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Fully Immersed

By Christian Wissmuller

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Minsarah: Jeff Denson, Ziv Ravitz, and Florian Weber

Bassist, composer, and educator (and singer!) Jeff Denson occupies a unique – and impressive – position in the world of jazz. While the majority of individuals who’ve been profiled in JAZZed are either performers and recording artists who do some teaching here and there, or full-time music instructors who may also play gigs or possibly go into the studio to some degree, Denson has his feet firmly planted in both worlds.

After graduating cum laude from Berklee in 2002, he then went on to earn a Master of Music in Jazz Studies from Florida State University and a Doctorate of Musical Arts in Contemporary Music Performance with an Emphasis on Composition from UC San Diego in 2010. Many lectures, master classes, workshops, and clinics at home and abroad eventually led Denson to accept a position as professor at the Jazzschool Institute – now the California Jazz Conservatory – where today he serves as the Dean of Instruction.

His credentials as an artist are no less impressive than his achievements as a scholar. Denson has released 16 albums as a leader or co-leader and has been featured on many more, including four with his longtime friend and collaborator Lee Konitz, and has performed alongside the likes of Mark Dresser, Joe Lovano, Kenny Werner, Anthony Davis, Bob Moses, and many others. His most recent album, Between Two Worlds (Ridgeway Records) with guitarist Romain Pilon and drummer Brian Blade, has been widely praised since its release in October of 2019.

JAZZed recently chatted with Jeff Denson about his life in music, what fuels his passions, and how he manages to be fully immersed in two extremely demanding disciplines.

Can you talk a little bit about what first drew you to music as a child? Was it a particular song, experience, artist?

My first experiences with music came from listening and singing along to all my mom’s albums and the radio when I was a kid.

You started out on the sax. Who was your first teacher? Were you primarily taught through private instruction or a school program? Both?

They didn’t offer band at my school – at least not in third grade – but somehow I got the idea that I wanted to play saxophone. My mom found a private teacher and bought an old Bundy alto sax. We were living in Palm Bay, Florida at the time. Two years later we moved back to Virginia where I was able to join the school band.

What prompted the switch to bass and what was your instruction on that instrument? Who were some teachers that had a lasting impact?

I played alto until eighth grade. I was a shy kid, and when I moved to a new school I didn’t want to try to join the band. I was always insecure about my horn, because all the kids had shiny new ones and mine was old and tarnished with a lot of spots. If only I’d known just how cool that old horn was!

It was my voice that led me to the bass. I never stopped singing and I ended up singing in the bands of some high school friends. One of the bands that asked me to sing didn’t have a bass player, so I took the plunge and bought an electric bass and my life was forever changed. I was captivated immediately. One of my friends recommended that I take lessons from Pete Prince, a great teacher who quickly helped me get good enough to play bass in addition to singing with my friend’s bands.

What first got you interested in jazz and how did that fascination evolve?

Romain Pilon, Jeff Denson, and Brian Blade

Around the time I was finishing high school, Pete completely blew me away by introducing me to the music of Jaco Pastorius and Stanley Clarke. He started me off with Jaco’s amazing debut album Portrait of Tracy and “Donna Lee,” and Stanley with Return to Forever.

Because I wasn’t reading music, I didn’t think music school was an option when I started looking at colleges. While I was offered a scholarship to study painting and photography at the Corcoran School of Art in Washington D.C., they didn’t offer music classes, and I quite literally couldn’t put my bass down. I ended up going to Virginia Commonwealth University because I could take both visual art and music classes.

One day I was listening to WPFW and Miles’ “So What” from Kind of Blue came on. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing! When Paul Chambers played the melody on the double bass I was mesmerized, and immediately went out and rented one. It was hard to learn and hurt my hands and I wasn’t sure I was going to stick with it, but when I heard Charles Mingus’ “Haitian Fight Song” from his album The Clown. I immediately decided that I didn’t care how hard it was or how long it would take, I would play the double bass. The power of his sound and the passion of his improvisations moved me like nothing I’d experienced before.

I started taking more classes in music than art, and playing in bands at night. I still remember the moment I decided that I had to pursue music as a career because my heart wouldn’t allow anything else. I moved back home and enrolled in Northern Virginia Community College. From that moment on I had tunnel vision when it came to what I wanted to do with my life.

Let’s talk about your time at college – both undergrad and graduate. Who were some instructors at that level who were influential and why?

A friend recommended the great bass teacher Pepe Gonzalez, an inspirational teacher/mentor who is one of my dearest friends to this day. He not only helped me establish a strong foundation on the bass, he also showed me what professionalism means, how to take care of yourself and fellow musicians and how to make a living as a bassist.

