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Darrell Grant: jazz master and more

PDX Jazz Festival concert honors renowned Portland jazz pianist / composer who's improvised a creative life in music, teaching and activism

It’s a little ironic that composer and pianist Darrell Grant is receiving the 2019 Portland Jazz Master at this year’s PDX Jazz Festival. For while the jazz he’s played since arriving in 1996 certainly merits the city’s highest jazz honor, Grant has devoted much of his life here to breaking out of the narrow mold of “jazz musician.” Improvising a multifaceted career as teacher, mentor, activist, composer — and yes, jazz artist — Grant may be Portland’s most significant man of music.

“Darrell is a supremely gifted communicator across all media platforms, a gifted composer, educator and improviser, and an accomplished tennis player,” says PDX Jazz’s artistic director, Don Lucoff. “He embodies all that our Jazz Master lineage represents, a relentless searcher and action-oriented role model for our community to absorb and celebrate.”

Darrell Grant. Photo: Thomas Teal Midres.

Grant’s festival concert Thursday (a double bill with the great trumpeter/composer/bandleader/2019 Grammy Award winner Terence Blanchard) allows him to complete a circle by revisiting the music that put him on the jazz map a quarter-century ago.

Black Art

Growing up in Denver in the 1960s and ‘70s, Grant started classical piano lessons at age 7. Even then, he pushed against prescribed constraints, noodling improvised melodies while his elementary school band’s other pianist played the specified chords. Jazz soon called. “I think it was the freedom of it,” he remembers. Enchanted by classic jazz pianists from Nat Cole to Herbie Hancock, he joined a teenage all-star jazz band, won a scholarship to the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York, at age 17, then earned a master’s degree at University of Miami.

He headed to New York City and quickly rose in the city’s revitalized, competitive jazz scene, landing plum sideman gigs with famed singer Betty Carter and legendary drummer Tony Williams‘ quintet. In 1989, he recorded his major-label debut with the jazz-fusion group Current Events, which embraced funk, world music and other non-jazz influences.

Then came his big breakthrough: Black Art. Named one of 1994’s top 10 jazz albums by The New York Times, it helped propel the Darrell Grant Quartet (which included fellow future stars drummer Brian Blade, bassist Christian McBride, and trumpeter Wallace Roney) and to jazz stardom while its leader was still in his early 30s. He’d eventually perform with several generations of jazz giants — Roy Haynes, Branford Marsalis, David Sanborn, Jack DeHohnette, Terence Blanchard, Art Farmer, and many more.

But as he’d done with those classical tunes as a child, Grant couldn’t stay on the prescribed path. When an unsolicited job offer to succeed the storied jazz pianist Andrew Hill on Portland State University’s music faculty unexpectedly arrived in 1996, Grant seized it.

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