In Conversation with Saxophonist Darryl Yokley

Darryl Yokley photo by Anthony Dean

I recently attended a friend’s get together in Manhattan where I was privileged to be in the company of a number of great people, one of which is the very talented Darryl Yokley. Darryl is a freelance musician in New York City having worked with such ensembles as the Captain Black Big Band lead by pianist Orrin Evans, Valery Ponomarev’s Big Band, as well as Frank Lacy’s Quintet and Big Band. He has also worked with a number of artists such as Christopher Hemingway, alto saxophonist of the New Century Saxophone Quartet, concert saxophonist Joseph Lulloff, and Timothy K. Adam’s J.R., former principal timpanist of the Pittsburgh Symphony.

He has recently formed a quartet of his own featuring George Burton on Piano, Luques Curtis on Bass, and Wayne Smith Jr.  The band performs at Chris’ Jazz Cafe in Philadelphia this Thursday  June 30th followed by a show at Fat Cat July 24th with guests artists JD Allen and Bill McHenry on saxophones, and Corcoran Holt on the bass.  The band has been playing fairly steadily since it’s debut gig in November of 2010 and is set to record their first album in August of 2011.

Darryl kindly took time out of his busy schedule to talk a little bit about his career, forthcoming gigs and the industry.

Q: How did you get into the industry and choose the saxophone as your instrument? 

The saxophone was an instrument I had always wanted to play growing up and my parents saw that I had a strong desire for playing the saxophone and started renting one for me one when I was 11 years old.  As far as how I got into the industry, I guess you can say I just naturally became envolved in it from sitting in at jam sessions in North Carolina, Philadelphia, and New York, and from maintaining the social networks I established while in school.  I also think a big part of it is that firstly, you have to be able to play at a certain level and, secondly, be respectful of your colleagues and this should be reciprocated. If there is one thing I’ve learned and am constantly working on it is to not let your kindness be taken as weakness… especially in the music industry because if you do then people will try to get one over on you then you’re stuck in the position of a truly starving artist for not standing up for what you are worth.  There are definitely some honest cats out there who will look out for your well being, but you also have to maintain a balance of giving respect and making sure the people you interact with show you that same level of respect .  I believe this and showing a constant progression as a performer goes along way with how you progress and move up in the industry.

Q: Which artists have been most influential on your career to date? 

There have been so many that I don’t think there would be enough room to list them all here!!  I’d say the artists who’ve been most influential for me to date would have to be the members of my quartet first and foremost. George Burton, Luques Curtis, and Wayne Smith JR first off just for the musical and personal relationships that we share on and off the bandstand.  From Philly, great musicians such as Sid Simmons, Mike Boone, Byron Landham, Tim Warfield, Orrin Evans, and many others who have influenced me on a musical level, a business level, and/or a personal level.  My time in Philadelphia I would have to say is still probably the fastest I’ve ever grown musically sitting in at Ortliebs Jazz Haus, Chris’ Jazz Cafe, Reuben’s Marc….the list can go on and on.  When I moved to New York I had some great people taking care of me and watching out for me and that helped me reach the next level after moving out of Philly.  The two that stick out most in my mind are fellow saxophonists Stacy Dillard and JD Allen, both GREAT players and beautiful people, and they have been a big influence on my outlook on things, artistic and otherwise.  Then there is an abundance of artists both living and now deceased whom I’ve never met, but have influenced me nonetheless.  However, for this particular interview I want to pay homage to some influences that are a little more close to home to me.

Q: So what is the history of the band members, forming the quartet as a result? 

I met George and Wayne in Philly and we played together often, hung out together all the time, and we became (and still are) very close friends.  I had met Luques a few times when I was in Philly, and then I would run into him a little more often when I moved to New York, and when I had the idea of forming a group I had a couple of bass players in mind, but there was something about his playing that I really liked, and I thought it would fit in perfectly with Wayne, George, and myself…..and it did!!  Needless to say I’m very happy with the group as it is now.

The Quartet. Photo by Anthony Dean

I’ve always felt that a great group is a group that you can have a very strong musical relationship with in the sense that everyone brings something to the plate and the group as a whole could grow together, but also a group that you like to just spend time with off the bandstand hanging out with.  All of us get along group, we play together well, and we enjoy playing the music that we are playing… least I hope they are enjoying playing my music!! ( he laughs)

Q: Your portfolio of work and collaboration with recognised figures in the industry is impressive. How do you describe your quartet’s style of music; does it differ to work performed with others? 

It’s hard to put into words….some compositions are swing, some are Latin, some can have a certain groove to them, at times it can be very free, some are short forms, others more through composed, some show very obvious that we have strong ties to the roots of jazz history, some show us testing the waters, and some compositions can very easily have the listener asking the question “Is this jazz I’m listening to??”  (laughs)

It’s really hard to figure out what kind of “style” because for one I am not a big fan of the idea of styles.  For me it is a decadent institutuion that confines human expression to enclosed parameters.  When you say I have this style it also implies what styles or skills you do not have.   Lately I’ve been trying to break myself out of the habit of saying I’m a jazz and classical musician…at the end of the day, I’m just a musician!!  When people ask me what style of music I play I am forced to answer jazz and classical just because it is what the norm is, but I think people would do better to just listen without any prefixed ideas about what something is going to sound like based on what “style” is has been classified as….either the music touches you or it doesn’t.  I like to think of the scene in Enter the Dragon where Bruce Lee tells the student “It’s like a finger pointing to the moon.  Don’t concentrate on the finger or you will miss all that heavenly glory.”  As far as the question of whether the quartet’s work differs from other groups I’ve performed with or that are of a similar ensemble I would have say yes.  The reason I say yes is because this group is different from any other ensemble just from the fact that the personnel have different personalities, outlooks on music life, and so on, and that in turn will affect the music.  I can go on this subject for awhile so I will stop while I’m ahead, but as and end though, and not to liken myself to someone as great as Duke Ellington, but I’d like to think of the compositions we play as well as the groups playing in general as “beyond category” and it is a philosophy I strongly embrace and try to be conscious of….to maintain constant honest expression.

