Darrell Grant strides into a ragtag band room where students have assembled for a beginning jazz combo class. Chairs and music stands are scattered around a piano and drum set, where Grant keeps the beat as they struggle with a tricky Herbie Hancock tune. Through frequent breakdowns, he guides them patiently.
The floor is covered with green linoleum in this windowless basement far from the New York stages where Grant made his mark as a pianist and composer with some of the world's top performers, including Betty Carter, Tony Williams and Roy Haynes.
But there is no gulf for Grant between the main stage and the band rooms where he is an associate professor in Portland State University's jazz program. Both full-time educator and nationally recognized performer (in fact, he was a recent guest on NPR's "The World"), he is embedded in the local scene and connected to the world.
That was his goal when he came to Portland in 1996. Now, on the cusp of his 44th birthday and the release of the double CD "Truth and Reconciliation" -- which features world-class players such as Bill Frissell and John Patitucci and an international concept -- Grant is setting his sights on new horizons.
Looking for community
"In my 20s it was all about proving myself," says Grant, who became a top New York sideman shortly after earning a bachelor's degree in classical piano and a master's in jazz studies. "My 30s were about finding myself and what my musical contribution was going to be."
He did. His 1994 album "Black Art" made The New York Times' list of Top Ten Jazz Recordings of the year.
But it wasn't enough.
"When I was in New York, I didn't feel my music was having the kind of impact I wanted," he recalls. "I was looking for a sense of community; a place where I could make a contribution and serve."
So when a job opened at PSU, Grant was ready. It's been an eventful 10 years.
In Portland, he helped establish a degree program in jazz and started the Leroy Vinnegar Jazz Institute (named after the great bassist who spent his last years in Portland), which sponsors educational activities. In addition, he launched and manages the university's jazz club, LV's Uptown, designed to connect students with jazz culture. He also set up the annual "Tribute to the Old Cats" concert, where students play with Portland jazz elders.
That public role has provided something else he was looking for when he arrived.
"I'd love to be in a place where you walk down the street and people know who you are," he said 10 years ago.
He's done everything he could to make that happen.
With education already a major component of his resume, the adept cultural entrepreneur borrowed the collaborative techniques of nonprofit arts groups by creating partnerships with businesses and government agencies. And while he was building jazz in Portland, Grant advanced his national reputation with two CDs that reached jazz radio's Top 10 charts.
Loosing the reins
But his focus has not been on performing.
"It's really been about service, about finding a way to be a part of a community and build something. But now," he adds, "I'm trying to do more playing and have that be the service."
"I used to think I had to make everything happen. When I performed, I had to make sure the audience got it," Grant says. "Now, I'm going to create whatever I can create, and bring it to the edge of the stage. The audience can come up and meet me there. My job will be to provide an opportunity for something to happen."
That's been a difficult step for Grant, perhaps because he's so skilled at navigating the path to success.
"When I made 'Black Art,' I only channeled those parts of me that would be accepted by the national jazz community. And it was hugely accepted," he says. "But since then, every record has been opening more of myself. And I wanted this record to be all of me, to be as honest and true to myself as I can. If I can do that, I will be able to inspire people."
The process started with his 2-year-old son.
"I decided to make this record when Malcolm was born," Grant says. "I wanted him to know his father was someone who went after his deepest dreams."
To complete the new album, "Truth and Reconciliation," required more than honesty, however. Grant had to reconcile the disparate styles that he'd always loved but never brought together because his success depended in part on maintaining a mainstream jazz identity.
"So I'm allowing these other languages to come through," he says, including vocal tunes that put his voice out front as never before. "There's no money in it anymore, and that's created a lot of freedom. The illusion of success has been taken away, so we might as well do what we care about."
What Grant cares about is music as a force for change. In material terms, for example, his release concert will benefit Mercy Corps.
Spiritually, he was moved to write several of the compositions on "Truth and Reconciliation" by South Africa's struggle to end apartheid and build a new society. From the nobility and courage of the victims of that system who forgave their oppressors, Grant drew the strength for the honest presentation of his convictions and the stylistic diversity on this CD.
"This is the record I always dreamed of making," he says. "The music I was never bold enough to put out before."