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Uncharted Territory

You may not know Doug Richards, but you can hear his work all over the city. And in New York. And L.A. And Australia.



Before we talk about Doug Richards, we need to talk about his sitting-room rug. He and his wife, Melanie, had it made — a big round affair, based on a painting by Wassily Kandinsky. Spread across the floor of a corner room, the rug has the dynamic shapes and colors that made Kandinsky famous as an experimenter with concepts.

That Doug Richards saw in his favorite artist a potential floor cover says something about his natural talent for adapting art, making it his own. That Kandinsky was a musician, too, fascinated by the relationship between color and music, says something about Richards' worldview — that music can be found anywhere and that it ties everything together, even a corner room.

Similarly, it's possible to connect Richards to the music scene in Richmond, New York and beyond by the musicians who were driven to the point of insanity and sublimity by the Teachings of Doug. They're everywhere, his pupils current and former, all of them in some way orbiting his teachings, using them as a point of reference against which to build their own constructs of sound.

It's been 28 years since Doug Richards began building the Jazz Studies Program at Virginia Commonwealth University, and though you may not know his name, it's becoming more difficult to live in the city, and the world, without hearing his presence played out in a piece of inventive trumpet work or in the glory of a big band of young men or, perhaps more than anything else, in the passion that drives these musicians-to-be.

Richards begat the people who would go on to create such local groups as the Chez Roué Orchette, Neighborliness, the Devil's Workshop, the Upper East Side Big Band, DJ Williams Projekt, Modern Groove Syndicate, Bungalo6, Oregon Hill Funk All-Stars, Fight the Big Bull, the Butterbean Jazz Quartet and the Big Payback.

He has former students playing with Mandy Moore and writing music for ice-cream trucks. And instead of putting together little garage bands and banging out MySpace-friendly rock, they're putting together bands that are eight pieces, 10 pieces, 17 pieces and more — truly ambitious projects that prove how passion begets passion.

Richards is unusual for many reasons, but perhaps chief among them is that he's as brilliant at creating his own works as he is at teaching. For an artist who, as he says, hides in his cave, arranging pieces on large score sheets and listening to Bach at high volume, he's surprisingly adept at communicating ideas, pushing people and having an intense insight into the artistic capabilities of his students.

People call Richards a force of nature, intimidating and uncompromising. No one seems to take it personally, though, because to them it's obvious that he simply loves music intensely and wants to translate that to the group of musicians he's teaching, rehearsing with or conducting. Perhaps that's what caused Richards to step down as chair of the department in 2001, handing over the reigns to Antonio Garcia, to focus on his classes and, lately, on some of the most ambitious work he's ever created.

Richards' medium is the big band, his idol Duke Ellington. His talent is turning the moving parts of a group of strings, horn-players and percussionists — many of whom have studied jazz arranging under him — into a seamless machine. Some people — respectable people mind you — say that he might be one of the greatest arrangers of jazz music in the world. (There are some who say Richards himself may think that, and if he does, who's to say he's wrong?)

The world of music arranging is perhaps unfamiliar to outsiders, but imagine taking an old standard or theme and revisiting it — reinventing it to be something almost completely your own. Richards breaks it down a little better:

"Here's 'Row, Row, Row Your Boat,'" he says as an example. "Now make 15 minutes of interesting music out of it, please." His arrangements turn into complicated stuff, deeply rooted in blues and jazz but as complex and multidimensional as classical works. (He reveres Ellington but considers Bach a kind of absolute, almost a natural law.)

It's the kind of arrangement that sounds unlike anything anyone else is writing. That's partly because he writes music only the most extremely talented can play. It's "almost unplayable," former student and VCU adjunct instructor Taylor Barnett says. But students and professional players alike say Richards knows the limits of the musicians. "Doug seems to know when the student is capable of more," Barnett says.

Writing for a specific musician is like writing for an actor, Richards says. You get to know the strengths of the players and their personalities, and you design around that. And you push their limits, even if those limits are further out than those of most players in the world.

"It's a great point of departure," Richards says. "Because you're writing for another humanoid, you know?" As a conductor, Richards leads his various bands with this same awareness.

The other meaning of conductor, the electrical meaning, should apply too. "He is like an electric charge to the performer," says Richards, "transmitted in an instant via a gesture or an expression."

Since moving here in 1979, Richards' relentless energy has poured into the Jazz Studies Program at VCU.

At 60, Doug Richards talks, moves and thinks as if powered by a battery that seems to charge itself. His drive is both an inspiration and a challenge to his students and fellow musicians. That he keeps learning means there's always something new to teach or write. He has a burst of white hair appropriate to a latter-day Mozart. He considers things said or sung or played intensely, then throws himself into a response, whether it be a critique or just laughter.

