Interview with Dave Douglas – “The Unassuming King of Independent Jazz”

Dave Douglas is a trumpeter, composer and educator with more than 50 recordings as a leader, including projects with Joe Lovano (Sound Prints), Uri Caine (Present Joys) & Mark Guiliana (High Risk).

He founded his own label – Greenleaf Records – in 2005 to release both his own projects and those of other musicians. All this, on top of a busy international touring schedule – saw Frank Alkyer – publisher of Down Beat – hail him as “the unassuming king of independent jazz, a model of do-it-yourself moxie, initiative and artistic freedom.”

In a [jazz] world where musicians are increasingly needing to take careers into their own hands, I wanted to dig deeper on Dave’s work and outlook on the scene.

The full interview is below, but here are 3 key takeaways:

1. It’s up to you – as a musician – to construct a platform for your music. It’s always been this way (but there are more opportunities today)

2. On embracing new ideas and strategies: “anything that allows you as an artist to think more freely and creatively about the medium of your work is a positive” 

3. When trying to book gigs, be resourceful and diversify. And never forget that the music is the most important thing

Read on for the full interview (and head to the end of this article for upcoming news and tour dates).

Over the years you’ve released various albums in tribute to, or inspired by, other musicians and even films. Do these type of projects help reach a wider audience than purely releasing originals albums?

Thanks for your interest!

I’m aware that this is a music business oriented site and I will contextualize in that direction, but it’s important to remember as a musician all of my decisions are guided towards the service of music.

To answer this first question: It might surprise you to learn that I consider these to be purely original albums. To celebrate Mary Lou Williams, Booker Little, Joni Mitchell or Fatty Arbuckle is a way of reflecting on why I believe their work is still important to us today.

The idea is to reflect, through one’s own work, on the significance and weight of an artist or object. I think it is also important to contextualize music by illuminating one’s heroes and inspirations.

As a touring artist, do you engage publicists in key territories to build this, or you rely on the promoters doing a good job with local press?

The idea of having an umbrella music company like Greenleaf Music is to have all the activities be a part of what we do.

So we collaborate as we travel around the globe performing and giving residencies and other live appearances.

Sometime it’s just as much about amplifying activities back home. It’s important to work closely with all players to make the awareness of this music shine. A holistic approach.

How has the response to live albums differed from that of studio albums? Would you recommend younger bands to explore this route, especially if budgets are tight?

I only release a record when I feel it is the right music, the right band, and the right recording environment. Whether it is live or not is only one consideration.

Bray Jazz Festival was a really special concert for us, and I was delighted when I heard the quality of the recordings. Hence, ‘Moonshine.’ The only thing I would say to ‘younger bands,’ or indeed any band, is — make your absolute best music and stand by it.

What’s the most important ‘career’ thing you’ve learnt from your earlier days performing with older jazz stars?

Just for the record, I still work with ‘older jazz stars,’ and hope to become one myself! Some days I already feel like one! Hahaha.

Commitment to the presentation of the music: that would be the quality that I have admired most and observed most often in musicians I worked with. Nothing can get in the way of a true pursuit of artistic vision. Anything else is bullshit. Pardon my french.

Really interesting idea to record and release a live set within 24 hours! Do you see jazz in general moving away from the traditional 12-18 month release cycles to a more on-demand or single-based model?

I feel that any innovative release ideas open creative doors for musicians. They have for me. So I think anything that allows artists to think more freely and creatively about the medium of their work is a positive, and will be adopted by brilliant musicians, now and in the future.

There seems to be a real community around the Greenleaf label, with the subscription series (12+ hours of exclusive, free music), podcast and newsletters. Could (and should) emerging musicians build a similar vibe around their project?

It’s up to each musician to find out how to construct a platform for their music. It’s never been any different. Maybe there are more opportunities in this regard now. But it’s changing so fast. And a lot of the vision of how the music ecosystem works today has nothing to do with music. Everyone is inventing the new reality.

