Lauded by the New York Times for his “deep and soulful sound,” composer, educator, and bandleader Dezron Douglas returns to the Gallery this Friday with a new variation of his Black Lion Quartet. Nephew of the late legendary drummer and composer Walter Bolden, Douglas grew up entrenched in the Hartford, Connecticut jazz community and has been playing in New York City since 1999, carving a name for himself both as a leader and as a sideman amongst all of the highly acclaimed usual suspects. Dezron debuted the Black Lion Quartet at the Gallery back in 2011, and this week is poised for more high intensity playing as Dezron brings the concept quartet back to its original home.
To discuss his career at large, the context of the Black Lion Quartet, the upcoming performance, and his passion for music, we sat down with Dezron at Peanut Butter & Co. in the heart of Greenwich Village, where he expounded on everything from breaking synthesizers to imaginary rooms to overcoming walls. Here’s what he had to say:
The Jazz Gallery: 2013 was certainly a great year for you. Some notable accomplishments include the release of Dezron Douglas, Live at Smalls, playing the Detroit Jazz Festival, accompanying Ravi Coltrane on a Village Vanguard run, recording with Louis Hayes and joining his Cannonball Legacy band, playing with Cyrus Chestnut and Victor Lewis in your “Quartet of Doom,” and so forth. What were your thoughts on how it went?
Dezron Douglas: Yeah, it was my first time playing with Ravi at the Vanguard. I think I played with Al Foster at the Vanguard for the first time in 2012. The Vanguard is a different spot man, you know…it’s serious. I’ve been working in New York since ’99 and I didn’t get my first gig at the Vanguard until 2012; there are a lot of great places to play in New York City—including The Jazz Gallery—but the Vanguard has that historic thing happening. But yeah, last year was great with the Smalls record coming out. You know, sometimes when you’re caught up in the moment you don’t tend to remember a lot that you did but that’s pretty deep, just already hearing some of the things that I was able to do. This music—it brings you everywhere.
Last year was a highlight in terms of the masters that I got a chance to work with. I was “batting three-hundred” at the Detroit Jazz Festival (I say “batting three-hundred” because I played with three different acts at the festival: David Berger’s Orchestra, JD Allen, and Ravi Coltrane, all in that weekend). Also, being associated with, getting to hang out with, and getting to play with people like George Cables, Cyrus Chestnut, and Victor Lewis; doing two live records with Louis Hayes; joining the Dexter Gordon Legacy Band; working with Papo Vazquez (we did a record that came out last year that was my first recording playing any kind of Latin jazz). I love working with Papo and we’re actually working on doing another record now with The Mighty Pirates Troubadours. We’re going to be in the studio in April right before I go on the road with Ravi.
2013 was great. The whole year was like an establishment of a friendship with Ravi Coltrane. Because of my fiancée, harpist Brandee Younger, Ravi and I kind of connected. We had been trying to connect for the past four or five years, and once we did, it was just like a match made in heaven, man. Our vibes match, we get along, we offset each other. Musically, Ravi never really tells me anything to do—he’s like, “Whatever you got, bring it! This is the music that we’re dealing with. Just play, man!” I appreciate that coming from a bandleader to a sideman. Last year, we really established a groove in the band with Johnathan Blake and David Virelles. It’s a great band; those cats are bad! Everyone is super killing and we’re just having fun.
Finally, 2013 was tough as we lost Cedar Walton and Mulgrew Miller. I didn’t know Cedar well, but I met him a few times. I got to play a couple tunes with him during a master class in college and I had talked to him on the phone. There were a few moments where I was asked to learn the book, just in case David Williams couldn’t make it. Just having him not around anymore—it’s a really heavy blow to the scene.
I had a chance to play with Mulgrew a few times. That cat was golden! Their passing was a wake up call for everybody on the scene to try to get our lives together and do what makes us feel good. Those were heavy blows last year, man.
TJG: What is up ahead in 2014? Any new groups, projects, or records on the horizon?
DD: I’m hoping to record more, both as a sideman and a leader. I’d like to do a real studio album. I love live records and I’m happy that the Smalls record was my first introduction in the U.S. as a leader because it presented me in my element, but I also have a lot of different ideas. I’d like to get more gigs with Black Lion Quartet.
TJG: You debuted the Black Lion Quartet at The Jazz Gallery here in 2011 with a slightly different line up, and you’ve mentioned that the original purpose of the quartet was to create a piano-less sound. Has that changed?
