Dennis Mackrel Assumes New Role at New Jersey Youth Symphony Jazz Program

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Dennis Mackrel Assumes New Role at

New Jersey Youth Symphony Jazz Program

 Dennis Mackrel is a noted drummer, composer, arranger, and educator who has recorded and performed with some of the biggest stars in jazz, including Count Basie, Joe Williams, McCoy Tyner, and George Shearing. Recently, he was appointed the first Artist-In-Residence for the New Jersey Youth Symphony (NJYS) located at the Wharton Institute for the Performing Arts in Berkeley Heights, NJ.

For NJYS, Mackrel will lead six clinics for high school students, college students, and jazz educators on various topics, including concert preparation, jazz history, a study in jazz styles, and improvisation. The program began in October 2021 and will continue through April 2022. It includes six monthly Sunday afternoon sessions, including big band and combo rehearsals, which are free and open to New Jersey jazz students and educators to attend and absorb.

Mackrel’s connection with NJYS developed, he said, “because of my affiliation with Queens College since I am a Professor at the Jazz department there. I received a call from Helen Cha-Pyo, the NJYS Artistic Director. She asked if I would be their Artist-In-Residence and do a series of workshops and clinics. I had never met her or worked with her or the New Jersey Youth Symphony before, but I was struck by her obvious commitment to young people. She was just so fired up about the work that they were doing. By the way that she spoke, I was just so inspired to jump in, and I told her, ‘I would love to be a part of it!’”

Born inb April 3, 1962, in Omaha, NE, Mackrel began playing drums at only two years old. By 10, he was already playing professional theater gigs. After performing locally throughout high school, he attended the University of Nevada, Las Vegas where he began performing at several Vegas venues such as the Tropicana and the Imperial Theater. He also began playing with the UNLV Jazz Ensemble under the direction of drummer and arranger Frank Gagliardi, one of his earliest mentors.

While at UNLV, Mackerel was noticed by vocalist Joe Williams. “Joe,” he said, “was one of my greatest influences. Although he traveled frequently, he made Las Vegas his home. Sometimes, when he would be home, he would just come to the university, walk into a big band rehearsal, and hang out. If we did a concert, he might be in the audience to hear the music. He was not only a great musician but was also a real mentor to a lot of the younger players.           

“He saw me at UNLV, and he was the one who recommended me to Count Basie.” Williams, Mackrel said, “called up Basie personally and told him about me. He said to him that I was a drummer he needed to hear. He is basically responsible for me becoming a professional musician.”

Mackrel was hired by Basie in January 1983 for a position previously held by such legendary drummers as Jo Jones, Sonny Payne, and Shadow Wilson. “Basie,” Mackerel recalled, “was like a grandfather. When I joined the band, I was 20 years old. I was the youngest member of the band. I remember when I was so stressed out by trying to absorb everything that came along with doing the job, and I think I got the flu. He would call my room and ask, ‘Are you O.K.? Are you eating well? He was just checking up on me to make sure that I was physically all right. He had that relationship with everyone in the band but on different levels.

“One of the greatest things that was ever said to me happened when I was with Basie,” he continued. “I was really frustrated while I was with him because I recognized that I was this young kid, and this is a guy who worked with every great drummer in the world. I was horrified at the thought of ‘What am I supposed to do? What can I bring to the band?’ Basie said to me, ‘I want you to be you.’ That statement changed my life. It was the first time that anybody of that caliber looked me in the eye and invested that kind of trust in me. It opened me up to the concept that I may actually have something different to bring — something unique. In a way, it helped me have the confidence to become an arranger and develop into a musician capable of doing other things outside of drumming. Count Basie allowed me the space to do it.”

After Mackrel was with the band for about 16 months, Basie passed away (in April 1984). Under the new direction of Eric Dixon and then Thad Jones, Mackrel continued recording and touring with the Basie Orchestra and began providing original compositions and arrangements for the band until his departure in 1987. Even after he left, he stayed connected. “If there was ever a situation where they needed a substitute,” he said, “I would come in and help out if I could. If they needed an arrangement, I would send them something.”           

After leaving Basie, Mackrel became a New York-based first-call big band drummer and arranger. During this period, he worked with the American Jazz Orchestra, the Carla Bley Big Band, The Mel Lewis Orchestra, the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra, The McCoy Tyner Big Band, Buck Clayton’s Swing Band, and the Dizzy Gillespie All-Star Big Band. He also performed and recorded in several small groups.

