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Miles Morrisseau
Special to Indian Country Today

Delbert Anderson remembers the moment he got hooked on jazz.

Born on the Navajo Nation in Shiprock, New Mexico, his clans are the Folded Arms People (maternal), Red Cheek People (paternal), Red House People (maternal grandfather), and Bitter Water People (paternal grandfather).

He was only in the 4th grade when he knew he wanted to blow his own horn.

The students were asked to pick out their instruments for the music program the day after a jazz band performed at the school to demonstrate the instruments. There was a trombone player who mesmerized young Anderson that day.

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“He just started to solo and solo and he soloed...for me, it felt like forever, for a very long time. But that got me kind of thinking, where’s all this music coming from? He's not looking at anything, you know,” Anderson told Indian Country Today in a recent interview.

“And I thought that was like one of the coolest things. And from that moment I was kind of hooked to playing some type of instrument. And the very next day, I tried to play trombone, trying to copy the guy. And I couldn't play any notes on it. They told me to go to get a trumpet and, you know, I made like, two or three noises. And they were like, ‘Yeah, you're a trumpet player.’”

He took the instrument home and began to practice with great passion, trying to recreate the sound of a professional trombonist soloing in a gymnasium full of public school kids. By seventh grade, he was a member of the Farmington Community Jazz Ensemble. He played in the high school band and eventually played his way to Eastern New Mexico College on a full-ride scholarship.

He is now an accomplished musician featured in national magazines and television programs, and most recently received the Arts Forward 2022 award funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Among other honors he has received are the 2021 Emerging/Leaders of Color Program from the Western States Arts Federation and the 2019-2022 Native Launchpad Award by Advancing Indigenous Performance with Western Arts Alliance.

And a new album is on the way.

Finding something new

After graduating from college, Anderson wanted to form an eight-piece band, but he said only two people kept showing up. So he decided to take the signs and go with a trio instead.

“We decided just to try with our instruments, you know, bare bones,” he said. “I studied jazz in college, so I knew there were players like Joshua Redman and Sonny Rollins that would play with a trio that just had bass and drums and instrument, so I was kind of going off that and knew that the trio would work in that sense.”

What didn’t work was trying to play jazz standards. They worked out different tunes but found little inspiration in the sounds they were making. They needed to find something new.

“Everyone kind of had this plan of, ‘We're going to dig deeper into ourselves.” he said. “And our bass player, Mike McCluhan, he was a Deadhead. So, he loved to jam, you know, Grateful Dead and all, and he brought that jamming aspect to the band. Nicholas Lucero, drummer, he was a little more established in jazz drumming already, but some of his favorite genres of music were Latin and funk. So, he kind of mixed those two and brought it to the trio.

“And then myself, you know, I already loved to improvise. Another thing that I brought, I started looking a little deeper into my own culture,” Anderson said.

The Delbert Anderson Trio features trumpeter Delbert Anderson, Dine, far right, with, from left, drummer Nicholas Lucero, bass player Mike McCluhan, and emcee James Pakootas, known as Just Jamez. Pakootas is a citizen of the Colville Confederated Tribe. (Photo courtesy of Delbert Anderson)

Anderson is a musician and a scholar, and he used his academic background to research his own tribe’s musical history.

“I found these songs called the Navajo spinning songs,” he said. “And that's when I started to do deeper research and kind of ask some of the elders that are still present today about the songs and these Diné spinning songs are actually ways for our tribe to create new material within that traditional sense, so there's a lot of spinning songs that are about, like, manners, how to treat people … The list goes on, because it's a way to bring new songs to the tribe and I thought that was very cool.”

The result was what his website describes as “ancient Native American melodies fused with jazz and funk.”

‘Groove Warrior’

In 2014, The Delbert Anderson Trio released the album, “Manitou,” recorded live at The Totah Theater in Farmington, New Mexico. The album is a journey through jazz/blues/funk and Indigenous rhythms, and captures the creation of something special.

The music is a conjuring of the new and the ancient, which is the definition of timeless.

Highlights include the title track, “New York Navajo,” “Where is The Native” and “Dat One.” “Groove Warrior” was released as a single with accompanying video. The track starts with Lucero’s tribal beat and Anderson’s horn comes swinging in ala Louis Armstrong marching down Bourbon Street, and then McCluhan’s fat bass bounces in like a jovial old chum, and the whole party is just grooving.

“KP Blues” evokes Charlie Parker – perhaps an unfair comparison to a giant of the art form, but one that is there nonetheless. “Iron Horse Gallup” is a song that is made for driving, but be sure that you have it on cruise control because it will have you speeding along.

The band – always looking to expand its sound – broadened its base in 2015 after playing the Survival of the First Voices Festival.

“We ended up closing the entire festival,” Anderson said. “And I was talking to our drummer Nick and was telling him about this guy, this rapper named Def-i [Chris Bidtah, also Diné]. And I was like, ‘It'd be cool if we did something sort of spontaneous with him on our last song.’ And, you know, our last song we're playing that night was called, “Where's the Native?” and we made this … joke, like ‘Where's the Native, Def-i?’ And he came out and we started playing this song and everyone thought we were like this band, you know; everyone thought we were already established and everything. And after the performance we got, like two or three gigs.”

Just like that DDAT was born. A new ensemble band formed by the addition of Def-i to The Delbert Anderson Trio.

National recognition

Throughout the successes, Anderson’s commitment to education has remained constant.

In 2016, he joined the faculty of San Juan College as jazz director, a position he still holds. That same year he founded the Native American Music Program, which takes individuals on a crash course on how to build a band with a focus on the business side of the music business.

