Dave Douglas: Artist in residence

Two-time Grammy-nominated jazz musician Dave Douglas is arguably the most prolific and original trumpeter-composer of his generation, and he’s performing with VCU Jazz Orchestra I on Tuesday.

All discussions about the pitfalls of modern jazz education aside, one good thing we can all agree on about jazz schools is their ability to bring masters like trumpeter Dave Douglas to perform and teach in places that they might not otherwise visit. Such will be the case next week when Douglas performs with the VCU Jazz Orchestra I. One of Richmond’s own trumpet talents had a chance to ask the highly-influential musician a couple questions. –Ed.

Two-time Grammy-nominated jazz musician Dave Douglas is arguably the most prolific and original trumpeter-composer of his generation. From his New York base, where he has lived since the mid 1980s, Mr. Douglas has continued to earn lavish national and international acclaim including prizes from such organizations as the New York Jazz Awards, Down Beat, JazzTimes, Jazziz, and the Italian Jazz Critics Society.

His solo recording career began in 1993 with Parallel Worlds on Soul Note Records, and he has since released more than 30 recordings. In 2005, after seven critically acclaimed albums for Bluebird/RCA, Mr. Douglas launched his own record label, Greenleaf Music. The same year, he was honored with a Guggenheim Fellowship. On Greenleaf, Mr. Douglas has released albums with his long-standing quintet, the electronic sextet Keystone, and the mixed chamber ensemble Nomad. In 2009 he released A Single Sky, a collaboration with Jim McNeely and Frankfurt Radio Bigband.

Mr. Douglas will be an artist in residence at Virginia Commonwealth University from April 11-13th, presenting master classes and clinics for VCU music students. He will perform in concert with the VCU Jazz Orchestra I on Tuesday, April 13 at 8PM at the VCU Singleton Center for the Performing Arts (922 Park Ave., Richmond, 23284).

In the liner notes to your new big band album “A Single Sky,” Darcy James Argue writes that “For better or worse big bands are a staple of the modern jazz educational system — you’ll find them pretty much anywhere jazz is taught on any kind of formal level.” Is this true of your curricular music education, either in high school or college and if so, in what ways do you feel that your musical growth benefited from and/or was hindered by large ensemble jazz playing?

Funny. That’s a really good question. Playing in big bands was NOT part of my curricular music education and I’m not a particularly good section player. Also, “A Single Sky” is my first set of compositions for big band. In junior high I had a small taste of stage band playing, and then my interests kind of went in a different direction. I’ve developed my voice as a writer for small improvising groups and that has allowed me to pursue certain strategies that emphasize jazz’s spontaneity and interaction. The music I am writing now is very much informed by my education as a small group player, and hopefully feeds some of what is good about that kind of playing back into a traditional big band context.

As you go out and perform residencies at universities in the United States and abroad, what differences have you noticed about the way jazz education is approached? What do you think is lacking in formal jazz education?

Jazz and music programs differ greatly. The differences are very personal and have a lot to do with the individuals running the program. Especially in jazz there is a lot of leeway in how it is taught, and the outcome of that education is wide open because the music itself is so broad. Music education is usually self-directed — it takes the initiative of the student to find out how to apply his or her self. So I don’t see any big problem as long as students are allowed to pursue the music that excites them.

If I had to point out one important thing that is sometimes missed it would be performance opportunities. Nothing like getting on stage to perform to demonstrate what needs to be worked on! That said, I see a lot of change in this direction. Programs understand that bandstand experience is essential, curriculum or no.

One of the things that I think characterizes your music is the acknowledgment of each musician’s personal voice and the interplay that true group improvisation demands. Big band music, especially when the chart and soloist travel from band to band, would seem to be at a disadvantage in these ways compared to your working/touring bands. Can you talk a little bit about the process of rehearsing your music with musicians who you don’t have a longstanding relationship with?

Yes, that is really an issue I have had with large ensembles. I do try to find a way to arrange that gives everyone a bit of a chance to be themselves. Or at least to take a stab at finding something of their own to add to the music. You know, I hear that in the great classical composers — when a good orchestra plays Beethoven or Mahler I hear each player being orchestrated in a very personal way.

I’m not comparing myself to Beethoven or Mahler! I’m just saying that in their work as well as in the bands of Gil Evans, Charles Mingus, and maybe most of all Duke Ellington, the music itself invites a kind of unique response from each player. Good big bands should be like that, too. So to circle back to your question, yes, the rehearsal process sometimes does take a bit longer because I occasionally ask for some unorthodox things. And that can be slightly tense. But in music we have the luxury of working things out civilly, and it interests me to talk with players about what’s going on and how they hear things.

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photo credit: Jimmy Katz

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Taylor Barnett

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