Jazz Performance Director John D’earth discusses his musical career, life in Charlottesville and what jazz has to teach America.
Words and Photos by Meagan O’Rourke
University Director of Jazz Performance John D’earth decided to drop out of Harvard on a Sunday in 1972.
In a New York City loft above King Pork Packer’s on the corner of 9th Avenue and 13th Street, the saxophonist David Liebman played “Willow Weep for Me” for D’earth in the morning, the brassy tones drowning out the city chatter. Later that afternoon, D’earth heard his longtime friend and percussion professor Robert Jospé and Grammy-winning saxophonist Michael Brecker playing songs off the Coltrane album “Impressions.”
“I could not believe what I was hearing,” D’earth said.
This was the jazz scene of New York in the 70’s — collaborative, evolving and raw. A jam session among friends in a loft could be the breeding ground for nationally-renowned musicians. While he loved studying English literature in college, D’earth — an insatiable listener and trumpet performer — needed to be here.
Now, in 2018, Charlottesville is his post. Continuing his musical career — still technically on a leave of absence from Harvard, he jokes — D’earth is the University’s Jazz Ensemble Director. Outside of the University, D’earth seems to be entrenched in every aspect of the Charlottesville jazz scene. He is the co-founder of the Free Bridge Quintet, a co-founder of the Precognitive Conservatory Orchestra, director of the Charlottesville Swing Orchestra and a local favorite to watch perform at Miller’s on the Downtown Mall on Thursday nights. During the Concert for Charlottesville, he shared the stage with the Dave Matthews Band and features Dave Matthews on his “Mercury” album.
However, he does not stay here for the applause he receives at the end of every performance.
He agrees to meet with me outside of Old Cabell Hall. Although his concert call time is quickly approaching, he never checks his phone or watch. Performers roll in sound equipment as we talk for an hour. During our conversation, he stops to say hello to four music students and professors he knows walking past. Jazz is truly the “social art” he described to me.
“Charlottesville is a really rich musical community and its got a really great jazz community, jazz appreciation, jazz musicians, jazz studies,” D’earth said. “It’s a musical place, and I feel as though my biggest interest in life is to make a difference to something. I think there’s bad times coming in this country, like very bad times ahead.”
But D’earth says that jazz has something to teach all of us about confronting bad times — if we are brave enough to listen.
Miller’s is the home to locals who come to hear D’earth play Thursday nights
D’earth always knew he wanted to be a performer. Planning his career goals early on, he was an aspiring actor until the age of 12.
Particularly, he recalls watching the 1959 film “The Five Pennies.” Somewhat mirroring D’earth’s future, the film follows the true story of Red Nichols (played by Danny Kaye) as he moves to New York to become a jazz musician.
“Danny Kaye is a genius performer and he just made this crazy jazz musician come to life, but Red Nichols himself was not a great player,” D’earth said.
While he admired Kaye’s energetic portrayal of lackluster Nichols, a supporting character who played the cornet in the film captured his interest — Louis Armstrong.
“So it was in a funny way that [Danny Kaye] handed me off to Louis Armstrong and that was it,” D’earth said.
D’earth was suspended several times from his Framingham high school for “stupid stuff” like the rebellious act of not cutting his hair. His single mother was frustrated with the administration’s rule restricting the stylish trend. She arranged for her son to attend a private high school — the Cambridge School of Weston.
Here, he met Jospé who would become his musical collaborator, best friend and fellow professor at the University. Jospé, dressed in black concert attire, waves at us as he climbs the Old Cabell steps. D’earth shouts hello and leans in to to tell me they are two weeks apart in age — almost like twins — but D’earth is older.
“It was an instant connection of music and friendship [when] we started playing together the very first day we met in 1967,” Jospé said.
Jospé went on to New York University and D’earth to Harvard. But the two were not separated for long. D’earth frequently visited New York to see Jospé, who was studying under Miles Davis’ drummer, Tony Williams, at the time.
Drawn in by the city’s vibrant sound, D’earth made the move to New York in 1971, and the two friends from Massachusetts formed the jazz fusion band Cosmology. Vocalist Dawn Thompson, later to become D’earth’s wife, also led the group in crafting original music.
In 1981, the group was invited to play gigs in Charlottesville, whose jazz scene was in its early stages.
“We were sort of a different kind of sound that people were attracted to,” Jospé said.
While New York City was brimming with jazz music in the ’70s, D’earth recognizes this is not the case everywhere today. He notes that many people do not get jazz and they think that those who claim to like it are just trying to be hip. However, D’earth is not in the business of trying to get people to like jazz. He just wants his students and audiences to feel jazz.
“Jazz has to hurt you and then it is your problem and you’ll know what to do but you have to listen to it,” D’earth said. “It has to hurt you. The music has to touch you.”
D’earth refuses to leave the philosophy lesson at this. He delves into history.
“Look, jazz music is black music — it is the music of black America,” D’earth said. “And everybody plays it because black people created this music in this country and it got recorded and it went around the world, and it changed how people heard music. It gave music back to the people.”
