For many people attracted to the arts, their college years are the final time they’re allowed to devote their energies toward what they really love, their last chance to immerse themselves in acting or writing or music before the real world and the business of making a living burst the dream of a life rooted in the joy of creating.
But then there are the lucky and talented ones, like veteran bassist Dean DeMerritt, who, some 40 years ago, literally sped from the University of Tulsa to his first post-college employment as a working musician, which has been his job description ever since.
“I took my last final that morning, hopped in the station wagon, drove as fast as I could to Austin and got there when Asleep at the Wheel was setting up to play at the Broken Spoke,” he says. “That was my first gig with them.”
He’d auditioned for the job a couple of months earlier, when the hard-touring, western-swing group had made a stopover in Tulsa. Its personnel at the time included saxophonist Pat “Taco” Ryan, a Tulsa musician and contemporary of DeMerritt.
“Taco got me the gig,” DeMerritt says. “Asleep at the Wheel’s bass player was quitting, and I went over to the Magician’s Theatre [the legendary basement club in Tulsa]. Taco was there, and [Wheel leader] Ray Benson, and their drummer, and their fiddle player, Danny Levin. They asked me to play the bass line for their version of ‘Route 66,’ which is kind of a hard line – a boogie-woogie, eighth-note deal, in F, and I had the chops to play it.
“Ray said, ‘OK. Your first gig’s May 12th’ – or whenever it was – ‘at the Broken Spoke in Austin. Here’s our records. Listen to ’em. See you then. Bye.’ That was basically it. I thought, ‘Well, OK. I’ll figure it out.’”
And he did, well enough to stay with the band for the next four years, a period that not only saw DeMerritt and Ryan in the group, but two other Tulsa musicians – keyboardist Falkner Evans and drummer Billy Estes – as well.
“It was Taco, then me, then Falkner, then Billy,” he says. “We were all in there together for a while.”
After leaving Asleep at the Wheel, DeMerritt relocated to Fort Worth and played in that city’s symphony orchestra and with a number of area jazz and blues groups. By 1996, he was in Atlanta with his own band, the Dean DeMerritt Jazz Tribe.
Then, about four years ago, he returned to Tulsa, where – as had happened with Asleep at the Wheel in the late ’70s – he linked up again with some of his comrades, who, not coincidentally, happened to be among the top jazz names in the area.
“It’s the real deal here,” he says. “The jazz guys, especially, we all know each other. I know what tunes and arrangements Mike Cameron likes, what Scott McQuade likes, and they know what I like. It’s a constantly rotating pattern of jazz musicians, all playing together, a very close-knit community.”
Pianist McQuade and saxophonist Cameron are among the stellar lineup of Tulsa-jazz guests on DeMerritt’s latest disc, Compared to Now, which finds DeMerritt sharing top billing with vocalist Sarah Maud and guitarist Sean Al-Jibouri. It’s a fascinating record, with elements of rap, classic rock, pop, reggae and other musical forms stirred into the grooves. That’s in keeping with DeMerritt’s mission to make his music as accessible as possible.
“I don’t want my stuff to be so obtuse that only stone-jazz musicians will listen to it,” he says. “I want people to like the music, man. I want people who don’t normally like jazz to listen and say, ‘Hey, I guess jazz is OK after all.’”
While there’s no doubt that Compared to Now is firmly rooted in the jazz idiom, with songs composed by the likes of Charles Mingus and Wayne Shorter, those more familiar with other genres will find their own entry points. For fans of ’60s rock and pop music, for instance, there are a couple of erstwhile Top 40 hits, Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth” and Spiral Staircase’s “More Today Than Yesterday,” given jazzy reworkings by the trio and guest players, including organist Jerry Thomas, drummer George Toumayan, Cameron and McQuade.
Since Maud and Al-Jibouri are just about half DeMerritt’s age, you might think he was the one who chose those two oldies for the disc. And you’d be right – almost.
“Yes, I was responsible for those,” says DeMerritt, “but maybe not so much ‘For What It’s Worth’ because Sean – who’s 30 or so – had been listening to it, and he liked the guitar harmonics and wanted to take them to another level … which he sure did.”
Maud, meanwhile, has arguably her finest turn on the record with an all-scat version of the late 1940s Woody Herman standard “Four Brothers.”
“Sarah loved doing that tune,” DeMerritt says. “She is very much into her voice being an instrument; she scats more than any singer I’ve ever played with. She’s always saying, ‘Can I take a solo, too?’ The trumpet player wants a solo, the guitar player wants a solo, and she wants a solo, too. And she’s always raring to go to scat.”
With all of that going on in Compared to Now, however, the piece that’s likely to leave the most lasting impression on the listener is the first song, “Compared to What.” Beginning with a spoken-word introduction by Atlanta-based rapper Daylynn Brown, the track segues into a powerful vocal from Maud that drives home a hard set of righteously angry lyrics.
“‘Compared to What’ is a jazz protest song that was recorded by [vocalist-pianist] Les McCann and [saxophonist] Eddie Harris back at the 1969 Montreux Jazz Festival,” DeMerritt says. “It was basically a protest about the social injustices of the time. I’ve been wanting to do it for a long, long time, and I convinced Sarah to do it, and Sean as well.
“There was a rapper in Atlanta who used to walk down the street near where I did a jazz gig in midtown. He was a friend of my son’s. He’d be walking down the street, just free-styling, and people would be listening, and when he’d come by I’d knock on the window and say, ‘Hey, come on in to the club, listen to some jazz.’ And he’d come in and listen to us. He was really into it.
“So, I approached him with the context of the song and asked him if he’d update it with some fresh spoken word, applicable to the times we live in now. He gave it scholarly thought. It wasn’t just something he just came up with on the street. He put it together, and we mixed it in the studio in Atlanta.”
As the similarities in the titles indicate, that was the song that inspired the name of the new disc.
“We call the record Compared to Now,” he says, “because, really, not a whole lot has changed in economic and social-justice terms since 1969.
“I wish we’d done a little more with the social-justice theme, but I’m not really much of a preacher or whatever. We kept it with ‘For What It’s Worth’ and maybe with ‘Weird Nightmare,’ the Wayne Shorter tune, but that was about it. If there’s a thematic strand to this record, it’s that we took a lot of songs that were 40 or 50 years old, or more, and refreshed them for today, updating them to a more modern sound.”