I’ll admit I tried to interview Dezron Douglas for a Winter JazzFest preview. I even should have taken the hint that his group is called the “The New Jazz Workshop.” Little did I know, it wasn’t me who was interviewing him, but it was Douglas giving me a history lesson, and a great one at that. There are few artists who are as cognizant of their artistry as Douglas seems to be. Luckily for all of you I took notes. Check out what I learned below.
Tell me about the The New Jazz Workshop and it’s roots.
The band has been established since 2000. It was formed by me and saxophonist Lummie Spann. We started it in 200 at the University of Hartford under the tutelage of Jackie McLean. The band has pretty much stayed the same throughout the years. Josh Evans has been in the band since 2002. David Bryant has been in it since 2002. Chris Beck is actually a new member; he started working with us earlier last year. The original drummer was Curtis Torian. We actually just released our first record after twelve years of being around. We released last year in the spring and it’s called Underground. The drum duties on the record were split by Curtis Torian and Eric McPherson. They were both original drummers in the group. Curtis is from Greenwich, CT and Eric is an alumnus of the University of Hartford and was one of Jackie’s sidemen for 20+ years.
So the gig at Winter JazzFest is going to be the band, man. It’s a beauty to be in a working band. We’ve built our sound and we’ve honed our sound. Everybody in the band writes. This particular gig will feature some of my music. The band was formed when we were in college learning to play, so we were always told by Jackie to write our own music. So we would write music and the New Jazz Workshop was a forum to play your tunes. The idea of a working band has been kind of extinct throughout the years. So it’s cool. That’s basically the band that is going to be at Sullivan Hall.
What kind of lasting lessons did the band take away form Jackie’s tutelage?
Just about everybody in the band — even Chris — knows Jackie’s music. Especially from growing up in Hartford, Connecticut — Lummie’s from Hartford, Josh is from Hartford, I met David when he auditioned at Hartt. So it’s kind of like a Hartford sound. Growing up in Hartford, you couldn’t say you wanted to play jazz without learning Jackie’s music and learning about Bud Powell and Arthur Taylor and Thelonious Monk. He always told us to learn the condition, but put your own spin on it. So whenever we play, man, I still feel like I’m trying to get the gig with Jackie. I’m going to try to be Jackie’s bass player until the day the Good Lord decides to bring me home, you know. He was one of my biggest influences. My music is a reflection of what I heard in not just his music, but his peers’ music. Growing up in Hartford, you had to learn about it all and not just keep yourself boxed in on just one thing.
Everybody likes what they like though. I like all of the cats from the Hard-Bop era. I love all of the cats from the Bop era. I love Ellington, I love Lester Young, I love Gene Ammons. It’s all in there, but at the same time, we all grew up in the hip-hop culture. The music has a today-ness to it. If that could be a word, you know. What’s going on in my head today, you know? I grew up listening to all kinds of music and I want to write a tune based in this hard-bop, avante-garde, swing space. That’s the sound of the band. Everybody kind of writes like that. Josh writes like that, Lummi writes like that. Sometimes it may sound very odd-meter-ish, but at the same time you won’t notice because it’s always grooving.
Aside from you all studying with Jackie, what keeps this Hartford music scene thriving?
It’s the lineage. It wasn’t just Jackie; Hartford has a rich history going back to the ‘40s. They used to call Hartford the Black Hole because it’s right in between Boston and New York. It’s the middle, so cats would always come through. There used to be some great clubs. My uncle, a great drummer named Walter Bolden, is considered a second-generation bebopper. Him and Horace Silver got their big break together with Joey Calloway as well. They had a steady gig at a club in Hartford called the Sundown Club. Stan Getz came by, like many cats would, and played at this club. They would call the local rhythm section and these guys happened to be that rhythm section. Horace had just moved up from Greenwich. Soon after, Stan signed the band. He brought them to New York where Horace and Walt stayed. Joey Calloway came back to Hartford after a couple years.
So it wasn’t just Jackie. Jackie moved to Hartford to get away from New York. He needed something different. He always called Hartford “Mars.” He got up there and he realized, this was the hood, but there was a lot of history there. It’s the lineage that keeps it going. Jackie always taught to give back. He learned from Bud [Powell] and Monk in their house. So he’s all about giving it back. That’s how the lineage goes on.
On a sad note, just recently, there was a big blow to the world with this massacre that happened in Newtown. I’ve known Jimmy [Greene] since I was an adolescent. He and his wife Nelba have been together since high school. It’s tragic that Ana had to exit this world that way. I went up to the funeral in Hartford and to see the outpouring of love that was given to Jimmy and his family was incredible. Maybe about fifty-percent of the people who were there were all former students of the Hartt School. It was a big family reunion for a somber and tragic reason. We were mourning and celebrating her life. It could have been any one of us man.
You have a strong hold on your own lineage both as a person and as a musician.
We as musicians have to remember that this is a livelihood. This music was built while still having to pay rent and surviving and putting food on the table and taking care of your family while still creating genius at the same time. So I don’t want to make the same mistakes that such and such made. If someone has enough love in their heart to say, “Hey man, you’ve got to be able to play the bridge man.” Or “Learn the words to the tune man.” “You don’t know enough tunes.” “How come you don’t know this tune?” Or, “Why don’t you try a different way of phrasing? Bird phrased like this.” That stuff is still new if you don’t know it. If you don’t know it and you refuse to know it, that’s called ignorance.
You have to be open to everything. That’s not just dealing with music either. I’m a big sports fan. I know the history of sports in Hartford. I know the history of a lot of different things — things that I’m interested in. If you’re interested in something, you should know all you can about it. If you’re going to be a journalist, you want to know the history of journalism. If you’re going to be a TV anchorman, you should know all the kinds of microphones that Howard Cossell made famous. He had that famous omni mic and everything he used after that. You know, at what point did black and white turn to color? You should know everything.
Going into Winter JazzFest, your band has so much chemistry together. What can people learn from checking you out?
Oh man, get ready for a ride! We don’t know what’s going to happen; all we know is that we’re going to go out and play man. We will have a program. We know how we’re going to start and finish the songs, but whatever is going to happen is all up to the Creator. We’re a band of searchers; we’re always searching to find something new. There is always something new in the music. Every measure is a chance to rewrite what you did wrong in the last measure. Just be ready for anything and everything. That’s how I approach music every time I hit the bandstand. Get ready for a journey.
Interview by Eric Sandler (@ericsandler)