/ 29 June 2024

Jazz maestro Darren English to debut ‘The Birth’ at National Arts Festival

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Miles to go: (From top) Local trumpeter Darren English, who will be performing at the National Arts Festival this weekend, says he is inspired by American jazz musicians Freddie Hubbard and Miles Davis. Photos: Anthony Barboza/Getty Images

South African jazz trumpeter Darren English is bringing his original work The Birth to the National Arts Festival in Makhanda on Saturday night. Originally the title of a composition on his debut album Imagine Nation, he has since broadened it into a larger work.

English was a member of the Festival’s National Youth Jazz Festival. Last year, he won the Standard Bank Young Artist Award for Jazz.

The members of his band are all previous Young Artist of the Year Award winners: Kyle Shepherd on piano, Benjamin Jephta on bass and drummer Kesivan Naidoo. The group also features American saxophonist Miguel Alvarado.

He was born and grew up in Cape Town but English, a celebrated, award-winning multi-instrumentalist, visual artist and designer, is now based in the US where he has performed with a range of top jazz musicians.

We spoke to him ahead of his performance at the festival.

What do you hope people will take away from your shows at the National Arts Festival?

Love that crosses all boundaries — through the arts. I sincerely desire to bring that message across through my compositions.

On three songs on your album Imagine Nation you pay tribute to Nelson Mandela. When you composed them, did you imagine him to sound a certain way?

When I originally wrote, or rather began to write, the suite, Nelson Mandela was still alive — it was something I was moved to do more than feeling the “need” to do that, which for the most part usually happens once some transitions/passes on. 

It was a pure offering of thanks which I’m grateful we captured on an album, and for it to have been the focus of the album, which then became the title suite. 

We were also fortunate to receive the jury-voted Global Peace Song Award in Los Angeles, California, for the second movement, Pledge for Peace.

Can music change the world?

It has been changing the world. Let’s just say the world would be a far darker place, if it were not for music (any genre, at that).

Why did you choose the trumpet?

I didn’t choose it, it chose me.

In all honesty, I didn’t choose it. I started my crazy love with music through a secondhand store-bought harmonica at the age of 13.

My English teacher in high school was also the music teacher, jazz legend Fred Kuit.

It’s quite a funny story. I was not “into” music but I heard the school band playing When the Saints Go Marching In on a Friday in assembly. The following day, my younger brother and I persuaded my mom to buy us this harmonica while she did her grocery shopping. 

We walked around the entire mall, laughing hysterically while we each gave it “a try” inhaling and exhaling — you know, it’s a harmonica. 

Ha! At some point I inhaled and exhaled the first three notes of what I remembered to be the song that the song band played, When the Saints Go Marching In.

I had homework that weekend —specifically an oral to present the following Monday in my English lesson. Well, all I did the entire weekend was learn When the Saints Go Marching In on my little harmonica. 

As luck would have it, I was called to present my oral. “English, get up and present your oral,” to which I responded, “Sir, I don’t have an oral prepared but I can play When the Saints Go Marching In.”

The classroom erupted and every­one laughed and cheered for my teacher to allow it. I then played my harmonica for my “oral” — the classroom went crazy.

I received 8/10 for my “oral”.

That’s when Kuit told me to come to the music room the next day.

I went, he handed me a tambourine — which I ended up playing for six months — as he said I couldn’t play harmonica in the school band. 

About six or seven months later, I walked past the music room in between classes and Kuit was sitting there playing the trumpet. He called me over and asked me if I’d like to give it a try. I remember asking him, “Where do I turn it on?”

He then told me to come for lessons starting the following day … and the rest is history. 

I cancelled all my sporting activities after school and practically lived in the music room, practising on a school cornet.  

So, short story long — the trumpet chose me.

How is the jazz style of bebop still relevant today?

Bebop is relevant through the players who preserve it by still listening/performing and exploring the genre. I would say that bebop is a genre that is still evolving.

When  is your next album?

I go into the studio in November, recording with Billboard-charting and multi-award-winning producer and engineer Trammell Starks in Atlanta, USA. It will feature some incredible US and South African artists.

Who are your fantasy collaborators? Name three — dead or alive.

Miles Davis — he epitomised everything from music, design, fashion, cars to lifestyle. I would love to imagine me hanging with him and learning; getting “hipped” to his ideals.

I’d like to collaborate with Salvador Dalí. To see and hear sounds in colours and what could have come from his artistic mindset, from the canvas to the trumpet.

The third would actually be one that has turned it into a reality. I have always wanted to collaborate in a venture to fuse my love of classic and sport automobiles — and I’ve started doing some collaborations with a Cape Town classic car dealership, Laude Classic Cars. 

I will say, this particular collaboration has brought on some incredible musical and artistic ideas that I could never have imagined happening without it.

What’s the weirdest place you’ve found inspiration for a song?

Ha! This is an interesting question! 

There have been many actually — but one of them has to be while in hospital years ago, hearing the beeping of the machines — it set up a tempo and groove to which I started singing an original melody. 

Do jazz musicians have groupies? 

Pop musicians’ groupies come with gifts for you as the artist. Jazz musicians’ groupies come asking for comps. So, yeah, we have groupies — ha-ha!

How important is what you wear on stage for you?

I feel the same on and off stage about this. I just have to feel comfortable and presentable with my style/vibe, which I always am, so it never factors in to over-think on that topic. 

Who is your jazz style icon?

Miles Davis. Really, there are many others, but as expressed before, he was spearheading it all.

What are your get-ready rituals before a show?

Listening to jazz trumpeter Freddie Hubbard. 

How long into a performance do you stay stressed?

I don’t tend to get stressed, unless I feel the music is not where it should be. In those cases, I usually adapt to play music that rids the “stressed” feeling. 

For example, if I had a performance playing original music, and the band doesn’t sound comfortable before the performance, I would literally change the entire setlist to play tunes we all know, instead of having the stress of wondering if they’d be tight on my music. 

So, at all costs, I rid the stress factor musically.

What’s the most memorable fan encounter you’ve had?

A couple brought me a framed picture of me playing and it had a note at the back of how they admire what I do. I still have the picture — I was 16. That will always mean something to me. 

What is your favourite Saturday night song?

Blue in Green, the third piece on Miles Davis’ 1959 album Kind of Blue. It’s my favourite any night song, really.

And your favourite Sunday morning song?

Great is Thy Faithfulness.

What made you get up this morning?

Finishing this interview. Ha! No, no, kidding. Rehearsals for our first show as the Standard Bank Young Artist of the Year. 

When last did you cry and why?

I just lost a dear cousin a few days ago. So, this morning would be the answer.

And what made you laugh until you cried?

Having the silliest moments with my two younger brothers. When we’re together we come up with the strangest games or jokes — that no one else would probably get — but we literally laugh till our stomachs hurt and eyes are tearing.