Derrick Hodge: His Philly State of Mind

Bassist and producer to present projects as artist-in-residence at the Monterey Jazz Festival

Derrick Hodge, backstage at Newport Jazz Festival 2013 (photo by Melissa Mergner)
Derrick Hodge, backstage at Newport Jazz Festival 2013 (photo: Melissa Mergner)

Derrick Hodge wants to pay tribute to his roots in Philadelphia in a very different way. The bassist and composer is NOT looking to cover TSOP or Jill Scott or the Roots. Rather he’s hoping to capture the feeling of a scene which supported him as a fledgling musician. Debuting the concept at the Philly Music Fest in the fall of 2018, Hodge called it “A Philly State of Mind,” and included many of his peers and his influences. “It was my chance to pay homage to those that came before me that put me on, but also to open up the performance to those that I’ve been listening to that may not have been heard as much, to put that all in one show and put us all together on the stage to perform at one time and just to see what happens,” he explains. “I just wanted to see what the reaction would be to that and go on from there.”

Since that debut, he’s been contacted by Tim Jackson of the Monterey Jazz Festival who asked him to be an artist-in-residence at the 2019 edition of the prestigious festival in September. However, the bassist and composer asked Jackson if he could do more than just teach some talented young jazz students. “I want to have a true impact on the people that really come,” Hodge says. “I’m going to have a Color of Noise presentation, a whole three-hour slot where I get up and perform with my band that will have two drummers, multiple keyboard players, as well as a four-year-old drummer Justin—they call him ‘Baby Boy Drummer.’” Hodge is also expecting to have a DJ, as well as a painter or visual artist aboard for the set.  Confirmed personnel include: LJ “Baby Boy Drummer” Wilson (drums); Justin Lee Schultz (keyboards); Clifton and Melody (bass and flute); and Sophia Augustine (acoustic bass and vocals).

The artist-in-residence program at the Monterey Jazz Festival has a rich legacy. Back in the day, Jimmy Lyons would do commissioned pieces and have artists in residence but it all sort of faded away by the time that Tim Jackson, the artistic director got there in 1991.  “It was me thinking that it might be fun to resurrect these traditions that were part of the festival’s formative years and relaunch them,” explains Jackson. “That’s what we did with both programs – the commissioning program and the artist in residence program. It’s evolved over the years.” For the artist in residence program the artist would come to Monterey three times a year: first in the spring to work at the Next Generation Festival, then during their summer jazz camp and finally come back to the festival in September to present their own music, plus work with the Next Generation Jazz Orchestra for their performance. At some point, after working with a wide range of artists including very high profile ones, Jackson realized that the younger artists related more easily with the young kids and vice versa.

This year the festival is working with Hodge and Allison Miller. “I thought I wanted to work with both Derrick and Allison,” says Jackson. “I’d worked with them over the years and I sort of eyeballed them in my mind as being really good in the artists in residence role and particularly Derrick who had told me many years ago when he was on our very first Monterey Jazz Festival On Tour with Terence Blanchard’s band back in 2008, ‘You know, I really love to work with kids and do educational things, so if there’s ever anything I can do throughout the year to help you, I’d love to do it.’  I filed that away. I thought this would be a good year to bring Derrick in. He had gotten his record deal with Blue Note. He had such strong side-person status and now he’s putting out his own records. I thought it would be cool to have a drummer who is a female to [comprise] a rhythm section. The interesting thing was that Derrick and Allison didn’t even know each other. They knew of each other but they didn’t know each other, much less play together. I had this feeling that they would hit it off. The beauty of this year is that those two have just hit it off. They’re now like BFF’s, you know [laughs].”

More importantly they have hit it off with the students in the Next Generation program. “The young kids just love them both,” Jackson explains. “Derrick’s been giving the kids advice. He did a whole workshop on careers in music. He’s a great player. He’s a great producer. He’s a great writer. These kids have been staying in touch with him because he genuinely reached out to them and said, “It’s cool, man.’ When he was doing that Careers in Music session, I could see these young African-American males look at him in awe. He’s worked with Kanye, Common, Jay Z, Jill Scott, plus he’s got all the hip jazz credentials. Derrick is so humble, he’s not bragging about any of it. He tells them a story and they’re riveted. He learned so many great lessons from Terence [Blanchard]. The model he got from Terence was to involve yourself with people and relate to people. He’s got all of that and he’s so great at it.”

