Delbert Anderson's mission: Putting 'Native sound back into jazz'

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Delbert Anderson's mission: Putting 'Native sound back into jazz'
The Delbert Anderson Trio, from left: Michael McCluhan, Nick Lucero and Anderson during a practice in Farmington, N.M., Jan. 25, 2023. Anderson and his jazz trio, who take inspiration from traditional Navajo songs, has stirred up global interest as well as conversations about the responsibilities of Indigenous artists. (Brad Trone/The New York Times)

by Michael Powell

FARMINGTON, NM.- To drive the high desert roads of northern New Mexico is to navigate mountain passes, red rock mesas and dry river washes, and to spot the hogans, hamlets and sheep herds of the vast and remote Navajo Nation.

Fiddling with the dial on the car radio during my time there usually generates only static. Except one day came the sound of a silken and soulful trumpet, as a station played a haunting ballad, “Narbona,” with unmistakable Navajo phrasing.

The song was the handiwork of the Delbert Anderson Trio, and it felt as if it had arisen from the folds of this land.

Delbert Anderson, 36, is a Navajo jazz musician, and he and his bandmates live in Farmington, a city of 46,000 perched just east of the reservation where he was born, which is the size of the Republic of Ireland. The trio’s drummer, Nick Lucero, 39, half Peruvian Quechua and half Spanish, grew up on a ranch in Colorado. Its bassist, Michael McCluhan, a tall, bearded, 55-year-old Anglo, was a former competitive swimmer who wandered in and never left.

A musician’s life is a tumbleweed journey in this land. The trio faces long drives to gigs and airports, snaking between peaks and across prairies that are home to elk, mountain lion and coyote. “It’s a flaky and weird little town,” Anderson said in an interview last fall at their studio in downtown Farmington, and chuckled. “The upside is we can afford to be jazz musicians.”

After playing county fairs, arts centers and bars, and splitting earnings so meager their wives stared at them plaintively, Anderson and his bandmates appear poised for something bigger.

By mining traditional Navajo “spinning songs” of love, healing and courtship, and marrying them to jazz and funk lines, Anderson and his trio have taken a place at the forefront of a vibrant Native American jazz scene. They stand alongside Nez Percé singer Julia Keefe — a songbird of a jazz vocalist, who also fronts a big band — and Wabanaki bassist, composer and vocalist Mali Obomsawin.

Last October, the Delbert Anderson Trio flew to Johannesburg to play at World of Music, Arts, and Dance, or WOMAD, the festival founded by Peter Gabriel. While there, the trio collaborated with South African artists on a forthcoming album, “Kindred Spirits,” produced by South African Grammy winner John Lindemann.

A haunting single, “Grandma’s Song,” is slated to be released March 8. Written and sung in Navajo by Alex Rose Holiday, it features the Anderson trio playing with fierce intensity and Nelisiwe Mtsweni, an Ndebele singer, contributing piercing vocals. Two languages — Navajo and Ndebele — once all but forbidden by conquerors, and given full throat.

Native lineage threads through jazz history. Black stars like Charlie Parker and Don Cherry were part Choctaw. Miles Davis had Cherokee heritage. Saxophonist Jim Pepper was Kaw and Muscogee Creek, and several of his compositions featured a Native American chorus.

And yet: Few associate Native Americans with jazz. And those in the scene face battles over Indigenous identity and the perceived obligation of Native artists to engage in justice struggles.

“Indigenous activists say we’ve got to Indigenize and take over these showcases,” Anderson said, with an ever so slight roll of the eyes. “I’ve got seven family members who expect a check when I get home. I can’t stand on the side of the road and Indigenize.”

Anderson and his bandmates rely on grants, which are relatively plentiful at present, and work with dancers, painters, photographers and classical musicians. And they have become jazz evangelists. Anderson’s passion is to bring his music to Navajo children for whom such sounds remain terra incognita.

On a crystalline sharp September day, Anderson and Lucero drove west toward the 9,000-foot limestone peaks of the Chuska Mountains, which divide the New Mexico and Arizona sides of the Navajo reservation.

Pulling up at the tiny Cove Day public elementary school, they found 50 Navajo children sitting in the auditorium, and Anderson gave a performance. Soft-spoken and amiable, he made his trumpet moan and bark and sigh. Slowly, he drew smiles and laughter.

Cove Day elementary in Arizona sits among so much beauty and so much hardship. The school looks upon red mesas, buttes and ponderosa forests. The same land is spotted with abandoned uranium mines. Another nearby school has a well that runs dry, faucets spitting and coughing.

Anderson has aunties and uncles and cousins who live in this world of the Diné, as the Navajo know themselves.

“I’m a rez boy,” Anderson said, after pulling into a Navajo roadside stand for fry bread, onions and mutton flecked with enough green chiles to draw tears. “It’s beautiful but, man, a tough life.”

IN THE 1980s, Anderson’s grandfather, a Navajo immersed in the traditional culture, told his son: You and your wife need to leave the reservation — the Navajo are the largest tribe in the nation — and let baby Delbert learn Western ways. Delbert’s family moved to Farmington and his father worked in the oil fields.

In fourth grade, Anderson watched a jazz combo on the stage of his elementary school auditorium. At the end, a musician with a trombone closed his score book and leaned back and let loose. “Oh, my God!” he remembered. “He was just wailing.”

