From virtually the time he emerged from his mother’s womb, Dennis Mackrel was exposed to a steady diet of jazz.
“I can’t understate the importance of having parents that were supportive,” Mackrel said via Skype from his home in New York state. “Nowadays we take jazz for granted because we have YouTube and you can get anything you want.”
Whether it was in the clubs of whatever city the wandering military family would land, college radio, or vinyl albums of her Hammond B-3 favorites including Jimmy Smith, Mackrel absorbed the music. And loved it.
“(My mother) recognized I was very drawn to the music and she did anything she could to get me close to it,” he said.
Mackrel is now a highly esteemed drummer/composer/bandleader/educator with two stints in the Count Basie Orchestra. He’s also a veteran of the American Jazz Orchestra, the Carla Bley Big Band, the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra, Buck Clayton's Swing Band, and the Dizzy Gillespie All-Star Big Band, to name just a few. He’ll be telling stories of those experiences and playing with the Illinois State University Jazz Combos this weekend as the featured artist at the 2018 ISU Jazz Festival.
ISU jazz student Joe Tiemann is especially looking forward to hearing his Count Basie Band stories.
“I can’t comprehend the amount of guys he’s played with and the stories he might have,” said Tiemann on GLT’s Sound Ideas this week. “I did hear a great interview he did on a podcast recently, and just hearing how he actually came about in the Basie band was pretty cool.”
It was, and serendipitous. Basie’s longtime vocalist Joe Williams lived in Las Vegas when Mackrel was attending UNLV as a jazz student. He said Williams would occasionally stop by the school just to watch rehearsal.
“And at that time I was working on the Vegas strip doing production shows and whatever gigs I could get. Sometimes Joe would come to our concerts and be in the audience.”
And during one show, his band director, who also worked as a percussionist at the Hilton on the strip so he knew all the professional musicians in town, invited Williams to emcee a show.
“So he just walked up and started introducing everybody, it was that casual,” laughed Mackrel.
That meeting led to an audition for the drummer with the Basie Band (he got the gig) where he stayed for four years. Mackrel remembers it as a great experience, but one where he had to navigate the gruff personality of Freddie Green, Basie’s longtime guitarist, and according to Mackrel, the “bad cop” to Basie’s “good cop” personality.
“When I joined the band, it was very difficult,” said Mackrel. “Green made it very, very clear that ‘this is what we’re doing and this is how we play.’ And as the drummer, it was very unusual for me because the role of the drummer is primarily as a timekeeper. That’s what we’re trained to do. In that band, that responsibility was his and not mine.”
Visiting Young Musicians
Mackrel’s vast jazz experience and upbeat personality is a good fit for the campus appearances he now makes as a much less gruff elder statesman in his field. And he’s impressed with the energy and optimism he sees from today’s jazz students.
“Students today are so sharp and so much more together than I was at their age,” chuckled Mackrel when asked if students still have romantic notions of jazz in its golden age. “They’re not wide-eyed in terms of completely naive and in the dark. I think they recognize the difficulties of being a professional at anything.”
He notices they are much more prepared to deal with the business today.
“They recognize there are things they need to ‘have together’ to take care of business and do what they have to do,” said Mackrel.
That's become more difficult in the digital age where downloading music has virtually wiped out opportunities to make meaningful money through the sale of recorded music. And then there’s the seemingly annual magazine and/or blog articles proclaiming the death of jazz. Mackrel acknowledges the challenges, but pushes back against the notion that opportunities don’t exist.
“When I travel, and I travel across the world, I’m amazed at the amount of young people playing, and they’re playing great,” said Mackrel. "I think what’s happening is our concept of jazz as it is has been shaped by the music industry has gone through a major change.”
He said though downloads have disrupted the music business model, everyone today has access to a computer with software that allows essentially anyone to be able to record music and bypass record labels.
“One of my favorite artists today is Jacob Collier in England. I don’t know if he even has an official recording contract, but most people know him because of YouTube and recordings made in his home. Matter of fact, Herbie Hancock is one of his biggest fans,” said Mackrel.
He cites Collier as a good example of how younger jazz players are adapting to the business disruption.
“So I hope one of the main things I tell students and all people, is that this is not a time of gloom and doom. This is a good time. We just have to up our game and realize things have changed and go with it,” said Mackrel.
Mackrel will perform with Illinois State’s Jazz Ensemble I April 13 and 14 at 8 p.m. Tickets are $15 for general admission and $10 for students and seniors. Tickets are available at the Center for the Performing Arts Box Office, by phone at (309) 438-2535.
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