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Home Arts and Culture  Sound without permission: John Douglas Quartet
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Tuesday, August 11,2009

Sound without permission: John Douglas Quartet

by Lawrence Cosentino

Detroit trumpeter John Douglas belongs to the exalted tribe of warrior-philosophers found so often in jazz and so rarely anywhere else.


On the one hand, he can’t help reveling in the power of his instrument.

“Charge! You hear the trumpet blast and you know it’s time to go to war,” he said. “That’s the history of the trumpet.”


But his is a disciplined revelry.


“The sound leaves the end of your horn and goes through people without permission,” Douglas said. “They can’t cover up their ears and not hear it. You have to be responsible.”

Douglas plays a lot of jazz styles, including Latin and funk, but seems most at home with straight-ahead bop in the vein of Lee Morgan, Freddie Hubbard and Miles Davis. He’s worked with several groups, but is perhaps best known as a founding member of the rambunctious collective Jazzhead, which won Best Jazz Recording at 1999’s Detroit Music Awards.

Saturday night, Douglas will lead a straight-ahead jazz
quintet in a style like that of the Davis group in the 1960s.


Douglas
is a student of all the great trumpeters, from bright Louis Armstrong
to shadowy Woody Shaw, but the searching, elastic, lyrical Davis sound
suits his mood these days.


“Trying to get a sound and a direction is a
challenge,” Douglas said. “It’s like trying to find a needle in a
haystack.”

Every time an artist does something worthwhile,
Douglas said, the ante goes up. “There’s more out there now than Dizzy
Gillespie had to deal with,” he said.


Still, Douglas wants to deal with
it all and come up with his own take, whether the result sells or not.


“People are making projects as calling cards, or business cards,” he
said. Not for him. “There are some well-informed musicians continuing
to push the envelope and evolve jazz, and I want to be one of those.”

When Douglas was 9, his mom put a pile of musical instruments — even a baritone
sax and bass clarinet — under the Christmas tree, then told him and his
seven siblings to take their pick.


“I saw a trumpet and said ‘This is
mine,’” Douglas said. “I didn’t know anything about it.”


When it came
to finding the notes, Kevin Good, of the Detroit Symphony, was a
crucial teacher.

“He showed me how to play the trumpet,” Douglas said.


But another mentor, veteran Detroit saxman Larry Smith, dug deeper.

Douglas
said he didn’t even ask the right questions at first. “I’d ask Larry,
‘What were you doing on the bridge to ‘A Night in Tunisia’ I heard you
play three weeks ago?’” Douglas recalled.

“Ah, forget that,”
Smith told him. “There are only 12 notes in Western music.”


When
Douglas spoke of surpassing his trumpet idols — among them Racy Biggs,
Miles Davis and Marcus Belgrave — Smith cut him short.

“Your
struggle is with yourself,” Smith told Douglas. It’s an insight Douglas
taps into daily.


Finally, Smith encouraged Douglas to think about of
the physics of sound. “He made me aware of the power of the music,”
Douglas said.

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