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Darrell Grant

Sounding Board Interview: Darrell Grant

When Darrell Grant relocated to Oregon from New York in the early 90’s, he began asking new questions with—and from—his music. The diverse landscape of the northwest—its complex history, and its lingering mythos—became the grounds for a new line of inquiry around the intersection of place and history in music. Grant, a professor at Portland State University, has spoken and written on the jazz community in terms of sustainability, as a cultural environment requiring the same balance of resources as any healthy ecology. But The Territory, his new piece commissioned through CMA’s New Jazz Works program, takes a different tack, striving to embody Oregon’s multitude of voices and vistas, past and present, in nine movements.

CMA spoke with Grant about jazz’s ability to absorb and reflect influences, the many ways a bandleader can guide an improvising ensemble, and a sustainable approach to jazz in Portland.

Chamber Music America: Before you ever set out to deliberately reflect elements of the northwest in your music, do you feel that moving to Portland influenced you as a composer and a musician?

Darrell Grant: I moved to Portland looking for a community that I could really participate in. Portland, as the saying goes, is a big city that’s also a small town. What I found here was access to people engaging in interesting work in a variety of fields—in visual art, in architecture, in food, in environmental activism and social justice. Much of what attracts people to Portland—and I wasn’t really aware of this when I moved here—is that it’s an easier place to start. There’s a great deal of energy and initiative and interest. I could get in and talk to the mayor if I wanted to—I see him on the street. Which is to say that the people who are leading here are actually present in the community. Of course, teaching has also very much shaped my relationship to the city—it’s given me a platform to do things I wouldn’t have been able to do as a freelance musician.

Because of CMA, and because of the presenting organization I worked with, I was able to access a new audience, an audience that was perhaps expecting something different, or that was at least unlike the typical jazz audience in certain ways.

CMA: The Territory strives, among other things, to evoke the open spaces of the Northwest. Was it challenging, working within jazz—a form so deeply associated with city life—to attempt to reflect such a different landscape?

DG: Well, there was absolutely nobody who said that I had to restrict myself to the language or vocabulary of jazz. But I think one of the great things about the form is that it can be so malleable—it can evoke the whole range of the human experience. Historically, yes, jazz was a form of music that developed in urban settings, but it also moved all around the world. I’ve played jazz in Turkey, I’ve played jazz in the Russian Far East—I’ve played jazz in many, many places where it’s not the indigenous music. Its ability to take in other sources is what makes it possible for jazz to evoke almost anything. Sun Ra even figured out how to use jazz to evoke outer space (Laughter). It’s one thing to go someplace and look around and try and write about it; it’s another to live in a place and try to find its essence, and to let that inform the writing—to try and evoke not only the visual aspect of place but the whole landscape behind it.

CMA: Can you discuss what was different about your composing process in this instance?

DG: Working with CMA and creating this work under the broader heading of ‘chamber music’ actually provided a great opportunity in that regard. Because of CMA, and because of the presenting organization I worked with, I was able to access a new audience, an audience that was perhaps expecting something different, or that was at least unlike the typical jazz audience in certain ways. That idea—that the work would be heard by listeners more accustomed to a different aesthetic, or to a different set of musical traditions—suggested new possibilities to me as a composer. And, perhaps for that reason, the balance between composition and improvisation was very different in The Territory than in most of my other work, much more weighted toward composition—a shift I had been interested in exploring for a while.

CMA: How does improvisation figure into the idea of reflecting a narrative or place in jazz?

DG: There are many different frames through which you can think of improvisation. In one sense, you can conceptualize it as chance, as an aleatoric process, as John Cage did in his work. It’s possible to create sets of circumstances that allow you to stay open to almost any outcome. But jazz improvisation isn’t really like that—it’s based on relatively strict materials most of the time. The way I teach improvisation to my students is in terms of constants and variables—which constants and which variables are you going to emphasize; which elements are you going to make constants and which are you going to make variables. So it’s not always improvisation in the strictest sense. If you emphasize constants over variables you’re likely to get a very similar outcome every time. In those cases the composer can dictate, or at least suggest, what the constants are and what the variables are and thus control many elements of the performance. Of course, these factors are not limited to chord changes or rhythms. I can say, for example, that a constant will be color—that everything we do will be green. I can say a constant is mood—everything we do will be wistful. Most of the time, in jazz, those variables are left up to the individual; they’re not often talked about explicitly. But one interesting possibility that we explored in The Territory was attempting to hold to a specific narrative in our improvisations, to keep a progression of events in mind throughout. It’s what allowed us to play free, for lack of a better word, around the story of the Missoula floods and still stay with the history. It’s not entirely unlike working with chord changes, but the effect is different.