When he thinks, Richards stares straight up, not off to the side or down at his feet, looking for just the right answer on the other side of the ceiling. His hands move in quick sweeps and long arcs across the landscape of his mind, describing the world of sound in ways no less abstract than words. If it were sign language, his movements might describe calculus or water parks. He's strong, too: There are legends passed down from his classes of Richards doing one-armed push-ups in the middle of a lesson.

When he talks, especially when he talks music, Richards' voice takes on a kind of cadence, a time signature. He'll call people "cats," he'll talk about "gigs" and getting "hipped" to new things, and he somehow manages to end a lot of sentences with "the blues" in a slow growl, like "the blooooz."

His Dougisms seem to be a recurring theme — those around him collect his sayings like hip fortune cookies, wisdom he's probably been delivering his whole life.

Richards grew up in Pittsburgh, went to the Berklee College of Music in Boston and grad school at Florida State in Tallahassee. There he married his first wife, Chrysanne, and moved to Atlanta, where he taught as an adjunct professor at Georgia Tech and Georgia State. He and Chrysanne had two children, George and Marianthe.

In 1979 what he calls a "full-time gig" opened at VCU, teaching theory and running the two big bands — the jazz ensembles that really test the students. By 1980 he was developing the program into an entity that would be pulling in students who wanted to study with Richards, pianist and composer Bob Hallahan and Skip Gailes, a saxophonist and pianist who played a lot of clubs in the early '80s. Gailes, who says he had no intention of becoming a teacher, would be one of the first Richards would guide into training the next generation of cats.

In the following 20 years, Richards added to his faculty such music scene-makers as John D'earth, Victor Dvoskin, Howard Curtis, John Winn, Kevin Harding and others. Some students, like Barnett, went on to become faculty, creating a kind of heritage that was unique for a university program.

"You better have your heroes, the ones who touch you," says Richards, who turns a reverential ear to Ellington and Bach. "And you better know why they touch you. … I mean, we're all part of this lineage."

Richards pushed for an intimacy with the VCU program that would come to create friction with an administration that pushed for constant growth. "Music-making is a lot of osmosis-type learning. You can't learn music out of a book," Richards says. "But then there's no substitute for making music with a master performer."

Matt White, who graduated in 2006 and went on to found local music promoter the Patchwork Collective as well as his own big band, Fight the Big Bull, saw in Richards a teacher who was interested in people who shared his passion, demanding as it was.

"I think he tried to drive people away who weren't in it for real," White says. "It wasn't personal at all." Of course, at a university trying to expand, to push enrollment numbers, that kind of selectivity insiders say put him at odds with the powers that be. Richards won't talk about any of this publicly, referring instead to alums and fellow professors who say, in so many words, that Richards would resist or perhaps refuse to compromise in dealing with an art form that he knows better than almost anyone else.

White says the intimacy of the program generated camaraderie among students and professors. It became, once they reached their second or third year, about spending three days a week learning and playing with the six or eight musicians they'd get to know really well. "It's just like it's a big hangout and you're listening to music, and you're learning from a golden mind," White says.

But this was also "Doug's Jazz Arranging Class," the class young musicians learned to dread if they were also trying to live a life. Imagine you're a young cat in a band and you've scored a gig — there's elation. But those who had to slink away afterward rather than chase beer or girls had a familiar predicament: a Doug Richards exam the next day.

But being jazz, there is always room for improvisation. Michael Hearst and Joshua Camp are the minds behind the experimental, high-minded pop of Brooklyn-based One Ring Zero. Hearst — who recently crafted "Songs for Ice Cream Trucks," a self-explanatory album that has been showing up on NPR's "Fresh Air," the "Today" show and elsewhere — recalls barely squeaking by but having fun with the give-and-take all the way through. One time Hearst came into class late, which was verboten, and gave as his excuse that he had been across the street listening to the Richmond Symphony rehearse some Lucas Foss music. Richards put down his chalk and said, "Well, let's all go over there," and led the class on an improvised field trip.

Richards issues impossible challenges: "Baby, if you ain't listening to Duke Ellington at least once a day, you're jiving yourself." Some students got prescribed eight hours of Ellington a day.

"I love Duke Ellington," Hearst says, safely up in New York, "but I guess I must be jiving myself."

Richards has been known to tell students that if they really want to be musicians, they should leave school now and go out and play and play and play. Such pronouncements are strange to hear in an academic setting. But maybe these challenges are issued for the same reason Zen masters of yore recited their many koans — "What is the sound of one hand clapping?" — and all those other formulas for enlightenment: They free the mind from conventional thinking.

There's a quote by Charlie Parker that Richards likes to repeat: "You've got to learn your instrument. Then, you practice, practice, practice. And then, when you finally get up there on the bandstand, forget all that and just wail."