From all the great musicians out there, what makes a specific artist of interest for Greenleaf?

The hardest thing is saying ‘no!’

There so many great, deserving new jazz artists, and I often find myself advising them to create a platform for themselves. Greenleaf Music is not a huge company. Also it’s an umbrella for touring, sheet music, podcasting, and various different kinds of releases. We can’t take on too many artists without capsizing the ship.

Before Greenleaf you were releasing with RCA, a well-established label. What made you decide to set up on your own?

The situation arrived where I would have had to change my artistic vision to stay on RCA.

I had a good run of releasing different recordings documenting different areas of my work. That was changing as the industry consolidated into fewer and fewer hands.

Coincidentally, I had been talking to Michael Friedman of Premonition about starting a sustainable, self-sufficient music company of my own. It all happened at the same time, in 2004 – 2005. The vast importance of the internet only came into play in succeeding years. That helped shape our nimble, close-to-the-ground work with releases and artists over these years.

The sheer number of projects you have presented is pretty amazing. Would you recommend a similar concept for newer artists, or should they focus on building their name with one project early on?

I would only recommend that an artist do what is appropriate to his or her vision. I didn’t compose and present these many different musical projects as a ‘business plan.’

It has been suited to my outlook and my pace of working and completing art. Art speaks differently to each artist and they will find their strength by working persistently and steadily over a number of years.

Finances aside, do you see benefits of having your music on Spotify (such as winning new fans or reaching promoters?

I am torn about Spotify. The whole meaning of the industry is in such flux that self-reliance seems to be the only eternal verity.

Greenleaf seems to go much further than just releasing music from its artists. Do you advise or help with other areas of their careers too?

I do talk to the artists on Greenleaf. Especially if they have questions or are looking for input, I am always happy to discuss the work with them. Greenleaf Music is a platform for artists to create their own world, and for me to grow a sustainable home for my own music.

Have you booked your own gigs at any point in your career and, if so, what would be your #1 tip to a jazz musician who is trying to get onto the international scene?

Be resourceful and diversify. And never forget that the music is the most important thing.

More About Dave Douglas

Dave Douglas is a prolific trumpeter, composer, educator and entrepreneur from New York City known for the stylistic breadth of his work and for keeping a diverse set of ensembles and projects active simultaneously.

His unique contributions to improvised music have garnered distinguished recognition, including a Guggenheim Fellowship, an Aaron Copland award, and two GRAMMY® nominations.

While his career spans more than 40 recordings as a leader, his active projects include his Quintet; Sound Prints, a quintet co-led with saxophonist Joe Lovano; Riverside, a quartet co-led with Chet Doxas; a duo with pianist Uri Caine; and, debuting in 2015, High Risk, an electronic music-influenced quartet with Mark Guiliana, Jonathan Maron and Shigeto.

Since 2005, Douglas has operated his own record label, Greenleaf Music, releasing his own recordings as well as albums by other artists in the jazz idiom. Through his artist-friendly approach and innovative practices, he continues to prove himself a pioneer among artist-run labels.

Douglas has held several posts as an educator and continues to be very active as a director and programmer. He was been named the Artistic Director for the 2016 season of the Bergamo Jazz Festival, which occurs every year in March.

Starting in 2012, Douglas was engaged for two years as International Jazz Artist in Residence at the Royal Academy of Music in London and launched his own Jazz Workshop, dedicated to enriching the musical experiences of younger players.

From 2002 to 2012, he served as artistic director of the Workshop in Jazz and Creative Music at The Banff Centre in Canada. He is a co-founder and director of the Festival of New Trumpet Music, which was founded in 2002 to support new music by a diverse community of trumpet and brass players. He also co-hosts, with Michael Bates, a podcast called Noise From the Deep which was named the top jazz podcast by the JazzTimes critics poll in 2014.

“Dave Douglas is the unassuming king of independent jazz, a model of do-it-yourself moxie, initiative and artistic freedom.” – Frank Alkyer, Publisher of DownBeat Magazine (USA)

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