"I'm generally a pretty optimistic person," understates jazz and classical pianist Darrell Grant. "I expected good things from life and have, for the most part, gotten them."
The reasons behind Grant's progress thus far have everything to do with his work ethic and personality: In many ways, he's a jazzy Dale Carnegie. Last August, for example, Grant was scheduled to perform with drummer Roy Haynes at the Mt. Vernon Country Club, when he learned that Haynes and saxophonist Don Braden would be delayed due to an airline foulup. Instead of spending the next several hours at the bar, however, Grant and bassist Dwayne Bruno grabbed drummer Paul Romaine and entertained the crowd with two satisfying sets before Haynes arrived. Largely because of his initiative, the club's bookers have given him a headline slot this time around; he'll be joined by Romaine and bassist Ken Walker.
A resident of Colorado since his youth, Grant grew up studying classical piano. After graduating from Lakewood High School in 1980, he attended the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York, from which he received a degree in piano performance, and the University of Miami, where he earned a masters' degree in jazz studies. By 1986 he'd moved to New York, and two years later he came to the attention of vocalist Betty Carter, whose band has replaced that of the late Art Blakey as the jazz finishing school for young players. "I guess I was nervous," Grant recalls. "Working with Betty was my first big gig. But the fact that she hired me sort of let me know that I must be all right. Because she's not going to hire somebody who she doesn't think can play. Now she will say, `I thought you needed help.' But I learned a valuable lesson from her. Whenever I feel tested, I remember that she used to tell us, `You just do what you do until people catch on to it.'"
After leaving Carter's earn-as-you-learn tutelage, Grant formed Current Events, a funk/worldbeat/jazz combo that recorded a disc for the Verve/ Forecast imprint in 1989 before disbanding. Grant subsequently polished his sideman chops, working with Tony Williams, Frank Morgan, Craig Harris, Vincent Herring, Greg Osby, Haynes and a score of others. In 1994 he made his debut as a leader with Black Art, a CD released by the Dutch label Criss-Cross; it featured drummer Brian Blade and bassist Christian McBride, both members of Joshua Redman's working ensemble, as well as trumpeter Wallace Roney.
Black Art made waves with many critics--one, at USA Today, pegged him as "a hard-edged postmodernist who explores the percussive side of the piano." Grant laughs at this description. "Well, what is postmodernism?" he asks. "That's like a catch-all term that doesn't really mean much. But I don't think any artist really wants to pigeonhole themselves as `this is the thing I do.' I think there are a lot of sides of myself that I'm trying to express, and in the medium of acoustic jazz, I'm expressing many different influences, both musical and nonmusical.
"What I'm trying to primarily do is communicate or express my view of the world," he continues. "Communication between the musicians is, of course, the paramount thing, but I'm always driving myself to figure out how to best communicate with the audience. How can I move people by playing the piano? I don't care what it is, whatever it takes, whether it's playing or talking about the music or the way I look at people when I play--I just want to get across to as many people as I can."
Predictably, Grant is the type of self-motivator who doesn't rely on kismet to accomplish his goals. "I'm an incessant planner," he admits. "I have a ten-year plan, a five-year plan, a two-year plan, a six-month plan. I'm a dreamer. When I think of people I'd like to model my career off, I think of Herbie and Quincy and Keith Jarrett--people who have the kind of flexibility to write a film score and then turn around and do a classical concerto or a trio record or a funk record or produce a film. I know it's further down the road. But that's the kind of territory I'd like to be traveling in eventually."
In the meantime, Grant is anticipating the fall release of a quintet album he's already recorded for Criss-Cross. He and drummer Cecil Brooks also are involved in planning a large ensemble recording project that will feature Grant originals influenced by both aboriginal folk music and New Orleans-style jazz. In addition, Grant's busy with his own production company, Manhattan-based Sojourn Productions, Inc., which is equipped with a digital production studio.
Unlike many musicians who detest the business, Grant is enough of a go-getter to thrive on it. "To be an artist and know your way around a recording contract or to be able to negotiate with a club owner, that's empowering. I like that," he enthuses. "I like knowing the workings of booking and management. This past year, as I've been moving into being more of a leader, it's been really fun for me to get a real good picture of the business I'm in and hopefully move some things forward for myself and other artists with this knowledge.
"I figure stupider people than me do it," he notes, "so I can definitely succeed."
Darrell Grant. 8 p.m. Thursday, April 27, Mt. Vernon Country Club, 24933 Clubhouse Circle, Golden, dinner and concert, $18.50/concert only, $8, 526-0616.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Denver, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.