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John D'earth's complete mischief

The cover of John D'earth's Coin of the Realm depicts him holding a trumpet in a black-and-white photograph.
John D'earth

The jazz trumpeter and longtime Charlottesville fixture performs at Mad Jazz Festival with his quintet on Saturday.

To John D'earth, the title of his latest album, Coin of the Realmhas many meanings. It’s an homage to an old saying of his father’s, a tribute to his Charlottesville homebase at Miller’s and a reference to the lingua franca of music itself.

Ahead of his performance at Mad Jazz Festival, and after his show at Révéler in Carytown, I caught up with him to learn more about the record, the endless lessons of teaching and talking to people through music.

Note: The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Annie Parnell: You'll be performing at the Mad Jazz Festival Sept. 23. Tell us a little bit more about the show.

John D'earth: We’re going to do one set there. Our band, the John D’earth Quintet; we've just put out a record called Coin of the Realm. It's my favorite record I ever made. It's with people who play together all the time, for years and years. It's very much on the Duke Ellington model of play with the family: keep the family together, play with these people. And they're great people who will play my music — it's going to be music that I wrote. We're going to play a lot of new music off of our record and some new things that we're working on.

I was just about to ask about Coin of the Realm, which came out in February and was mixed here in Richmond. The title refers to your regular Thursday night gig at Miller's in Charlottesville?

In a way. I learned about jazz from my father, who was a fanatical listener and amateur drummer, [who] taught me how to play drums to these records. When I was two or three, we were playing these brushes on a tray to records together; Charlie Parker and Count Basie. And his taste was fantastic in jazz music. He taught me how to listen to music in a way that I'm just so grateful for still.

"Coin of the realm” was a phrase that he would use. I always ask people, “do you ever hear that phrase ‘coin of the realm?’” because it always made so much sense to me. What he meant was, there's a common “coin of the realm” that you have to have if you're going to survive somewhere.

He would listen to Coltrane, we'd listen to Charlie Parker, and he would hear the blues in it or something very common. He'd say, “That's coin of the realm, you have to have that. If you don't have that you got nothing.”

So for me, “coin of the realm” is that, but it's also our realm at Miller's. We've been playing this gig at Miller's on Thursday nights for decades. And it's been quite important for me and for other people, I think. But music is the great language; it’s a second language. If you have it on any level, it's such a gift.

You said that the set at Mad Jazz is going to be a lot of new originals.

Yeah, I think I made the setlist up yesterday morning. It's an hour; it's not that long to play. We're gonna play not all the songs off the new record, but mostly off of our new record.

We have this, I mean, I think of it as a joke: “The Overture” to a tune called “Shady Jady,” which is JD — JD are my initials. "Shady Jady" with an overture, which I find sort of tongue in cheek; a faux theatrical overture.

Also from that record is “Sarah's Bracelet.” “Sarah’s Bracelet” is one of my favorite songs I ever wrote. It's a real, almost programmatic piece describing a person; a dear friend who got diagnosed with early onset dementia. She had moved to town to be with her sister, who's my close friend. I bought her this nice crystal bracelet and gave it to her, and then later she was in assisted living with a bracelet that was for a very different reason. We’ve been playing it for years, and this is probably the third time I've recorded it. I just keep doing it on different people's projects.

You mentioned the tongue-in-cheek nature of “Overture,” and I really admire the way that you bring lightheartedness and levity into your music. Can you talk a little bit about the relationship there?

That's nice that you pick up on that, because a lot of people think my music is excessively heavy, dark and complex. And I don't think it is; I don't want it to be. My jazz writing and playing is way more, for me, like short story writing or poetry. I really think improvisation is talking in music. I'm trying more and more when I play, to just talk.

Who are you talking to?

The people. Sometimes there’s one person in the audience — or maybe a person who's not there.

We've talked a little bit about Miller's — you've been performing there for a long time. How did that relationship start?

It started years ago. Three musicians, one of whom is still one of my very best friends, Robert Jospé. Jos and I and a vocalist, Dawn Thompson, who I later married and was with in one way or another for about 45 years. We were all in New York doing a band called Cosmology. John Abercrombie was our guitar player, and we had awesome musicians in that band, the most incredible players up there.

We always had trumpet and trombone, my wife singing. She and I were quite a pair, because I'm very interested in theory and all of that. And I would say to her, “let me just explain this dominant to you.” And she said, “I'm really interested in this, but can we talk about it later?” That was, like, 45 years of that.

But she was a natural. And she impressed me when she came to New York, being very herself unimpressed with all of us. She said, “you couldn't sing a harmony on a mountain tune if your life depended on it.” And I was very impressed with that, and she was right.

We had this band, and we lived together communally up there with Dawn's kids. And then we wanted to get out of the city for a summer, so in 1981, we figured out a way to rent a farmhouse in Greene County. She was from here; we had a fan base here. But we were down here, and we met some people who wanted to start a business with us; a record company. Things just started to take off and we decided to stay here. And that's how it started.

We started playing in Millers in the early '80s. Usually those gigs go the way of all flesh very quickly, right? No, this gig hung on. That place, I don't even want to talk about it too much, because I just get mushy about it.

Everybody who works there, their hearts are huge. And it's really about a community, and caring about people and caring about the music. I always say it's like church, because of the musical values. But we have kept a very open bandstand, and a lot of people sit in with us.

I can't say enough about Tina Hashemi, the vocalist — she sits in with us a lot. She's a dear friend, and she was my student through all her years at school. The piano player who plays with us now, Garen Dorsey, also. In a funny way, I call them unteachable. You can't teach them anything; they just have to find their own way.

How has being an educator informed your own playing?

Everything I ever learned about music, I learned from teaching. My whole life in music education was to look back and say, “why didn’t you say something in the first place?” So much is left out that I find essential.

Nietzsche said music is the most conservative art, and he's absolutely right about that. Music is the snobbiest, most arrogant, snooty art, because it's all gatekeepers. “Is it good enough? Did you practice?” All of that stuff, — which is important if you want to excel and go forward — that Apollonian drive to excel. You don't start that way in life with language, and you shouldn't start that way in life with music. Music should be a complete mischief, until it's not. I do free improvisation with little kids a lot of times, and I find that very instructive, what the kids will do.

I was just reading the interviews you did earlier this year with Brian Jones, where you said that “jazz has to hurt you in a way for you to want to play it.” Can you talk a little more about that?

When you hear it — reading is like this, with things that you read, and you go back to again and again, whatever it is. You read it over and over again, and you cannot get enough of it. You know, you listen to this piece of music a thousand times, and your hair stands on end more every time you hear it. That's how it hurts you. It hurts you the way love hurts you.

Jazz music...let's give it its due: jazz is Black music, end of story. The blues, which is all about pain and sorrow and hurt — after you play your blues, you get that out. You show that honesty.

Mad Jazz Festival is on Sept. 23, and Coin of the Realm is out now. What's next?

That's a good question. I'm really trying to figure out whether it's ever worth it to make another record, but I have got all these records I want to make. And I'm actually trying to sing; trying to make myself sing in public. I want to sing my songs that I wrote. So I'd love to make a record singing.

But also, the reception from people who've heard the record has been really amazing. It's given me a lot of confidence to just think, well, let me try to get some gigs in for this band—because it really is a great band.

The John D’earth Quintet performs at the Mad Jazz Festival at Veritas Vineyard and Winery in Afton, Virginia, on Saturday, Sept. 23. Coin of the Realm is available now.