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Dezron Douglas: Before & After

The versatile bass man from Hartford weighs in on jazz, reggae, and gospel in his first Before & After listening session

Dezron Douglas
Dezron Douglas (photo: Bill Douthart)

For Dezron Douglas, a musical career was a family legacy, and it began early. “I’ve been playing bass in church since I was seven or eight,” he recently recounted to graduate students at New York University’s jazz program. “I played with my brothers and my father and we were in a lot of [gospel] programs up and down—Connecticut, New York, Massachusetts. Then I got good at 12, and started to really study in Hartford. To this day, some of my favorite bass players are people you probably never heard of. But they were great local bass players on the gospel circuit.”

Douglas is a proud product of the jazz circle in Hartford, where he was born and came to study with Jackie McLean’s Institute of African American Music; drummer Michael Carvin is another mentor he mentions often. In the 15 years since he’s been on the New York scene, he’s become a first-call bassist, known for a sound that’s both muscular and melodic. Besides jazz, he carries a variety of styles in his toolbox: R&B of the 1980s and ’90s, roots reggae of the ’70s, and of course gospel. His 2013 album Live at Smalls is a solid keepsake of an evening’s performance at that club, and one of the strongest releases on its label; his most recent release is his fourth recording as leader, the diverse acoustic-and-electric six-track EP Black Lion.

Catching Douglas in performance—leading his own group, or supporting the likes of Ravi Coltrane, Makaya McCraven, Abraham Burton, David Murray, Louis Hayes, Brandee Younger, or many others—is to witness how consistently and economically he helps raise the level of the music, sometimes with just a nudge or a turnaround or a groove. It’s why so many wish to work with him. A personal joy of recent months is hearing Douglas lay down the confident strut of “Mr. Day” when Ravi Coltrane calls that tune from his father’s songbook.

This was Douglas’ first Before & After for JazzTimes, conducted in front of almost 30 students and guests, the culmination of a day’s visit to NYU.

Listen to a Spotify playlist featuring most of the songs in this Before & After:

1. Duke Ellington
“Do Nothin’ Till You Hear From Me” (This One’s for Blanton!, Pablo). Ellington, piano; Ray Brown, bass. Recorded in 1972.

BEFORE: It’s either Ray Brown or someone who took the essence of Ray and put it in themselves, and was able to get the same exact attack. There’s only two bass players, as far as I know, who have that much Ray in their playing: Christian McBride and Hassan Shakur.

This recording is a duo, and a duo is hard to play when you’re missing the drums. But Ray became famous playing in a drum-less trio with Oscar [Peterson] and Herb Ellis. In that trio his time was perfect. I’ve heard stories from musicians who worked with Ray Brown who said he tended to be heavy on top of the beat. But I think he’s not on top of it so much as Ray is so strong.

The pianist sounds like Roger Kellaway. At first the arrangement was sparse but when he started doing those signature phrases it sounded like him, and that’s someone that Ray had a serious affinity for. They worked together a lot.

AFTER: Ooooh! It’s on Pablo. Wow. Forgive me, Duke Ellington—when we meet, the first coffee is on me. This is a great record. It’s funny, I haven’t heard this whole record but I have heard it in a record store more than a few times.

This definitely sounds like the vibe between Duke and Jimmy Blanton. Now it makes sense why the phrasing was stretched, almost like they’re playing phrases, not playing the time. Ray was [producer and Pablo founder] Norman Granz’s cat too. It wouldn’t surprise me if Ray put together this date, called Norman up, and was like, “Hey man, I talked to Duke. You want to make a record?”

2. Sam Jones Trio
“The Hymn of Scorpio” (The Bassist!, Interplay). Kenny Barron, electric piano; Jones, bass; Keith Copeland, drums. Recorded in 1979.

BEFORE: This is a great record. This is Sam Jones with Kenny Barron and Keith Copeland. I know it’s him right off the bat. It’s just the way he pulls the strings, his note choices, the way he plays melodies, and I happen to know this record. He’s probably one of the bassists that I’ve been listening to the most over the past 10 years. I can’t get away from any record with Sam on it. You have a bassist who played with everybody from Dizzy to Cannon to Oscar and Jimmy Heath.

