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Denizen of Detroit: An Interview with Local Jazz Trumpet Player Allen Dennard

Complex, yet conversational. Soft, yet outspoken. Modern, yet mature. Only 25 years old and fresh out of college, Allen Dennard is miles ahead. Bursting into the Detroit Jazz scene less than a year ago, the young trumpet player has already produced his debut EP with an album on the way. We traded eights with the idiosyncratic addition to the Motown stage.

Is it true that you happened upon the trumpet “by accident”?

It was more of a fate thing. I really wanted to play the trombone at first, but my school didn’t have enough of them. Trumpet was my next option, since I thought it sounded cool, looked cool and wasn’t too heavy. I haven’t been able to put it down since.

Who were some of your early influences?

Family members, for sure. My older sister played the clarinet. She was in a band, and she was pretty good, or at least I thought she was. That really encouraged me to want to play an instrument in general. 

Your sister isn’t the only musician in the family.

Correct. My aunt was in an avant-garde band in the seventies called Griot Galaxy. She played the bass clarinet, as well as the saxophone. She was also very close to Geri Allen who passed away not too long ago.

How about initial jazz influences? There are definitely hints of Miles in your debut album Stepping In.

To be totally honest, I didn’t start really liking jazz until high school. I was first exposed to it in elementary and middle school. Our teacher, Deblon Jackson, was the only band director there at the time, so she taught us both jazz and classical. She started us off with ear training and sight singing, really getting us to hear the music before actually looking at it.

She took us to different events to play little jazz gigs. We were called the “Jazz Kids.” I was a kid at the time. I didn’t know if I wanted to seriously play the trumpet. Up until high school, I was a classical musician. I played a lot of concertos. 

You stuck with classical for a while. What steered you away?

I felt very constricted. When I got to my Junior/Senior year of high school, I was playing a song in the band, sitting in that chair reading the part, and I thought to myself, “I can’t do this anymore.” It’s great to play someone else’s music, but I wanted to create my own music and be a leader and an artist and all that. I definitely strayed from classical music. I started going to the jazz clubs, hanging out late at night at Bert’s, Baker’s, Cliff Bell’s, Harbor House. If I knew about the session, I was there. 

After high school, I went to University of Michigan Ann Arbor. The trumpet professor up there was Bill Lucas. He played jazz as well as classical music because he was third or fourth chair in the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. He really got my chops together. I thank him for that. 

During my time there, I was surrounded by musicians like Robert Hurst who was the bass player for Branford Marsalis. Benny Green was also there my last year. He was Freddie Hubbard’s main piano player for a long time. And Geri Allen, of course. Being surrounded by these great players really helped me grow into a professional musician. 

You had quite the rude awakening regarding embouchure at college, if I’m not mistaken.

That was a very low point that I thought I’d never recover from. I thought I’d have to venture towards a new career. But, yeah, I had to start over from scratch. Marcus Belgrave was the one to call me out on it. He was a jazz giant in Detroit; a teacher, mentor, ambassador…whatever you want to call him, he was the man! And, he set me aside and said, “Kid, you’ve got to change your embouchure because it sounds like you can’t hold a note. You sound like your technique got worse.” He took me to his house, and, just like that, I was in training back at square one. I wanted to get this done. I wanted to become Allen Dennard, you know. It hurt.

That’s tough.

Along the way, actually, once he took me under his wing, he got sick and ended up in the hospital, so I couldn’t see him as much. There were people like Vincent Chandler up there who saw how destroyed I was (I don’t have a poker face when it comes to these things). Imagine, I was on scholarship at U of M, and I couldn’t play. I felt like an athlete that had just gotten to U of M on a scholarship, then broke something. 

How did you first meet Marcus?

Oh, I met Marcus before college, towards the end of high school. My aunt was the one who introduced us. She was good friends with Geri and Marcus. And she asked Marcus to give me a lesson. From then on, he really saw potential in me. He actually gave me one of his trumpets as a gift before I went off to college.

What kind of teacher was he? Strict? Laid back?

I don’t know what was going on inside of Marcus’ head most of the time. Some days he was strict, some days he was loose and easygoing. I needed both of those Marcuses to figure out if I wanted to take this seriously because when someone only talks to you lightly, you can get very comfortable with where you are at that point. But, if somebody is like “No, you sound worse than last time. Are you practicing?” it keeps you on track. 

Good cop, bad cop.

That was his dynamic. It gave me the drive I needed to fix my embouchure.

Did you ever imagine being so successful at such a young age?

I didn’t see any of this coming to be honest. When I first graduated college, I was broke. I had no money, and I didn’t want it to stay that way, so I went out every night, literally, and connected and played and saw who would give me opportunities. I tried to sound the best that I could every time I went out, then took it to the next level: making a website, recording a CD. People were looking for a professional artist, so that’s what I gave them. I had been out of college for a year; it was time to get serious. 

I got great feedback from the album. I tried to book as many shows as possible and keep my relevance consistent, so that people could see me and think, “Wow, he’s really doing something.” And they did!

It must be hard to stay humble.

I was never egotistical or big-headed. I’ve been around people who are, and it is one of the things that irks my nerves the most. I thank God for my success so far. I know that I should stay humble. I have no desire to be arrogant. I only want to be grateful and keep moving forward.

That’s refreshing to hear, especially in the music industry. Now, let’s talk about your EP. What were your initial goals with the project?

I wanted my first public project to be a jazz album. I went to school for jazz, and I’ve been working hard at it. What would that be all for? That was what Stepping In was all about.

Did all of the songs come out of your time at school?

