When I met him at his cramped studio behind C’ville Coffee, the first thing John D’earth did was offer to teach me the trumpet. He insisted, in fact. We shook hands, and he told me he’d always wanted to be a writer. I said I’d always wanted to play the trumpet. So he cleaned his mouthpiece in the bathroom sink and handed me a horn.
Buzz your lips, he said, go ahead. Good. Now find a note. There it is. He played a B flat on the piano and told me to find it. Find another, he said. Far out. You’re playing “Blue Train.”
Hundreds of D’earth’s students and bandmates have experienced similar moments over the past 30 years. His face is much younger than it looks from a distance. His eyes, which seem almost black, flit around and then zero in on you. He moves with the energy of a kid who can’t sit still in class. His enthusiasm crackles off of him. The eyes are drilling into you, and he’s telling you you can do something you never thought you could do.
Robert Jospé, jazz drummer and UVA music instructor, knows the feeling. He met D’earth in 1967 at the Cambridge School of Weston, a prep school just outside Boston, as a teenager and they began a collaboration that continues today.
“John, in his own amazing way, on that first day said, ‘Man, you sound great. Oh Jos, you got this thing man,’” Jospé remembered. “And it was like I said, ‘I do? Wow? Shit. I got this thing? That’s great.’ It was empowering and exciting.”
Next month, D’earth will release a new record, On, with his quintet, his first release since the Thompson D’earth Band’s 2006 album When the Serpent Flies. As usual, D’earth’s engaged in a range of other projects, for money, pleasure, and creative endeavor. The last time I spoke to him, he was driving to Lynchburg to practice with a few guys, then heading on to Roanoke for a gig, then back to Charlottesville for the night before driving up to D.C. to play a wedding show with the Winn Brothers the following day.
His wife, bandmate, and collaborator Dawn Thompson has been battling cancer since 2007. She hasn’t performed since she started a series of radical treatments that included gamma knife radiation for a brain tumor. Her illness has put a heartbreaking stop to their fiery collaboration, which started in 1971, but not to their love story, which continues to unfold.
During our first interview, D’earth checked his phone every time it beeped, to make sure she didn’t need him. He speaks in distracted, searching elliptical arcs, moving from subject to subject like a hummingbird. When he lands on a bit of wisdom, he rests on it.
“So what is rhythm?” he said. “Rhythm is the frequency and duration of events. Simply put, when stuff happens and how long it lasts. And on that definition there is no thing in our perceivable universe that isn’t rhythmic in nature. So it’s the foundation of everything.”
My preconceived notion of John D’earth as one of those white jazz guys started to unravel. His legendary status in town is confining rather than flattering. He’s not a big fish in a small pond. He’s a big person in the world. Furious, dissatisfied, burning hot.
There’s a 700-page tome called The Biographical Encyclopedia of Jazz. D’earth lives on page 175-76, tucked between Blossom Dearie, a New York jazz singer from the golden era, and Santi Derriano, a bass player of Panamanian descent. His entry is longer than most, written in shorthand code linking his name to other players in a way I can’t appreciate from outside the scene.
Up high it says, “Taught self scales and ‘took things off records.’ At 10, he became inspired by Shorty Baker’s work on Ellington’s ‘Willow Weep For Me.’”
The entry contains a litany of players he’s worked with, a kind of jazz genealogy, and if, like me, your jazz knowledge stops somewhere between Brubeck and Mingus, most of the names don’t mean that much. Guitar players like John Abercrombie and Tim Reynolds speak to the profound talent that has passed through Charlottesville. There are big names too, like Tito Puente, Bruce Hornsby, John Scofield, and Buddy Rich, testament to the wide path D’earth’s blazed in the music world.
What the entry doesn’t show is his influence as a teacher, as the unofficial godfather of a music scene centered in his adopted hometown, or the fact that these days he focuses his energy on composing symphonies.
A love supreme
John Edward Dearth II was born in 1950 in Framingham, Massachusetts, and grew up in nearby Holliston with a father who had survived the Pacific theater of World War II and was obsessed with jazz music.
“He was a maniac for music and for jazz music. He was my first teacher. He revealed to me mysteries of art and music that are priceless,” D’earth said.