Also in 2016, in collaboration with Mauricio Espinal, Anderson dropped the holiday-themed, “Christmas in Bb.” The six-song EP of Christmas classics featured “Joy to the World,” “Silent Night” and “The Christmas Song” aka “Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire.” In addition to the John Coltrane-inspired,” My Favorite Things,” vocalist Samantha Kirp joins in on the Eartha Kitt classic. “Santa Baby.”

In 2017, The Delbert Anderson Trio released its second album, a self-titled record that is a collection of original songs in a more traditional jazz style plus classic tunes such as “Autumn in New York,” “Misty,” Wayne Shorter’s “Nefertiti” and others.

The confidence the trio has in its own identity is shown in taking on the works defined by icons such as Miles Davis, Ella Fitzgerald and Dexter Gordon alongside their own compositions.

That year, with the encouragement of fans and family, Anderson decided to enter DDAT into NPR’s national Tiny Desk Series, which features new artists. The NPR show is one of the most prestigious live performance destinations on the internet and has featured the top artists in music from hip-hop, rock, folk and various iterations of those genres.

It seemed like a good fit, but they all went back to their day jobs and forgot about it. Two days before the deadline to put their name in the hat for the series, they rushed to pull together a performance video of the song, “Roadrunner,” which was so new Def-i scattered the words on the floor so they wouldn’t forget them.

“We rushed up to Cortez, Colorado, (to) the Little Sunflower Theater,” Anderson said. “And we asked if someone could film us there … It is about an hour’s drive from where we were at, and during that whole time [Chris] was writing lyrics. He was barely writing, “Roadrunner.” And he was like, ‘I have to write it really big.’ So you can't see it on the video, but on the floor, there was like a ton of just loose-leaf paper laying all over the place with lyrics. And that's how we recorded. I think we ended up doing three takes, something like that, and they chose one of them.”

Out of more than 6,000 entries, DDAT made it into the top ten, chosen from a panel reviewing the entries. There was something special happening in what DDAT was creating, and it was drawing national attention. 

The DDAT sound is jazz and hip-hop with Indigenous rhythm and soul. It has the bass of James

Brown and the funky drummer and the great storytelling flow, poignant lyricism and dexterity of Def-i’s delivery.

Then Anderson’s horn takes off and carries you to another level. It is like the drop or the big chorus or the drum break cascade of harmonious voices. The sound that sets off the good feelings button. The chemicals and the hormones that fire countless nerve endings released in a way that can only be generated by music.

Track after track on this remarkable debut DDAT album cracks the code to aural pleasure.

The band continued to share its sound and create music and explore collaborations, but their journey was put on pause with the COVID-19 pandemic. The social distance put a strain on the working relationship between the Farmington-based trio and their West Coast-based emcee.

In early 2021, the band DDAT and its singer, Def-i, went their separate ways.

“Chris [Def-i] has his own solo career as an emcee,” Anderson said. “We were just getting double-booked all the time, and scheduling was very hard. And we didn't want to keep Chris from his solo career and vice-versa. He didn't want to keep us from our DDAT thing. And so we thought it would be best just to part ways and focus on whatever our passions are. And so, May of 2021, we parted ways.”

The band then picked up James Pakootas, a citizen of the Colville Confederated Tribe known as Just Jamez, who fit seamlessly into the music warriors’ groove.

Looking ahead

Anderson was selected to perform on PBS's New Year's presentation, “United in Song: Celebrating the American Dream.” The show broadcast Dec. 31, 2021, on PBS nationally and is available to stream on the PBS app and at pbs.org.

The star-studded performance was filmed at Independence Hall in Philadelphia and was hosted by three-time Tony Award winner Chita Rivera and featured recording artist David Archuleta, legendary folk singer Judy Collins, R&B/Pop recording artist Deborah Cox, internationally celebrated guitarist Pepe Romero, Tony Award winner Lea Salonga and others. Anderson performed with the American Pops orchestra conducted by Luke Fraser.

On March 22, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management announced that Anderson will be this year’s artist-in-residence and lead a multi-city tour with DDAT. It will mark the first time that BLM's artist-in-residence will hit the road.

The Painted Mountains Tour will feature Anderson and DDAT, spending a day at each BLM location researching Indigenous land stories and music, and then holding a workshop on the second day for students to compose two original pieces of music. The final day will conclude with an outdoor public performance.

The tour begins June 14 at Colorado's Canyons of the Ancients National Monument, then continues at Utah’s Bears Ears National Monument on June 17-18; Idaho’s Morley Nelson Snake River Birds of Prey National Conservation Area, June 23-24; and Oregon’s Lower Deschutes River June 27-28.

The tour will celebrate America's birthday July 2-4 at California's King Range National Conservation Area and conclude near Anderson's home at New Mexico's Oregon Mountains Desert Peaks National Monument on July 8 -9.

In the fall, the group will be traveling to South Africa to tour with the World of Art and Music Festival, and is finishing production on DDAT’s second release and the first Pakootas.

The sounds that Anderson is creating as a soloist and with The Delbert Anderson Trio, DDAT and other collaborators are filled with a fundamental Indigenous sound, the heartbeat drum. But Anderson points out the heartbeat also swings.

“ We're kind of at the forefront for some Indigenous artists and artists that are making an impact,” he said. “Everyone that we run into is like, ‘How did you guys get into jazz and rap?’... It's so simple how we got in. Because for me it goes back to the heartbeat …

“Our heartbeat swings already.”

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