CMA: You seem to gravitate towards narratives—particularly historical or social narratives—as inspiration and source material and as conceptual structures to your work. Do you always use external source material for your compositions?

DG: In most of the work I’ve made in the past ten years, or even before that, I’ve always been trying to find a way to connect the music with actual people, with actual lives. It’s not that I don’t enjoy writing music that’s just music as well, but among the projects I’ve been putting out into the public—as opposed to those that I’ve written primarily for myself—I’ve always tried to find a thread to connect the music with people or place. Looking to an external narrative or story or at least some kind of a concept has made that easier.

CMA: You’ve mentioned a concern about appropriation in the context of creating this work. It’s a complicated issue for musicians. How do you represent history authentically?

DG: That’s a tough question, right? Authenticity is usually in the eyes of the observer, and the minute you try and justify your work the eyes of a third party it becomes more difficult to be true to yourself. I’m one-eighth Cherokee—does that mean that I have the right to write music that has a one-eighth Cherokee component? If I were an urban Indian, would I have the right to write music about this landscape, about a tribe or group that I didn’t belong to? Again, these are issues that are most often argued by a third party. For me, the thing has always been to try and figure out what the work means to me—what integrity represents to me—and to follow from that as honestly as possible. In this project, what I tried to do was explore my personal connection to the circumstances. Part of that was the simple fact of living in this landscape. Part of it was researching into the history, finding out as much as I could about what actually happened here. But, at a certain point, I just have to write music, and just take all of those feelings and instincts and see what sounds they call up and trust. It’s nothing more than that, but it would be difficult for me to act like I didn’t have the right to explore something. If I felt that way, I wouldn’t do it.

CMA: You’ve spoken and written about the idea of cultural sustainability, and likened a successful jazz community to a healthy ecology. Without delivering your entire lecture—can you describe Portland’s jazz community in terms of sustainability?

DG: That’s a difficult question. It’s almost like asking: does Portland have a good jazz scene? Does Portland have a thriving jazz scene? It depends. If you’re a musician who’s trying to make a living playing jazz gigs—only playing jazz gigs—then the answer would be no, absolutely not. If you’re a listener who just moved to Portland from, say, Dubuque, Iowa, then the answer is yes, absolutely—it’s amazing here. If you’re a student of music, then yes, there are a phenomenal number of teachers. But what’s maybe more interesting to think about is: what happens to the practitioners of the music going forward? What happens to the music itself going forward? Jazz music is alive in Portland; there are, in my eyes, most of the elements needed to see that jazz as we recognize it will continue. How it will be transformed in that process is really impossible to tell. We have educators, we have master practitioners, we have venues, we have radio stations, we have non-profits—we have a number of the components that together form what I’d call a healthy ecology. But I think that we have to be willing to let the form grow as it grows—to let it become what it will be become. I think the minute you begin trying to preserve an art in a particular form is when it risks becoming unhealthy and disheartening.

CMA: Is this line of thinking something you attempt to impart to your students?

DG: What I’m interested in telling my students about, and continuing to think about, is how to find a sustainable way of thinking around the artistic process—a way of approaching art that allows people to continue to make and perform work for the rest of their lives. I think that tying art into the capitalist economy is inherently difficult and not always necessary; there are periods in history in which it’s worked well and there are periods in history when it’s worked very differently. It’s interesting to me, personally, to think about the jazz community, about what it would take to create or maintain a thriving jazz scene. But as far as my students, what I’m most interested in exploring with them is, simply: how to think about your art in a way that allows you to keep doing it. That’s whether it becomes the sole source of your income, or a partial source of your income, or just a gift that you give to the community and a way of engaging with that community. I think that’s a conversation that needs to be happening in art schools of all kinds—and it’s often not.

The Territory was funded by CMA’s New Jazz Works program, through the generous support of the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation.

2015 Chamber Music America