On some of the other great records with Sam, he’s playing with traditional bebop drummers. But this is Keith, who was young and he sounds young, and he’s playing all this stuff that’s hip and modern. Keith went on to play a lot of rock gigs too. He’s got that pocket but he’s still swinging. And Kenny on Rhodes—that’s very modern.

Sam was a giant at the time, he had been in so many great bands, and he’s surrounding himself with younger musicians. They weren’t babies, but there was a gap. It’s like he’s giving himself this extra juice, and you can hear it in the sound.

Cedar Walton once told me about that famous quartet he led with Clifford Jordan, Billy Higgins, and Sam. He said Sam was the star of that band because they played so many of Sam’s tunes. This tune is by Sam—“Scorpio,” right?

Sam Jones was one of the innovators; he made the Polytone amp famous. He was one of the first guys that actually made it okay to use an amplifier and get a good sound, and on this record his sound is incredible. Can we listen to some more of it?

3. Hubert Laws
“Wildfire” (Family, Columbia). Laws, flute, piccolo flute, backing vocals; Debra Laws, lead vocals; Angel Rogers, backing vocals; Bobby Lyle, piano; David T. Walker and Ron Muldrow, guitars; Nathan East, bass; Leon “Ndugu” Chancler, drums. Recorded in 1980.

BEFORE: I have a question: Is this the bass player’s band?

Why do you ask?

There’s a few layers of bass. I don’t know any bass player that can comp like that and play a melody that perfect at the same time. You’d need 20 fingers and four arms to do what he or she is doing. The bass playing to me sounds like Alphonso Johnson, or someone who checked him out. This sounds like that period—the way the drums are mixed, the harmony that they’re dealing with. The fusion of different rhythms. The way that the flute is recorded and the sound of the keyboards, it could be only from one period: mid-to-late ’70s. It had to have been recorded in L.A. It has the vibe. I could be wrong but that sounds like Alphonso.

AFTER: Oh wow! Hubert Laws. This is cool. Nathan’s not playing the stick bass on this record. He’s definitely playing electric and it’s definitely overdubbed and it sounds great. I’m a huge Nathan East fan. I’m hoping to meet him one day, and I think we connected once online. He was like, “Thank you” about something I wrote, and I was like, “Awww man! He said thank you!”

It definitely makes sense. I mean, his tone! Nathan was one of those cats who are genre-less, who can play everything, and this is one of those records that proves my man’s got serious jazz chops. He went on to work with everybody, like a who’s-who—one of the greatest studio cats, coming right out of the vein of bassists like Chuck Rainey and Jaco and Alphonso. Nathan had to have been really young then too. Super young.

4. Linda May Han Oh
“Perpluzzle” (Walk Against Wind, Biophilia). Ben Wendel, tenor saxophone; Matthew Stevens, guitar; Oh, electric bass, vocals; Justin Brown, drums. Recorded in 2016.

BEFORE: This has to be something recorded in the past 10 years. Even in the improvisation sections you can feel that they’re improvising with a through-composed concept. The trading between the bass and the saxophone is great, but it wasn’t until the third trade that they began to be themselves, taking chances, starting a line and continuing instead of worrying about trying to stay with the vibe.

With the vocalese part, I’d say maybe Gretchen Parlato because she’s great at doing stuff like this, giving melodies life and dealing with rhythms that don’t necessarily cause the listener to dance. Hmmm. Is this Esperanza? The pitch is lower—I know a couple of male vocalists who can falsetto like this but they’re not bass players. Is it Linda?

AFTER: She’s a great composer, and if this is her piece, then it makes sense why she was soloing that way. So she’s playing electric? Great playing. Her singing is great too. When you write the song, you better be able to sing it.

Now we hear much more music that’s through-composed. I’m not saying that’s something new. Wayne Shorter was the king of through-composed music in the ’70s and ’80s, and Mingus was writing stuff like that—stuff that was so hard and some of the musicians couldn’t necessarily play it, but he loved the struggle. Now in the past 15 years we have more composers who are writing these journeys. It’s apparent here with this tune: Their whole approach is, like, staying in that vibe. It’s not a handicap—it’s just for that picture, that moment. Cool. Brava Linda!

