Allen Dennard takes jazz into the future 

Allen Dennard.

Noah Elliott Morrison

Allen Dennard.

Twenty-four-year-old trumpeter Allen Dennard has one foot firmly planted in the classic jazz canon. The 2016 graduate of the University of Michigan's School of Music, Theatre & Dance leads his own rotating jazz ensemble while also regularly playing with the likes of Detroit legends Marion Hayden, Wendell Harrison, and David McMurray. This April saw his first release Stepping In, which evokes the sounds of Miles Davis' classic quintet.

That said, he's not just a strict jazz classicist. His other foot is firmly planted in the melting pot that is the Detroit music scene. Dennard also sits in and records with acts ranging from hip-hop (Kulture) to rock 'n' roll (the MC5's "MC50" 50th anniversary tour), blues (Robert Bradley), soul (Ray J), and gospel (J. Drew Sheard II).

Dennard comes from a musical family: His aunt Elreta Dodds played bass clarinet with the '70s avant-garde jazz ensemble Griot Galaxy. His father sings, his mother used to play the trumpet and piano, and his older sister played clarinet. But Dennard says he got his start on trumpet on accident. "In 5th grade I wanted to play trombone, but my school didn't have enough," he says. "I thought that trumpet was the next best thing. From then on I just never put it down."

It also helps that Detroit has an amazing legacy of mentorship within the jazz community. Dennard praises his first teacher, jazz flutist Deblon Jackson, for starting him off with ear training before diving into music theory. He also praises trumpeters John Douglas, Dwight Adams, and Rayce Biggs for helping him learn his instrument.

But Dennard's biggest mentor was none other than Marcus Belgrave, the jazz icon who died in 2015. Dennard says that connection was forged thanks to his aunt, who was best friends with the pianist Geri Allen, who set up Dennard's first lesson with Marcus when he was in high school.

It wound up being a crucial connection. "At U of M he saved my career," Dennard says. When Dennard was first given his trumpet, there was no one to teach him the correct way to play, so he found his own way to do it. But by the time he got to college, he found out that his embouchure, or how the mouth is applied to the mouthpiece, was no longer working for him.

"That way got me really far — it got me a scholarship to U of M," Dennard says. "But in college my notes started cracking and I couldn't hold a note." Dennard compares it to being "as bad as breaking your leg if you just got there on a basketball scholarship." He almost quit.

At a U-M master class, Marcus could tell Denard was struggling, and took him aside for private home lessons for more than a year. "He kind of sensei-ed me through," Dennard says.

Now, Dennard says he's inspired by artists like Houston singer, pianist, and producer Robert Glasper. "For me personally, Robert Glasper created this new wave of jazz that's similar to '70s jazz fusion," Dennard says. "Hip-hop evolved into other things, and he put that in his music and created a whole new wave of other artists doing it. It's common around Detroit."

Dennard says he just calls it "modern music." "I love it," he says. "I think it's good for the evolution of music. Everything's always changing — politics, life, all that. Music should too."
Dennard performs on Saturday, Jan. 5 at the Whisky Parlor in Detroit.

From our 2019 Bands to Watch issue.

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