Pianist Daniel Clarke, a former student and member of the Devil's Workshop Big Band and Modern Groove Syndicate, recalls the massive amount of information fed to jazz students. "The rules we need. But they're there to be broken," Clarke says. "He's not following any of those rules whatsoever. … That's really what pulls him to the top, is that he works on so many levels."

Speaking of levels, Richards was just as busy with his own music during those years he spent building the VCU program. In the mid-'80s he founded the Great American Music Ensemble, a professional touring big band that became the mouthpiece for his intricate works. Pulling members from VCU faculty and elsewhere, G.A.M.E. was one of the few groups playing a style of music that was, even then, a half-century out of the mainstream.

"Big bands were actually kind of dinosaurs by that time," Gailes says. What made G.A.M.E. unique, he says, was that time had sifted through the "reams and reams of garbage" that came out of the big band era, leaving only the gems.

Through G.A.M.E., Richards met jazz singer Rene Marie. He found a muse in her, a counterpoint. "For me, she's the finest jazz singer in the world," Richards says.

Marie was similarly impressed: "Man oh man, I knew I was in the right place," she says. "I could see that the musicians just wanted to please him."

Richards and G.A.M.E. recorded an album six years ago, something that would expose his music to a wider audience. Perhaps because it's too far beyond mainstream work, it's still unreleased, but people who've heard it say it's amazing, a master at work. In it, Richards arranged the Ella Fitzgerald standard "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man" for Marie. In it you can hear the dialogue he's having with her, the music giving way to the lyrics, the supreme control.

"There's just this unified emotion I feel the entire time I'm singing," Marie says. "You know what the other person is thinking."

Marie invited Richards to be her arranger for a Town Hall concert in New York a few years ago. Concerts like these exposed the nonpromotional Richards to wider audiences.

A friendship with Richmonder and jazz journalist Martin Williams, director of the Smithsonian Institution's jazz program, has probably done the most to push Richards into the public eye. Richards and G.A.M.E. played annual concerts there, focusing often on — who else? — Duke Ellington. These were some of Richards' highest-profile performances, a chance for his rare talent to be heard outside Richmond.

"Doug's kind of a hermit, man," says Rex Richardson, a classical and jazz trumpet player who, as one of the best in the world, spends a lot of time on the road. Why doesn't Richards do more to push his music out into the world? "I think it has to do with how you want to spend you time," Richardson says.

Richards writes and plays and listens to music — that's how he became as good as he is. The more he does those things, the less time he has to promote himself. It's a vicious cycle, perhaps, but the globe-trotting trumpeter sees another benefit of this level of focus: "The students see that this cat never stops, man."

Barnett saw this motivation firsthand, as an undergraduate and graduate student, as a trumpet-player and also as a promising arranger. "There's only but so many hours in the day," he says of Richards. "All of it goes into playing and writing."

In 2001 Richards stepped down from his position as director of jazz studies at VCU. He says it was stress that finally prompted the move. Given VCU's drive to expand, perhaps it's understandable that Richards would want to avoid the bureaucracy of a university that's soon to be the biggest in the state. He still teaches his classes, of course, but the transition was definitely strange.

"It's sort of like getting a divorce and then having to live in the house with the ex, your kids and the next husband," Richards says. While the strain of promoting a growing program was lifted, he also had to give up the Jazz Ensemble I, the flagship ensemble of the best students. Running the big band is part of the director's job description.

"I miss not directing an ensemble on a regular basis," he says. "I didn't realize I'd miss it as much as I do."

"The very purest people often do not fare the best in politics," says John D'earth, a member of G.A.M.E. and former VCU faculty now at the University of Virginia. "He's just a person of principle."

Antonio Garcia took over the program the next year, coming from Northwestern University with an ability to promote. "I'm very PR-minded," he says. "I was not coming here to fail."

And within a year, the Jazz Studies Program received a windfall: Real estate investor W.E. Singleton pledged $3 million to be paid out over his life, the largest gift ever made to a university jazz program.

Garcia credits the strength of Richards' program for getting Singleton's notice, but Garcia had also built a relationship with the man that made it a good match.

Richards said in a 2004 Style Weekly story that the program had never been given more than $2,000 a year. On the other hand, says Barnett, who was a student during the transition, when budget restrictions limited what they could buy, Richards would just write or transcribe arrangements.

Garcia, true to his word, had many changes in store.

"I felt as though students needed to broaden to include more contemporary possibilities," he says. Now there's Richards' big band, bebop jazz, avant-garde music. Also, in 2005 the program's curriculum was revised for the first time in 25 years, a combination of ideas from Richards, Garcia and others that Garcia says met with unanimous approval. One of those additions, the one Garcia felt most strongly about, was a music-business course.

Garcia plans to expand the industry courses to offer a bachelor's degree in music business, a digital recording course at In Your Ear studio and a variety of internships.