Of the many well-known musicians that Mackrel worked with, he was particularly excited to talk about his time with Tyner and Shearing. While playing with the Mel Lewis Orchestra (He filled the drum chair after Lewis passed away in 1990), Mackrel met Earl Gardner, who was the lead trumpet player. “Earl also played lead for McCoy Tyner’s band,” he recalled, “so it was Earl who recommended me to McCoy as an arranger. McCoy was an amazing gentleman, always very nurturing and always very kind. Like Basie and Joe Williams, McCoy Tyner was never demanding or abrasive. He was just a great musician, very soft-spoken, just a gentleman in a real traditional sense of the word.”

As a small group drummer, one of Mackrel’s crowning achievements was his work with Shearing’s Quintet. “George Shearing was another gentleman,” he said. “George was probably one of the best leaders I ever worked for. His direction was always clear. His musical taste was impeccable. He was also very nurturing and allowed you just to play. His quintet was very stylized in terms of the certain sound that it had, and there were specific parameters that you had to respect in terms of volume and in terms of precision. However, George was amazing in that he would still allow you to be you, to play how you played. When George did anything, and you got to do it with him, you just felt like you were on the A-Team and with the greatest band in the world.”

In September 2010, Mackrel returned to the group he calls “his family,” The Basie Orchestra. He took over as the group’s new leader and conductor, holding that position until 2013.

After his second run with the Basie Orchestra, Mackrel centered his efforts on presenting jazz globally when he was named Chief Conductor of the Jazz Orchestra of the Concertgebouw based in Amsterdam, beginning in November of 2015. This appointment led to an impressive international career as a guest conductor, arranger, and soloist for such outstanding ensembles as the Klüvers Big Band in Aarhus, Denmark, the Danish Radio Big Band in Copenhagen, and the WDR Big Band in Koln, Germany.

In addition to his experiences as a performer, arranger, composer, and conductor, Mackrel is a noted educator who has provided master classes, workshops, and seminars at various universities and conservatories including the Eastman School of Music, the University of Wisconsin, and Northern Illinois University, among many others. He is currently an Assistant Chair and Professor of Jazz Studies at the Aaron Copland School of Music at Queens College in Flushing, NY, and is also a jazz faculty member at the Birch Creek Summer Music Academy in Egg, WI, and the Skidmore Jazz Institute in Saratoga Springs, NY.

When asked about his approach to his role as an educator, Mackerel emphasized that, “I want to give students the freedom to become who they are already. As an educator, I want my students to be themselves while also instilling a particular standard. All of the great leaders I spoke about were all nice people, but when it came time for the downbeat, the music had to be right and at a particular level. They all had their ways of letting you know when it wasn’t. No matter how gracious they were, they never lowered their standards.

“My band director in college Frank Gagliardi would always talk about ‘taking care of biz. Do what you need to do, but now it’s time to take care of biz.’ I never forgot that. As educators, it is our job to inspire, to ensure that there is a standard and that students know that they need to maintain that standard to achieve a certain level.”

Mackerel also talks to his students about the importance of being versatile, “If anyone ever studied investments, they were told to diversify. Basie is one of the people who encouraged me to keep writing and arranging. I have always found, as you go through life, everything is always in constant flux. Everything is constantly changing. So, it makes sense to be able to change with the times. There are always going to be new drummers coming in, younger players, and better players. You can’t be all things to all people, but at the same time, I can go from playing drums to writing an arrangement to being an educator or conductor. My role depends on the needs of the music or the requirements at the moment. To have the ability to fill as many different roles as possible will work out to your advantage and allow you to continue to work.”

When asked about the future of jazz, after the pandemic, Mackrel expressed optimism. “Does jazz have a future? Yes. I feel very positive. I can’t say what the future is going to be because I can’t predict the future.” Because of the pandemic, he said, “We have been in a situation where we were not even able to play. Now I talk to musicians who are back doing gigs, and they are all so fired up, so thankful, so excited. It’s like they can’t wait to play.

“Jazz has always been a music of innovation. People have always tried to figure out a different approach within their own particular style. All of the things we took for granted as musicians had been put on hold, and now in some ways, we have to rebuild things. I think that now there are going to be a lot of new ways of doing things. One of the great byproducts of the pandemic was that there were these Zoom groups where musicians would get together just to hang out, which never used to happen. In a way, cyberspace has become the hang. The technology had been around for years. We could have been doing this for a while. We never did it, though, because we didn’t really have to.”

The New Jersey Youth Symphony Jazz program’s mission is to train and foster the next generation of young jazz musicians. Mackrel’s “expertise and experience,” said Artistic Director Cho, “will help elevate our young musicians’ understanding of jazz to a new level; and they are extremely lucky to be learning from a highly respected performer, composer, and educator.” — JAY SWEET

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