National Museum of the American Indian

"The Swing of the Navajo Heartbeat and the Improvisation of Navajo Chants": An Interview with Musician Delbert Anderson

Jazz performer and composer Delbert Anderson (Navajo). (Shutterfreek Photography)
Jazz performer and composer Delbert Anderson (Navajo). (Shutterfreek Photography)

Thank you for making time to talk with the museum during Jazz Appreciation Month. Please introduce yourself.

Hello, my name is Delbert Anderson. I am a part of the Navajo Tribe and born on the Navajo Nation in Shiprock, New Mexico. My clans are the Folded Arms People (maternal), Red Cheek People (paternal), Red House People (maternal grandfather), and Bitter Water People (paternal grandfather).

Can you give us your Native name and its English translation?

My Native last name is Tsi’naajinii. Tsi’naajinii translates to black streak wood people. When my grandfather attended boarding school in Oregon, the teachers had trouble saying Tsi’naajinii. The school changed his last name to Anderson.

Where did you grow up and where do you call home now?

Although I was born on the Navajo Reservation, I grew up in Farmington and Kirtland, New Mexico. I've been living in these areas most of my life. I now reside in Farmington with my wife and four children.

How old were you when you became interested in jazz music?

I began playing drums and singing in my home church band at the age of three. However, it wasn’t until I was nine years old that I found my passion for jazz music. During my fourth-grade year, a local jazz combo came to our school to perform. The combo performance guided our decisions about what instruments we wanted to play in beginning band. The trumpet has been primary since the first day I started to play. My secondary instruments include drums, piano, and vocal.

Who are some of the people who inspire you?

I have many influences from the jazz scene today, but I credit my aunt Cecelia Woodis and uncle Philbert Anderson for pushing me as an artist and teaching me the importance of consistency. Other individuals who have made a difference in my life are my elementary and middle school band teacher, Janet Isham, and the faculty of Eastern New Mexico University: John Kennedy, Dustin Seifert, and Chris Beaty. My jazz influences are Lee Morgan, Clifford Brown, Sonny Rollins, Roy Hargrove, Joshua Redman, Michael Brecker, Bobby Shew, Sean Jones, Troy Andrews, and Esperanza Spalding. The answer to this question is also the right moment to introduce the other members of the Delbert Anderson Trio: Mike McCluhan and Nicholas Lucero.

Have you competed and won any awards for your work?

The Delbert Anderson Trio's first album, Manitou, has received multiple Indigenous awards in New Mexico and on the West Coast. The album has also been recognized by NPR and Sirius Radio as Today’s New Jazz.

I composed a piece entitled "Roadrunner" for NPR's Tiny Desk Concert competition. The trio performed it with hip hop lyricist Def-I. "Roadrunner" received an NPR Top Ten Honorable Mention. It has also been featured on Yahoo and MIC.com as the best Native American jazz music piece.

Do you consider your art form Indigenous popular culture?

Many people say there's no tie between jazz and being Indigenous. I find my art form to be very close to Indigenous popular culture in reference to the history we share with the African Americans of this country. When looking into jazz history and its beginnings, we see culture shock and slavery, which led to the birth of America’s music, jazz. When we look at the history of Indigenous peoples, we see the similarities of culture shock and slavery.

In Navajo culture, we were broken down to nothing. With only our heartbeat and trembling voices, our music was formed. Our heartbeat simply swings in rhythm! Having similar troubles as African Americans, the Navajo people expressed our emotions through improvisational chants. If my art form contains the swing of the our heartbeat and the improvisational aspect of our music, yes, my art form is Indigenous popular culture.

How does your work incorporate traditional Native and Southwestern art forms?

The pieces I've composed share traditional values with the Navajo Tribe. Researching Navajo spinning songs has been the basis of my inspirations. I use the minor pentatonic scale, which forms the majority of Indigenous music, to compose my works. Lately I've been composing nonrepetitive melodies, as most Navajo traditional music doesn't repeat melody lines. The trumpet alone holds a lot of western-influenced melodies. Our music holds hints of Southwestern styles. We add these flavors by simply adding harmonic minor scales and Southwestern pop beats. When these traits are combined, we form a sound that listeners from many different traditions appreciate, yet that sounds contemporary to the ear.

Where do you envision the future of your form of jazz headed in world music?

