Darrell Grant flourished in mid-’80s New York, a time and place that forged his mettle.…
Darrell Grant flourished in mid-’80s New York, a time and place that forged his mettle.
For the past 26 years, Darrell Grant has made his home in the verdant Pacific Northwest, leading the jazz studies program at Portland State University while also composing, performing and releasing recordings on his own Lair Hill imprint. The pianist’s latest release, The New Black: Live at Birdland, reimagines tracks from his 1994 debut recording, Black Art, which he revisits with trumpet player Marquis Hill, bassist Clark Sommers and drummer Kendrick Scott on the stage of a storied New York City jazz club. When Grant first played Birdland, Sommers and Scott weren’t old enough to get into the room — Hill wasn’t even born yet.
“He played for me in 1986,” says club owner Gianni Valenti in a snippet of recorded conversation with Sommers, which serves as a coda to The New Black.
“Darrell? Darrell did?” the astonished bass player responds.
“He was a mainstay in New York for a while. They were playing some shit.”
Grant is amused at Sommer’s reaction, taking the opportunity to rib his frequent bandmate during our early-morning phone conversation in June. “You were just a child, sir,” he jokes.
Having turned 60 in May, Grant is used to the role of respected elder on the bandstand. But he vividly recalls the days when he was the untested rookie playing alongside the likes of Betty Carter, Tony Williams and Junior Cook, and New York City’s jazz scene was a vibrant cauldron of creativity.
“It was scenes, that was what was so crazy,” he says. “It’s like the MBase scene and the Knitting Factory scene, and Wynton [Marsalis], and then McCoy [Tyner] and Hank Jones … . I mean, it’s kind of unbelievable now, when I think about it. Just the coming together of all those generations. It really was a renaissance, in a way. What we didn’t realize was what a rich and nurturing environment that was for us as Black musicians, because all that history was still there.”
Before landing in New York City in 1986, Grant, a graduate of Eastman School of Music, spent formative years in South Florida. While pursuing his master’s degree at the University of Miami, the pianist played eight gigs a week alongside area jazz stalwarts such as bassist Bob “Bebob” Grabowski, vocalist Sandy Patton, drummer Duffy Jackson, and even on a couple of occasions, saxophonist-trumpeter-flutist Ira Sullivan. Club and hotel gigs in Key Biscayne, Coral Gables and Coconut Grove kept him hopping, providing a fertile training ground for what was to come.
The coveted piano spot with Betty Carter came about through drummer Troy Davis, who played with Grant’s trio in New York and recommended him when pianist Stephen Scott left Carter’s band. While Grant had experience as an accompanist — his mother was a singer — Carter’s idiosyncratic delivery and dedication to on-the-spot invention would seem daunting for anyone. “She was absolutely insistent on not repeating ourselves and really creatively improvising on the bandstand,” Grant says. “So you had to follow her gestures, you had to follow her instructions, you had to follow what she was doing musically. The ballads,” he adds with a laugh, “that was always a challenge. How slow can you possibly play?”
At around the same time, Grant was working with his fusion band Current Events, which released its self-titled debut album in 1989. However, the Verve label didn’t really know how to market Grant; on the one hand, he was playing and writing contemporary jazz, but on the other, he was working in one of the premier straightahead acoustic ensembles alongside a modern-jazz legend. “It’s interesting,” Grant posits. “I think if I hadn’t gotten the gig with Betty, then I would have followed through with that [contemporary] strain of music much more. It was challenging for me to figure out which direction to go, because before I signed with the label, I was playing all kinds of music; I was playing funk and playing for tap dancers. I didn’t realize the extent to which the industry would require the compartmentalization of those things.”
While his music certainly hewed to mainstream post-bop tradition, Grant didn’t fit neatly into the Young Lion’s den, a niche defined by Wynton Marsalis and the musicians in his orbit. On the cover photo of Black Art, his braided hair cascades past his shoulders, he’s dressed casually and he actually smiles, all of which was diametrically opposed to the super-serious, meticulously coiffed, impeccably tailored images of many of his peers. And he had a reason to grin, as he was joined on the album by trumpeter Wallace Roney, bassist Christian McBride and drummer Brian Blade, all of whom became towering figures in the music. “I had forgotten how young we were on that record,” Grant muses. “Christian was like 20 or 21. I mean, I was the old man at 31.”
In revisiting the music from Black Art, Grant looks back fondly on his debut release and the doors that it opened. Showcasing his playing and his compositions, as well as the youthful energy of the combo, Black Art heralded the arrival of a fresh yet seasoned jazz voice. Grant was scheduled to return to New York in 2019 for a Chamber of the Americas conference, and he arranged to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Black Art with a couple of shows at Birdland. He assembled a new quartet, with Hill, Sommers and Scott serving as analogs to his original band mates, and captured a similar sizzle, which was evident when he listened to tapes of the sets. While the sound on The New Black is a bit rugged — Grant hadn’t intended to record a live album — the performances were too electric for him not to share.
“I’m not nostalgic, particularly,” Grant says. “But on an anniversary like that, it seemed like an interesting opportunity to reflect, from this distance, on who I was at that time. So looking at that music thinking, this was the best I had at that moment, what would I do differently now, knowing who I am now, knowing what I know now? And 25 years on as a composer, how might I flesh out this music? How might I engage with these tunes differently? So that was great, great fun.”
Being back in New York and reliving a cherished time in his development also added vigor to his performance. “I wrote this paper one time about jazz as an ecosystem,” he says, a metaphor inspired by the lush greenery of Oregon. “So when I think about old growth forests, those huge trees, they provide shelter and root systems, and that’s what it felt like in New York [in the ’80s]. The old growth trees were still standing tall, still playing every night. And us young saplings, thinking we were all that, had no idea we were living under their shade, but we thrived, and I think the music thrived. Just an incredible ecosystem back then and so much diversity, really.” - Bob Weinberg