D’earth (he would add the apostrophe later in life) described his father as a larger than life figure with a split personality who could drink a quart of bourbon every day for weeks but never appear loaded. He would drive the family crazy by blasting his records through the night, but would also sit with his 2-year-old son and teach him to play the drum brushes on a metal tray, a practice he still keeps up.
His father was drawn to the complexities of be-bop partly because he could hear that much of it was based on the same standards the Great American Songbook that the big bands had popularized in the pre-war era, but the rhythms and stylings expressed a rawness that didn’t resonate with his buddies.
“He hated white bands that were corny and tight,” D’earth said. “Those were prejudices too, and I learned some of those prejudices early on.”
The family lived in a house that had been built in the 1690s and used as an inn, The Littlefield Tavern, during the Colonial period. The nearest neighbors were a half-mile away and the house was heated by fireplaces. D’earth’s parents divorced when he was 8 years old, about the time he got his first trumpet, which his mother bought for $15. On the first day, he walked outside into the yard and played to the trees, finding the scales on his own.
Alcoholism and violence were also part of the family story, something D’earth mentions matter-of-factly but doesn’t dwell on. Louis Armstrong and the Hot Five were his favorite band, but he loved classical music too. When he found out that Mozart composed from an impossibly early age, he felt terrible, like he was already late to the party. It’s the kind of mythological back story you want to hear from a prodigious talent.
Jazz instruction was harder to find in the early ’60s, but D’earth’s talent led him to Henry “Boots” Mussulli, a veteran of the big band days. His musical second father, the Sicilian alto saxophonist and arranger had opened the Sons of Italy Crystal Room, a speakeasy that had hosted the likes of Count Basie and Roy Eldridge in the neighboring town of Milford. Mussulli was part of a group of jazz teachers who helped to form the Berklee College of Music, but at the time he was also the director of the Milford Area Youth Orchestra, whose record jacket called D’earth “the workhorse of the band.”
One day Mussulli dialed a friend’s number with D’earth sitting next to him. When his friend answered, Mussulli said, “Listen.” He put the phone down, and cued D’earth. Together they began to play and improvise on the Charlie Parker be-pop classic “Confirmation.” When they finished, Mussulli picked the phone up again and said, “14,” and hung up.
The moment changed D’earth’s life. It was his confirmation, external acknowledgement of the gift he knew he possessed. As a teenager he was written up in Downbeat after a performance at the Newport Jazz Festival for “playing like a young Freddie Hubbard.”
On Mussulli: “What he taught me about professionalism and what it is to really know your stuff… to be uncompromising with yourself about it… I learned that from him, and everything unfolds from there. You’ve got to know two things in jazz: Tell your story and don’t copy people.”
D’earth’s mother didn’t like the education her son was getting at public school, so she found a way to send him to the Cambridge School of Weston, where he met Jospé and began to experience a wider set of people.
The headmaster of the school, Adolphus M. Cheek, who had been a pre-war Harvard football star, took a shine to D’earth. He had a deal with his alma mater that he could send two students per year there. So D’earth went to Harvard and Jospé went to NYU, moving into an apartment at 21st Street in Chelsea. Jospé says D’earth was an inspirational figure, the type of person who held people together. D’earth says Jospé is the kind of guy who’s always making stuff happen. He started making stuff happen in Chelsea almost right away, drawing talents like Elvin Jones and Michael Brecker to his loft apartment for musical jam sessions.
A picture from 1968 shows D’earth and Jospé waiting to open for the Allman Brothers at a be-in in Cambridge Common with their act Fire and Ice. It’s a sign of the times. D’earth wears a beret and Jospé a carefree smile. D’earth enjoyed the green pastures of Harvard Square, but his heart was in New York, and after one of the epic jam sessions at Jospé’s place, he decided to quit school and move to the city to chase his dream.
“They weren’t conscious goals. They weren’t like career goals,” he said of the decision. “I wanted to play at the highest level of jazz music. That was the goal. Now why did I want to do that? I don’t know. It wasn’t to make money.”
In New York, D’earth and Jospé ran into Thompson, who had moved to the city from Alexandria, Virginia, where she was a folksinger of growing reputation.
“She fascinated me from the beginning by coming to New York and being very unimpressed with the scene there,” D’earth said. “You know why? Because she knew that none of these guys, who were playing all this crazy stuff from their knowledge of music, couldn’t sing a harmony. They couldn’t do what she could do without even trying.”
