Dave Douglas Refines His Political Message with ‘ENGAGE’


Trumpeter Dave Douglas (second from left) convenes a new ensemble for ENGAGE, an album-length meditation on the current political moment.

(Photo: Anna Yatskevich)

A stellar trumpeter who organically has straddled the inside-outside aesthetic for nearly 30 years, Dave Douglas regularly has undertaken ambitious works, like his “50 States Project,” when he set out to perform in each U.S. state as a celebration of his 50th birthday in 2013.

With his latest effort, ENGAGE, Douglas has injected politics into his music in no uncertain terms. Song titles on the Greenleaf Music release—which features a new quintet comprising flutist/saxophonist Anna Webber, guitarist Jeff Parker, cellist Tomeka Reid, bassist Nick Dunston and drummer Kate Gentile—are self-evident. “In It Together” is a meditation on economic inequality, while “Where Do We Go From Here” addresses voting rights and the stirring, anthemic “One Sun, A Million Rays” investigates environmentalism and climate change.

Douglas’ penchant for activism has manifested in his music going back to his 2001 release, Witness—an album dealing with social justice, feminist aspirations, the suppression of political rights and the vagaries of arms profiteering. Now, with ENGAGE, the bandleader examines several causes that he feels strongly about. But the trumpeter also premiered his next project, Marching Music: Music To Protest By, on Nov. 15 at the Nublu Jazz Festival in New York. “It’s music to listen to at a protest march or while you’re going to the polls to vote,” he explained.

The following has been edited for length and clarity.

You mentioned that your 12-piece song cycles UPLIFT: Twelve Pieces For Positive Action In 2018 and ENGAGE are companion pieces. How so?

These last two are shaped by my desire to not get bogged down in the negativity and feeling of futility from reading the news every day, but rather to think, “What can I do in my little corner? What do I do in this world to sort of contribute something positive to change?” And there are so many different fronts, it’s hard for me to pick just one.

I’m not the kind of person where I can just say, “OK, climate change is gonna be my thing. That’s it.” There’s so many other issues to address—voting rights, health care, immigration, gun control, economic inequality, racial equality. And I’m trying to formulate it in a positive way. And it’s not like I’m suddenly going to be the torch bearer for all of those causes, but rather I’m constantly asking, “Who’s doing good work on this?”

There’s good people, smart people working on all these issues, and I want to recognize and support them. Stacey Abrams and Fair Fight in Georgia is an example of a really, really smart organizing tactic to end voter suppression and ensure fair elections. We need to be aware of people who have never voted or don’t vote, people who don’t have the franchise that they should, people whose votes are being suppressed by laws and practices. I think that all of those things are part of what is going to change our societal culture in the right direction. So, I’m a 100-percent Stacey Abrams fan. We also support groups like Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, regarding the issue of gun violence, or The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, regarding the issue of economic inequality, green growth strategies and equality in the workplace.

Trombonist Ryan Keberle is promoting a similar message on The Hope I Hold—on your label. And Terri Lyne Carrington’s new album with Social Science, Waiting Game, should be seen as political protest music.

Yes, and look at Fabian Almazan and his label, Biophilia. The more artists doing this, the better. I’m not claiming any kind of exclusive lock on this. But I also think—and I still think this is a trope—if the music doesn’t have lyrics and it’s not overtly somebody singing about whatever the cause is, then it’s not really protest music. So, I think a lot of instrumental artists today are creating music that is very much politicized. I wouldn’t call my music protest music, per se, but I would say that it’s movement music. It’s about engaging in the issues.

It’s in the tradition of Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra.

And Charles Mingus before him, with “Fables Of Faubus.” So, there’s a tradition for this, for sure.

“One Sun, A Million Rays” addresses environmentalism and climate change. And you mentioned that “Living Earth” was inspired by teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg.

Yes, Greta recently reminded those of us in New York of the power of speaking out and acting up. Anyone paying attention knows that this is a dire moment for our planet. This is the moment when we must do something. And we are being shown the way by so many brilliant young activists, like the Sunrise Movement. These are young people saying, “You gotta do something, you gotta take action, make this change.” And I agree with that. I’m 100 percent with them in everything that they want to do. I just hope that all these young people go to the polls and vote.

The National Resources Defense Council is a group that I’ve played benefits for, and we support this project. I think that this idea of a Green New Deal is inevitable. You know, it’s a no-brainer. It’s creating new jobs based on the new needs of how we need to create energy to keep the planet sustainable. I just don’t see how that’s even controversial. So, all of [the pieces on ENGAGE] were very specifically organized for action.

President Donald Trump formally notified the United Nations recently that the U.S. would withdraw from the Paris Agreement on climate change.

I think that the logic of whether we’re in the Paris Agreement or not goes beyond that kind of politics. It’s gotta be a larger acknowledgement that we have to change the way that society is operating with these resources. We have to change the way our society is operating with minorities, the way our society treats women, the way our American judicial system deals with gay people in the workplace.

To me, it’s beyond politics. It’s just sort of common sense. How are we all going to manage to keep living together on the planet?

What’s your overall message with ENGAGE?

That we gotta stay positive. And I want everyone to march to the polls in November 2020 and bring some semblance of rationality and common sense back to our country. We’ve always been challenged in that regard and maybe we always will be. But right now, it seems like we’ve gone off the deep end of accepting somebody as president who has lied 13,000 times.

Is it safe to say that if Trump wasn’t in the White House that this music wouldn’t exist?

That’s so funny. Nobody’s asked me that.

I don’t know. It might exist under any administration. I feel that the urgent problems are still going to be there, regardless. But the feeling is maybe more drastic now that we all have to do something. We can’t just be talking about it. And maybe that’s because of the urgency of who’s in power right now. But I also think global climate change would be just as urgent of a problem if Hillary Clinton were president. So, it’s about doing the things that we feel need to be done. We already know from looking at the signs that we’re behind. We have to be engaged with these issues. We need to take a look at what’s happening and make a judgment. You can’t really be neutral on a moving train, as they say. DB

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