Yes. All of them except the first song [“That Feeling”]. Only four of the songs are mine, and the fifth song “Butterfly” is a Herbie Hancock tune. The first track was made when I was going through life after college. Real life. Trying to be a grown man. 

Interesting that you opened with it then. 

I don’t like to get too deep into the details because it points to a past that I’m trying not to bring up anymore—a relationship with a woman. I dug the vibe of the song, though. I really liked how it came out. I wanted that cool sound to be my introduction.

It’s definitely a great intro. I’m wondering why “In Conclusion” falls in the middle of the EP as opposed to the end?

“In Conclusion” was also about a relationship. It has nothing to do with song order. That one was about another past relationship, this time with my fiancée. You probably think that all this dude talks about and writes music about is women. That was how I was feeling in conclusion to our breakup. I don’t think I ever told her that that song was about her.

Does Stepping Up contain any narrative arc?

The whole EP was called Stepping In because I was getting my foot in the door of the artist world. That’s the main gist of this EP, so the songs don’t really have a whole narrative to them. Each song contains a different emotion from a different point in my career. My next album will have more of a connected story. 

There certainly is some magic in the silences in this album. What’s your view on space and letting a solo breathe in comparison to busier playing?

I like to feel like I’m talking or singing through the trumpet, so that’s what I try to imitate in my playing. Also, I was influenced by Miles Davis who taught not just trumpet players but all instrumentalists, and even vocalists, how to use that space and make it a note in itself, to create a space where people are free to think about what just happened. If you’re constantly playing lines, some people might love that, but for others it’s hard to digest. The trumpet must have a conversation. I’m all about being organic and true on my instrument. I’ve constantly got songs and melodies going through my head. The music really never shuts off. It captures you and makes you think about the next song or the next cool line. I may be walking down the street and an idea pops into my head and I have to write it down. 

People might ask: “What about John Coltrane on Giant Steps?” Yes, he is a huge exception, but at the same time, listen to Coltrane play a ballad. He can do it all. He’s versatile. He speaks. The thing for him that scares me the most is that when he’s playing all those eighth note lines, I still hear his voice, the language. Not many people can do that. He still has soul through all of those lines. He’s not just trying to show off lics and technique. It comes from within, and that baffles me, which is what I love about John. A lot of people try to imitate him, but it doesn’t come from the right place. It just sounds like they’re playing fast, robotic eighth note lines. 

You’re not just a jazz trumpeter. You’ve got your feet firmly planted in the local hip hop, blues, soul and rock scenes as well, sitting in with such personalities as Kulture and Ray J. Will these genres show up in your upcoming album?

I just had a rehearsal today, and I was going over a couple of songs that will be on the album, and one is a swinger of course. I’ll always swing. I love all music, but when there are musicians that are swinging to a certain caliber, it gives me chills to play over. That being said, I love other music, too. And I’m creating music other than swing. I just created this contemporary RnB fusion tune. The thing is, when I make music, I make the music that sounds good to me. I don’t really know what to call it or how people are going to categorize the album. It’ll swing, sure, but it’ll do so many other things. 

When is it due out?

I’m planning to record it at the top of the New Year and release it in the spring. 

Your hometown did give birth to some of the giants like Tommy Flannagan, Barry Harris, Milt Jackson, Alice Coltrane. Do you draw inspiration from Detroit?

My goal after college was to make a name for myself in Detroit. That’s my hometown, and, if I couldn’t do it here, then I couldn’t do it anywhere else. And what better place to do it than Detroit? It’s such a Mecca. It can still be a Mecca if people don’t leave, if these talented Detroit musicians coming up right now decide to stay. Back in the sixties, top name musicians were coming to play Baker’s and the Bluebird Inn. We didn’t have to go anywhere. I want it to be like that again.

In this day and age, rap and pop are taking over, especially with the youth of my generation. With older folks, too. It’s the new thing. I want to let people know that jazz is still being created. That the music I produce is still fresh.

Would you ever go national or even international?

Detroit will be home base for a minute. That doesn’t mean that I’m not venturing out to other places across the nation. Nationally, New York is pretty much my go-to spot. I gig there and play with some cats there; it’s a very lively scene. I’ve been to the West Coast. I haven’t been to L.A., but I’ve always wanted to. I have not yet been international, either, but that’s soon to come. It’s in the works. 

You just performed at the Detroit Jazz Festival. You’ve performed as a sideman before. Was this your first time appearing as a bandleader?

Yeah. I mean, I wouldn’t even say that I’m a bandleader. It was a collective at the Detroit Jazz Festival. So, we’re all the leaders, and we all offer our input, but it was a showcase for each one of us. It was great to play with young artists that are really doing something in the community right now.

Is there anything else you’d like our readers to know?

Aside from the album that’s coming up, I just want people to know that for me, it doesn’t stop at Detroit. This is where I am right now and where I want to focus my talent, but I just turned 25. I want the people to know that I can be more than local. I’m not only set for local; it’s my choice.

It’s wonderful to see people repping the Motor City and holding onto the cultural heart that keeps it beating.

I want people to come back to Detroit. I them to see what my band has to offer or any other band that is coming out of the city for that matter. That they don’t have to go to New York to find this talent. I want people to see Detroit and think, “Wow, there’s so much going on here. It’s a popping scene.”

Information about Allen Dennard’s upcoming album and tour dates can be found at allendennard.com

Jennifer Greenberg is a jazz junkie and music journalist based in New York. She is currently the Music and Nightlife Editor for Honeysuckle Magazine. Follow her around town or on Twitter at @jm_greenberg . Also check out her website jennifergreenbergwrites.com

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