Dezron Douglas is wide awake. He just touched down from a double tour that began with pianist/composer Amina Figarova and ended with trumpeter/composer/singer Jennifer Hartswick, but he’s not tired. In fact, he’s ready for the next hit.
Seven years old when his father first handed him a bass and told him to play, Douglas began gigging professionally at age 12. Now a 30-something sophisticate of the music with five records as a leader/co-leader to his name, the bass player and composer has a clear vision of what’s ahead—a vision lit up with color and heavy with vibration. Douglas and his working band, Black Lion, will grace The Jazz Gallery stage this Saturday, May 12, for two sets. We caught up with Douglas for a wide-ranging conversation about his love of reggae, the shifting roles of a bassist, and the mentorship of Jackie McLean.
The Jazz Gallery: One of the reasons people seem to love playing with you is your harmonic sensibility. You have a way of moving back and forth between responding to what’s happening harmonically and introducing concepts to the conversation. Can you talk about your relationship to harmony and maybe its origins?
Dezron Douglas: Well, specifically with regards to [that question], I was trained by the masters of this music to be able to influence the music, but, at the same time, play the bass. So, over the years, I’ve worked on it and I’ve listened to some of my heroes, like Richard Davis, Charles Mingus, Larry Ridley, Reggie Workman—and the bass players I’m talking about, these aren’t [the only bass players] I listen to, these are just for specifically what you’re talking about, which I call having the key to the big room. My mentor, my teacher, my sensei was Jackie McLean. He used to always talk about music that’s inside of the music. So when you see a sheet of paper, that’s your foundation, but you want to find the music that’s beyond what you see. So there’s ways that you can do that. You can do it rhythmically; you can do it harmonically. And you have to find ways to add to the music, not subtract from it. It’s not about adding a pile of notes or subtracting a pile of notes. It’s more about giving the music what it needs to push it forward and to bring it other places.
And harmony is just another color, and rhythm is just another vibration. So if you can use both of those, you can get to the level of guys like Richard Davis and Cecil McBee and Mingus and Reggie Workman and Larry Ridley—guys that were playing bass during the hard bop era. For me, that’s a period in this music—this African American classical music we call jazz—that’s pretty brilliant. There were some great composers, great musicians who were killing that. Musicians like Freddie Waits, Andrew Hill, Jackie McLean, Lee Morgan, Kenny Barron were playing, and giving the music what it needed. Alan Dawson, Booker Ervin, Pharaoh Sanders. Even John Coltrane was making hard bop records during that time. It’s just a period in the music that I really fell in love with.
Wayne Shorter—contextually, his compositions are wide open, but he has so much form and structure that was considered to be some kind of hard bop, in that idiom. So, from a bass player point of view, if you can convey all that, and sort of affect the music, it brings you to another level. A perfect example is Ron Carter. That’s the pinnacle. You can’t really get higher. When you’re playing with Ron and Buster [Williams], you’re almost in their world, and you have to go where they’re bringing you, trusting that they’re going to bring you into serene places in the music.
TJG: If we could jump back for a moment to your closest mentor, what is the greatest piece of advice you received from Jackie McLean?
DD: I’ll tell you a story. There’s a list of maybe 100-plus things that Jackie said to me, during that time that I was around him, that have been profound, and they always show up at some point. I still hear him every day. But I think it was maybe my sophomore year in college, and Jackie and Dollie McLean had an organization and building and a school in Hartford called the Artists Collective. They would do these concerts where Jackie would honor his peers, and he would always get a student group to open up for them, usually an advanced ensemble. My freshman year, I started out in Jackie’s advanced ensemble, and we opened up for McCoy Tyner, Toots Thielemans, the Heath Brothers. And then, at the end of my sophomore year, Jackie honored Ron Carter.
Instead of having a group play an opening song for Ron, Jackie calls me up and asks me to play a solo piece for Ron. First of all, I felt like this was the setup of the century because I was far from being ready to play an open bass solo for the great Ron Carter. But I got something worked out—it took me three or four months—and Jackie says, “Okay, I want you to come perform it for me and Dollie. I want to listen to it.” So I showed up at the Collective and it wound up being just me and Jackie in this big room. I walked in, and he said, ‘Okay pull your bass out.’ Of course I’m sweating; I’d never been so nervous in my life, which changed when I eventually had to do this for Ron. But anyway, back to the preview. So I played it, and Jackie said, “Play it again.” So I played it again. He would [always] try to appreciate what you were doing, but if it wasn’t happening, he would get this look on his face that just looked like he couldn’t see, like he was squinting. It was this weird look, and you just knew that you were taking a dump on the stage—or it just wasn’t happening. So after the second time, I kept getting that look, and I just stood there and I was wounded. So then Jackie said, “Dezron, whatever you’re working on, just play, man. I just want you to play.”
