The Artist as Citizen: an interview with jazz pianist and composer Darrell Grant


I've been a fan of Darrell Grant's music for over 20 years. A "pianist's pianist," Darrell's playing has that hard-to-achieve blend of ease, virtuosity, and graceful lyricism. This eloquence transcends his playing and is also a hallmark of his compositions and writings. Darrell is a "creative artist who harnesses the power of music to create change." This belief shines through all aspect of his work--a reminder to all of us that "there is no level of change" that artists can't lead. Thank you, Darrell, for being willing to be interviewed for No Dead Guys.

You’ve enjoyed a renowned career as a jazz pianist, band leader, and composer, recorded eight records as a bandleader, and performed and recorded with a veritable “Who’s Who” of jazz legends.  What encouraged you to grow beyond this successful career path to become (in your own words) “a creative artist who harnesses the power of music to create change”?

I think I have always been interested in the “why” of music as much as the “what.” Growing up, I had musical heroes, of course, in whose footsteps I dreamed of following - people like Herbie Hancock & Quincy Jones. But I was also a child of the civil rights era. So I had those examples of courage and leadership set before me as models to live up to. I have also always chafed at the stereotype of artists as self-centered and ill-suited to lead. I tend to be attracted to the work of activist artists like Harry Belafonte, Nina Simone or Hugh Maskela, whose music played a role in causes. One important moment for me was the election of Vaclav Havel as President of Czechoslovakia and later the Czech Republic. It blew my mind that someone whose profession was artist, whose background was as a playwright, could rise to lead a country. To me that opened the possibility that there is no level of change that artists couldn’t lead. 

You once told the renowned jazz critic Nat Hentoff , ”the longer I play, the clearer it becomes that, at least for me, the goal is to give voice to the meanings behind the music. I have a deep desire to reach people, to communicate something of the things that I am finding to be true, with humor, with love, with silence, with swing, and with passion.” In your role as an interpreter of others’ music, how did you find and communicate these truths and meanings?

What a great question! The thing I love about jazz is that it demands that we engage through the lens our own distinct voice. The legacy of this music is an artistic practice that celebrates our freedom to interpret, interpolate and express  through the lens of our own experiences.  The process of creating music in this tradition involves finding the resonant vibrations between the ideas of others-musical and otherwise-and my own. Then as a jazz artist my role is to rechannel those ideas through my study of musical harmony, vernacular rhythms, culturally relevant vocabulary and spontaneous composition. 

As a side note, the reason I asked Nat Hentoff to write liner notes on my New Bop recording was because when I was about 13, I happened upon a young-adult jazz novel he wrote called “Jazz Country” in my junior high school library. That book as much as anything else in my life is the reason I decided to become a jazz musician. 

At what point in your career did you begin composing, and what prompted you to do so?

At the time I was growing up in Denver,  original composition was a part of the jazz ethos. All the jazz groups I grew up seeing played their own originals, so I thought that was just what you did. I didn’t actually realize that there was a “standard repertoire” for jazz until I went to college. So I have always written and recorded my original tunes. However, it was actually being introduced to some folks from the Norwegian jazz scene that got me thinking about moving beyond the typical jazz song forms and being a composer. In 2007 the Portland Jazz Festival brought over a number of jazz artists and groups from Norway among them saxophonist/composer Trygve Seim  Getting to meet them and explore their music really inspired me to expand my thinking about composition. In 2008, while on sabbatical, I travelled to Norway and got to meet more musicians, and experience an environment and the mindset around creativity and composition that I found really inspiring. So I started working in a different way when I got back. Since then, I’ve been fortunate to have opportunities to bring in more influences and genres in my writing, and get commissions for larger works. 

As your career has grown, you’ve taken a leadership role in “organizing musical initiatives around community, sustainability or social justice”.  How has your activism influenced your performing and composing?

Firstly I  see artists having a responsibility to use the power of our medium to try to effect change in the world. Secondly, I’m genuinely curious about all these arenas of engagement.  I’m fascinated by urban planning, politics, and economic systems, by the challenges of marshalling the collective will of communities towards equity and justice. Really I  think it is the application of human creativity to solving problems that is so compelling to me. I believe that music and the arts, as expressions and practices that are centered around creativity, have so much to offer in solving what we might call “wicked problems.” So every new musical project becomes an invitation to engage with the world in as broad a way as possible. 

So music has always seemed like a means as much as an end to me. I’m energized when I try to find ways to use it to increase my and others’ agency. 


When you were commissioned to write a work for the 100th anniversary of Reed College, you composed Step By Step: the Ruby Bridges Suite which was inspired by the story of civil rights icon Ruby Bridges.  Why did you choose this story, and how challenging did you find it to find a balance between history and music?

