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Dave Douglas: ‘I wanted my music to be authentic and never the same twice. So there were a lot of years in the wilderness’

Bray Jazz Festival 2024: Like his hero Miles Davis, the trumpeter, composer and bandleader is fascinated by the dynamics of change

Dave Douglas has a soft spot for Bray. The New York trumpeter, composer, bandleader, educator, label boss and “one-man music industry” has appeared at the modest yet much-admired jazz festival in the Co Wicklow seaside town three times in its previous 22 years, more than any other visiting international artist. This May bank holiday weekend, Douglas, one of the key figures in creative music, is again a headline act, playing in a new ensemble with the English saxophonist Trish Clowes and her band.

“I’ve been to many wonderful festivals around the world, some of them in Ireland, but there is something about the reception in Bray – from both the organisers and the public – that just feels very personal and warm and inviting,” says Douglas. “There’s a real enthusiasm and appreciation for the music. It’s just a beautiful-sounding room [at the Mermaid Arts Centre], and on our first visit, in 2007, we came away with a recording that ended up as the album Moonshine. So I feel a kind of kinship with the place. I’ve also been on some very nice hikes in the nearby mountains; when you’re touring, and playing different cities, you don’t always get a chance to go outside and see some nature.”

Douglas is talking from the music room of his home in his own “densely wooded pocket” of nature in the Hudson Valley, about an hour north of New York city. Although he was raised in Montclair, a commuter town near Manhattan, lived for many years in Brooklyn and still regularly plays, records and teaches in New York, since 2004 Douglas has lived upstate and off the beaten track in the historic town of Croton-on-Hudson; his nearest neighbour is almost a kilometre away.

“I thought I would never leave Brooklyn, but then I got an ultimatum from my wife – and I chose my wife,” he says. “I then realised I should have moved a long time before that. I mean, I love it here: it’s been good for me to have a quiet place to work.”


And work he has. As he always has. Both highly prolific and admirably panoramic, Douglas is a kind of model modern jazz artist, a highly respected musician resolutely committed to following his own intellectual curiosity and independent creative path.

Over a near 40-year career of more than 75 albums as leader, and more than 500 published compositions, he has presented a wide variety of groups that have played music ranging from post-bop to free jazz, folk to contemporary classical, brass band to electronic music – and many that have synthesised and moved beyond these categories. Douglas has made records that have honoured the music of Dizzy Gillespie, Booker Little and Mary Lou Williams. Often these multifarious projects exist concurrently; to celebrate his 40th birthday, in 2003, Douglas presented 10 bands over six consecutive nights at the Jazz Standard in New York.

Much like one of his musical heroes, Miles Davis, Douglas is fascinated by the dynamics of change and evolution. “I don’t want to repeat myself,” he explains. “So the process of writing and playing becomes about asking the questions that make sure I don’t do that, that I don’t repeat what I’ve done, and I don’t repeat what someone else has done. I’m looking for a new thing. I want to be in a state of not-knowing.”

The fellow travellers Douglas has invited into his aesthetic world read like a who’s who of contemporary jazz; it’s a list that includes the saxophonists Joe Lovano and Chris Potter, the drummers Joey Baron and Rudy Royston, the guitarist Marc Ribot and the pianist Uri Caine. The cross-border American singers Tom Waits and Aoife O’Donovan have also joined the party.

Douglas has worked with film-makers and dance and theatre companies, interpreted songs by Joni Mitchell, Rufus Wainwright and Björk, and written music that reflects both his interest in art (from Jan van Eyck to the dadaists) and his numerous political, humanitarian and environmental concerns. For many years he has been a vital member of groups led by the inimitable New York composer, saxophonist and experimentalist John Zorn; in 2003 Douglas founded the annual Festival of New Trumpet Music.

He grew up the youngest of four children in a comfortable middle-class family in the New Jersey suburbs. His father was an executive at IBM and an amateur pianist who, as Douglas writes on his Greenleaf Music record-company website, “was the person, more than anyone else, who got me started and kept me going in music”. His father died in 2003; two years later Douglas launched his independent label – Greenleaf was his father’s middle name. More than 100 releases later the venture is still going strong.

Starting piano lessons at five, he switched to trombone at seven and trumpet at nine. His father owned The Smithsonian Collection of Classic Jazz, a six-LP anthology of historic jazz recordings, from ragtime to the avant-garde, which Douglas first heard when he was 10. “I was listening to Cecil Taylor, Eric Dolphy, John Coltrane and so on,” he told Jazzwise magazine. “That changes a person – or it changed me, anyway.”

