To be named Portland Jazz Master for the Portland Jazz Festival came as a surprise to Darrell Grant, the longtime pianist, composer and Portland State University professor.
He's only 56 and "when I heard the committee had suggested me I said, 'Am I old enough? I'm not retirement age.'"
He adds: "There are people who have done things longer, but I appreciate the recognition for what I've done. I take the responsibility seriously to represent musicians young and old who continue to make this such a great jazz scene."
The Portland Jazz Festival takes place Feb. 20-March 3 at venues around the city, and Grant will play with his trio and some guests at Revolution Hall on Thursday, Feb. 28. Being one of Portland's preeminent jazz artists, the annual festival always has meaning for Grant. It's the 25th anniversary of Grant collaborating with well-known jazz artists Christian McBride (bass) and Brian Blade (drums) on the album "Black Art."
"I've been involved with it from the beginning (2004), and I'm excited that it's centered in the city and, as an educator, that students have access to world-class talent," Grant says. "It's since grown into this powerful cultural institution."
Grant was 32 years old when he, McBride and Blade made "Black Art," distributed by the Criss Cross Jazz label. It launched his career and The New York Times named it one of the top 10 jazz albums of the year in 1994. Grant played two nights at the Birdland Jazz Club in New York City in January to commemorate the album.
"I was ready to make my first statement as a jazz performer," says Grant, a Pittsburgh native who was raised in Colorado. "Since Blade and Christian were agreeable, we did the record in one day. Six hours. We had some rehearsal, but it was how it was done in those days. We put music together and did it.
"If you got great players and communication, you can make profound music."
Many albums have followed, and Grant has solidified himself as one of Portland's most relevant musicians. After college in upstate New York and at the University of Miami, and playing jazz in the New York City scene, he moved to Portland and became part of the jazz faculty at Portland State in 1997. He's currently on sabbatical — a well-deserved break, considering the number and intensity of projects that Grant takes on.
Grant and PSU professors have been working on their Artist as Citizen initiative, which aims to create courses and outreach programming that gives students the sense of urgency to examine the intersection of art and social justice.
Away from school, he's playing at the jazz fest and other gigs, and he's ensconced in several projects:
• Grant and Edna Vazquez are working on "21 Cartas," a music project inspired by 21 letters written by Central American women/mothers who attempted to seek asylum at the U.S.-Mexico border. A former student of his, Cameron Medill, volunteered at a detention center in Texas and asked the women to write letters about being in jail and their dreams.
"I read them and thought these needed to be treated in music," Grant says. Supported by a Regional Arts and Culture Council grant, he and Vazquez will perform the music May 10-11 at Alberta Rose Theatre and Walters Cultural Arts Center in Hillsboro. The work also is being made into a short film.
• He's been working on the chamber opera "Sanctuaries" for Third Angle Music, due for performance in April 2020, collaborating with poet/librettist Anis Mojgani. It deals with gentrification, diving deep into the roots of gentrification with a look at Albina housing discrimination and displacement, and focused on the African-American community.
It's supported by an Oregon Community Foundation Creative Heights Initiative grant.
"I'm trying to tell the story that speaks to that history and to the human side of it. It tries to imagine a different way forward," Grant says. "I felt like I could bring my voice, the jazz language and vernacular of African-American experience to writing opera music."
• He wrote "Step by Step" in 2012, music based on Ruby Bridges, who helped integrate New Orleans schools in 1960. Grant performed it at Kaul Auditorium. Then, he collaborated with a Nashville composer (Jason Shelton) to set the songs for choir, and it was performed in Nashville, Washington, D.C., and New Orleans. On June 1, Grant and Shelton will perform the music at the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.
• He also narrated "Oregon Black Pioneers," a documentary that airs on OPB TV and online 9 p.m. Feb. 25; there'll be a screening event at 7 p.m. Feb. 20 at Oregon Historical Society.
Yes, Grant stays busy. He's also a husband to Anne McFall and father to 14-year-old Malcolm, who's a musician and plays soccer.
"I don't really know any other way," he says. "I'm so lucky to have these opportunities, I have to take advantage of them. I hope to keep making an impact."
Biamp PDX Jazz Festival
When: Wednesday, Feb. 20 through March 3
Where: Various venues around Portland
Info: For a complete lineup, see www.pdxjazz.com
Who: The 16th annual event starts a day earlier this year with performances that include New Orleans trumpeter Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah, 8 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 20 at Star Theater, 13 N.W. Sixth Ave. ... To honor Blue Note Records' 80th anniversary, there'll be performances by trumpeter Terence Blanchard and E-Collective, Farnell Newton pays tribute to Donald Byrd, Eli Degibri pays tribute to Hank Mobley, and the Al Den's residency will feature a week of Blue Note-inspired performances. ... The "Double Legacy" show features the Art Blakey Centennial Band led by Ralph Peterson and the Spirits Up Above Ensemble led by Steve Turre (in memory of Rahsaan Roland Kirk). ... Freddy Cole remembers his late brother Nat King Cole, who would have been 100 on March 17. ... The legacy of the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra will be showcased. ... There'll also be tributes to Michael Brecker and Grover Washington, Jr., and Grammy Award-winning bass player Stanley Clarke returns to Portland for the first time since 2004.