It is actually a great story: I am an avid tennis player, and a man that I sometimes played with mentioned to me that his daughters – at that time in 2nd grade – were reading the autobiography of Ruby Bridges in school, and he thought it would be a great source material for a musical piece- that I should write. Fast forward a couple years and Reed College asked me to do a concert for Black History month. I remembered his recommendation and after checking out the book, realized that he was absolutely right.  This amazing story of this little girl's bravery in the face of such overwhelming racism was totally inspiring.  I realized pretty quickly that I wanted to use Ruby’s own words, which are really what inspired the songs that make up the suite, and to to add historical context to the piece to give people a better sense of why it mattered. After making those decisions, and also incorporating a narrator who could bring in oratory, poetry and historical narrative, it came together very easily.  

Your most recent project, Sanctuaries, is a jazz opera commissioned by Third Angle New Music and will be premiered in April of 2021.  What is the theme of this opera and what inspired you to compose it?

Because so much of my music deals with connection to and narratives around place, I was intrigued by the possibility of writing a piece dealing with our historical relationship to black people’s spaces. The theme of Sanctuaries is gentrification and its impact on the black community, especially as regards to urban displacement. My stage director Alexander Gedeon boiled the idea of the opera down to the statement: as slavery is to black bodies, gentrification is to black spaces. Portland’s historic black neighborhood of Albina was and continues to be a microcosm of this relationship. When I started, I knew a bit about gentrification, but researching the opera really revealed the deep underlying history of inequity- from redlining and urban renewal to the laws, policies and practices that turned a neighborhood that was 68 % black in 1990 into one that was 28% black in 2010. At the same time, the opportunity for me to find a place for my perspectives and musical experiences in this traditionally white genre was really important to me. I was excited to marry the themes, colors and rhythms of jazz and black vernacular music with chamber music in one piece.  

You write that Sanctuaries uses the rhythms of jazz and slam poetry to explore gentrification and the displacement of residents of color in Portland's historically African-America Albina district. It could be argued that Portland is just a microcosm of a much larger problem that plagues rich cities everywhere.  What answers or suggestions for change (if any) do you offer through this opera?  

Another great question!  Yes, Portland is a microcosm of the gentrification that impacts so many other cities. And in our research for the piece we looked at New York, Detroit, New Orleans, Seattle- and tracked a similar legacy of discrimination, and inequity. 

But I definitely didn’t want Sanctuaries to be just another presentation of the problem. So in researching the opera I spoke with historians, city planners, civil rights organizers, community activists, politicians, and neighborhood residents, always with an eye to where possible solutions might lie. In the context of Sanctuaries, this all distilled into the idea that there is no remedy for gentrification until the underlying wound- meaning institutional and internalized, racism-is reckoned with. 

In the wake of the social upheaval that has followed the police killing of Breonna Taylor, and the murders of Ahmad Arberry and George Floyd, it seems hard to believe that we felt we had to write an opera to make this point. In retrospect, it seems like nothing could be more obvious. But writing this libretto in early 2019, we couldn’t have  imagined the extent to which our central premise would be writ large across the whole world in the way that it has been. Our feeling is that the opera is even more relevant, and that people will come to the idea of gentrification with eyes opened, more ready to move toward taking meaningful steps toward dismantling the processes that keep systemic inequity in place. 

How do you think that artistic works such as Step by Step and Sanctuaries can be instrumental in progressing the cause of social justice?

My experience is that stories become the narratives through which we understand and shape the world around us. Artistic works are stories, and have the power to create and shape those narratives. I recently learned about an early 20th century Italian philosopher and activist named Antonio Gramsci, who wrote that in order to create and maintain a new society, you also needed to create and maintain a new consciousness. He said that the repository of consciousness is culture, which is what guides our ideas of right and wrong, beautiful and ugly, just and unjust, possible and impossible. So any change we might hope to enact by policy or laws will not last unless we can find a way to change people's shift people's consciousness around the ideas. Art can do that. 

Dancer & choreographer  Linda K.Johnson, talks about art creating an “internal tattoo of experience,” for people. So we can try to point our work towards a vortex of possibility where others can explore. That exploration frees up our thinking to imagine the answers we need. For me, projects like Step by Step and Sanctuaries are about creating portals of experience for people, and hopefully a vision of shared humanity that helps them better understand themselves in relation to the world around them. 

Politics and music have traditionally been uneasy bedfellows because usually one is sacrificed in the service of the other.  How have you so successfully balanced your interest in promoting social justice with the need to write beautiful music with real “staying power”?