I closed my eyes, and I don’t know what I was looking at but I guess I was looking to the sky, and I just started playing and eventually I went in to what I wanted to do. And then I started f’ing up all in there—I was just trying to get through it. And then I came to, and I started doing what I wanted to do. I think it lasted about three or four minutes, and then Jackie stopped me. He said, “Dezron, that’s it. The first half of the piece, I don’t know what you were looking at, but when you closed your eyes, magic happened and you started making music. And then in the middle of it, when you realized you didn’t know where you were, then you f’d it all up.” He said, “That’s music, man. You close your eyes—that’s where you need to be every time. Get there.” And I think I’ve based my whole like on that [advice]. That moment was a turning point in my life, because I decided to just let God take over, and play.
TJG: Institutionalizing the music tends to be a topic on which artists have strong opinions. Do you feel like Jackie’s advice is particularly resonant among young players who are also students within these programs, who may feel like they can’t get past what they’re “supposed to be doing?”
DD: This music, jazz, bebop, was created in the streets of New York. There was no school. The school was people’s houses, like Clifford Jordan’s house, Thelonious Monk’s house, Bud Powell’s house. People were going there to study with them to learn this music. Barry Harris was a school. There was no classroom. Sometimes the classroom was the jail cell. You might want to put that off the record, but that’s just the truth. This music was created in the streets, in the clubs. The bandstand was the classroom. For Jackie to be one of two people in 1970 to first offer jazz education at the university level—when he said that to me, it was such a shock, because he used to always say, “This music that I’m teaching you here at the university level was created in the streets.” So there’s an element of life, of social consciousness, of political influence that cannot be taught in the university. That’s something that people have to live. I personally feel that that might be something that’s lacking now in jazz education, across the board, because you can’t teach that element of life. You can’t teach that element of hardship. You can’t teach the element of history that was created during the time that there was a cabaret card±any little thing that the government didn’t like could hinder you from working. So people were creating all this genius, all this brilliance, to live, to support their families. That’s something that’s not taught in the university.
TJG: In that moment when you stood in front of Jackie and decided to close your eyes and let go of whatever it was you were clinging to, do you think, being a student in the classroom in this program, that you had a harder time letting go than you would have had you learned the music in a traditional setting?
DD: I personally felt like I was able to understand him because I learned music first in church. I learned music by ear. By the time I began studying in school—I think in third grade I started playing the tuba—I was already playing bass in church and, even though I didn’t know what the actual notes were, I knew what the sounds were, and I was making music with the sounds. In church, they weren’t talking about two flats or two sharps, they were talking about, ‘Here – it’s here. Follow me. I’m going here.’ That’s how I leaned music, and I never lost that, the whole time I studied music in school from third grade to the last day of high school. Even when I dealt with more advanced players and they were talking about chords and saying notes, I was still using my ear. So I always dealt with the best of both worlds because I was studying music classically and I was using my ear. So by the time I began playing jazz in middle school, it was like a feeding frenzy; I was digesting a lot of information, using the academics and using my ear. My freshman and sophomore year I was so entrenched in transcribing and trying to play things correctly, that when [Jackie] said that to me, it sort of clicked. I began to learn and sharpen my skills at combining the two, combining what I know with what I know. I know music as far as the paper goes, and I also know music as far as life goes, so if I can keep those two [bound] together, and grow within that, then I can accomplish something.
TJG: Since we’re on the subject of the learning process, can you discuss how working to master some of those technical components of playing—through the page or by ear—has provided more freedom for you to explore the music’s emotional components?
