May 23, 2024

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Interview with Kevin Dean: Blues content, swing, sound, time…? Video

Jazz interview with jazz trumpeter Kevin Dean. An interview by email in writing. – First let’s start with where you grew up, and what got you interested in music?

Kevin Dean: – I grew up on a family farm in rural Iowa. The American midwest. Corn, soybeans, pigs and cows as far as the eye could see. The farm I grew up had been in the family 100 years by the time I was born in 1954. Thankfully my family was quite musical so I was exposed to live and recorded music from birth. My father was a farmer but played saxophone and bass  as a hobby and his main interest was jazz so I was exposed to the music through his playing and his record collection.

JBN: – How did your sound evolve over time? What did you do to find and develop your sound?

KD: – My first instrument was piano as there was a family policy that everyone should have a solid musical foundation by learning piano. This view was passed down by my grandparents as my grandmother was an excellent pianist and teacher. I was a very poor piano student and I still have a somewhat acrimonious relationship with the instrument although I play it all the time. After two years of torturous classical piano lessons I was allowed to choose an instrument. My father was very interested in having me play saxophone as he already owned an alto and a tenor…but I wanted to play the trumpet like my father’s brother, my uncle Allan. He was and still is a marvellous trumpet player. He just retired last year as the trumpet teacher at Yale and when I was young he was in the New York Brass Quintet among many other groups. He was a dashing, charismatic figure living in New York and traveling the world. He is also a good jazz player and when he was home for holidays would always have some sort of jam session with my father. So he was a big influence. Both the band director and my uncle recommend the cornet rather than the trumpet to start, so my first instrument was a Conn cornet. I was 13 years old if I recall correctly. Seventh grade. So…In answer to your question….I didn’t own a trumpet until my first year in university and I think a lot of my sound was shaped by learning on the cornet. All of my training was in classical music and traditional fundamentals. The Arbans Complete book, H. Pietzsch Virtuosity Studies, endless etudes and solos etc. . So I think that early training is reflected in my playing…probably most noticeable in my attention to a variety of articulation and overall sound conception engrained from cornet playing. Although I was listening to jazz almost exclusively I didn’t start playing jazz on the trumpet until I graduated from university at age 22. I got started very late. I left classical playing behind completely and made a total commitment to jazz. It was at that point that I began to transcribe solos and attempted to emulate the sound and articulations of my jazz idols. (Kenny Dorham, Blue Mitchel, Lee Morgan, Donald Byrd, Art Farmer, Clifford Brown..among others ) I think that slowly but surely my classical training along with the desire to switch to a jazz aesthetic of sound and articulation sort of melded together to form what could today be called Kevin’s sound.

JBN: – What practice routine or exercise have you developed to maintain and improve your current musical ability especially pertaining to rhythm?

KD: – I practice every day and at this point it is mostly to maintain the skills I have developed. I have a loose routine that includes working on flexibility, articulation, range and endurance. I use a book by John McNeil and Laurie Frank called Flexus quite extensively as part of my daily routine. I also (usually) play though an etude or three. I always try to play slowly with the metronome to address time/rhythm accuracy. During ‘normal’ times I organized jam sessions two of three times a week in my office with whoever was free as well but this year I just practice some jazz with the metronome.

JBN: – How to prevent disparate influences from coloring what you’re doing?

KD: – I don’t really think about that at this point. I do have a tendency to be quite obsessive and there was a time years ago when I felt like I might be getting a little too deep into one person or another’s approach so i just backed off  a bit. I don’t think I ever went off the deep end with that. I think lots of influences are basically good.

JBN: – How do you prepare before your performances to help you maintain both spiritual and musical stamina?

KD: – Musical stamina is mostly maintained by rigorous trumpet practice. There seems to be no way around it. I never know what is meant by the word spiritual. I try to get enough sleep, not drink too much, not take myself too seriously and try to fight against my natural tendency toward perfectionism. I also try to do 25 min or so of meditation in the afternoon. It clears my head and gives me energy at that natural low point in the day.

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JBN: – And how did you select the musicians who play on the album?

KD: – I select musicians based on how well they play and how I think they will adapt to the particular project at hand. I also pick people who I know are easy to work with and fun to hang out with. It makes a difference. I don’t really like playing with people who are a drag to be with no matter how well they play.

JBN: – What’s the balance in music between intellect and soul?

KD: – Thats a tricky one… If you mean Soul like the Black American aesthetic in the music, Then I think it is of primary importance. Blues content, swing, sound, time…? How to define that kind of Soul except to say that it reflects a Black American aesthetic which for me is what makes the music jazz in the first place. It’s what makes it sound Good.!  If you mean soul as as in some kind of spiritual thing..….then I have to say I don’t think that kind of soul exists. It’s an illusion…unless you define it as some sort of consciousness removed from the self like one might experience through meditation. In which case ..sure thats good. it can help one relax and be a better person. But, I happen to think that most people are bullshitting when talking about  spirituality and soul. It seems to be some sort of requirement these days to be considered a true artist. Your music must be spiritual! It’s Very important! I think it’s mostly performative. answer to the question, I think the balance between intellect and Soul (Black American aesthetic) is where I want to live artistically. In my ideal musical world, intellect and Soul would be inextricably intertwined.