Anderson was besotted. He tried the trombone, but his little lungs could produce not a squeak. He picked up the trumpet. “People kept saying I could not be a jazzman,” he said. “I knew they were wrong.”

He listened obsessively to recordings by trumpeters like Lee Morgan and Davis, and developed his rich tone. College professors steered him toward classical. He steered back toward improvisation. “The faculty were like, ‘Can we pass this guy?’” he said.

Friends suggested Anderson work in the oil fields — cash was plentiful and that’s what Navajos did. He said no.

He wanted to be a jazzman.

One day, while shopping after Thanksgiving, Anderson and his wife rounded a corner and he spotted Nick Lucero, a salesperson, with his wife. Both men harbored musical ambitions and loved jazz. “I said, ‘You’re that guy’ and he said, ‘You’re that other guy,’” Anderson recalled. McCluhan, a Deadhead bassist with an appreciation for jazz and jamming, would join them as well.

They played jazz standards at first with a large band. Then a singer wandered off and a guitarist split to labor in the oil fields. “We said to hell with it,” Lucero said, “let’s try a trio.”

Anderson, Lucero and McCluhan have children and bills, and gig money was scant: $80 here, $90 there. “I would blow money on dumb things and come back with $20,” Anderson recalled. “My wife said, ‘This really isn’t going to work.’”

They drew up a business plan even as they grew restless. Why remain a little jazz trio in this remote corner? Anderson wandered into a library in Aztec, New Mexico, and found a cassette of Navajo spinning songs from the 1920s. He listened and took notes.

“My culture was speaking to me,” he said.

Some Native activists argue it is sacrilege to expose songs of ancestors to the non-Native world. Anderson disagreed and went from elder to elder asking permission to be inspired by these songs. The world of traditional Navajos is not hierarchical, and no single judgment rules.

Elders were generous. “They said, ‘You’re Diné. These songs were ours and now they are yours,’” he recalled. “‘This is your time.’”

The band began to breathe and make music differently. There were cringeworthy moments, like when the promoter at a Texas fair worried that Anderson, dapper in his suit, did not look “Native” enough. The promoter placed a feather headdress on the musician’s head.

Mostly though, their music ratcheted open a world.

In 2014, the trio released “Manitou,” its debut album, incorporating spinning songs in a multitonal feast. Then the group worked with Navajo rapper Christopher Mike-Bidtah, aka Def-i, who would hop in his car and drive the high desert composing lyrics. The resulting 2018 album, “DDAT,” blended rap, jazz, Navajo sounds and Latin rhythms and led to another takeoff.

What they want now, Anderson said, is “to put Native sound back into jazz.”

THREE YEARS AGO, Anderson’s trio landed in New York City for a showcase — 15 minutes to display chops to booking agents. Navajo are not chest-thumpers; showy self-pride is not rewarded in their culture. “Nick tells me not to apologize for myself,” Anderson said. “My rezness comes out.”

Anderson carried his trumpet to jam sessions across the city during that trip. He heard musicians hitting keening, acrobatic notes, and high registers, each player a would-be Dizzy or Coltrane. It was daunting. “I honestly felt like one of the least talented players there,” he said.

David Greenberg of Music Works International, a booking agency and music consultancy, has voluntarily mentored the trio. He waved off Anderson’s self-deprecating recollection.

“I told Delbert to forget those guys with their pyrotechnics,” Greenberg said in an interview. “No one ever told Miles he wasn’t playing enough notes; he played the notes he wanted to play.

“You’ve got a soulful sound and your artistry is deepening.”

Last summer, the Anderson trio hit the road as artists-in-residence with the Bureau of Land Management on the Painted Mountains Tour. Working with Native singer and lyricist James Pakootas of the Colville Confederated Tribes, the band traveled to Bears Ears National Monument in Utah, Canyons of the Ancients in Colorado, and the King Range in California. The musicians sought out Native elders and asked about their ancient stories and then incorporated those into original compositions.

They performed outdoor concerts and through their collaboration began to heal centuries-old wounds between that federal agency and Native tribes.

South Africa felt no less transformative, as they traveled into Soweto and met Indigenous musicians from Argentina, Brazil and New Zealand.

“There was a suturing between music and language,” said Kristina Jacobsen, a songwriter and an anthropologist at the University of New Mexico who accompanied them. “This is what it means to reclaim a language one word or one song at a time.”

For a gig in Sonoma, California, last September, they piled into their van and drove 16 hours through the night. McCluhan shrugged at the yawning distances. “Drink coffee and be honest if you get tired and take a nap,” he said. “Simple.”

The group has plans piled atop plans: prestigious residencies, operas, albums, musicals, perhaps a trip to a throat-singing jazz festival in Mongolia, which just might be where Navajos hailed before beginning a millenniums-long trek to the American Southwest. Funders have advised the trio to consider a move to Los Angeles, or New York, the better to prosper.

The men recoiled.

“I have six children and a wife and I’m going to look for housing?” Anderson said. “How is that going to work?”

“I know Navajos who choose the life over families,” he added. ‘Oh, we broke up, oh we divorced.’ I don’t want to be that Native. I don’t want to be that stereotype. I want to be the one who kept it all together and takes joy in my art and changes my world.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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