DD: I feel like every day it’s different. When we wake up, we strive to wake up on the right side of the bed, but sometimes we wake up on the wrong side of the bed. Sometimes we wake up in the cracks of the bed. Sometimes we wake up and one foot gets stuck in the bed and we can’t get it out. Sometimes we fall out the bed. So every day is a chance to get it right, though it might not go right. That being said, when we hit the bandstand, it’s our duty to express how we feel. This art form is one of the highest levels of expression that you can have. Someone could call a blues and that could be the first thing that we play. It’s then my job to let the audience know how my day went. [These] might not always be happy stories; they could be sad stories, but it’s our job to convey them so that we can feel. Everyone has heard, “If you got the blues, play the blues.” Turn a negative into a positive. There’s all kinds of ways in music to convey those feelings. From a sideman point of view, I feel like that’s my job no matter what. I don’t know if that answers the original question.
TJG: Questions are just jumping off points. As a player who has, unofficially let’s say, the greatest influence over the direction of the music at any moment, how has your relationship with that power evolved over the years and also, what advice would you give younger bass players who might be starting to figure out, for the first time, how much influence they have over the direction of the music?
DD: First of all, let me say this: Not everybody is going to like what you do. So first and foremost, when you decide that you want to play the bass, you have to know that you have a role. The bass is a supportive instrument, first and foremost. And as a sideman, that means that you are a follower. You cannot be a great leader until you can be a great follower. And when you are following someone’s vision, you have to give of yourself. When you’re playing the bass, you have to give of yourself. The bass is, first and foremost, a selfless instrument. Now, if you can find a way to be you within that construct of playing the bass, then your individuality begins to take over. That being said, not everyone’s going to like what you do.
I learned playing in church, you can’t disturb the Spirit. You play the bassline and you play it well and you get deeper into your bass line because that’s the vibration. That’s your role. Your role is the vibration, so don’t disturb that because you’re disturbing the Spirit. You can come up with complex things as long as it feels good. So before I ever started playing jazz, it was brainwashed into my head that I had to play the bassline and that was my job—to be the best bassline player ever. I used to listen to James Jamerson, Chuck Rainey—all the soul and funk and gospel bass players—all the baddest cats who’d play the bassline.
Now, when I began to play jazz and saw that I could do more, that my bassline could be a palette of foundation, I saw the individuality of different [bass] players within the context of the music. I’ve been on bandstands with musicians who don’t want you to play anything but what they wrote. I’ve been on the bandstand with musicians who would like you to play what they wrote, but add something to it. I’ve been on the bandstand with musicians who want you to play what you hear. I’ve been on the bandstand with musicians who want you to play what you hear but what they feel. And that’s just what it is. Now when musicians build relationships together, they almost become one voice. That’s the ultimate level: everyone is creating on a high level all the time. But I’ve also been hired to step into situations, and it’s my job to come in and make the band sound tight, so I have to get on page with everyone else and play the music and then, lastly, try to find my individualism.
So for young players, the best thing I can say is, you can’t fly a plane if you don’t have an airport. Get an airport, get an airplane and then you can fly. Learn how to play the bass, learn your role, become great at your role and then become yourself. And I personally feel, after playing since I was 7 years old and professionally since I was 12 or 13 with my dad, I’m not at all claiming to be great, but I’m striving for it. I’m always a student of the music. I would never call myself maestro, never. But I know that I’ve been doing this long enough to be able to be myself. But it took a while before I could do that because I didn’t know who I was. Thank God that I had elders and masters who were giving me opportunities and sharpening my sword and kicking my butt, and praising me – showing me the right things to do and showing me the wrong things to do.
TJG: Well let’s talk more about your individualism. When did you conceive of Black Lion? Can you discuss the project and its current personnel and how it has evolved over the past almost-decade?
DD: Before I started Black Lion, I was in a band called New Jazz Workshop, and that was a band that Jackie actually created my freshman year. He said, “Why don’t you guys start a band and play your music, outside the ensemble? I wanna hear you guys write.” He always preached and taught us to write our own music, express ourselves; [he’d say], “Take all the ideas from the masters and write your own music.” So New Jazz Workshop was a band of like-minded musicians and we played each other’s music. I did that for a while. And during that time, I would lead projects and it was sort of different from New Jazz Workshop—it was just Dezron Douglas. It might be the same people in New Jazz Workshop, but it was strictly my vision, and that was cool. So at the time, when I wanted to do this Black Lion project, I wanted to be able to do 100 percent what I wanted to do on the bandstand, meaning my music and my vision of where I wanted the music to go.