JBN: – There’s a two-way relationship between audience and artist; you’re okay with giving the people what they want?

KD: – Well most of the people that would come to hear me or my band play kind of know what they are getting into’s not that difficult and if I am trying something out of the ordinary the audience is usually happy to come along for the ride. I do try to connect with the audience by announcing the tunes and maybe telling a story about the tune or composer or some anecdote. My approach is to always emphasize the joy in the music and to share that. I am not into enforcing strict listening silence an all that. I want people to feel refreshed and revived and to relax and enjoy themselves.…not feel exhausted, confused  or taken advantage of after a set.

JBN: – Please any memories from gigs, jams, open acts and studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?

KD: – Can’t think of anything that interesting.

JBN: – How can we get young people interested in jazz when most of the standard tunes are half a century old?

KD: – I am not sure that is the biggest problem… Today there are so many other kinds of music out there that jazz of any variety, no matter how modern has some pretty stiff competition. Hip Hop for instance …why would any young person be interested in the rigorous study of grandpa and grandma’s music? It’s not that cool, certainly not as sexy or provocative and there is NO MONEY in it!! Despite that, there is really no shortage of young people interested in jazz, considering the small number of people in general that are seriously interested. In fact I find it quite amazing that despite the endless competition for young people’s attention, and the lack of night clubs and other venues where young people can play frequently that there is still any interest in jazz at all. I think that speaks to the unbelievable timelessness and staying power of the music. Hopefully things will improve in the new AP (after pandemic) roaring 20’s !

JBN: – John Coltrane said that music was his spirit. How do you understand the spirit and the meaning of life?

KD: – I don’t what he meant by spirit. Energy, life force, the thing that he finds most meaningful, God? I’m not sure. …I don’t believe in an afterlife or anything ‘spiritual’ that suggests anything beyond the rules of physics and nature. We are our brains. Our minds and intellect come from our brains. When our brain ceases to exist so do we. The meaning of life is ultimately nothing more than the meaning we give to it as individuals. For me the meaning of life is mostly about kindness, patience and helping others. In a nutshell Love. I treat music as an act of love and kindness. It is way to help ourselves and others transcend the pains and tedium of everyday life. Quite simply to give pleasure. Of course on that note a good cigar and and a decent porto are not insignificant either.

JBN: – If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?

KD: – I would like to have plethora of local jazz night clubs that paid a decent wage to musicians.

JBN: – Who do you find yourself listening to these days?

KD: – A lot of older jazz and blues … I am quite into Fletcher Henderson’s band at the moment, especially the early 30’s with John Kirby on tuba. Unbelievably swinging. I got a couple Mosaic box sets recently that are fantastic too: Duke small groups 1935-40. I especially like the Cootie Williams stuff. Holy cow what an individual. Also a Teddy Wilson box set that is marvellous. I obviously really love blues as well, especially the delta or country blues musicians. I never get tired of that stuff and I like the early blues oriented pianists a lot too. Skip James, Clarence Lofton, Little Brother Montgomery Jimmy Yancey, Pete Johnson, Meade Lux Lewis etc..I also still listen to things I have listened to for years. I always come back to Mose Allison, Percy Mayfield and  various organ bands. Anything with Shirley Scott. She was out of this world and made a ton of great records. I also Like Jack McDuff and of course Jimmy Smith. I can always listen to Gene Ammons or Dinah Washington or Duke. There is no shortage of great music. My 18 yr old daughter is really into K-Pop so I am learning a lot about that. I have to say some of it is absolutely fantastic. Some amazing grooves, interesting song forms, melding of styles and the production values are over the top. Plus I like the kinder, gentler message and image that K-pop presents compared to a lot of American pop, rap and hip-hop. I’m getting old I guess.

JBN: – What is the message you choose to bring through your music?

KD: – That one might experience hopefulness and joy and get a bit of relief from the mundane when listening.

JBN: – Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really wanna go?

KD: – That changes day to day… week to week. Today I guess I would go to 1931 or 32 and follow Fletcher Hendersons’s band around. But it would be tempting to go to the 50’s to hear Bird, Bud, Clifford Brown, Kenny Dorham, Art Farmer, Hank Mobley, Sonny Rollins and Lee Morgan….I would sneak over to Chicago to hear Big Bill Broonzy too.

JBN: – I have been asking you so far, now may I have a question from yourself…

KD: – How are you dealing with the pandemic and what do you see in the future regarding the music if the pandemic drags on?

JBN: – I have been vaccinated, and the pandemic, unfortunately, will not end, the musicians must find new methods to keep in touch with their listeners. They can do it through us.

JBN: – So putting that all together, how are you able to harness that now?

KD: – Now!!?? Now I need lunch and coffee!

Interview by Simon Sargsyan

Jazz, Period. - Kevin Dean, Composition - YouTube

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