DD: Originally, the idea was for it to be a piano-less quartet such that all of the harmony and the rhythm were on me. However, I love doing that anyway so I’m going to do that regardless of whether there is a piano player or not. This time at the Gallery, we’re going to have David Bryant there. We speak the same language; it’s just natural for us. We know where we want to go. Lummie and I have known each other since we were kids, dating back to middle and high school. Also, I love the way Kush Abadey plays.
There is never a dull moment with anybody in the band. You never know what’s going to happen. We have a foundation of what we want to do, but at any given moment we can go here and then we’re there and then we can come back and then we can go somewhere else. You can’t always do that with every musician. Most people call this “playing out,” but I call it “the big room.” I like to feel that I have a key to “the big room” and that I can use it by any means possible whenever I feel like it.
There are a lot of other musicians that I like to work with in different situations, but the Black Lion Quartet is my chance to just totally be myself and push the boundaries a bit with respect to the role of the bass.
TJG: Can you elaborate on your musical upbringing? What styles of music were you first playing, and how did you get into jazz?
DD: My father is a newly ordained minister, but he used to be in a gospel group called The Faith Harmonizers. He plays guitar and sings, and I started working with him when I was about nine years old, playing bass. He got me my first bass when I was nine and then immediately, not long after that I think, I played in church with him before I turned 10, and then it was like a thing.
TJG: Did he encourage you to play bass to support him behind the guitar?
DD: No, actually he tried to get me to play guitar and, of course, naturally I wanted to be like him. So, at that time, Casio had this electronic guitar synthesizer with six nylon flat tape strings on it. You couldn’t change the strings and they were hooked up to sensors so that you could manipulate the sounds. It was a little cheaper than a real guitar. Man! Now that I look back on it, that was a really hip instrument! I was about seven years old at the time and my dad didn’t want to spend the money if his kid didn’t potentially want to play guitar or might break it, so I started playing this synth-guitar real hard. I just practiced all the time and, two weeks later, I had five strings; a month later, I had three strings; two months later, I had one string. My dad was like, “Man! This kid is popping…he’s popped everything! He’s played it so much that everything is gone!” So he said to me, “You can’t pop these strings. This is an electronic synth, how hard are you pulling!? You’re going to play the bass.”
I always gravitated towards the bass. I could see that my dad and his bass player were always tight. I immediately started studying with local bass players in the Hartford area. In school, I was being classically trained in tuba and trombone so I was getting the best of both worlds: learning how to read in the classroom and then learning it by ear in church.
Early on, I was playing strictly electric bass. I was listening to James Jamerson, Nathan East, Donald “Duck” Dunn, and Chuck Rainey. My dad was like, “If you’re going to play bass, you’re going to play bass like these cats—these are the guys.” My dad was very militant in how he approached music. He used to always tell me, “You play nothing but the bass line, stick to the bass line, don’t play anything else.” Sometimes I would play something else and I would get in trouble for it, but it taught me how to respect my role. When it’s your time to shine, you’ll shine, but if you’re doing your role well enough, you’re shining already.
Jazz came in around the age of 12 or 13. My uncle Walt would always come by my grandmother’s house, and I just thought he was this hip cat that played the piano and sang, but I didn’t really know he was a drummer. Eventually, my grandmother told him that I was playing trombone in the jazz band. My uncle Walt then called me up, we connected over the holidays, and he gave me some CDs. He had written about five of the tunes on both albums (this was Art Taylor’s Wailers). Thus, I learned that my uncle was a great jazz drummer and started doing my own research. By the time I was 15, I had caught the bug. I got serious about it, I started shedding, playing in school, etc. My uncle was very inspirational in getting me into this music. He was my automatic connection, the lineage. I wanted to see if I could take it as far as he took it.
TJG: Can you contextualize the material that you’re going to present?
DD: Most of it will be my material, but I also like to play the material of cats in the band because they influence me and they write some great music, so, why not? I’ve got some arrangements and some ideas. Some of it’s going to be the same material that I played recently with Cyrus Chestnut and Victor Lewis at The Side Door in Old Lyme, CT. It’s just going to have a different vibe on it; the vibe today is different than the vibe tomorrow.