"That's what it's all about — it's about growth," Garcia says. If there are only so many hours in a day (and eight of them are dedicated to Ellington), there can only be so much time for promotion or the other things that aren't playing, practicing, writing.

"There are so many talented musicians that have learned from Doug," White says, "but they don't know how to promote themselves — which they also learned from Doug."

Richards says he feels awkward about going out and "peddling himself." "I don't think it's very often that a creative sort is also going to be a good advertiser for their own, ah, virtues," he says.

But White speaks to the plight of the artist: In order to be great, you have to work at your art; but in order to get recognized, you have to promote your art, which, unless your art is advertising, won't advance your work. This may be why you might never have heard of Doug Richards.

That may soon change. Richards is working on three pieces for the Richmond Symphony's pop series in September, arranging works by rootsrock outfit Billy Ray Hatley and The Show Dogs, Johnny Hott and the Piedmont Souprize and Page Wilson. In these works, the connective tissue of Richards' talent reveals itself. Arranging Ellington is one thing; arranging a country-rock tune for a full symphony is something else.

"That's what an arranger does," Richards says. "He gives it a real sense of drama." He approaches it with a certain kind of glee, thinking of violins and second trombones where they hadn't existed previously. Richards is also working on arrangements for the symphony's 50th anniversary celebration in January.

But if there's an opus for Richards, arranger of rugs, improviser of classes, strongman of the one-armed push-up, it's his six-part Intercontinental Concerto for Trumpet and Jazz Orchestra. He premiered the first five parts of the concerto last year, each piece representing the music of each continent. With it, he's been pushing his limits to the ends of the world, bringing forth all he knows about music and shifting that planetary focus more toward Bach, perhaps, than Ellington.

In scope, the concerto is enormous. Richardson is at the forefront, channeling the parts through the trumpet: piccolo trumpet for an adaptation of 1,200-year-old Japanese gagaku music, a bit of Bach with a fluegelhorn, an Australian tune run through didgeridoo and cornet, and North American jazz and Brazilian samba, with and without plungers. All, of course, run through a big band.

The first five parts premiered in Melbourne last year. Reviewer Amanda Casagrande of the brass-oriented Web site had this to say about the performance:

"One of the highlights of the week was the World Premiere performance of the next work — 'Intercontinental Concerto for Trumpet and Jazz Orchestra.' Composed and directed by the great Doug Richards, and performed by Rex Richardson and the [Melbourne International Festival of Brass] Big Band, this was a captivating, and mesmerising performance. The clever, rich, detailed writing, passion and musical feeling shown by the composer was incredible to watch and listen to."

Richards and Richardson returned home to play at the Singleton Center with pianist Clarke and others making up the home team. At that performance, people wept.

Richards, deeply immersed, sees the music of the concerto as ambient, as running throughout those world traditions. "These ideas, they're not part of the mind," he says. "I don't think we can fully take credit for their origins."

The last, unwritten piece in this worldwide architecture — assuming Richards doesn't write a piece for Antarctica, all penguins and wind (which isn't necessarily outside his range) — is Africa. Richards says this music, while primitive, is far from simple. It's the birthplace of civilization and of that particular brand of pathos that, thousands of years later, found its way into the bloooz.

Richards will push trumpeter Richardson a little further, introducing cow-horn and ram's horn to the versatile musician's performance. When the concerto's completed sometime next spring, there will be something like the world according to Doug, a globe-spanning arrangement translating many different musical languages into the horn-driven patois of the big band.

It's seamless and reveals that other great Eastern truth: Everything is connected.

Somehow Doug can hear Bach and catalyze "Waltzing Matilda" in Australia, while on the other side of the world, Matt White and Fight the Big Bull huddle at the center of the dining room at Cous Cous and swell the heart with a brassy take on The Band's "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down." Meanwhile, in Los Angeles, Clarke plays piano with Mandy Moore on "The Tonight Show," and in New York, Michael Hearst sits in his bedroom with some invented instruments, crafting new songs for the ice-cream trucks of the world.

It's like White was saying about conversations in one of Richards' classes: "He'd talk about sex in music and relationships in music and food in music. … Everything relates. Everything's the same thing. From George Bush to dominant-seven chords, conversation flows into and out of and back to that one thing."

Richards has spent his life weaving those threads together, a rug for all seasons. And he's spent a lot of that time producing musicians and teachers who recognize the weave, who are being hipped to the world and encouraged to grow. With so many threads out there, the maestro is connecting all of us, one gig at a time.

"Everyone's now starting to fuse everything together — and it's wonderful," he says. "It's quite eye-opening to see what's going on around the world. … I can't help but be inspired. And humbled." S

Style Weekly music writer Peter McElhinney contributed to this story.

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