Improvising an Artful Life
Author: John Kirkland
Posted: May 26, 2018

The influence of acclaimed jazz musician and composer Darrell Grant goes beyond the classroom.

ON A RAINY Tuesday in Lincoln Hall, a group of five students gathers in a rehearsal room for music professor Darrell Grant’s jazz improvisation class. He strides into the room, sits at the piano and announces that they will be taking turns soloing over the chord progression of George Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm.”

The trombonist, shy at first, dips her toe in the musical water, playing simple three-note motifs. Then the sax player. Then the guitarist. Another piano player takes a seat next to Grant, soloing over Grant’s chords. Then it’s Grant’s turn to solo, and he burns it up, rattling off complex swinging lines at the same time imploring the students to keep it simple.

“Feel what it’s like to play less,” he says. “We’re trying to keep rhythm primary. All that other stuff—noodling—is secondary. Wait until you hear an idea, and then come in." The energy in the room heats up. It’s like a square dance or a game of hot potato, each player passing off to another. And sure enough, the more the students keep it simple, the better they sound.

Grant was already enjoying a thriving career as a jazz musician and composer when he came to PSU 21 years ago, and he maintains that part of his life to this day. He also takes great joy in teaching the next generation of musicians, while using his music beyond the campus as an outlet for social causes and a way of supporting the broader Portland jazz scene. To him, jazz is emotional, visual; an articulation of empathy, of democracy, of fearless self-expression. It’s a calling.

GRANT’S journey to this moment started as a child taking classical piano lessons in Denver. He found himself experimenting with jazz before he even understood what jazz was.

“I liked improvising—just making stuff up. Then around junior high school I heard jazz on a record, and I thought ‘Oh, that’s a thing? If I did that, I wouldn’t have to practice all this classical music,” he says.

He pulls out a record album. “This is me at 15,” he says pointing out the kid with the glasses and afro, part of a Dixieland band he was in in the mid-1970s. The band had a gig every Friday and Saturday at Denver’s Heritage Square Opera House. He made $40 a night while his other school friends were making $2.30 per hour minimum wage.

After high school, Grant earned a degree in classical piano at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York, and a master’s in jazz studies at the University of Miami. Grant was playing eight gigs a week in clubs all over Miami. After graduation, he packed up and moved to New York City, where he devoted himself to playing in jam sessions and getting to know everybody he could in the jazz community.

He started a trio, and one of his bandmates got a gig with famous jazz singer Betty Carter and recommended Grant for an opening she had for a lower Manhattan river cruise. She listened to him play at a club, then hired him as her piano player.

Grant spent the next 10 years in New York. He had steady engagements with Carter, and worked with other noted jazz performers, including trumpeter and bandleader Woody Shaw. At the same time, he started a new band, composed his own pieces and signed a recording contract with Verve, one of the country’s most prominent jazz labels.

In 1994, Grant released Black Art, which The New York Times named one of the 10 best jazz CDs of the year. Two years later, he was a guest on Marian McPartland’s Piano Jazz, an intimate music and conversation show on National Public Radio on which piano virtuoso McPartland spontaneously invited her guests to play tunes. She would call the titles, and the guest had little or no warning. Grant says it was terrifying, but also a rite of passage that, along with his CD, gave him national exposure.

His move to Portland happened almost by accident. Grant and his future wife, Anne McFall, came out to visit friends, including drummer Alan Jones. A bandmate of Jones, who was getting his master’s degree at PSU, mentioned that Andrew Hill, a professor in the PSU jazz program, was thinking of moving on. He asked Grant for a resume and CD, then, unbeknownst to Grant, snuck it into the pile of applications for Hill’s replacement.

“I was traveling, and when I got home I saw this letter thanking me for my interest in the job. What job? I wound up getting the gig, and the rest is history.”

WAFFLING between the word “job” and the word “gig” is a reflection of Grant’s artist mindset and perhaps discomfort with the idea of settling in to a confining routine. Even though he’s taught at PSU longer than any other jazz faculty, the position represents only the hub of his professional life—not the whole thing.

“I’ve never seen this as a job. I see it as a platform,” he says as he looks around at all the accoutrements of his Lincoln Hall office: a Steinway baby grand piano, computers, copiers. “I have all the tools to do everything I want,” he says.

At PSU, that has included helping to establish the jazz degree program; founding the Leroy Vinnegar Jazz Institute, which puts on performances and educational events to connect jazz with the Portland community; and starting LV’s Uptown Jazz Lounge at University Place. At one point, he was offered the chair of the piano program at the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston but chose to stay at PSU.

“When I turned that down, I started thinking about why I really wanted to stay here and what I wanted to do. I decided I wanted to try to connect the music more with the community,” Grant was quoted as saying in Rhythm in the Rain, a book by jazz journalist and radio personality Lynn Darroch. “I was looking for a sense of community, a place where I could make a contribution and serve.”

For example, he wrote and recorded an extended suite about Oregon called “The Territory,” which balanced the ideas of Oregon as a utopia with its troubling history of oppression against blacks. In the same vein, he composed and performed the suite “Step By Step” about Ruby Bridges, the first African American child to attend an all-white public elementary school in the American South. He’s currently applying for funding to write a chamber opera about gentrification in Northeast Portland.

In 2017 Grant contacted some local musicians and organized a performance in the Elliott State Forest in Southwest Oregon as a way to bring attention to the possible sale of the land. The project included hauling a piano on a rental truck up steep, bumpy logging roads.

“In a way it was like giving something back. The land has inspired me, and I wanted to go to the forest and see what came out musically,” he said in an Oregon Public Broadcasting interview.

LOCAL JAZZ guitarist Dan Balmer performed a lot with Grant in his early days in Portland and is impressed with how far-reaching Grant’s influence has become.

“One of the things that make him special is the number and variety of different directions he’s gone since he’s been in Portland,” he says. “He has a different awareness of various things. He navigates different waters.”

The challenge is how to pack it all in.

Grant, 56, is an early riser, and will often come to campus and practice from 6 to 7 a.m., then go home to make his son’s breakfast and see him off to school. He’ll come back and put in a full day at work, go home at 6 p.m. for dinner, then head out the door to play a gig with one of his two bands (he has a trio and a quartet), or as part of another ensemble. He also has some album projects he wants to do, and he’s promised himself he will write a book. He came to the conclusion last year that the schedule was not sustainable, so he hired a manager to help keep him organized.

Looking back at his two decades of work at PSU, he sees music and his teaching of music not as ends in themselves, but as a path to something larger—a communication channel to tap into the soul and communicate truth without words.

“I have students all over town from these 21 years doing amazing things—making music, serving in the legislature, being lawyers, starting companies,” he says. “My belief is that artistic training is an incredible way to become an effective human being.”

John Kirkland is a staff member in the PSU Office of University Communications.