D’earth recognizes the significance of the history of jazz music and its roots in black America. As a white jazz musician, he has grappled with the idea of whether playing jazz music is cultural appropriation.
“Every note we jazz musicians play is Black Lives Matter because the notes we play would not exist without black lives,” D’earth said. “So that’s not appropriation, that is affirmation. And that’s what art should do — affirmation.”
Deborah McDowell, professor and director of the Woodson Institute of African-American and African Studies, typically shies away from talking about whether white musicians are appropriating jazz music, as it is a complex matter for black jazz musicians to unpack. However, she says D’earth always explains the influence of black musicians on his work and is a masterful player.
“Whoever has heard his trumpet knows that he inhabits jazz music, bone and flesh — that he respects, even reverences, jazz music,” McDowell said in an email. “For this and so many other reasons, it belongs to him in the truest meaning of belonging.”
D’earth’s goal is to introduce each concert talking about where the music comes from and its roots in black America, referring to slavery of the past and discrimination today. He hopes people will realize the healing properties that can come out of such seemingly chaotic and spontaneous music.
“The point is, what this music talks about is genuine feelings, true experience. And guess what? It’s painful as hell and it’s beautiful to survive,” D’earth said.
Once, D’earth was so moved by jazz’s power, he had to pull off of the road.
He was listening to a Billie Holiday concert on the radio. It was not the music that had moved him — it was the shock of what Holiday said at the end of the concert. “I never sing a song the same way twice, I never sing the same tempo. And when I sing a song, that’s my life.”
D’earth pauses and exhales.
“I have a hard time even repeating that without getting really screwed up from it,” D’earth said. “But the point of it is if 99 percent of people in this country heard that music and heard that voice and had the same reaction we wouldn’t have racism in this country. We would have appreciation and apologies. And we need apologies.”
While he has always been concerned about racial injustice and discrimination, he feels he, as a jazz musician, is more relevant after the events of Aug. 11 and 12 in which white supremacists and neo-Nazis occupied the Lawn in a torchlit rally the night before a deadly protest in downtown Charlottesville the following day.
“Since the events of August, I feel like it’s my responsibility to speak out,” D’earth said.
He attributes his mentor and colleague, Music Prof. Bonnie Gordon, with opening his eyes to the ongoing inequalities in Charlottesville and for inspiring him to talk more openly about racial injustices.
“I played this music for years in this town and never realized there was a whole black part of the town, a poor part of the town that would never have the transportation or the dough to find me as a teacher,” D’earth said. “I just never thought of it that way but she taught me that.”
Together, they created The Precognitive Conservatory Orchestra — a jazz performance group free for anyone of any level to join, which focuses on musical improvisation.
While he sees jazz improvisation as a form of conversation, he wishes people would harness the norms of music to have more productive dialogues about the heaviest problems facing our nation.
“Music shows the way. Especially improvised music,” D’earth said. “Because when in music you say, ‘When in doubt, leave it out.’ You say, ‘Listen to each other’.”
Teaching improvisation may seem counterintuitive, but D’earth strikes a balance.
And while D’earth loves teaching, he is wary of the intimidation that can come with mastering music. A crusading musical egalitarian, he believes everyone’s sense of music is innate. Like breathing, D’earth believes music is biological.
“Think anything biological,” D’earth said. “So I think music and sexuality are super connected to each other but I think we as a people, we the people of this country but in the human race in general is very very paranoid about anything powerful so music, sex, everybody wants to control these things.”
As a teacher, he believes it is his job to let his students find their own musicality and to embrace its power. He is disheartened by stories of children who go into music only to be dissuaded by militant teachers or critical parents.
“I say let them do their dream of music first. They have a huge dream when they go to music, and when we play this free music everybody can live the dream,” D’earth said.
As a stepfather, D’earth also sees his students as children.
Ph.D. Jazz student Rami Stucky has played drums in the Jazz Ensemble since fall of 2016. Since meeting D’earth, he has considered him as a mentor and has appreciated his understanding teaching style.
“He’s unorthodox but in the best way possible,” Stucky said.
Unlike other big bands Stucky has played in which mostly play stock tunes, D’earth encourages students to compose their own pieces. Last semester, the ensemble played three student-compositions.
“He’s unorthodox but in the best way possible.”-Ph.D. jazz student Rami Stucky
This originality drives D’earth’s work. Watching him perform at Miller’s with his band, he plays trumpet in brilliant bursts, then walks off the stage while the keyboardist plays a solo. He grabs a drink, hugs an old friend and goes back up, moving naturally with the music. Like Holiday, he is careful not to play a song the same way twice.
He believes there are two things jazz has to teach us.
The first is mastering your instrument so you have your own relationship to its musical language.
“Two, what Oscar Wilde said — be yourself because everyone else is taken. Tell your own story, express yourself, no copying,” D’earth said. “And that’s what jazz has to teach. That’s what the great jazz musicians do.”