Dezron Douglas and Lummie Spann's New Jazz CD: From Underground To Foreground
By OWEN McNALLY
June 17, 2012
Delighted concert-goers buzzed with enthusiastic chatter about a possible Grammy nomination for Hartford's hard-swinging New Jazz Workshop (NJW), which romped through its triumphant CD release party in Hartford on May 25, celebrating its festive, new debut recording, "Underground."
Whether it wins a Grammy or not, the tightly-knit band and its creative co-leaders, bassist Dezron Douglas and alto saxophonist Lummie Spann, might well gain the sort of critical bounce from their new album that could catapult them from the underground to the national foreground, far beyond the Tri-State exposure they've already enjoyed.
A composer's band inspired by the classic Charles Mingus workshop ensembles, NJW is a collective of outstandingyoung musicians and composer/arrangers who write original music specifically for the band. A common bond that ties NJW together is that its core players share deep connections with Hartford, a smallcity with an Xtra-large jazz scene graced with a remarkably deep pool of talent and tutors.
NJW consists of like-minded musician/composers who have, in many cases, virtually grown up together in Hartford, often studied together with the same great teachers like the master saxophonist and educator Jackie McLean (1931-2006), Steve Davis, Nat Reeves, Paul Brown, Dave Santoro, Kris Jensen,Kris Allen, Rene McLean and other premier area jazz educators who have played an invaluable role in making Hartford a capital city of jazz.
Douglas, a globe-trotting bassist and first-call sideman for top-seeded jazz performers, and Spann, a deeply expressive saxophonist and devoted teacher, have served their jazz apprenticeships together in local clubs and other venues.
At the same time, Dez and Lum, as they're called by friends and fans, have also gotten their formal music education at local jazz hothouses such as The Artists Collective, The Hartt School's Jackie McLean Institute of Jazz and the Greater Hartford Academy of the Arts.
Hartford for both Dez and his sidekick Lum has, quite literally, been the heart of the matter when it comes to mastering the jazz craft, Douglas stresses.
"The first four letters of the city, Hart, can refer to Hartford, The Hartt School and playing music with heart," the bass virtuoso explains of the city's first syllable that symbolically links Hartford, Hartt and NJW's honest, heart-rooted style.
, NJW, which as started in 2000 by Douglas, plays original music rooted in the soulful, directly-to-the-heart sound of modern jazz, as you can tell immediately after hearing just a few bars of the quintet's charts, compositions, ensemble and solo playing.
Douglas and Spann, friends since their early teens when they were already heading towards devoting themselves to the jazz life, are joined in this latest incarnation of the band by trumpeter Josh Evans, another Hartford native and rising, young McLean protégé, and pianist David Bryant. Rounding out the quintet, Curtis Torian, a longtime NJW member, splits the rhythm duties on the CD with the noted drummer and Hartford favorite, Eric McPherson, yet another player with deep ties to the McLean scene. Other like-minded musicians with a strong Hartford imprint have played in the band over the years, forming a kind of first-class repertory company that can be called back to active duty when necessary with no loss to the band's trademark of maintaining a fine balance between unity and individuality.
Douglas and Spann are quintessential examples of top-shelf musicians who have been schooled and shaped by Hartford's jazz scene, both in classrooms and clubs. And like so many other successful musicians with Hartford rootshave gone on to create what in New York City's club scene is, Douglas reports, referred to as "the Hartford sound," a style so individual that it now has a name, an historic and geographical category all its own.
Boyhood buddies, Douglas and Spann were born and raised in Hartford and were inspired both musically and personally by McLean, an expert in mentorship whose own mentor as a teenager was the legendary alto saxophonist Charlie Parker. Before becoming an innovative bandleader on his own, McLean served brilliant stints with Miles Davis and both Mingus and Blakey, the Jazz Messenger drummer/bandleader who was one of the all-time great discoverers and developers of young jazz talent.
