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