Rex has been doing all of his stuff with Summit Records. I know he has already recorded the, um, Dana Ca… I was about to say Dana Carvey, (Laughs) Dana Wilson rather. I’d love to hear Dana Carvey’s concerto for trumpet and strings; that could be very interesting! (We both laugh heartily, inciting my daughter to laugh with us, which in turn gets us all laughing even harder)

(Doug was referring to Dana Wilson’s Concerto For Trumpet and Strings, a classical piece that was commissioned by Rex. Rex plans to release an album that will include both the Wilson concerto and the Intercontinental Concerto.)

Me: So, dare I ask what’s next for you musically?

Doug: Gosh! Well, I have a piece that I have to write for the VCU Orchestra that I’m doing for them and women’s choir and I might have some other kind of element or elements in there.

Me: So what’s the deal with this piece?

Doug: They’ll be doing it next March.

Me: So…do you know what the piece is going to be?

Doug: Oh, no. I’m just toying with it right now.

Me: So you just know that it’s going to be a piece for full orchestra and women’s choir…

Doug: Yes. And I might have a soloist or soloists, jazz or non-jazz, I don’t know. I thought the thing we did for the Villa-Lobos festival for orchestra, jazz band, and children’s choir went well. So that’s next. And hopefully regarding the Intercontinental Concerto, I know Rex and I both are hoping that it brings about some performances around the planet.

One of the things that I’d like to see and that I think there’s a possibility of is a collaboration with Donald McKale, who is a leading choreographer who lives in California. We have had a good experience in the past in that he has used some of the G.A.M.E. recording to set choreography to with various professional groups. He is very interested in checking this piece out.

Me: This piece would lend itself really well to that.

Doug: Oh, yeah. I think so too. And whether he uses some or all of it, I would looove to do it live. That would be extraordinary to be able to do it live with the soloists maybe being onstage also; I mean, that could be done.

Me: You’ve been in Richmond for almost thirty years, do you see this as a home base for you to work out of for the rest of your…

Doug: No. No. And there’s nothing certain about this but Melanie and I are talking about retiring in as few as three or four more years. There’s a chance that that won’t happen, I mean who knows what’ll happen with health, with the economy, with opportunities. My son and daughter-in-law live in San Diego, my daughter and son-in-law and granddaughter live in Miami Beach and of course like to have more time with my family, you know?

I’d like to see what else might be possible. Gordy Haab (a former student of Doug’s that is currently a successful composer in L.A.) said that he felt that if I did a band in Los Angeles that it would be gangbusters. Of course I know that Gordy is incredibly goodhearted and positive about what I’ve done…but maybe it could happen. And maybe it could happen and I won’t do it, I don’t know. (Laughs)

And we’ve talked about maybe moving to D.C. where we’d still be close enough to our friends in Richmond and use that as a home base. And maybe try to do a band up there. I talked to all the trombone players who were on the first session here and they were all very optimistic about that idea. And I’m sure that there would be people from this region that would be willing to travel up once a month or whatever if we were able to score a gig.

Me: Are you interested in having a working band again? Because G.A.M.E was a working band at one point…

Doug: Oh, yeah G.A.M.E. was certainly a working band but, you know, the dues for trying to make that thing happen isn’t something that I have a natural affinity towards. To try to do the business hustling…I mean it’s very, very difficult to book a large ensemble in anything but a very large city. It’s virtually impossible unless you’re willing to work for peanuts in a town the size of Richmond.

At this point, the formal interview ended and we spent some time listening to an unreleased studio recording of the VCU Jazz Orchestra I under his direction from 1986, when Steve Wilson, Al Waters, and James Genus – some of VCU Jazz’s most illustrious alumni – all played in the band. Doug is rightfully proud of the band’s performance, which was probably the most swinging, intense, and musically nuanced that I have ever heard by a student group.

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Dean Christesen

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