Hodge’s broad and inclusive approach to music-making clearly stems from his early years in the Philadelphia music scene. “The biggest influence on me, aside from producers like James Poyser [of the Roots] and a few others like that who put me on records really young, at about 14 years old, and then at 19 or 20 when the Philly sound really took off, was just the nature of Philly itself,” he says. “It’s a close-quartered type of city, everybody’s just on top of each other culturally; you have no choice but to be influenced by other cultures if you’re paying attention. It was honestly that melting pot, that hybrid state of mind, of not cutting things off and saying, ‘Oh, I’m just into this, not that.’ I tried to present that message, because I’m a product of that kind of a hybrid or melting pot.” Hodge studied at Temple University’s music program, while also playing with both classical and jazz musicians, including the local veteran saxophonist Bootsie Barnes with whom Hodge recorded on a jazz album for the first time and who referred him to his first high profile jazz job.

Barnes recommended Hodge to Mulgrew Miller, who lived not far away in Easton, Pa., by inviting the pianist to a show at Chris’s, saying, “I want you to hear this bass player.” Miller came down to the club and listened. “I’ll never forget, it was a Friday night at Chris’s, and I met him and we exchanged numbers and I said, ‘I would love to play with you at some point, even just pick your brain,’ and he said, ‘Okay. Yeah, just give me a call. I’m right up in Easton.’ And that was everything for me. It was one of those things also, being from Philly, it’s a blue-collar city by nature so not a lot of people from Philly have to be taught about hustle.”

By hustle Hodge is talking more about the working class kind exemplified by Philly sports heroes like Pete Rose, Lenny Dykstra and Allen Iverson. “That following Monday – I don’t know what I was thinking, I didn’t even know if Mulgrew was in town or not – I put on my suit and got in my car with my upright, started driving to Mulgrew’s city. I didn’t have an address, because he just said ‘Easton.’ I called, but because it was early when I got in the car, I got no answer. Then I got on the Northeast extension, I pulled off on an exit, and I called him again. I said, ‘Hi, Mulgrew, this is Derrick Hodge. I hope this doesn’t weird you out but man, I would just love to meet you. I’m on my way to meet you.’ And I’ll never forget—he laughed and then gave his address. I had to stop and Mapquest it then and I feel like it was just divine timing. I showed up at his house and we laughed and talked. I was wearing a suit, had put on cologne, everything. But I showed up and I got the gig. That following Tuesday was my first gig with him at the Vanguard.”

At that time, Hodge was doing a lot of recording around Philadelphia that were more electric bass focused. It was the heyday of Jill Scott, Musiq Soulchild and other artists – many tagged as neo-soul. “When I started with Mulgrew, it was a whole new kind of direction,” he explains. “It was that same contrast that made Philly a big influence on me. I always felt that desire to not just do one thing – it was always do that and something else in a different vein that would keep the growth happening.”

Besides the contrast and the diversity, Hodge acknowledges another less discussed aspect of the Philadelphia music scene. “Philly was great because, regardless of the different opinions and genres that were happening that I was a part of, the common thing that was preached more than anything was listening. And I think the way Philly musicians and artists and producers listened, it’s really unique. A lot of the Philly producers have the biggest record collections from Jazzy Jeff to even Amir and all these guys. They listen a certain way and always give themselves a certain [musical] diet. That really opened my mind and forced me to get out of my own space and never allow ego to kick in, because you’re too busy feeding yourself.”

The wide-open concept sounds intriguing, but it also sounds like a challenge when it comes to recording. “For my first two albums, they were primarily self-contained. For my first album, Live Today, I recorded with a band but then I went back in and replaced three quarters of that album by myself just layering parts and adding drums and organ. And then my second album, The Second, that was myself on all the instruments just jumping around, except for one song that had a few horn players. For this new album, I tried to make sure I’m using a full-out live band for the core, for everything I do.” That album won’t be out on Blue Note until next year, but his live performances are a strong reflection of his concept for the recording.  

“It’s that thing of opening minds, knowing that, if you come to anything it’s a part of opening your mind up. That’s all leading to this whole question of, ‘What is noise?’ And leading to this concept of Color of Noise. That’s why I’m presenting this album with more of a live feel. Even with the residencies I’m doing at Monterey—make sure every time I’m seen, under my name I want it to kind of mimic that concept. I noticed that the answer for me is just a steady diet of every time, not mixing it up too much. Every chance I get to have a platform, make sure there’s a similar type of message being conveyed.”

Hodge has come a long way since his days in Philadelphia, recording and touring with artists such as Terence Blanchard and Robert Glasper, as well as signing with Blue Note Records for whom he’s now released two albums as a leader. He’s recorded a third album for the label who will release that sometime in 2020.  For his part, Hodge has moved far away from the city, now living in Denver, Co. with his wife and daughter, yet he still basks in its lasting influence on his musical approach. He expects to bring that mantra of diversity and inclusiveness to his residency at Monterey this fall.