October 2007

Darrell Grant: Jazz With A Cause

On Jan. 1, 1997, Darrell Grant did something that very few established New York jazz musicians have done before or since: he moved to Portland, Oregon. “I wanted my music to have more direct impact on people’s lives,” Grant says. “That’s hard to do in New York. I wanted to be in a place where you walk down the street and people know who you are.”

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Jim Wilson

Darrell Grant

That desire for “impact” through music is typical of an idealism that permeates Grant’s thought and conversation. He had gone straight to New York after earning a Master’s degree from the University of Miami, and had been an up-and-coming pianist on the New York scene for a decade. He had toured with Betty Carter and Tony Williams, recorded with Don Braden and Craig Harris, and made three well-received albums of his own. But when he was offered a position on the faculty of Portland State University, he took it. “Portland seemed like a welcoming place, a place to raise my family,” he says. “And it has given me an incredible number of opportunities to be in the community.”

Grant traded a life on the road (Japan, western Europe, Turkey, the Baltics, Australia) for basement band rooms full of music stands and students, and he has thrived. “The University has given me a platform to do things I couldn’t have done otherwise, like found the Leroy Vinnegar Jazz Institute, and open LV’s Uptown,” says Grant. The great bassist Leroy Vinnegar was the most famous jazz musician to precede Grant to Portland. He lived there for 13 years before his death in 1999. The Institute that Grant named after Vinnegar offers innovative education and outreach programs throughout the Pacific Northwest. LV’s Uptown is unique, a working on-campus jazz club that has become one of the city’s most important jazz venues. Students and Northwest professionals and touring national acts play there, often together.

As a bandleader, player, educator, organizer and facilitator, Grant is omnipresent on the Portland jazz scene. “I’m amazed at how many phenomenal musicians live here: Dave Frishberg, Steve Christofferson, Randy Porter, David Friesen, John Gross, Glen Moore,” he says. “Unlike New York, Portland is too small to be cliquish. People who would never play together in New York play in the same bands in Portland. And I’m coming to the conclusion that there is a Portland sound. There’s a way that the Northwest environment gets into the music. The group Oregon was a kind of template. It’s an open sound, drawing on a lot of different languages.”

After a decade in Portland, Northwestern culture has gotten into Grant’s sound as well. His new album (his sixth), Truth and Reconciliation, on the Seattle-based Origin label, offers continuous revelatory lyricism, gentle yet fervent. The double CD is the most ambitious project he has ever undertaken, with one of the strongest rhythm sections in jazz—John Patitucci and Brian Blade—and world-class guest soloists like Bill Frisell and Steve Wilson. It is, in the broadest sense, a concept album, a loose suite of Grant’s disciplined, emotionally resonant compositions and well-chosen works by others (Sting, Sheryl Crow). It constitutes the fullest expression to date of Grant’s spiritual, political and artistic testament, his conviction that “art possesses an extraordinary power to inspire, provoke, inform and move others to transform society and themselves.”

The events surrounding the dismantling of apartheid in South Africa recur as an important subtext. (“The most moving part for me was the courage of a people willing to forgive their oppressors,” he says.) But the album is a wide arc whose message of affirmation draws upon diverse sources, incorporating the spoken words of Gandhi, Franklin Roosevelt, Nelson Mandela, John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King.

It would be easy to dismiss as naïve Grant’s commitment to community, and his faith in art as a force for social change. But Grant’s belief system is supported by the creative strength of his music, and by his own direct action. He works on behalf of non-profit organizations like p:ear, a mentoring program for homeless youth, and Mercy Corps. He donates a portion of the revenue from his CD sales, raises funds through benefit performances, and participates in awareness-building and publicity campaigns. One recent concert alone, the CD release event in Portland for Truth and Reconciliation, raised over $4,000 for Mercy Corps. “They are the leading disaster relief organization,” says Grant. “Their world headquarters is six blocks from my house. Supporting them is a way of saying, ‘This is where I live.’”

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