Jazz drummer Dana Hall is also a composer, bandleader, ethnomusicologist, and educator. He serves as director of jazz studies at DePaul University and a visiting professor at the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki, Finland. His regular collaborators include vocalist Kurt Elling; saxophonists Chris Madsen, Geof Bradfield, and John Wojciechowski; and Damon Locks of the Black Monument Ensemble. Hall leads the band Spring (among others), and in January at the Logan Center he’ll remount his multidisciplinary project Hypocrisy of Justice, a collaboration with actress and playwright Cheryl Lynn Bruce and artist Kerry James Marshall.

Hall will perform twice in late August and early September as part of the Fulton Street Collective’s Jazz Record Art Collective series, and this weekend he has gigs with saxophonist Adam Larson at Fulton Street (Thu 8/19) and with Elling at the Green Mill (Fri 8/20-Sat 8/21). Hall’s next releases will be recordings with Larson and with bassist and composer Clark Sommers, both due late in 2021 or early in 2022. 

As told to Philip Montoro

Working remotely is something that I think is less common in the type of social musics that I’m generally engaged with—jazz music, improvised music. Being in the room and feeling the heartbeat of the people that you’re with, that’s really a large part of what makes the music what it is. 

But certainly we find in commercial-based music a lot of collaboration that happens remotely, whether it’s producers sending tracks to different artists, or the idea of having an already-produced work and a vocalist going in, or rock groups that lay everything down in multiple tracks. In this moment, a lot of us have had to learn what that’s all about. We’ve had to buy equipment, we’ve had to imagine studio spaces in our homes and in our closets and in our bathrooms, to figure out ways of sharing tracks or finding platforms that allow us to collaborate in real time. 

I’ve purchased equipment and microphones and set spaces up so that I can share tracks with other people. And of course I’ve been in studios where I’ve gone in one door, I’ve been in one booth, I’ve not talked to anyone, I’ve played what I’m supposed to play, and I leave the studio without really communicating with anyone other than through my headphones. 

Dana Hall drums on this trio record with Geof Bradfield and Ben Goldberg, released in September 2020.

DePaul University has been very responsible. They’ve been proactive about listening to and following the science, following the guidelines that’ve been put forth by the CDC, by local and state representatives. I would say probably 99 percent of the work that I did over the past academic year, and since March or April of 2020, has been entirely remote. 

I could probably count on one hand the number of times I’ve been at our brand-new facilities in Lincoln Park since April of 2020. The music that I teach and mentor students with is a community music, it’s a social music, it’s a music that is rooted in culture. And it’s a challenge to try to communicate those ideas and those concepts through a Zoom chat screen, especially when you’re told you have a week and a half to figure out how to do that. 

Not only that, but there’s a lot of inequities in education. There’s a lot of inequities in having access to technology. I’m not just talking about high-speed Internet, but I’m talking about maybe a computer, a good microphone. Maybe you’re someone who plays piano and you’re relying on the practice facilities in a building, and you have to catch a train and a bus to get to those practice facilities so that you can play on an instrument. And if you’re at home, you don’t have a piano. You don’t have a keyboard. So how do you continue your education, if it’s not safe to be on a train or a bus or that building is not available to you? 

We would think, “OK, well, everybody’s got Internet, right?” No, everybody doesn’t have Internet. “Everybody has Internet that will allow them to be on a Zoom call, right?” No, everybody doesn’t have that. “Everybody has Internet that will allow them to be on a Zoom call with audio and video and the ability to play their instrument so that their teacher can hear them, right?” You keep kicking this down the road, and it becomes increasingly complicated. It’s not just someone sitting there listening to someone lecture about jazz. And I would say that if we had to start tomorrow in a remote fashion, we would not have all the answers to those complications that were placed in front of us in March of 2020. But we’ve made great strides.

Dana Hall is the drummer in Damon Locks’s Black Monument Ensemble.

Maybe students have their instrument, but they’re living in an environment that they’re not able to play it. Let’s say you’re with your family and your younger sister and your mother’s at home and everybody needs to be in school remotely or working remotely. How do you play drums? When do you play drums? 

With my students, some of them are living at home where it’s like, well, my mom takes a lunch break at this time, that’s when I can play the drums. So we need to have a lesson at this time. Or one of my west-coast students will say, I have to go to a rehearsal space. I can only access that rehearsal space these days of the week at these times. Oh, by the way, it’s a two-hour time-zone difference. Can we have my lesson at this time.

So I’ve been teaching remotely, and much of that job has not been a nine-to-five job. It never was, but now I live where I work. I’m on call 26 hours a day for my students. That’s what I signed up for, and I’ve been happy to be able to be available. 

A lot of the work that I’ve been doing has been counseling. Like, “Why I am going into music? Why I am going to get an education in music when all the clubs are closed? What will I be able to do? Where will I be able to play?” Students recognize, because that’s the way we teach it at DePaul, the social and cultural connections that are the bedrock of this music. So they go out to the clubs, and they go out to the jam sessions if they’re old enough, and they make the scene. They know that that’s what makes the music alive. When they’re like, “Well, I’m cooped up at home and I can’t go see my mentors. I can’t go see my teachers play, I can’t hear them in person, I can’t play with other people”—then it makes them question, well, when will this happen, and what are they supposed to do in the meantime? 

A fair amount of my time has been on paradiddles, but it’s also just been about, Hey, how are you doing, how are you feeling, how are you coping? Let’s talk about some fears you have, some concerns you have. Let me share some feelings and fears and concerns I have. 

