Central to Darrell Grant’s music is a sense of purpose, agency, and connection to community.
Through eight albums as a bandleader, numerous recordings as a sideman, a growing body of compositions, and two decades of service as an educator and leader in the arts, Grant’s multi-faceted creative projects and innovative initiatives reflect a belief in the extraordinary power of art to communicate, inspire, provoke, inform, and move others to transform society and themselves.
Speaking to Nat Hentoff for the liner notes to his debut CD Black Art, Grant told the renowned jazz critic that "the longer I play, the clearer it becomes that, at least for me, the goal is to give voice to the meanings behind the music. I have a deep desire to reach people, to communicate something of the things that I am finding to be true, with humor, with love, with silence, with swing, and with passion.” Telling those truths has been the driving force in Darrell Grant’s musical career.
DARRELL GRANT was introduced to international audiences in 1988 as the pianist with the legendary vocalist Betty Carter. He has performed and recorded with such notable musicians as Branford Marsalis, David Sanborn, Esperanza Spalding, John Clayton, Nicholas Payton, James Moody, Kevin Eubanks, Lenny White, Jane Bunnett, Somi, Tom Harrell, Jack Dejohnette, Terence Blanchard, and Art Farmer. He has performed extensively as a bandleader and solo artist throughout the U.S., Canada, and Europe in venues ranging from clubs to major jazz festivals, and been featured on Marian McPartland's "Piano Jazz" on National Public Radio.
Born May 30, 1962 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Grant grew up in Denver, Colorado in a musical family. He began classical lessons at age seven and quickly received honors for his prowess on piano. He discovered jazz in school band programs and played family concerts and talent shows. At 15, he joined the Pearl Street Jazz Band, a precocious ensemble of teenaged musicians playing traditional New Orleans-style jazz. The group held down regular professional gigs, recorded two albums, and appeared at regional jazz festivals.
At 17, Grant won a scholarship to the famed Eastman School of Music where he pursued classical piano studies and continued his love affair with jazz. After receiving his degree from Eastman, he attended graduate school at the University of Miami, where he earned a Masters in Jazz Studies in 1986. Relocating to New York City, Grant broke into the jazz scene performing with Woody Shaw, Junior Cook, and Charlie Persip. At the same time, he took advantage of New York’s diverse musical choices to work with artists as varied as Lesley Gore, Phyllis Hyman, and the American Tap Dance Orchestra. In 1989, fronting the group Current Events, Grant released his major label debut on the Verve-Forecast label. Playing funk, world beat, and jazz, Current Events was called “the sound of the 90’s” by international media and reached the top 20 on the Billboard contemporary jazz chart.
Shifting his focus to mainstream jazz, Darrell Grant quickly became one of New York’s most in-demand players, touring and recording with artists such as Frank Morgan, Sonny Fortune, Chico Freeman, Craig Harris, Greg Osby, Don Braden, and Roy Haynes. In 1992, he replaced Mulgrew Miller as pianist in drummer Tony Williams’ quintet, and soon after recorded his solo debut Black Art (Criss Cross). Black Art was selected one of the top ten jazz recordings of the year by The New York Times and top five of the year by England’s VOX magazine. Jazziz magazine described the CD as "confident,” “inventive,” and “powerful.” Two subsequent small group recordings, 1995’s The New Bop (Criss Cross) and 1998’s Twilight Stories (32 Jazz) received high critical marks and spent several weeks at the top of the jazz radio charts.
At the height of an active touring and recording career, Grant left New York in search of something more. Arriving in Portland, Oregon in 1997, he replaced pianist Andrew Hill on the jazz faculty of Portland State University and quickly embraced a leadership role in the musical life of the Pacific Northwest. While remaining active as a performer, Grant also cultivated his gifts as an entrepreneur and advocate for the arts, launching the record label Lair Hill Records and curating live music venues featuring local and national artists.
Grant’s creativity also bloomed anew in Portland. His 1998 release Smokin’ Java (Lair Hill) with Donald Harrison, Brian Blade, and Joe Locke, was a swinging love letter to his newfound sense of community in the Northwest. It also featured Grant’s prose in the form of an original short story accompanying the CD. 2003’s Spirit, also on Lair Hill, was a departure for Grant. A heartfelt ode to peace and a celebration of renewal that drew on jazz, classical, gospel and pop, Spirit highlighted his skills as a solo pianist and songwriter and featured his debut as a vocalist.
The double-CD Truth & Reconciliation was released on Origin Records in 2007. Inspired by his own search for artistic truth, the struggle for justice and healing in South Africa, and the birth of his son, Truth and Reconciliation featured John Patitucci, Brian Blade, Bill Frisell, Joe Locke, Steve Wilson, and Adam Rogers. It was selected one top ten CD’s of the year by the Village Voice jazz critics. Truth and Reconciliation is one of several of Grant’s recordings that served to raise awareness for organizations that promote positive change and bring hope to communities. Starting with Smokin’ Java, proceeds from each of Grant’s CD projects and benefit concerts have supported nonprofits like Mercy Corps, Oregon Children’s Museum, Coffee Kids, Artists for the Arts, p:ear, and the Oregon Historical Society. The Truth and Reconciliation project culminated in a 2009 concert featuring Nobel laureate Bishop Desmond Tutu.
In 2012, Grant was one of twelve jazz artists nationwide to be awarded a Jazz New Works Grant by Chamber Music America. His composition, a nine-movement suite called The Territory, explored the diverse landscapes and cultural history of his adopted state of Oregon. Called “a masterpiece” and “one of the most important compositions to come out of Oregon,” The Territory premiered to a sellout audience at Chamber Music Northwest, and has subsequently been performed at The Jazz Standard and The DiMenna Center in New York City. A CD, released in 2014 on PJCE Records, captures the exciting world premiere performance that featured Brian Blade, Steve Wilson Joe Locke, Hamilton Cheifetz, Clark Sommers, Marilyn Keller, Thomas Barber. and Kirt Peterson.
As a composer, Grant has penned numerous gems, many of which are highlighted on his recordings as a leader. His commissions include the anthem for the 1998 Nike World Masters Games, a Duke Ellington tribute for the Mount Hood Jazz Festival's celebration of the Ellington centennial, and “Step By Step,” a suite inspired by the story of civil rights icon Ruby Bridges, written on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of Portland’s Reed College. Most recently Grant was one of three composers commissioned by Portland Jazz Composers Ensemble as part of their Oregon Stories project—stories of exceptional Oregonians set to original music for 12-Piece Jazz Chamber Orchestra. Grant also created and performed the music for the Oregon Experience documentary “JazzTown” about the history of the Portland jazz scene.
A tenured professor of Jazz Studies and Associate Director of the School of Music at Portland State University (PSU), Grant is the founding Director of the Leroy Vinnegar Jazz Institute (LVJI). Housed within PSU’s College of the Arts, LVJI is an independent institute with a mission to preserve and promote the art form, cultural heritage, and social history of jazz music in the Northwest through education, outreach, and historical documentation. Created in 2002, LVJI’s programs include The Incredible Journey of Jazz a jazz education program seen by over 12,000 students in Oregon & Washington, The PDX All-Star High School Big Band, The NW Jazz Oral History Project, and “A Great Day in Portland,” which created a historic photograph documenting Portland’s jazz community. Darrell was inducted into the Oregon Jazz Hall of Fame in 2008. He is the recipient of the 2011 Kamelia Massih Outstanding Faculty Prize in the Arts, and was awarded a 2015 Individual Artist Grant from the Regional Arts & Culture Council.