A few hours after taking his last final exam at the University of Tulsa, bassist Dean Demerritt jumped into his station wagon and headed for Austin, where he had a job waiting with the hard-touring western-swing band Asleep at the Wheel. He spent four years playing and recording with that venerable group, and although it’s been decades since he was a member, he still uses some of the things he learned during those years.
How to read a crowd, for instance. And why that’s important.
“You really have to have your finger on the pulse of an audience, and call the tunes accordingly,” he says. “Even in jazz, you have to do that. Especially in jazz. I prefer the
approach of jazz musicians like Cannonball Adderley and George Duke, trying to make jazz more accessible to the audience. If you’re playing for an audience that’s not into the esoteric stuff, then you’re going to lose them. You constantly have to make changes and adjustments based on audience feedback.”
That’s the kind of thing he’ll be doing when he brings the Dean Demerritt Jazz Tribe to the Jazz Depot Sunday from its home base in Atlanta. It’ll be a return engagement for the quintet, which first performed in Tulsa during September of last year.
“We played one of the last dates at Ciao’, and we played a concert at the Jazz Hall of Fame,” recalls Demerritt. “All the guys in the band – two native Atlantans and two native New Yorkers – were just blown away by the Jazz Hall of Fame. They had so much fun in Tulsa that they’ve been bugging me to book some dates so they could come back.
“The Jazz Hall of Fame is such a unique little gem for Tulsa and Oklahoma,” he adds. “There’s nothing like it in Atlanta. I mean, there are some cultural districts, but there’s not a place where a jazz heritage is displayed like there is in Tulsa.”
Demerritt got in on some of that Tulsa heritage as a boy. His father was a jazz pianist who led his own trio and, with saxophonist Allan Cox, a quartet. As a high schooler, Demerritt played in his dad’s combos and with well-known Tulsa dance-band leader Sammy Pagna.
“I learned a lot from them, and from guys like Ken Downing, Joe Davis, and especially George Dennie, the piano player,” Demerritt remembers.
While a student at TU, Demerritt shared the stage with nationally known musicians like Stanley Clarke, Max Roach, and Stan Kenton, and also played with the Tulsa Philharmonic Orchestra and the Springfield Symphony. At the time he joined Asleep at the Wheel, it was packed with Tulsa jazz musicians, including saxophonist Pat “Taco” Ryan, pianist Falkner Evans, drummer Billy Estes, and Demerritt himself.
“Taco was the original one, and he threw the gig to me,” explains Demerritt. “I threw it to Billy, and Billy threw it to Falkner.”
After leaving the Wheel, Demerritt moved to the Dallas-Fort Worth area and then, in 1996, to Atlanta, where he found some like-minded, and similarly experienced, personnel for his group.
“I’ve got a piano player, John Miller, who spent 15 years on the road with [jazz saxophonist] Stanley Turrentine, and there are certain things he’s really good at that the audience digs,”Demerritt says. “Our saxophone player, Zach Graddy, alternates between Atlanta and Washington, D.C., and in D.C. he plays with a Grammy-nominated trumpet player named Michael Thomas. And our guitarist, Tavius Elder, just got off some dates with Hubert Laws, the flute player.”
Demerritt, who plays both upright and electric bass, and drummer Henry Brent complete the Jazz Tribe roster.
“In Atlanta,” he says, “there’s a fantastic pool of musicians. A lot of them get off the road with, let’s say, the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, or with some of the hip-hop and soul artists, and they can go out and play straight-ahead gigs. There’s a lot more of that in Atlanta than there is in Tulsa.
“But the great thing about Tulsa,” he adds, “is that there’s a close-knit community of people there who support jazz. It’s more of a fraternity. It’s just a warmer scene.”
The Dean Demerritt Jazz Tribe is set to begin at 5:00 p.m. Sunday, April 14, at the Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame, located in downtown Tulsa’s Jazz Depot, 111 E. First Street. Tickets can be purchased at the depot or by calling Bettie Downing at 918-281-8609. General admission is $15, reserved table seating $20. Seniors and Jazz Hall members are admitted for $10, and high school and junior high students for $5. Refreshments will be available for purchase.
The performance is a part of the Jazz Hall’s Spring Concert Series.
The Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame is a 501(c)(3) non-profit cultural and educational organization, with a mission to inspire creativity and improve the quality of life for all Oklahomans through preservation, education, and performance of jazz, our uniquely American art form.