, Douglas and Spann were both blessed by exposure to church music and with loving families who were thrilled by their sons' athletic skills (both played varsity football in high school, Douglas at Conard High and Spann at Northwest Catholic, both in West Hartford), but also saw to it that they got decent instruments to play and excellent lessons at a very early age.
For Douglas, the genesis of his love of music, probably even his calling for jazz, literally began right in the church.
"When I was a kid, about 7 or 8, and going to church, I used to be fascinated with church musicians. My father, Alton Douglas, is a gospel musician, plays guitar and had his own band. I used to watch them all the time, fascinated with what the musicians did and how my Dad would interact with his bandmates," Douglas says by phone from New York, still suffering a bit from what he calls "jet-lag travelitis."
Following a tour of Malaysia and, with no real break, the busy bassist played at the CD release party in Hartford at the Polish National Home, followed by a gig in Atlanta, then doubled back to New York City to play at Dizzy's ClubCoca-Cola, followed by a stint at Birdland with saxophonist Ravi Coltrane.
Surprisingly for such a virtuoso with a big, round tone, immaculate sense of time and fluent expressiveness, the path to double bass and jazz didn't really follow a straight line.
At age 7, for example, he took a short-lived, baby step towards guitar.
"My Dad got me a little electronic guitar, one of those Casio things. Three weeks later I played it so much that I popped just about every string on it except one. About a year later, my father got me a bass, and it was hard to pop those strings at that age," he says.
By 12, Dezron was singing in a gospel quartet led by his father. Already he was showing a natural gift for music, not necessarily destined for jazz but blessed with that all important, supportive backing from his father and his mother, Alicia.
Jazz did eventually come to him as a kid as kind of a family legacy since his uncle was the legendary drummer Walter Bolden, a multi-talented, schooled musician who also played piano and composed.
A Hartford native and graduate of Hartford Public High School who studied at Hartt School of Music from 1945 to 1947, Bolden carved a career path for himself from gigging in the city's then fabled North End jazz clubs to touring and recording with a Who's Who of jazz greats, including Coleman Hawkins, Clifford Jordan, Gerry Mulligan and Milt Jackson.
Before becoming nationally known, Bolden was a key player in one of the most celebrated events in Hartford's long jazz history.
In 1950, Bolden was working with pianist Horace Silver in the Harold Holt Quartet at Club Sundown in the city's North End, a powerful magnet for big-name musicians, who loved to jam in the intimate jazz club setting with Hartford's premier players. Saxophonists Charlie Parker, Gene Ammons and Wardell Gray were among the jazz titans who sat-in at the Sundown in the club's heyday.
Tenor-saxophone great Stan Getz, who had performed earlier at Hartford's State Theater, showed up one night at the Sundown as a surprise guest. Getz was impressed by Silver's hard-swinging, soulful style, so much so that he took not only Silver but all of Holt's rhythm section, including Bolden and bassist Joe Calloway, to New York City with him, eventually touring with his Hartford discoveries and making recordings with them on Roost Records.
A great drummer, Bolden was well-liked and low-key, never flaunting the fame he had achieved nationally, or, for that matter, ever forgetting his Hartford roots. He often returned to his hometown to play in local clubs and for The Hartford Jazz Society and to teach master classes at the University of Hartford.
"Uncle Walt never really pressured me about jazz. It wasn't like he'd say, 'Dezron, you should play jazz.' It was more like, 'You should check this out, or you should check that out. Just keep playing the bass and take it as far as you can, and think about writing music'," he recalls.
It's advice the gifted nephew has followed, whether touring and recording with the renowned pianist Cyrus Chestnut or jamming frequently in town with fellow Hartford Young Lions, and now, most especially, while co-leading NJW with Spann.
When Bolden died from cancer at 76 in 2002, Douglas drove with a cousin to his uncle's apartment in New York City and picked up jazz memorabilia, including recordings. Most precious of all, was the stash of original music his Uncle Walt had written, excellent charts for his young nephew to contemplate and be inspired by.