On my first day of classes at Northern Virginia Community College I met another inspirational teacher who would become a mentor, Herb Smith. He took me under his wing as his student, hired me for gigs, and ultimately even became my landlord! His mission was to teach his students about the music itself as well as its relationship to America’s history of racial injustice and the cultural appropriation of African Americans in the United States. This has had a profound impact on me to this day. I firmly believe you cannot teach jazz, or even play it, without understanding it as an African American art form with a history indelibly tied to systemic racism and oppression of people of color. If you want to pursue a career in jazz, especially as an educator, you are morally obligated to teach these facts.

I spent two years with Pepe and Herb. By the beginning of my second year, I was gigging at least five nights a week in DC, Northern Virginia, and Maryland. I played jazz gigs, orchestral music, had a funk band and played in a rock cover band. I was throwing myself into every possible scenario, both to learn and to make my rent.

I was fortunate to also learn on the bandstand, working with elder musicians like Jerry Gordon, Bubbles Dean, Ron Holloway, Peter Fraize, Charlie Byrd, Lenny Robinson, and many more. They tolerated my inexperience and pushed me to improve. I’m so grateful for those experiences. Working in DC’s Adam’s Morgan neighborhood, there were clubs like Felix, Columbia Station, and Café Lautrec, to name a few, and I’d play at one, then on my breaks I’d run across the street to hear the other bands – it was thrilling. I even got to spend time with the great bassist Butch Warren who left me with some rich stories and experiences, including one time when he called me up on stage to play his bass and then walked off to leave me there to finish the gig!

I continued my bachelor’s degree at Berklee College of Music in Boston where I was offered a substantial scholarship. There I met musicians from all over the world, many of whom became friends and colleagues that I continue to work with. I went to classes during the day and played six hours of sessions every night and I was exposed to a mind-opening array of music and approaches that I’d never heard before.

I had three great bass teachers at Berklee, Bruce Gertz, Whit Browne, and John Lockwood, but for me the most influential educator was my ensemble teacher, trombonist/author/educator extraordinaire, Hal Crook. Hal has incredible ears and an exceptional on the spot ability to analyze and articulate what he’s heard.

The best part of going to Berklee was playing with fellow students. We were all driven to get better and pushed each other in the process. I also was gigging most nights and performed not only with my fellow students, but also with musicians like Bob Moses, Andre Hayward, Joe Lovano, Kurtis Rivers, Salim Washington, Walter Smith III, Warren Wolf, Nat Mugavero, Lionele Loueke, Kendrick Scott, Dayna Stephens, and Romain Pilon, to name a few.

While living, recording, touring and performing in Germany with my trio Minsarah (with Florian Weber and Ziv Ravitz), I decided to pursue a master’s degree and received a full scholarship and graduate assistantship at Florida State University. The FSU jazz program boasts some excellent world-class musicians and I took advantage of having access to all of them. My main professor was Rodney Jordan, a great bass player and an open-minded, wonderful, supportive person and teacher with whom I took private lessons. I also took lessons with the tremendous drummer Leon Anderson, now retired saxophone professor Bill Kennedy, and pianist extraordinaire Marcus Roberts. I was fortunate to play almost daily as a trio with the wonderful pianist Bill Peterson and my dear friend and great drummer Ronen Itzik. I can’t overstate what a gift it is to be able to play with a group that regularly and we recorded three albums. I was also able to perform around the Southeast with great musicians like Etienne Charles, Kevin Bales, Chuck Redd, Hod O’Brien, Stephanie Nakasian, Giacomo Gates, Longineu Parsons II, and Barry Greene, among others.

After graduating from FSU, my plan was to move to New York, and with one more semester at FSU to go, I went to Brooklyn to look at neighborhoods. While there I went to see a concert by the phenomenal bassist Mark Dresser who had just joined the faculty at the University of California, San Diego. Not long afterwards, I moved to San Diego with a full scholarship and graduate assistantship at UCSD from which I received my doctorate.

My time at there was incredible. I had a steep learning curve getting acclimated to studying and performing classical and contemporary solo double bass literature and chamber music, as well as a high level of academic writing and research. Had Pepe Gonzalez not impressed upon me the importance of studying the bass classically from the beginning, there would have been no way I could’ve made the leap!

Studying with Mark Dresser was one of the most profound educational experiences I’ve had. He pushed me to tackle my weaknesses and venture into unknown situations. Another important mentor at USCD was my composition teacher, Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Anthony Davis. Under his guidance, I composed “Webs,” a chamber opera for soprano, baritone, woodwind trio, string quartet and piano and double bass soloists.

From a pedagogical perspective, my teaching responsibilities at USCD were different from FSU, where I taught private double bass lessons and jazz ensembles. At USCD I also taught bass lessons, but instead of ensembles, I was a TA for all of the jazz, blues and popular music history courses. These classes had anywhere from 200 to 400 students. It was my first time ever seeing classes this large, let alone being responsible for sharing in the teaching duties! I have always loved studying jazz history, so I enjoyed the assignments. Not only did I get to sit in on all the lectures, I got to learn how to teach them myself. Anthony Davis gave me my first opportunity to build and deliver one of these lectures on my own, and it was thrilling.

