By Jordan Reisman
Photo courtesy of Michael Dease.
Right now, jazz trombonist Michael Dease is splitting his time between two cities. In East Lansing, MI he is appropriately known as Professor Dease but when he is called upon to play in New York City, where he originally picked up steam, he can shed all formalities and do what he knows best. Before he came to New York, he was a hyper-focused yet sociable hornplayer in Augusta, GA. Self-taught and a quick learner, Dease was accepted into Juilliard when he was a younger man as part of their first crop of kids in the (at the time) newly formed jazz program.
However, his first year in New York City was the year when everyone could tell you where they were when “it” happened, and his experience was no different. BTR was able to speak with Dease as he was recuperating from a winter break spent here, back in his quiet Midwestern dwellings.
“I usually just stay in New York for work. I’m a small-town guy, I’m from Augusta, Georgia. The big city is beautiful for music, but for my rest and relaxation after teaching my students I prefer to stay in, in my home in Michigan,” says Dease on his almost dual life.
Before moving to East Lansing for his teaching gig, Dease was making a living as a jazz trombonist in New York, though he moved right after 9/11 happened. He described the city upon his move as “Dead silent, nobody was talking to each other. When people did speak, it was like very intense kindness.” Quite the welcoming into his new life. Though the start of his new life with met with trauma and tragedy, he claims that living in New York “changed his life” and made him figure out “My own questions about, ‘What’s life about?’ and ‘What’s important to me musically?’”
From the time that Dease was 15, he knew he wanted to go to Juilliard. However, before 2001 the prestigious school lacked a proper jazz program. Perhaps hearing that Dease was coming, the school started one that very year. And in the wake of the tragedy that occurred, new life was brought into a confusing time, at least for those who study the swing. The first year in the program, he said that all of the students felt “thrown together” as they were hand-picked as the best in their respective areas. He says about the students, “the social thing was a little forced.” Over time though, he says that the class developed into a “family.”
Dease’s musical career began in his school’s band in Augusta, Georgia. He recalls picking the french horn because “it was the most expensive, and I like having expensive things.”
He eventually settled on the saxophone, which he conquered from age “11 to 17.” He got bored of the sax and played around on the trumpet, eventually settling on the trombone after hearing “Blue Train” by Curtis Fuller.
Dease says about being a self-taught trombonist, “I got one, I borrowed it from the school’s repository and I listened and found every note. I had a mouthpiece and buzzed, I did it note by note until I got all the notes that Curtis and J.J. [Johnson] were playing on their songs. I transcribed it; I didn’t know what I was doing at the time. The way I thought about it was, ‘Whoah, they sound great! I want to sound like them.’ I wrote it down but I wasn’t writing music. I had never written music before so I actually wrote the names of the notes in alpha letters. It was a very strange type of notation.”
Michael Dease also got serious about becoming musician as a career at age 15. This realization was very simple and solipsistic. It was not simply one moment that he can look back on as a “turning point” but it was that at this age, he started to “choose music over other things.” He lists other activities such as video games, sports and “extra time in class” as ones he would choose music over, “whether I was listening to it or going into the practice room to practice or researching or reading, everything just started shifting to music.” The classically trained robotron musician stereotype does not quite hold true for Dease, though. It would be easy to assume that all of this researching and practicing stood in place of a social life, but as Dease puts it, “I spent quite a lot of time dating,” when that was still a thing.
As a professor now, the way he describes “coming up” in New York has a lot to do with a teache-/student relationship. In order to make himself stand out in the New York jazz world, Dease felt it was necessary to “emulate the most highly regarded players.”
“It has to be more than just ‘Oh, I acknowledge that they’re good. Let me do what they do.’ It has to be sort of a spiritual connection to what a great musician is all about. I feel that that can inform you so far into understanding what being a musician and what being an artist, above that, is all about. In that regard, I’ve been able to connect with virtually every musician that I’ve ever heard because it’s allowed me to get out of my own preconceived notions about what’s good and what’s not; to really understand and to put myself in that artist’s shoes and see what’s happening,” says Dease on learning from the masters.
Connection is really what Michael Dease is about these days, as his most recent April 2013 release Coming Home is a love letter to his roots in Augusta, though they run deep in a multitude of genres and backgrounds from R&B to Brazilian bossa nova to Michael Jackson. He says the music is also a product of growing up in a biracial household, with country influences finding their way in there as well as Dionne Warwick and Bill Haley and the Comets. For Michael Dease, it seems that no matter how far you travel in order to find your sound, home always finds you.
To explore where Michael Dease is coming from, click here.
Check out Michael Dease’s interview and music on the latest episode of Discovery Corner on BTR.