I believe our art form will begin to have more complexity as we get deeper in studying Navajo cultural music. Our music will explore electronic sounds and collaborations with different genres. Some years we might focus on another band member’s early cultural music. Whatever road we take, we'll always stay close to the traditional jazz art form through the use of improvisation.

When you're asked to explain your work, how do you answer?

It’s very hard to explain our specific musical form. Most of the time I explain the Delbert Anderson Trio’s music as traditional Native American jazz—fusing ancient Navajo cultural music with the hard swing and funk of the jazz masters. Our melodies come from the ancient Navajo chants of love and war. We improvise over melodies as the jazz giants improvise over jazz standards. But I’d rather just call it music.

What's one of the biggest challenges you've faced in creating new jazz works?

I haven’t had much trouble creating new ideas or composing new jazz charts. I've had a lot of trouble, however, coming up with the titles of the compositions. If you ever see our title tracks, they are very simple, yet odd. For example, "Dee Zee, Em Dee, Te’se" proves I have trouble coming up with title names.

A second challenge is the mixture of Native influence versus the traditional jazz art form. I feel one of my jobs is to combine both forms well enough for everyone to enjoy. There are times when I compose very Native-heavy, and the jazz audience tends to lose interest easily. Other times, I compose jazz-heavy and lose the Indigenous audience's interest. I have to find the perfect balance, and sometimes it's very difficult.

What do you do to get inspired to be creative?

I usually take walks around the reservation pastures and mountains. I've composed many pieces related to the scenery of the Navajo Nation. Other inspirations come from my grandfather’s humming. My grandfather was traditional in his younger years and every now and then he will sing melodies from his childhood. I usually carry manuscript paper with me when I visit my grandfather.

The natural world is one of Delbert Anderson's sources of inspiration, along with traditional Navajo melodies hummed by his grandfather. (Shutterfreek Photography)

What is your favorite jazz piece to perform?

I love jazz ballads! My favorite jazz piece to perform is "I Remember Clifford." My very first jazz lesson consisted of researching Lee Morgan. The same day I found Lee Morgan on youtube performing "I Remember Clifford" live. I am still hooked to this day and always put the jazz ballad in my jazz set list.

How do your earlier pieces differ from what you produce today?

I notice many different genres and influences beginning to emerge in my music as we move on. My earlier compositions were strictly Native American with hardly any other influences. Before I began to compose Native-influenced music, I was playing jazz standards. I went from performing music from the great jazz giants to playing and composing my own jazz music. I later added the Native cultural aspect to my composing.

There has been much fusing of genres lately. The latest project has been fusing the trio and my music with vocals by Def-I to make up DDAT.

Where are some notable places you and your trio have performed?

Jim Pepper Fest—the Jim Pepper Native Arts Festival—in Portland, Oregon; the Giant Steppes of Jazz International Festival in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia; Globalquerque Music Festival in Albuquerque; House of Blues, Vans Warped Tour; and Winnipeg Aboriginal Music Week—now the Sākihiwē Festivalare a few places the trio has made its mark. We continue to strive with our music, and we have tours and some major music festivals scheduled for 2019. We've also visited many public schools and universities with our educational outreach programs.

Where can we find more of your work in video?

You can learn more about my personal art at delbertanderson.com/videos. You can find audio tracks by the trio at http://www.delbertandersontrio.com/dat-music/. To keep up with our current fusion project with Def-I, visit ddatlive.com/video.

You’re welcome to leave comments in our guest book! Please feel free to browse around our websites.

What advice would you give a young person trying to make a career as a musician?

Maintain practicing your instrument. Always keep musically active. Business is the other half of a musician's career: study up; take business classes. Have a plan going into your career—set goals and pay off debt. If music is busy or stressful, you’re in the wrong mindset. Never lose sight of why you love music. Balance life with your music; don’t let it control you. If you put in full effort you receive full results. If you put in half effort, don’t expect full results. Always thank God and be happy.

Thank you again.

Thank you.

Dennis W. Zotigh (Kiowa/San Juan Pueblo/Santee Dakota Indian) is a member of the Kiowa Gourd Clan and San Juan Pueblo Winter Clan and a descendant of Sitting Bear and No Retreat, both principal war chiefs of the Kiowas. Dennis works as a writer and cultural specialist at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C.

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