Teaching and performing are related, yet require very different skill sets. Both require practice and a lot of careful thought and study, but teaching forces you to explain concepts that performing does not. I had been teaching private lessons since I was around 20, but those experiences did not in train me for classroom teaching. At FSU I taught jazz combos and needed to call on all of my experiences as a student in ensemble classes to decide how to build my own teaching approach. At UCSD I was able to observe how the professors built and delivered their lectures for large lecture halls, and to eventually deliver my own. My years in grad school not only honed my skills as an artist, but directly prepared me to teach in the college setting.

In addition to the doctoral program and international touring and recording with Minsarah and the Lee Konitz New Quartet, I was gigging regularly in San Diego with many of the area’s top musicians such as the late Daniel Jackson, Gilbert Castellanos, Joshua White, Mikan Zlatkovitch, Kamau Kenyatta, and Charles McPherson. This was a time of extreme practice for me, where I was averaging eight or more hours per day then playing gigs at night! Balancing the heavy workload of university teaching duties, doctoral student studies, and touring was intense, but I loved it. I look back on those years as an absolutely amazing time. I was studying some extremely challenging music with incredible educators and practicing my instrument from morning to night then heading directly to a jazz gig every day. On top of that, to be able to fly to Europe to perform my own original music with my own trio, or jazz standards with one of the greatest improvisers in jazz history – what else could I ask for?!

Which schools that you attended do you feel most effectively “got you where you wanted to go” in terms of giving you the tools to advance your craft?

Lee Konitz and Jeff Denson

I firmly believe that in order to be a professional jazz musician in the 21st century you need both schooling and experience on the bandstand under the guidance of elder musicians.

The two years I spent in DC before moving to Boston taught me that jazz was born out of the African American experience in the United States, and I gained a deep sensitivity and appreciation for this fact. I learned about feel, and how music, if played right, can move people spiritually and emotionally. I learned pragmatic approaches to making a living, which gave me the confidence to follow my passion. In Boston I learned about different cultures and made friends from around the world. I learned that there are many very different approaches to playing jazz, and each approach has its own unique challenges and beautiful qualities. My two years in Tallahassee really focused on the jazz tradition and pedagogical techniques which helped me realize that I not only had an aptitude for teaching, I also really enjoyed it. San Diego was an entirely different pursuit and one that I’m forever thankful that I explored. Studying at UCSD gave me a deeper understanding of instrumental technique, the exploration of timbre and of tonal and compositional possibilities, how to teach lectures in an academic environment and much more.

How did you come to be on staff at the California Jazz Conservatory and can you talk about how your role there has evolved over the years?

Like both of my grad degrees, my position at the California Jazz Conservatory (CJC) seemed to find me. During a California tour, Minsarah gave a master class at the CJC and I fell in love with the Bay Area immediately. I left my CV and a few months later CJC president and founder Susan Muscarella reached out to me about an academic position. The timing was perfect, since I was scheduled to perform in Los Angeles with the Lee Konitz New Quartet at the Playboy Jazz Festival. I was thrilled to join the faculty in 2011.

When I started my professorship at the CJC, the program was in its third year, so I was essentially walking in on the ground floor. Over the years at the CJC I have taught private lessons, ensembles, history courses, ear training and rhythm section courses. I used to bounce from one room to the next, from playing piano and singing intervals, to teaching a three-hour history lecture, to individual lessons or an ensemble course. I actually liked the pressure because it made me feel challenged and it fed the part of my brain that needs constant stimulation!

I was recently named dean of Instruction at the CJC, an honor that came at the right time for me personally. After nine years of teaching so many classes, I welcomed the change of responsibility.

I’m proud to be a part of the California Jazz Conservatory because it is an incredible program that manages to offer a wide array of specialized courses and ensembles, hosts a faculty of extraordinary musicians and scholars, and creates a community atmosphere with the faculty, students and surrounding Bay Area. Because we’re a small school, our faculty gets to know each student and offer a level of specialization that is hard to find. The mentorship opportunities we provide are especially valuable. Susan and I share the vision to make this the preeminent jazz program on the West Coast.

You’ve had an impressive career as both a performing and recording artist. What are some projects, collaborations, or performances that stick out as moments of particular pride for you?

Starting my international career with Minsarah, performing my own music at major international jazz festivals (Montreal, Berlin, and JCV Paris, to name a few), and recording my original music for Enja in some of the world’s top recording studios are all things I’m proud of. I spent years growing with those guys, and I feel lucky to have had that time.