There are differing points of view on this question, and rightly so. I had an interesting experience a couple years ago around a regional land use issue in Oregon’s  Elliott Forest. My interest was in seeing how I might engage with the issue as an artist – not in a partisan way (although I had a strong viewpoint) – but in a way that broke the logjam of non-communication and might get people talking to each other.  What I see as most harmful is our inability to retain our sense of the humanity of those who don’t share our viewpoints. So my approach is often to find gestures that illuminate that shared humanity. Figuring out how to stay present in the face of competing truths until we can discover or create a solution seems a less overtly political way to approach these issues. . 

As an educator, what advice do you offer to students who wish to “harness the power of music to create change”? 

My Portland State University colleague Suzanne Savaria and I started this initiative a few years ago called “The Artist as Citizen" because we were curious about the impact on students if we cultivated the idea of musical agency at the same foundational level that we taught musical mastery.  It has been an inspiring learning experience for me as an educator, and I believe for our students as well. In addition to exploring the history of artistic activism, they have found their voices, and seen new roles for themselves in their communities. More specifically, the lessons I’m hoping to pass on to my students are that they are capable of understanding the world around them; that the perspectives, tools and values they bring as artists are absolutely critical to the thriving of their communities and the world; and that by exploring the connections between their art and what I call “the universals” – those aspects of human experience that we share in common – they can bring the power of their art to bear in making change happen.

*****

Over the last 25 years, Darrell Grant has risen from one of jazz’s young lions— introduced to audiences as the pianist in Betty Carter’s trio—to an internationally-recognized performer, composer, and educator who harnesses the power of music to create community, sustainability, and social justice.


Having performed with luminaries including Frank Morgan, Tony Williams, Roy Haynes, James Moody, Donald Harrison, Brian Blade, Esperanza Spalding, Paquito d’Rivera, David Shifrin, Nicholas Payton, and Greg Osby, he followed his 1994 New York Times Top 10 Jazz Album Black Art with seven albums receiving praise from the Village Voice, Vox, Jazztimes, and DownBeat magazine. As a bandleader and solo artist, he has toured throughout the U.S., Canada, and Europe as well as in Turkey and Japan, in venues ranging from La Villa jazz club in Paris to the Havana Jazz Festival. He has been featured on Marian McPartland's Piano Jazz series on National Public Radio, directed cultural exchange programs in far-eastern Russia, composed commissioned works that fuse jazz and chamber music, and served on the boards of national arts organizations.


Grant’s compositions are often dedicated to narratives of hope, community, and place. His 2012 piece, Step by Step: The Ruby Bridges Suite traces the path of the civil rights icon who integrated New Orleans’s public schools at age six. It has been performed at the Smithsonian National Museum for African American History and Culture as well as at Reed College in Portland, OR, in Nashville, TN; Washington, D.C.; and in New Orleans, LA. Also in 2012, Grant was one of twelve composers nationwide to be awarded a Jazz New Works grant from Chamber Music America. His composition The Territory explores the connection to place through the geographic and cultural history of Oregon, including the Missoula floods, the Golden West Hotel – Portland’s first African-American owned establishment, the surrender of Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce, and the internment of Japanese-Americans during WWII. 


Committed to the practice of civic engagement through artistry, Grant has driven pianos deep into state forests to support the environment, arranged protest anthems, and shared the stage with Nobel laureate Bishop Desmond Tutu. Recent collaborations with the August Wilson Monologue Competition and the Portland Art Museum’s Constructing Identity exhibit highlight his continued effort to celebrate African American art and culture in Oregon. His 2019 collaboration with composer and vocalist Edna Vazquez, 21 Cartas, uses the letters of mothers held at immigrant detention centers as a basis for songs honoring the immigrant experience. Proceeds from his CDs regularly support nonprofits like Mercy Corps, p:ear, and the Oregon Historical Society.


Grant lives in Portland, Oregon where he was inducted into the Jazz Society of Oregon Hall of Fame in 2009. In 2011, he was the first recipient of the Kamelia Massih Outstanding Faculty Prize in the Arts from Portland State University where he is a Professor of Music and directs the Leroy Vinnegar Jazz Institute. In 2017, he received a Northwest Regional Emmy for his score for the Oregon Public Broadcasting special “Jazz Town: Portland’s Golden Jazz Era,” and he was named Portland Jazz Hero by the Jazz Journalists Association. Grant is currently composing Sanctuaries a chamber-jazz opera on gentrification which has been awarded a MAP Fund grant and a $90,000 Creative Heights grant by the Oregon Community Foundation. 


For more information, visit his website.


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