A musician and a scholar
Pianist Darrell Grant makes his scene playing, teaching and furthering the jazz cause in Portland
It's a good thing that Portland pianist Darrell Grant took the advice of close friend and drummer Cecil Brooks III when he advised Grant to leave New York and head for Portland.
'Everyone thinks New York is the scene,' Brooks told Grant, 'but it's not. You are the scene. Build a scene around you.'
Grant has done just that. In the process, he has energized Portland's jazz environment and made fans of many area musicians.
Born in Pittsburgh, the 41-year-old pianist was raised in a musical family and spent his formative years in Denver. His mother, a gospel singer, still sings in church and at senior citizen residences.
Grant began studying piano at age 7. He attended both the Eastman School of Music, a part of Rochester University in Rochester, N.Y., and the University of Miami.
Some might say Grant's graduate studies took place when he joined jazz vocalist Betty Carter's trio at age 26. He performed with legendary jazzmen such as Frank Morgan, Sonny Fortune, Roy Haynes and the late Tony Williams.
Grant gets high praise from Portland resident musicians. Saxophonist Rob Scheps describes him as 'a world-class pianist who blends a hip, post-bop sensibility with the gutsiness of real blues and gospel. I find him to be very delightful and really motivated about his own career and his approach toward jazz education.'
Drummer Mel Brown calls him a gifted, great player and a gentleman.
'He smiles, and I like seeing that,' Brown says. 'He brings fun to the bandstand.'
Adds bassist Glen Moore: 'I don't have the words to describe what happens when he launches into a solo. It goes to the top of human emotion.'
Grant first visited Portland when he was 12 as part of a church choir, falling in love with the Northwest's greenery. Much later, in February 1996, he and his wife, Anne, visited Portland again. On this visit he met Portland bassist Dan Schulte, who was a graduate assistant in the music department at Portland State.
Schulte asked for Grant's rŽsumŽ, which he supplied. A few months later, Grant received a letter from PSU asking him to interview. After doing so, he was offered a job, accepted and now is a tenured professor in jazz studies.
'Darrell has exceeded all possible expectations in the short time he has been here,' says Charlie Gray, director of jazz studies at PSU. 'His service to the community has been exceptional.'
Beginning in 1998, Grant brought several jazz veterans in their 70s from the shadows of obscurity via a series of annual 'Old Cats' concerts at PSU. One of the cats, singer 'Sweet Baby James' Benton, says, 'We were just sitting around, and Darrell made us feel we were still alive as musicians.'
These four or five old cats now play often at Billy Reed's in Northeast Portland and the Blue Monk in Southeast.
Quick to seize an opportunity and fill a need, Grant is completing a project that he hopes will be a boon to young musicians and those jazz composers active in the 1980s and early '90s. Musicians call it a 'fakebook' Ñ a collection of sheet music from which students or musicians can learn tunes.
Grant maintains that there hasn't been a recent infusion of newer music into the jazz repertoire:
'A lot of students are still playing Woody Shaw and Wayne Shorter tunes, but there's a lot written since by musicians of incredible talent like Billy Childs, Danilo Perez, Donald Brown, Terrence Blanchard, Steve Wilson and others. There was a certain style of writing in that era, which was a particularly fertile period in jazz.'
The book will contain 116 tunes by 30 composers who came of age in the jazz renaissance of the late '80s. Most of the tunes are not currently in print and thus are not being played.
A gift from philanthropist Ken Thrasher is leading to the fulfillment of another of Grant's dreams. The Northwest Jazz Institute, now in a formative stage, will have two major missions: to promote jazz in the area and to enrich the lives of those who live here by encouraging amateurs to pursue jazz performance.
Grant has not allowed his dreams to hinder his recording efforts. After recording three CDs for other labels, he formed his own Lair Hill label, named after his neighborhood. He has issued three releases on Lair Hill: 'Smokin' Java'; 'Something Cool,' featuring vocalist Nola Bogle; and his latest, 'Spirit.' It's not a jazz album but draws from classical, gospel, pop, folk and even New Age influences.
The 14 tracks provide a glimpse into Grant's innermost being. Ten cuts are his, alone at the piano playing so beautifully and emotionally that his performance envelops the listener. He also calls upon Grammy winner and Nashville vocalist Lari White, who contributes a message of hope on 'Shine.'
The old black spiritual 'Balm in Gilead' is comforting and flows smoothly into Brahms' F Minor Piano Sonata.
He also performs James Taylor's 'Shower the People.' Taylor is one of Grant's favorite songwriters, and someday he'd like to record a CD of all Taylor compositions.
The music chosen reflects Grant's strongly held values of family, children, community and hope. He fervently believes that music can bring people together Ñ and he's doing his share to prove it.