I’m really looking forward to March 21st. I’m not your typical leader as a bassist; it’s not going to be about the bass solo. Sometimes in my gigs I try to take little to no bass solos. I just want to play some bass: that’s the role. I’m going to make some stuff happen, even when I’m not soloing. By the time I get to my solo, I won’t say I’m spent creatively, but I might not feel like taking one. I feel like I might have already done some hip shit during your solo, man. There’s a saying that people like to talk during the bass solo. If the bass is always in your face, no one is going to want to say shit, if you ask me. If something has to be said, someone’s going to say something, but, if the bass is already in your face, what more do you have to say?
TJG: Could you name some pivotal moments across your studies and professional career thus far? What experiences have been most valuable to you?
DD: There have been three moments where I just hit a wall, and I hope there will be about 20 more. The first was meeting Nat Reeves. He helped me realize how important the bass is in the music; I’ve been studying with Nat ever since.
The second was when I was doing Betty Carter’s Jazz Ahead in Washington D.C. I hit a serious wall. I just couldn’t say what I wanted to say. I would hold back a lot. I met Keter Betts that weekend; he dropped so many gems on me, man. I remember we were in the hallway of the Kennedy Center, and he drew an imaginary line on the carpet, then walked 20 steps, then made another imaginary line.
He said, “I want you to jump from this line to that line.” The distance between the two lines was very long: an Olympic cat couldn’t have made that jump. He said I should try it, so I tried four or five times and failed. Then he says, “You know what playing the bass is? There is a wall. It’s too high; you can’t climb over it because as you climb up it, it keeps getting higher. You can’t dig under it because, the further down you dig, the deeper the wall gets. You can’t go around it because every time you try to, the wall just keeps getting wider. There are two things you can do: you can run away or you can run through it. What are you going to do?” Man, I went straight home after that and shedded for about two months, went into gorilla mode, realized that I had to stop thinking and just do it.
Lastly, a great moment was meeting Rufus Reid. I was playing down at the Local 802 back in 2008 or 2009 with Eddie Allen Jr. in the Aggregation Big Band with some of the hippest session cats: Cecil Bridgewater, James Zoller, Clifton Anderson, Howard Johnson, Walter Blanding, Craig Handy, Duane Eubanks—a rehearsal band. Eddie would get a guest conductor to come in and bring their own arrangements so that we would play them. I had done maybe six or seven rehearsals at that point and, you know, I pride myself on my reading. I had played a bunch of big band charts in high school, I like to read, liked big band, had done well so far with Eddie, etc. Eddie calls me up and tells me that Rufus Reid is coming in the next day—that we’re going to play his music.
Rufus Reid is one of my heroes. After getting Rufus’s charts, there were bass parts on those charts that made me want to crawl into a corner and hide. Rufus saw it on me immediately. He saw me sweating but he didn’t say anything; he was cool. We maybe played six or seven of his tunes and he didn’t say anything to me while we were playing but was just watching me. Rufus pulled me aside afterwards and said, “I want to talk to you.” He has a very deep voice. He noticed when I was up in the upper registers that I was working too hard and he gave me a lesson on thumb position. I talked to him for maybe 30 minutes and afterward I went home and shedded; I‘ve been shedding ever since. Being a musician, you never stop learning and I don’t want to stop. There are a lot of masters out there and they’re always dropping knowledge and I’m always feeding off of it.
TJG: What music are you listening to these days?
DD: Lately, it’s been a lot of records with Sam Jones. Before Sam, it was Ron Carter and Wilbur Ware. I love Eric Reed and Benny Green. Outside of jazz, there is a band called Midnite, a reggae band from St. Croix. They have the best reggae roots sound. They’ve recorded about 40 albums over a span of 10 years. Of course, there’s always Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, and Gregory Isaacs. I’ve been addicted to The Impressions for the past few months and also the new Daft Punk record, Jay-Z’s new record, and Sean Price. I’m also addicted to Afrobeat!
TJG: Is there anything you want to let the audience know?
DD: It’s going to be intense! I know that much. It will be the usual Dezron Douglas situation. We’re going to hit really hard. Whatever happens, happens, but I know we’re going to hit hard.
Dezron Douglas Black Lion Quartet will perform at The Jazz Gallery this Friday, March 21st, 2014. This performance features Dezron Douglas on bass, Lummie Spann on saxophones, David Bryant on piano and Rhodes, and Kush Abadey on drums. Sets are at 9 and 11 p.m. $20 general admission and $10 for members. Purchase tickets here.