5. Nat Reeves
“Thank You, Jackie” (Blue Ridge, Side Door Jazz). Reeves, bass; Eric McPherson, drums. Recorded in 2018.

BEFORE: This bass player is one of the more underrated cats on the scene, but he definitely gets the love because everyone knows what he’s about. He’s been the bassist with Sonny Stitt, Jackie McLean, Kenny Garrett, Pharoah Sanders—all pivotal bands. I spent a lot of time with him, and this is definitely Nat Reeves and Eric McPherson. I haven’t heard the complete album and Nat, I’m sorry I haven’t. This was recorded at a club in Old Lyme called the Side Door, and when they finished this, [club owner] Ken Kitchings called me up and was like, “Nat just played more shit than anybody!”

Nat is one of the main reasons why I decided, “Okay, this is what I really want to do.” I had all the dreams kids have—I wanted to play professional football, at one point I wanted to be the next cartoonist for Marvel. The music was just fun for me. But when Nat came into my life, it was like God said, “Okay, son, if this is what you want to do I’m going to put you next to him because he knows what he’s doing.”

He told me a story about when he got to go to Japan with Sonny Stitt—Sonny’s last tour [June 1982]. The promoter who did that tour, Yoshi, also told me the whole story. Sonny got off the plane sick, and he had blood coming out of his mouth, and he had a note from his wife that said, “Yoshi, please fix Sonny.” So he went into the hospital, and they did the whole two- to three-week tour of Japan with a picture of Sonny and his saxophone on a chair, and in every city everyone in the audience was crying. Nat told me this in such a way that it conveyed to me how real this music is, how precious it is, how you never know, tomorrow is not promised, so make some beauty.

Nat is brutally honest. He was the reason why I got my first suit. He told me, “Listen, they see you before they hear you. Don’t come on the stage in them shoes. You need some money? We can go to the store, have a suit on tomorrow.” This is the Hartford days.

Of course, E-Mac. He’s one of the drummers you know right off the bat because he plays a certain style. He can pick up a soup spoon and get a sound with it on the drums.

Thank you for Nato. The Natron bomb.

6. The Upsetters
“Soul Rebel (Dub Version)” (The Complete Upsetter Collection, Trojan). Alva “Reggie” Lewis, guitar; Glen Adams, keyboards; Aston “Family Man” Barrett, bass; Carlton Barrett, drums. Recorded in 1970.

BEFORE: Is this from the early ’70s? The drummer, is that Horsemouth [Leroy Wallace]? I know this track. I listen to so much reggae. I’m surprised that you put this on but it could be Robbie Shakespeare, it could be Errol “Flabba” Holt on bass. To the detriment of my progress as a bass player, I didn’t really get into looking into who was playing on the reggae records that I love so much. Whoever this is, my man is playing actual harmony, and the bass line becomes the actual song.

AFTER: I was going to say that sounded like the original Wailers. This is important to me because this is the sound that’s missing from reggae right now. This is the sound of reggae, and that was the best band. Aston is another bass player who doesn’t get enough respect, and he’s still alive. His son actually plays drums now with the current Wailers, but he plays the bass too—Aston, Jr.

When rasta was introduced to the world, the bass players were playing very melodic, the bassline was almost the song. But then technology changed and loops and different sounds came out, the drummers started playing differently, and it forced the bass players to play differently. This track epitomizes the sound that was coming out of Jamaica during that [early] period, the style in which the bass players were playing, the role that they served. The way Aston is playing, it’s just so melodic. People think reggae bass is just duh-duh-duh-duh-duh-duh [sings straight eighth notes].

[To students] Quick question: Who plays bass here? [Four students raise hands.] Are you enjoying the bass playing that you’re hearing? Cool. I always try to find something positive in every recording or any experience. If someone is playing bass with heart, I’m in it.

7. J.J. Johnson
“See See Rider” (Standards: Live at the Village Vanguard, Antilles). Johnson, trombone; Ralph Moore, soprano saxophone; Stanley Cowell, piano; Rufus Reid, bass; Victor Lewis, drums. Recorded in 1988.

BEFORE: Okay, so we know it’s live. The bass player, first of all, has an incredible sound. The recording sounds like it’s mid-’80s or even late ’80s. The soprano saxophone sounds like Joe Farrell or someone that checked out Joe. I’m curious to know who the trombone player is. Is this the trombone player’s record? As soon as I heard the first notes I started listening to the saxophone, because I had a feeling that the bass player was going to stay with that groove. When he started walking, it sounds like he checked out some heavy Reggie Workman, just by his note choice.