The first gig I booked with the whole Black Lion concept was at The Jazz Gallery and the unit was Curtis Torian on drums, Bryan Carrott on vibraphone and Duane Eubanks on trumpet. The original idea was to have no piano because I felt like the piano was handicapping me a little bit. But the group has morphed into something completely different now. I’m still writing some reggae music, but there was a time I wanted the band just to be a reggae band. I grew up with reggae and I love it reggae music; I think half the music I listen to every day is reggae. Roots reggae—I was Rasta for a bit in my life. I love the idea of the group. It’s still my vision, but my vision changes. And it has sort of become my spirit animal. I loved lions growing up, and the whole [idea] of a black lion—it’s the same idea of the creature; a lion is the king of the jungle. An animal that can do so much damage and wreak so much havoc, doesn’t, until it has to. And if you take that animal, that spirit animal, and make it a black lion that no one’s ever seen, you don’t know what it’s going to be, but you know it’s going to be powerful and it’s going to protect you and you don’t want to get on its bad side. That’s sort of been me.
The group now is two tenors; I’m dealing with piano now, I also want that keyboard sound in there. And this particular gig at the Gallery is just going to be some new stuff that I’m working on now. I like to play standards, but I like to play standards that I grew up with. So I have some arrangements of some Stylistics and [some other arrangements] along with my original music. We’re probably not going to do any of the reggae stuff on Saturday, but I do have reggae material.
TJG: Can you go back and clarify what you meant when you said you felt as though, years ago, piano was handicapping you a bit?
DD: The first Black Lion didn’t have piano but it had vibraphone, so there was still harmony there; there were still chords there. The piano is the one instrument that is the one-person orchestra. Everything is on the piano, everything. It’s all right there. You cannot compete with the piano. The piano is a drum. The drums can play along with the piano, but the drums can’t do more than the piano can do. The piano is a string. Strings can play with the piano, but they can’t do more than the piano can do. And then a pianist can get up on stage and do more than everybody, by themselves.
And I’m blessed; at the time, I had been working with Cyrus [Chestnut], I had the chance to be around Cedar [Walton] I had been playing with Eric Reed, Renee [Rosnes], Larry Willis; I’ve been blessed to be around some masters, John Hicks, Geri Allen, Bertha Hope and some of my peers, Gerald [Clayton], David Bryant, Marc Cary, Alan Palmer—I mean strong, superior strong piano players. Being a bass player, I’m always going to go with them, no matter what. Wherever they want to go, I’m going to follow them. So when I started Black Lion, I didn’t want that influence of the piano in my ear. I didn’t want the influence of the one-person orchestra in the band, because I wanted it to be my thing. It was very selfish of me, but f’ it. I’m allowed to be selfish every now and then.
And it didn’t last long. I use different instruments all the time. I just played at Ginny’s and I had guitar, alto, piano, Rhodes and drums. So I’m learning how to use different colors, but I still want to keep it my vision. Now I might go back to the whole situation of no piano, but the next time I do it, I’m not going to do because I don’t want that influence; I’m going to do it because I want to hear a different color.
TJG: Any final thoughts?
DD: I did want to mention that everything I’ve talked about in regards to bass playing would not have been possible if it weren’t for Nat Reeves, David Santoro and Vishnu Wood. Those three men gave me so much information within the time I spent actually in the woodshed with them. I’ve learned from a lot of masters and watched and hung out with a lot of greats, but my teachers were Nat, David and Vishnu.
Being a musician alone is a high calling. When you’re given the opportunity to progress yourself and try your best to be on a high level within this vibration of music, it’s a blessing. You’re totally dealing with The Creator. And when we hit the bandstand, that’s our safe place. No one’s up there with us, but us. It’s just conversation between us, the audience and God. I would like to let everyone know, if you’d like to share your vibrations with me, you’re more than welcome. Anytime you see my name on the bandstand, just come and enjoy.
Dezron Douglas and Black Lion play The Jazz Gallery on Saturday, May 12, 2018. The group features Mr. Douglas on bass, Abraham Burton and Stantwan Kendrick on saxophone, Anthony Wonsey on piano and Jeremey ‘BEAN’ Clemons on drums. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. $25 general admission ($10 for members), $35 reserved cabaret seating ($20 for members) for each set. Purchase tickets here.