Excerpt from an Interview by Amrit Robbins
Amrit (Ami) Robbins, a trumpet player and active member of the Stanford jazz community, interviewed Dave Douglas in February for Stanford Lively Arts Magazine when Douglas performed as guest artist with the Stanford Jazz Orchestra. Robbins earns his B.S. in atmosphere and energy engineering from Stanford in 2011.
SLA: I would say the work you’re playing is not what the average big-band trumpet player would play. What would you say sets it apart?
DD: I think a lot of people say “straight-ahead” jazz and then don’t give the credit to these giants like Freddie Hubbard, Woody Shaw, and Lee Morgan. What they did was so special and so magical and, yes, it’s been copied over the years and so now when somebody plays like that they say it’s straight ahead. But those guys, when they created it, were the freshest thing on the scene. They were young upstarts. I think to give them that credit is really important.
I used to transcribe Clifford Brown, Woody Shaw, and some Lee Morgan and Miles. And I think that I consciously tried to emulate those people. But then when the time came when I had my own gigs and was on the scene, I just felt like I had to come up with my own thing to do. I think the whole name of the game is to develop your own sound and your own thing to play. Over the years, I’ve worked a lot on different ways of doing that, so that’s why when I’m playing with the Stanford Jazz Orchestra it may sound to you like it’s not coming out of those guys, but that’s where it started. To me that’s the roots.
SLA: Maybe this is a naïve question, but how do you start with those roots and make it your own?
DD: Well, the quick answer would be you don’t have any choice. You’re already yourself, so get used to it! But maybe the longer, more productive answer might be it’s a matter of constantly going back to the nuts and bolts of what makes the music and reexamining and rethinking what you’re doing.
SLA: Do you meditate at all?
DD: I do. Every day, as a matter of fact, unless I have a particularly crazy travel schedule. It trains you to be aware of things going on around you. You know, if I have a particularly intense gig, I notice that the next morning, I have a much tougher time sitting still and concentrating—because I’m processing and so you need to give your mind and soul a chance to process what’s going on. I think I would just be bowled over otherwise.
SLA: One of the things I’ve talked about with people who’ve worked with you on campus is that even though you’re this superstar trumpeter, you’re also very approachable and willing to listen. It sounds like you’re really trying to experience life and experience every situation.
DD: Yeah, what else is there? Otherwise you’re somewhere else, some other time. You have plenty of time to be some other time. You have the rest of your life to live the rest of your life…How about that? I have to say I don’t understand that kind of fame, star thing. I’m certainly happy that I’ve had the recognition and I stand by my music. But for that to change my behavior and who I am, I just don’t get it.
SLA: Do you think your meditation helps you to keep that perspective?
DD: I don’t know, because I really don’t understand that star thing. I feel like it’s a way of shutting off to the world. To me, the most important thing is music. I’m not suggesting we give up all our worldly goods and live in isolation but I do so many different things, I just feel like I have no problem taking on different tasks as long as they’re about music. And so if I try to run my life where the end goal facilitates some music being made, I’m not torn.
SLA: So do you think music is your way of contributing to society?
DD: I think it is. But I mean, all the things that go along with that, like running a trumpet festival, is not practicing. It does take some time away from that. But I see all these people playing and I think there’s really something happening and I’m happy to be a part of it.
I hope people will come check out the final product we’re working on…I think people will be surprised when they see what we’re actually doing! Going into a new project like the one we’re going to premiere in April, it’s taking a huge risk. To tell you the truth, I’m pretty nervous about it and I feel like this nervousness is a good thing because it feeds my composition.
SLA: Does it drive you or does it add an edgy feel to it?
DD: A little bit of both. I want to hit it out of the park every time I go onstage and I just feel like until I’ve done that I go into it with nervous anticipation, and until I’ve done that I try to feed off that energy to play even better. So as a composer it’s the same thing. I’m still putting it together, and until it’s done I’m kind of living in this limbo of creating it and doing all these other things I’m doing on campus.