I can fully appreciate what you’re saying as a fellow artist. I agree and I also like your Bruce Lee analogy from what is a classic film.

Q: Historically your genre of music hasn’t been mainstream. There are numerous bands out there, all aspiring to be both financially and commercially successful whilst retaining a grass foots following. Some have achieved such success but their music has changed dramatically. As an artist, do you envisage this as a potential challenge? 

It is definitely a challenge that many artists are confronted with and I am no different.  While I would definitely like to be more financially well off from just performing, the reality is that there is a very, VERY small tier of people in that company and an even smaller tier of those who actually get to create the art they want to on their terms (meaning they don’t feel the need to cater to critics and/or the audience if they really don’t want to), so I hold no delusions of grandeur about this point and anyone who thinks that they will be the exception would do well to face this reality as soon as possible. I will say that for me I’d like my artistic endeavors to be honest all the time so even if I can’t support myself just based off playing gigs and record sales I am okay with that.  I teach, do clinics, I write and/or arrange music for various ensembles, and I am about to start getting involved in my first film scoring project so I have plenty of ways to make money in the industry.   I guess what I’m trying to say is that for me I have no problem supplementing my income from these other facets of the music industry because I see them as other ways of, one, expression in a different medium, and two, a way that allows me to maintain some financial stability while still playing the music I envision playing and with the musicians I wish to play with on my own terms.

Q: I’ve heard it argued American Jazz musicians gain notoriety overseas before making a successful career partly because this genre isn’t mainstream. Is that view true particularly today when access to music of various kinds is so easily accessible? 

I don’t think one has to go overseas to make a name for themselves.  I don’t think it hurts a musician to have that overseas experience on their resume, but I don’t feel you necessarily need to go there to get more notoriety here.  I think there is a deeper appreciation for jazz and just the arts in general overseas, the pay is much more substantial than what one would receive in the states, and just experiencing another culture is a great thing, but I don’t think you have to go overseas in order to gain recognition here.  Because of people emigrating to other countries and technology like CD’s, iPods, the internet, etc, the diversity of music you can hear in a country has vastly increased. So the need to travel outside your own country I feel is of less importance because people overseas can just listen to your material online and decide if they like it and would like to have you come to perform there.  The other thing to consider why in respects Americans do get more notoriety abroad and have this outlook that you must go overseas to make it is that you always appreciate what you don’t have.  America is the birthplace for jazz, and I think a lot of Americans take that for granted, which I think is a shame because I believe (and if someone else sees otherwise and shows proof I’ll accept it) it is Americas first artistic contribution (at least musically) to be recognized and accepted by the world.  But it’s not just Americans who under appreciate their homeland art.  For example, if you go to South America I doubt there are going to be huge record sales for salsa or latin music because they are surrounded by it all the time or shakuhachi and kabuki in Japan because it’s so close for them as natives that they can hear it anytime.  So it’s no wonder these countries seek to get American performers, and I think that has a great deal to do with the idea that you need to first go overseas to become established.

In performance! Photo by Howard Pitkow

Q: You’re performing at Chris’s Jazz Café this week. Could you tell me a little more about your immediate plans and where you aim to be in five year’s time? 

Yes I will be at Chris’ Jazz Cafe with the group minus Luques who is out of the country at the time.  I’m looking forward to playing in Philly again…it’s been a minute!!  As far as my plans for the next five years goes I have an idea of where I would like to be….(LoL).  The quartet with George, Wayne, Luques, and myself are going to go into the studio in August and record our first CD so I’m excited about that.  I’ve had some interest in recent months from some festivals in Italy and some clubs in the mid west so once the CD is done I will finally have a product to give them.  In addition to that I’ve signed with Artists Recording Label and they will be helping me with the process of recording this first album.  All these things are starting to fall into place and I’m looking forward to the future.  My goals are to record at least one CD every year, and one of those years I would also like to record a big band album in conjunction with the quartet CD.  With these products I’ll hopefully be playing a wider variety of venues in the states and overseas and possibly make a DVD.  I am also in the process of writing some classical music such as a concerto for two alto saxophones and orchestra, so I have a Myriad of projects that will probably take me about 5 years to finish!  All in all I feel good about how things are developing in my career and I fully embrace all that future holds in store for me.

I wish Darryl and the band the greatest success and I hope he remembers  I’m available to design his album covers when his success continues on an upward trajectory!!!  🙂

His Performances for this week: Tomorrow night at Zinc bar with the Valery Ponomarev Big Band!! Show starts at 9pm. Thursday, June 30th, the Darryl Yokley Quartet at Chris’ Jazz Cafe  Philadelphia
Darryl Yokley- saxophone, George Burton- piano, Ryan Berg- bass, and Wayne Smith JR- drums. Show starts at 7pm.

Sunday Duo Presto will be performing at the Kittay House, the Bronx NYC at 2pm.

For further information please visit his webpage

3 thoughts on “In Conversation with Saxophonist Darryl Yokley

  1. Darryl Yokley

    Thanks Chris!! Can’t wait for the new project to take off. And thanks again to you, David, for taking the time to do this interview!!

  2. Pingback: Look out for Darryl Yokley’s Sound Reformation debut album “The Void” « A Day In the life of an Artist: David Emmanuel Noel

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