Darrell Grant: From The Heart, Through The Keyboard
"But also, after ten years of playing and doing what I do, I wanted to really feel like I was in a position to have a more lasting impact. It turned out that the university job just came up. I was looking into moving, but I didn't know where we were going to go. I couldn't see living on the west coast and trying to keep touring and being a New York jazz musician. When this job came up, it seemed like the right thing. I was a little less satisfied with being a performing artist. I felt like I wasn't making an impact on people that I wanted to. I guess it was more of an external thing, says the pianist.
He had some experience teaching master classes, but the change to a full-time post with a variety of classes "was certainly eye-opening. But he adapted and has become fond of the academic community and the city. "I've been here ten years now, so students that were twenty when I started are now thirty. They're out there hustling their own gigs or doing their own tours. So it's kind of cool to be in that position, to have my students out there doing the work and coming back and saying, 'Here's my record' or they've been on tour with so-and-so, or just finished grad school. That's a really cool part of it.
Grant says being part of a university culture "has given me a platform to do things that I wouldn't have been able to do as just a jazz musician. Because nobody really knows what that means, when you say you're a jazz musician. But when you say you're a professor, you can relate to the business community and everybody relates to you in a different way. That's been the coolest thing. I've been able to create things and start things. Starting record label and booking clubs and all these things I could never have gotten the platform to do as a musician, but as a university professor I've been able to do it.
"I am not trying to make a living as a musician, says Grant. "I have a teaching position which affords me to only do the gigs I want. It also provides me a platform. I have run two clubs that have employed musicians. We book local musicians, but we also now book national musicians.
One club is called LV's Uptown, an offshoot of an institute he created called the Leroy Vinegar Jazz Institute, after the jazz violinist. "Our mission is education, outreach and historical documentation. So we've developed a bunch of educational projects in schools, done joint projects with libraries. We created A Great Day in Portland historic photograph. It's like the Great Day in Harlem photograph, with 160 Portland musicians. Things like that. That is because of Leroy and my association with him and his estate.
"The club is different than that. It turned out the university bought this building and was able to make it into a conference center. But it was empty. Nobody was coming to it. There was a room and I said, 'You know, this would make a good jazz room.' I sort of threw in with them to get some seed money to start it. It turned out the people that invest at the university put a budget in place. We usually just do duos and trios on Fridays and Saturdays. It's free. All ages. My student combos play there. They play their quarterly concerts there. Students can go and hear great musicians for free. I book it. I play there myself every month or two. But it's been a resource for the community. It's stayed open. Other clubs have closed in the interim. It's now one of the places people can play in Portland.
Grant has kept sideman gigs to a minimum over the last year or so, he says. "That's because when I came here I tried to keep my sideman gigs and I was going crazy for a couple years, trying to fly back every month and a half. It was too much. But now I have tenure. I'm in a place now where I'm going to have more time for it. Things are evolving after ten years here, maybe back toward performing. And there are still people I'd love to play with. It's coming up more now where I'm starting to say yes to things and do some more collaborative projects.
He has a collaborative project ongoing with some musicians in his region. Grant has also been in a duet project with trumpeter Dmitri Matheny for about nine years. The pair will be recording for the first time in the coming months, "which is long overdue. He also has an idea for a large-scale recording project.
"I've wanted for a while to do an instrumental recording of the music of [singer/songwriter] James Taylor. That's a more ambitious project, arranging everything from solo piano to different ensembles. It'll wind up being a bigger project than Truth and Reconciliation.
Looking around, Grant realizes musicians are struggling for work, and he's grateful that his teaching position keeps him apart from those concerns. He doesn't need to address those issues and does not toss in false pontifications about them. Yet he sees good things out in the music world coming from musicians of his generation and younger.