Tanya Darby digs in for a week at MSU Jazz Studies


Two notes was all it took. At a Monday afternoon concert with MSU jazz professors and grad students, trumpeter Tanya Darby riveted down a staccato series of two-note figures, heavy as 12-inch bolts, to begin her solo on “I’ll Remember April.”

Drummer Randy Gelispie instantly picked up the blueprints at this swinging construction site. Bap-bap, he rammed each rivet, hot from Darby’s trumpet, all the way in. Then Darby really got to business, lifting I-beams of steely sound into her top register and stringing triple-thick cables of countermelody.

Darby’s muscular, clarion sound and warm camaraderie with the MSU crew promised a rewarding week for all concerned.

“If there’s any inspiration I can be, it’s to be yourself, be true to yourself and never let anyone else tell your story,” she said. Darby is the top brass (more accurately, director of brass studies) at Boston’s Berklee College of Music.

Her experience in several major big bands, most notably the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra and the all-female DIVA Jazz Orchestra, make her an ideal fit for MSU’s long-running artist in residency program. She’ll be working with the MSU bands all week, with rehearsals, workshops and a tour of Michigan high schools in Byron Center, Detroit, Charlevoix and Ludington.

To cap the week, Friday, Darby will perform at MSU with the jazz ensembles at the Fairchild Auditorium.

In addition to working on the music, Darby will also pass along lessons from a lifetime of experience. She often stresses simple things like making yourself available and reliable. She credits many of her best gigs, including dates with Aretha Franklin, Clark Terry, Gladys Knight and the Count Basie Orchestra, to being in the right place at the right time.

She was clearly pleased to be back at MSU for a longer period after a brief two-day visit last April for the 2019 Jazz Spectacular.

“I don’t use this word lightly, but they’re family here at MSU,” she said. “That’s one of the reasons I love coming here. It’s not just the caliber of musicianship, it’s the camaraderie.”

Darby has clearly been absorbed into the family. She beamed at trumpeter Nicholas Pietuszka, an MSU grad student, after his butterfly-nimble, Lee Morgan-ish solo on Clifford Brown’s “Sandu.” She rested a supportive hand on Pietuszka’s back as they listened to trombonist Michael Dease, guitarist Randy Napoleon, saxophonist Diego Rivera, pianist Bijan Tighavi and bassist Jared Beckstead tell stories of their own. Another MSU student, Jordyn Davis, later took command of the double bass. (Davis and Beckstead proved to be engrossing and eloquent substitutes for MSU Jazz Studies director Rodney Whitaker, who was away at a gig in Australia.)

Darby’s every note and gesture added more proof, if any be needed, that the trumpet is not an instrument for shrinking violets. She turned her spotlight number, “Body and Soul,” a duet with Napoleon, into a brass-knuckles blend of badass belting and breathy balladry.

In between tunes, Darby gave an extended shout-out to the teachers who keep the music alive and the parents who support their kids, schlepping them to band practice and supporting their musical ambitions.

“I would not be here today if it were not for programs like this in middle school and high school,” she said.

MSU Jazz Orchestras Tanya Darby, trumpet

Friday, Oct. 11, 8 p.m.


MSU Fairchild Theatre  542 Auditorium Road,

East Lansing

(517) 353-5340


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