"By the time I got back to Hartford from New York with all that stuff, gems that are dear to my heart now, I had made up my mind that I wanted to be a jazz musician. I was always toying with it because I also wanted to play sports too. I was big into football, but I was too short," Douglas recalls of this turning point in his life that occurred on the road back to Hartford.
Sports, particularly football, are still a relevant metaphor for Douglas and Spann when it comes to their strategy for running NJW as a high-energy, championship team. Everybody in the starting lineup does his appointed job while ready to act spontaneously, inventively and in the moment as the chord changes rush by.
"Dez and I are both ex-high school football players and we're big NFL fans," explains Spann, one of whose originals on the new CD is a hip, swivel-hipping tribute to former Pittsburgh Steelers running back Jerome Bettis.
"So both of us go into the gig to hit on the performance, like Lawrence Taylor would hit Joe Theismann," says Spann, whose playing can be fierce and dark-toned, as direct and forceful as a clean, hard tackle.
"On the energy thing," Spann adds, "you have to play with enthusiasm. If you're not enthusiastic about the music how can you expect the listener to be? And on feeling in music? Feeling is connected to everything we do. You have to be able to feel. Music is a reflection of humanity. If you can't feel it, how can you call yourself human?"
Like Dezron, Spann grew up in a home full of music, including a sonic baptism in the glories of gospel, which he feels shares similar DNA with jazz.
His mother, Lynne Spann, sings in the choir of the Alfred E. White Chorale. Both parents, Lynne and Lummie Spann Sr., loved saxophonists like Dave Sanborn and Grover Washington. They especially dug the sound of the alto saxophone, a preference that evidently sent their young son on the path towards playing alto. Spann, who also doubles on soprano saxophone on the CD, says that even as a kid he was most attracted by what he calls the alto's "fiery, darker sound," dramatic qualities that he explores today to great effect.
Violin cropped up early as a possible instrument for young Spann to pursue. Fortunately for saxophone fans, Spann's childhood venture with violin lessons quickly went nowhere
"As a little boy, I thought the violin just didn't have anything masculine about it. Now, of course, it's a whole different story. I love violin and write for violin."
Violin was followed by a brief brush with piano lessons. But the piano also went nowhere, thanks to his martinet teacher's use of corporal punishment as a remedy for playing wrong notes.
"I liked piano. But whenever you messed up on a lesson, the teacher I had would take a wooden hair brush and crack you on the knuckles with the backside of the brush," he recalls.
Forging his own individual voice on alto since getting his first horn at about age 11, he's been influenced not only by McLean but other great altoists such as Cannonball Adderley and Kenny Garrett, along with, of course, Charlie Parker, plus Antonio Hart and Gary Bartz. Wide-ranging and crossing all genres, his many other influences and musical favorites swoop from Stevie Wonder (another one of his tribute subjects on the new CD) to Erykah Badu.
With the debut recording behind them, Spann and Douglas have ambitious plans, including live lots more performances and, of course, an encore CD.
"The album is just the start," Spann emphasizes.
"We have our sound together, and we are definitely going to put out more projects. Over the last couple years, the group has been playing heavily, not just in Hartford, but in New York at clubs like Dizzy's Coca-Colaand Smalls, and three months ago we debuted at the Zinc Bar," he says.
"The plan is to take this as far as we can take it." Douglas says echoing the enthusiasm of his longtime friend and collaborator.
"My vision has always been the same for the New Jazz Workshop. It's a group of cats who are all strong, and everybody does his thing," he says.
The big question right now is whether all that fire and energy on the new disc will propel the band onto the national scene.
"Lord willing, yes it will," Spann says.
NJW performs selections from its new disc, "Underground," in the free "UMOJA Jazz Series" July 12 at 7 p.m. at the Russian Lady, 191 Ann Uccello St., Hartford. Information: http://www.umojamusic.com. Information on "Underground": http://www.njwmusic.com.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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