Personally, I recognize bass players more from comping than from soloing because taking a bass solo is like playing in the NFL—any given Sunday, you can win. [Laughs] It’s rough. That’s how I feel—I play 90 minutes of music a set and I might get three solos, and even if I hit a home run with one of them, most likely there’s going to be one that I’m going to be like, “Aww man, I should have just bowed out on this one!” “Can I pass?” “You already started, man!” “Pass!!!”

That definitely is not Curtis [Fuller] on trombone. Someone influenced by J.J. [Johnson], but it doesn’t sound like J.J. during that period. But if it is that period, I know Rufus Reid was working with J.J. a lot then, and that didn’t sound like Rufus … although … [Listens more; goes silent]

AFTER: This is a tricky track you picked. Now if Rufus had played a solo I would have known, or if this was in the studio, I definitely would have recognized his sound.

Rufus has given me so much over the years. In 2006, I played at the union hall [American Federation of Musicians, Local 802]. I was playing with [trumpeter] Eddie Allen in the Aggregation Big Band, and he would invite guest composers. This particular day I’m coming from Hartford. I get off the train, I got my bass with me, and I’m running kind of late. Coming from Hartford during that period, I was always running kind of late—but I was always on time. So I show up to this rehearsal sweating, and Rufus Reid is standing there with his bass and it’s all his music! Just looking at him, I lost another five pounds.

Rufus has impeccable technique. He plays the bass like it’s easy, and he’s a great composer. So I’m reading his charts and I gave it 150 percent. I didn’t play everything exactly right but every time I looked up, Rufus was smiling at me.

Afterwards, he came up and said, “I appreciate your focus and drive in playing my music, especially when you played the non-thumb position.” Now, he’s a master of thumb position and so he’s writing these parts that are all up here [plays high end of imaginary bass]. I’m not classically trained on the bass and I didn’t learn thumb position, but I figured out my own way. So Rufus was like, “I love how you figured it out and you played every note perfect up there!”

From that moment on, he’s given me so many words of encouragement. He is an important voice, as far as the state of the bass. Him, Ron, Buster, Reggie—but particularly Rufus, who’s very outspoken. So I appreciate hearing that track. In a way I’m glad you didn’t play a track with a bass solo, because I would have known it was him right away. He has a very distinct voice when he solos, the way he approaches harmony, the way he attacks his phrases. Kudos to Rufus.

8. Herbie Hancock
“Actual Proof” (Austin City Limits performance, Season 43, Episode 4309). Hancock, piano, keyboards; Terrace Martin, alto saxophone; James Genus, bass; Vinnie Colaiuta, drums. Aired in 2018.

BEFORE: Is that Marcus Miller? Maybe I’m wrong. This is Herbie in the ’80s. Or is this his current band? It sounds like Marcus. It’s definitely Herbie. The drummer sounds like Gene [Jackson]. I feel like I’m saying every person in the world that it’s not. But the drummer sounds like Gene.

I think I should mention that it’s a YouTube video. 

The sound quality is cool. I give up, man. Right now I want to watch it. I want to see what everyone else is seeing. These cats are going in right now. It’s not Anthony Jackson, is it? There’s this precision of the note quality. But it still sounds like Marcus to me.

AFTER: Oh, it’s James. Is that Vinnie [Colaiuta]? Wow. I finally saw Herbie live for the first time at the Red Sea Jazz Festival in Eilat [Israel], and the reason why I did ask was this like a recent band was because I was waiting to hear Lionel [Loueke]. But he’s not on this video, right? So I saw the band with Lionel, not with Terrace [Martin], and James took one of the most incredible electric bass solos I’ve ever witnessed. He’s a badass on upright too, and it’s like a match made in heaven, him and Herbie. Just watching them—they’re so in sync. And his tone! He definitely has a Marcus tone, but he also has his own shit happening too. Man, five stars.

I was trying to figure it out too much. See, that’s the problem with these Before & Afters, man. You start thinking too much, and I was trying to figure out the period.