During my last semester at FSU, Lee Konitz asked my trio if we would play a concert with him and that started a relationship that would last for many years. I spent over 12 years performing with Lee in various configurations. I loved Lee and know that I was very lucky to have those experiences with him. We toured Europe countless times, performed in many great festivals and jazz venues, and made four albums that were commercially released, including two live albums recorded at the Village Vanguard. In many ways, I feel like those years with Lee were another type of “degree!” Lee was an improvisational melodic genius and I was able to stand next to him night after night and spontaneously compose – this was an absolute blessing! Though it didn’t come as a complete shock when he recently passed away, it hit me pretty hard – he was family and I loved him.

After nearly a decade of focusing on recording and performing with Minsarah or Lee, and as a sideman for so many other musicians, I decided to start my solo career in 2011 while living in Brooklyn. My solo discography is as diverse as my musical background. I’ve explored complex notated long forms and odd meters, free improvisation, jazz standards, hymns and spirituals and both instrumental and vocal music. Leading my own groups has been very inspiring. My mind dreams up ideas at a fast pace, and then I work hard to bring them to fruition.

I’m especially proud of my last three releases. In 2018 I released Outside My Window with a quartet featuring Dayna Stephens on saxophones and EWI, Kari Ikonen on piano, Fender Rhodes and Moog and my dear friend Ronen Itzik on the drums. This was the first album where I decided to make my voice the main focus. I composed music around that goal and arranged compositions by four very different vocalists I find inspiring: Abbey Lincoln, Jeff Buckley, Peter Gabriel, and Chris Cornell. I’ve known Dayna and Ronen since our days together at Berklee, and Ronen and I were at FSU together as well. All of my solo albums before this were mainly instrumental albums where I sang on a few tracks. It was invigorating to finally make an album specifically for my voice! I did a considerable amount of touring up and down both coasts of the US with the music from Outside My Window.

In May 2019 I released my first live album under my name, Jeff Denson Live with a different SF Bay Area-based quartet featuring Lyle Link on saxophones, Dahveed Behroozi on piano and my former CJC student, Dillon Vado on drums. The repertoire on the album is a mixture from Outside My Window and some of my older albums. Since it’s a live album, you can really hear the band stretch out.

In October 2019 I released Between Two Worlds with another old friend from Berklee, Romain Pilon on guitar and Brian Blade on drums. We did our first performance before heading into the studio and since then we’ve done a good amount of tour dates in the U.S. We continue to develop with each meeting, and I feel that this is some of the best music I’ve ever made. We were able to record our last concert before COVID hit and I’ve put out a couple videos from that show. I’ve already started composing new music for the trio and I can’t wait to get back on the road with them and start preparing for our next album!

I’m also proud of Ridgway Arts, a non-profit arts organization dedicated to the creation and dissemination of artistic and educational work. I founded Ridgeway in 2015, and we have Ridgeway Records, Ridgway Arts Presents – a program which presents concerts in partnering venues in six cities around the San Francisco Bay Area as well as educational workshops for high school and college students in each city, Ridgeway Radio Presents On the Scene SF/O, an NPR-style interview podcast hosted by bassist and composer, Andrew Lion and Ridgeway Arts’ Rising Stars, a unique program that is built upon mentoring emerging artists through every step of the process of preparing and releasing a professional recording and the proper business aspects of its marketing and promotion. Virtuoso pianist and composer, Edward Simon came on board with Ridgeway at the end of 2019 as an artist on the label and as associate artistic director and I greatly look forward to our work together in the years to come.

What words of encouragement or advice would you give your fellow music educators?

An obvious challenge for educators that teach courses and interact with students on a regular basis is to keep feeling fresh and inspired. I have always found keeping a balance between performing and teaching helps. Every time I go out on the road I come back with a revitalized energy that I can share with my students. As artists, we have to keep growing and learning. Being active in your field is the way to do that. Aside from being able to share our passion with similarly interested people, teaching forces us to analyze what we are doing so that we can articulate it to our students. As the old adage goes, “the best way to learn something is to have to teach it!”

With the help of Mark Dresser at UC San Diego, Michael Dessen at UC Irvine and Chris Chafe at Stanford, I have been researching and testing two programs (JackTrip and Jamulus) that facilitate real-time, virtually latency-free online performance with the staff at the California Jazz Conservatory since COVID-19 hit. The tests have been very successful and I’ll be implementing this technology at the CJC this fall semester. The program that Chris Chafe created, JackTrip, which has been pioneered by Dresser and Dessen, allows for the transfer of high-quality audio with extremely low (and at times even undetectable) latency. The one stumbling point for this program, which makes it potentially tricky to use without the assistance of an IT person, is that it’s pretty complicated. The reward definitely outweighs the challenge, though. If you can get everyone’s home network speeds and necessary gear together, you can make music in real time, and that’s exactly what we are all in desperate need of in music departments around the world! It’s definitely worth the time and effort to get your department set up with one, if not both of these programs!

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