PortFolio Weekly

PortFolio Weekly
April 17, 2007

Jazz Comes Down to D'earth

by Jim Newsom

If Charlottesville were to put up a sign at the city limits saying, “Welcome to the Jazz Capital of Virginia,” it would be hard to dispute the claim. There’s a thriving scene happening there, built around a combination of natives and transplants, many of whom are refugees from the hassles and headaches of New York City.

“We moved down here in the early ‘80s,” trumpeter John D’earth told me recently. “There is a huge jazz scene here now. It’s very rich. We met a lot of people when we got down here—Carter Beauford, Tim Reynolds; Leroi Moore was a young guy playing around here. There were great teachers in the band program. This has always been a great music area.”

D’earth travels east this week for a five-day residency at Old Dominion University. The “we” he was referring to are his wife, vocalist Dawn Thompson, and drummer Robert Jospe. They first visited the area in 1981 with their band Cosmology and liked it so much they decided to stay.

“I grew up in Holliston, Massachusetts,” D’earth said, “a little town about thirty miles southwest of Boston, right next door to Milford, a small town that we thought was a city with a lot of great musicians in it. I studied with Boots Mussulli, who was a fairly well known sax player in the ‘40s and ‘50s; he was the first soloist in the Stan Kenton band. I had three years with him, and I learned a lot.

“I went to school [at Harvard] for a time, but I ended up quitting college and moving to New York, and being a freelance musician there for years. That was great for me because I got to play with so many great people there.”

Although he was coming along at the height of the 1960s classic rock era, D’earth never played much in rock bands.

“I did a little bit in my late teens,” he acknowledged, “but I was a jazz snob until much later in life. I never really understood or enjoyed it that much until I got a gig playing with Bruce Hornsby for about six years. That was a huge learning experience—I came to a much higher respect for rock. Bruce is a musician who is incredibly well rounded and brilliant in all kinds of music.”

D’earth played on Hornsby’s Harbor Lights, Hot House and Spirit Trail, and he’s also recorded with Quincy Jones, the Dave Matthews Band, Jospe and Jae Sinnett. He currently leads the Free Bridge Quintet, plays every Thursday night at Miller’s in Charlottesville with his wife in the Thompson D’earth Band, and teaches at UVA:

“If I have a title, I guess I’m the Director of Jazz Performance. I run the jazz ensemble there, teach jazz improv and that sort of thing.”

He has started stretching his wings as a composer.

“I’ve been doing a lot of writing lately,” he said, “composing for chamber music ensembles and symphony orchestra. I wrote a piece for Free Bridge last year called Concerto for Quintet and Orchestra. It got played up here in Charlottesville—it was commissioned by the Orchestra. It had three movements with jazz quintet and symphony orchestra, and I even got the symphony players to improvise some. It was pretty exciting. I’m really hoping that piece will become noticed, because there’s kind of a built in message for both groups of musicians to learn from each other and push things forward.

“There’s been all this cultural division and classical musicians weren’t taught how to groove or swing, but nowadays there’s much more interest in that and things are changing. I cheerfully admit that I’m self taught and kind of a primitive when it comes to composition, but I love it and I think I create scenarios in the writing where people get to do something that they’ve never done before.”

I asked this one-time “jazz snob” what he thought of the current state of jazz.

“Oh man, I don’t know,” he laughed. “I think jazz’s time is yet to come! I just think there are a lot of creative possibilities in jazz music. I don’t know what the solution is going to be; I just hope it doesn’t go into total museum music like classical music tended to do for a long time, where it was just veneration of the past. That’s a great thing to do, to venerate the past, but there’s a lot going on right now with improvised music.

“I think that jazz has hardly been utilized in the way that it could as dramatic music. I’m trying to work in that myself. It starts with songwriting, then it moves into music drama or opera. I think there’s a lot that could be done in that way, but it really hasn’t.”

copyright © 2007 Port Jim Newsom. All Rights Reserved.