Jazz drummer Dana Hall
Dana Hall drums with Victor Garcia’s organ quartet at Winter’s Jazz Club on August 12 Credit: Matthew Gilson for Chicago Reader

I feel like particularly with this type of social and cultural music, with Black American music, it’s really important for people to be walking the talk. You have to be able to know that the people that are mentoring you are actually part of this organism. That they’re a part of the live and living music that you’re trying to learn. So my educational and teaching practice is also my creative and performing practice or my composing practice. They inform each other. What I do on a bandstand is what I do in a classroom, and what I do in the classroom is what I’m gonna be figuring out on the bandstand later that evening. 

So a part of me was cut off. What am I gonna do? A lot of the people that I make music with, and they’re my close collaborative friends, they’re also highly esteemed educators. We’re having these conversations about, like, “Man, who am I if I’m not out playing? Who am I if I feel like I’ve got to completely reimagine my teaching philosophy and my pedagogical practice?” 

But also, when you hit the video button on Zoom, you’ve gotta know that people are looking at you and looking to you for some sort of guidance, for some sort of solace. And it’s not about putting on a happy face, but it’s about continuing to tell them that. And then you’re like, OK, I’m gonna believe this too. I’ve gotta really remember that I said that, and I really believe that, and it’s this constant cycle of belief and disbelief and questioning and who am I and who do you wanna be. 

As far as my own personal work, I’ve been teaching drum-set lessons, working with ensembles, engaging in remote recording projects, doing a whole Brady Bunch, everybody-in-a-box collaborative video-audio montage. Teaching courses in history, in theory, analysis, critical listening. They all have had their interesting issues with the modality of doing things remotely. It’s really been a trip.

YouTube video
Dana Hall’s Spring livestreams from the Fulton Street Collective on April 1, 2021.

Many of us that are dealing with creative music, we’re on one side of the microphone, and we don’t know anything that’s happening on the other side of the microphone. We don’t know anything about the engineering side, we don’t know anything about the production side. We’re not invested in those areas because we’re invested in composing and playing and the hustle of trying to keep that part of our career happening. 

So when we go in the studio, it’s like, just make sure I sound good—I don’t care how you get it happening. Well, we’ve had to start caring about that. We’ve had to figure that out. We’ve had to start figuring some things out about mike placement, about digital audio workstations, about recording ourselves and making it sound as optimal as possible, about sound reflections off of walls and windows and in corners, and what’s the best place to put my instrument so that it sounds good. It’s things that we should’ve been dealing with and that should be a part of any 21st-century curriculum in music schools. Our students need to deal with that. We as faculty members have had to deal with that and learn it and make it a part of our practice. So that’s an upside. 

Another upside is, we really have been able to think about what is elemental to a jazz-studies program, to a music program. So obviously we’ve reinforced the idea that teaching private lessons happens at its best in person—we’ve been able to cosign that and confirm that is the case! But now, a jazz-history course for graduate students, where it’s more of a seminar-based three-hour course of close readings and then conversation about those close readings—can that happen in a remote fashion for a classroom that’s between ten and 14 students, primarily folks who are getting graduate degrees, who may be teaching in classrooms or working on compositions during the day? Can this be delivered at night? Maybe some of it asynchronously? We’ve been able to decide that, yeah, maybe that’s a course that actually could benefit, and it would benefit our students. 

Right now we’re planning to do everything in person for the upcoming school year. We are imagining that it’s October of 2019, and we’re having ensembles in person. But we have guidelines that say if you’re in a room with more than one person, everyone should wear a mask.

We are making allowances for those individuals who for whatever reason are not vaccinated—maybe they’re coming from another country, where they have not been able to have access to a vaccine. We are requiring students to be vaccinated or provide some sort of medical or religious exemption, and then they’re going to be required to be tested with regularity. 

So we are proceeding and following the CDC guidelines with respect to how distant people should be, how many people should be in a room, how long should we wait to clear aerosols. Should we be wearing masks? Are we gonna wear masks only when we’re playing or when we’re not playing? Are we gonna have face shields? And if ultimately this is not going to be a good experience for the students, then once again we realize that we know that Zoom exists. 

I’ve seen saxophonists, they’ve got an entire hood over their instrument. That’s the reason why our ensembles met remotely. I said, look, if we have to be inside of a four-by-four plexi box with a shield over our flute and wearing a plastic mask over our face and a hazmat suit, we probably should not be in person making music with each other.

Last year it was an option for some of our educators to teach some of their private lessons in person. As a school, we purchased what we needed in order for that to happen, and we had specific rooms with air exchange and timing and everything that was necessary, simply because their students and that faculty member felt comfortable being in person. 

We follow the guidelines, and it’s fortunate that we’ve had a dean and we’ve had a university and a president who felt like, OK, you can make smart decisions, and we’ll support those smart decisions if they keep people safe.

Philip Montoro has been an editorial employee of the Reader since 1996 and its music editor since 2004. Pieces he has edited have appeared in Da Capo’s annual Best Music Writing anthologies in 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2010, and 2011. He shared two Lisagor Awards in 2019 for a story on gospel pioneer Lou Della Evans-Reid and another in 2021 for Leor Galil's history of Neo, and he’s also split three national awards from the Association of Alternative Newsmedia: one for multimedia in 2019 for his work on the TRiiBE collaboration the Block Beat, and two (in 2020 and 2022) for editing the music writing of Reader staffer Leor Galil. Philip has played scrap metal in Lozenge, drummed with the Disasters, the Afflictions, and Brilliant Pebbles, and sung for the White Outs. He wrote the column Beer and Metal from 2012 till 2015, and hopes to do so again one day. You can also follow him on Twitter.