PLAYING THE KEYS OF CHANGE
Darrell Grant has precisely zero doubts about the role artists play in lugging society (sometimes against its will) from periods of grim ignorance towards ethos of enlightenment. For the classically trained pianist, social justice and music are as inextricably integrated as the sharps and flats atop the instrument he’s spent more than a half century mastering.
Of course, by artist, he means everyone.
“Being an artist is not a professional description,” Darrell says.“All of us grew up being artists until we were told we couldn’t or shouldn’t do it. We put all of that sort of innocent creativity and adventurousness and openness away.”
Fortunately, Grant never buried his.
Born in Pittsburgh and raised in Denver, Grant was first introduced to a piano at seven years old. Prowess quickly followed, as did an understanding that music was more than mere entertainment. It was a vessel that healed, comforted, and assured—a worldview molded in adolescence by tagging along with his mother to nursing homes as she sang for elderly and disabled people. As his piano accompanied her licorice-sweet voice, Grant witnessed faces awash with joy that temporarily eclipsed whatever dreariness.
Sunday mornings in church, Grant backed up his mother’s vocals. People sang, and cried, and clapped for forgiveness, for reprieve, for hope from something higher and more sacred than themselves.
Grant began to conflate music with ministry, but he innately understood ministry as larger than four walls of a church.
“I didn’t want to be a minister. I didn’t want to play sacred music, per se. But that’s where the roots of thinking about what are you trying to do in the world with this gift that God has given you came from.”
Although he found inspiration in the works of venerated classical pianist Andre Watts, Grant gravitated toward a genre that resonated more with his Black heritage and passion for social justice: namely, that most uniquely American art form known as jazz. He loved the communal approach to the music, jamming in an ensemble, with all the ad hoc artistry and improvisation indicative of the art form. It also moved Grant closer to his identity, both personally as a Black man, and communally.
“I’m always trying to think of ways in which music can connect with larger, more universal themes,” says Grant.
Following teenage years spent playing professionally in Denver, and a freshly obtained Master’s degree in Jazz from the University of Miami at the age of twenty-four, Grant landed in New York City.
At a time when every artist dreamt of causing a stir there, Grant experienced the reality.
Grant’s playing style is the musical equivalent of a Denzel Washington performance: it’s bold but not ostentatious, profound but not preachy, spectacular but not flashy, and dignified but not sanctimonious. This undeniable talent became coveted in America’s cultural mecca. Grant toured with jazz titans like Chico Freeman, Betty Carter, and Tony Williams, and had his first solo album, Black Art, named as a top ten album of the year by the New York Times.
New York is still the highest peak for many artists who spend years trying to break through. What it isn’t, at least for most musicians who’ve experienced success, particularly Black ones, is a weigh station you voluntarily leave before heading west to settle down in Portland, Oregon.
But a career high that most would consider pinnacle ended up as a mere interlude for Grant, who accepted a position as Professor of Music at Portland State University.
Nearly 30 years later, his adopted city is still home.
Recently named the “whitest large city in America” by The Oregonian, Portland resides in a state that was America’s first and only to establish itself as a white’s only territory, replete with a constitution that, up until 2022, still referenced slavery.
It’s hard to picture Coltrane, Davis, or Ellington hitting the Oregon trail.