Perhaps the best way to do this is with headphones. 

No, this was perfect sound. Thank you for making me feel better, but there’s no excuse.

9. Terrace Martin
“Curly Martin” (Velvet Portraits, Ropeadope). Martin, alto saxophone, vocoder; Adam Turchin, baritone saxophone; Robert Glasper, piano; Marlon Williams, guitar; Thundercat, bass; Ronald Bruner, Jr., drums; Alakoi Peete, percussion. Recorded in 2016.

BEFORE: Is that a trumpet playing through a synth[esizer]? The drummer sounds like one of those great Houston drummers. It’s a certain style—Chris Dave, Eric Harland, Mike Mitchell, he calls himself Blaque Dynamite. Kendrick [Scott]. When those cats started recording, all the gospel drummers loved these cats. Is this Robert [Glasper]’s group with Casey [Benjamin]?

I’m not sure who’s on bass but he’s very, very melodic. I gotta take a guess? That’s okay, I’m on trial here.

AFTER: Now the melodicism makes a lot of sense. This record I haven’t heard, but I’ve heard a lot of Thundercat’s records, and his work with Suicidal Tendencies is off the chain, and if you see him now it’s a stripped-down version of what he was doing then, but more virtuosic because it’s almost all him. Stephen’s tone is so personal and this tune is clearly in a studio and he was giving of himself as a session cat, so it’s great to hear that.

But his tone is completely different on this. I’m going to have to visit this record to hear him in a sideman role. Sometimes people do that to have a separation of church and state, you know? “I’m going to be myself on your record, but I’m not going to give you what I give myself, tone-wise …” You know what I mean? Like
George Benson on that Miles record.


Yeah. Benson is himself but … So I didn’t guess Thundercat right off, because it was very round sound, rounder than the sound that he’s been going for lately with that custom bass he has. That bass has a lot of different sound qualities he can get, and over the past two or three years, he’s been incorporating a lot of Indian rhythms into his whole approach, even when he’s comping. Killing.

10. Andrew Gouché
“No Ways Tired” (We Don’t Need No Bass, Prayze). Unidentified, electric piano, synthesizer; Unidentified, electric guitar; Gouché, electric bass; Unidentified, drums; Chris Bolton, Jackie Gouché, vocals. Recorded in 2015.

BEFORE: The person singing, he’s not also the bass player, is he? [Bass solo begins.] Man, that tone! Whoever it is really has an understanding of the harmony in gospel completely—not like well-studied, but like this cat grew up in church, you know what I’m saying? The way they are playing the melodic lines …

But [the] production and that slap tone gave me a Marcus [Miller] vibe. I know I’ve said “Marcus” about four times already [laughs]. Hearing the person singing and then all of a sudden hearing the bass, it made me think of [gospel singer/bassist] Fred Hammond. But Fred, when he was with [the gospel group] Commissioned, there weren’t many tracks like that—that’s why I asked that question.

AFTER: This is hilarious! Just yesterday I was watching an Andrew Gouché video on Instagram and Brandee [Younger, harpist and longtime collaborator] comes in and says, “Who is that? Why does he look like that when he plays?” [Laughs] Andrew’s sitting in his office in this video, and he’s playing some stuff that’s coming out of Marcus.

Most people know Gouché from his years with Chaka Khan and Prince—I think he helped people be more aware of great gospel bass playing.

In general, gospel bass players now are kind of like what gospel drummers were in the ’90s and early 2000s. Today you have to be able to play better than the guitarist to be considered a good gospel bassist. It’s all chops. But Andrew’s coming from the school when you had to play the bass with these choirs and be funky. One of my other favorite bassists is Reggie Parker. Same generation, and these guys now are getting their shot. When did Andrew drop this record?

Ashley Kahn

Ashley Kahn is a Grammy-winning American music historian, journalist, producer, and professor. He teaches at New York University’s Clive Davis Institute for Recorded Music, and has written books on two legendary recordings—Kind of Blue by Miles Davis and A Love Supreme by John Coltrane—as well as one book on a legendary record label: The House That Trane Built: The Story of Impulse Records. He also co-authored the Carlos Santana autobiography The Universal Tone, and edited Rolling Stone: The Seventies, a 70-essay overview of that pivotal decade.