Douglas was also exposed to his father’s extensive classical record collection and his siblings’ pop LPs; as well as Coltrane, he cites Stravinsky and Stevie Wonder as primary influences. At 14 he went to a private boarding school in New Hampshire; as an exchange student in Barcelona the following year he began playing jazz with more serious intent. “I happened upon a group of musicians who were my own age and as obsessed with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers and Weather Report as I was. That year in Spain was a seminal one for me.”

He went on to study at Berklee College of Music, New England Conservatory and New York University, got a break in 1987, touring the US and Europe with the famed hard-bop pianist Horace Silver, and quickly made a name for himself in New York playing in all kinds of jazz and beyond groups. Club dates for his own music were harder to come by; he often put on concerts in art galleries, bookstores and even on the street, for tips.

“I had offers early on to make records of standards, as both a leader and side musician, but I turned them all down,” he says. “I didn’t want my music to be repertoire, a copy; I wanted it to be authentic and never the same way twice. So there were a lot of years in the wilderness.”

It wasn’t until 1993 that Douglas released his debut album, Parallel Worlds, an ambitious collection of themes – recorded with a string trio and drums – that embraced jazz, swing, classical, new music and free improvisation, and set his multidirectional course in motion. He has been wonderfully hard to pin down ever since – sometimes, you suspect, to his detriment. He can occasionally seem too wayward for a straight-ahead audience, too mainstream for an adventurous crowd. Is he inside or outside, uptown or downtown, romantic or radical, looking forward or back? The answer, of course, is that he is neither and both of all of these things. Dave Douglas is a jazz nonbinary, a third way.

He brings many of these sensibilities to two of his most recent projects. This month Douglas released Gifts, an album of original tunes and reimagined Billy Strayhorn songs that features a new quartet of younger players: the tenor saxophonist of the moment, James Brandon Lewis, and two members of postrock trio Son Lux, the guitarist Rafiq Bhatia and the drummer Ian Chang. It feels like a classic modern jazz record, albeit one played by a quartet given to simultaneously respecting and refracting that tradition.

The other is Eyes Up, a new alliance with Clowes, whom Douglas signed to Greenleaf in 2021 and who released her Covid-contemplating album, A View with a Room, on the label the following year. An admiration for each other’s writing and collaborative approach to making music, a mutual love of the nonpareil work of the jazz master Wayne Shorter, who died last year, and Douglas’s high regard for a Clowes band that features Ross Stanley on keyboards, Chris Montague on guitar and Joel Barford on drums have led to new music and a debut short tour that ends in Bray. Douglas continues to studiously avoid repetition.

“What makes the Bray festival so special is that they’re willing to allow us to discover something new on stage,” he says. “It’s a dangerous tightrope, and it’s one that I’ve been walking for a lot of years, but I’m very grateful for the opportunity to go out there and take those chances. Maybe it’s the only way that I know.”

Dave Douglas and Trish Clowes Eyes Up Quintet plays Bray Jazz Festival on Sunday, May 5th

Free-spirited: Acts to catch at Bray Jazz Festival

Now in its 23rd year, the spirited Bray Jazz Festival, which this year runs from Friday, May 3rd, to Sunday, May 5th, continues, no doubt against the odds, to innovate and impress.

International headliners include a trio led by the illustrious American pianist, blogger and founder member of The Bad Plus Ethan Iverson, and the top-tier quintet of the bravura pianist Zoe Rahman, whose expansive music draws on her classical training and British-Bengali background.

Bray’s “multicultural” strand features a first Irish date in 15 years for the veteran Senegalese Afro-Cuban dance band Orchestra Baobab and for the captivating Franco-Syrian flautist Naïssam Jalal, whose album Healing Rituals, with its heady mix of jazz, chamber and Arabic music, was one of the revelations of 2023.

Irish acts are also well represented. Double-bill evening concerts showcase the irresistible tenor saxophonist Meilana Gillard and the enthralling guitar master Tommy Halferty, while a series of new, free late-night shows in the gallery at the Mermaid presents an unmissable trio of the saxophonist Matthew Halpin, the electric bassist Simon Jermyn and the drummer Darren Beckett.

Gigs at the Harbour Bar are similarly gratis and high-grade: look out for the guitarist Chris Guilfoyle’s new jazz and electronic music outfit, Collider, and adventurous all-star quintet The Workshop, among many others. Schedule conflicts are inevitable; start planning your weekend manoeuvres now.