Thompson pulled D’earth and Jospé into her band, Cosmology, and for the next decade or so the three of them would form the core of the group sharing a loft apartment in The Village that became a communal center for the band, its scene, an array of musicians, and their family, which included Thompson’s 6-year-old daughter Daphne.
“It was total immersion. It was extremely rewarding. Incredibly difficult and stormy at times. You know, the different functions. Who was going to fulfill the functions?” D’earth said. “We were young people. Study The Art of Loving for 40 years and get back to me. Figure out how to be a good person. That was a lot of what it was about. How to deal with the past, deal with conditioning, be straight up and be present in the moment.”
Thompson, whom her husband calls a “totally non-imitative” singer, sounds like a cross between Stevie Nix and Nina Simone with the lyrical stylings of a folk high priestess. Jospé is a groove drummer with jazz chops, influenced by Elvin Jones, but also by Motown and Ringo Starr. And D’earth’s a pure jazz man who can’t get Diz, Bird, and Miles out of his head.
“See the thing of it was, we all wanted different things,” D’earth said of the group. “So therefore you get the stormy relationship. You also get the synergy of a band being something a little bit different.”
The three of them freelanced gigs in their separate spheres. D’earth had attracted the attention of Al Porcino, a legendary trumpet player who had his own orchestra and was one of three musicians who traveled with Frank Sinatra. Porcino asked D’earth to play in his rehearsal band and then invited him to play on a gig for Mel Tormé at the Maisonette during which they cut a live record for Atlantic that earned five stars in Downbeat. For a young trumpet player, it was in invitation to the innermost circle of the business, a stamp of approval that would have had Boots Mussulli laughing down from heaven.
Later on, Porcino asked D’earth to stay on and travel to Japan with the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra. He wanted to go, but Cosmology had gigs lined up. It was a decisive moment, no doubt colored heavily by the loft, his surrogate family. He turned the offer down.
“That was always a big regret. Going to Japan with Thad and Mel was the way young cats like me got noticed internationally. I said no because we had gigs with Cosmology. And I was so mad about it and conflicted. In the way that people do, I struggled with this moment for years. I will tell you… you talked about the push and the emptiness? Bravo. Beautiful language. I stood somewhere at my house when I was 40 or 41 years old, and I said to myself—it just came into my head—I forgive myself for all these decisions and all this stuff and all this not doing what I thought I should do. Forget it. Forgive yourself. Because there were good reasons for it. You’re in good shape, just go. That sounds silly, like something you read in Reader’s Digest, but it actually happened to me and it stuck. I didn’t feel those regrets anymore.”
There was no turning back from there. Cosmology took off in its own way, playing large festivals and earning a record deal with Vanguard, becoming the kind of mind-bending act that attracted music people but turned off the business operators because it didn’t fit neatly into a genre.
Thompson had played in Charlottesville with Cosmology even before she left for New York, and she was responsible for bringing them back. D’earth remembers a particular weekend when they drove down from New York to play, with John Abercrombie lying with his nose two inches from the roof of their van sleeping on a stack of instruments. When they arrived at the gig, they realized the space they’d been booked in could barely hold their band, much less an audience, and they were not happy.
“This is typical Charlottesville. This is my impression of Charlottesville,” D’earth remembered. “The Sitting Ducks were playing at The Stacks in the Library Restaurant downstairs and they heard what happened to us and they said, ‘Tell ’em to come play our gig. We’ll stand down on the gig. We’ll do it another time.’ I mean, that was not New York. It was word of mouth basically, and we had people around the block because they heard John Abercrombie was playing.”
It was the start of a sweet run for the band in Charlottesville. Sometimes they blew people’s minds playing avant garde stuff, other times they brought in cataclysmic talents from New York.
“People really dug it. They thought we were amazing,” Jospé said. “First of all we had really wonderful people playing with us… I think the level of playing that we were aspiring to and that we had achieved was something people responded to.”
In the summer of 1981, the group moved to Charlottesville to escape from Manhattan for a couple of months and pretty quickly had an offer from backers to set up their own record label and stick around for a while.
“Then it was ‘How do you make a living in Charlottesville?’” D’earth said.