Meet Delbert Anderson, A Native American Trumpet Master Interweaving Navajo Melodies With Jazz
Native American trumpeter Delbert Anderson started playing straight-ahead jazz, but admits it was difficult to stand out. Once when he began exploring his Navajo heritage for material, things became truly interesting
The universe of Native American heritage contains a fount of traditional melodies. There's just one problem: Hardly anyone remembers them.
When New Mexico trumpeter Delbert Anderson needed new inspiration for his jazz trio, he rolled out to an Aztec library and looked for Indigenous music. As a man of Navajo descent himself, he wanted to dig deeper into his ancestry. What Anderson found was a tape of “spinning songs”—essentially, songs dictating social interaction—chanted by Navajo chiefs. "It was really hard to pick out a melody," Anderson admits to GRAMMY.com. "The melodies that caught my ear were what I focused on."
Needing to know more, Anderson, a faculty member at San Juan College in Farmington, New Mexico, consulted traditional Native families, but their memories were hazy. What they could hum from memory, despite not knowing the origin, he connected to the Navajo spinning songs and learned two things. One: They were mostly in pentatonic, or specifically, minor pentatonic. Two: They were sticky and memorable enough to create stellar jazz tunes—ones that respectfully approach Native American musical tradition while also fostering an accessible experience for listeners.
Thus, Anderson has staked his claim on an almost-untouched corner of music: Native American jazz. Along with bassist Mike McCluhan and drummer Nick Lucero, joined by a succession of hip-hop MCs, he skillfully braids Indigenous melodies and syncopated grooves in a way that can appeal to purists in either camp. This is evident on his albums like Manitou (2014) as well as his 2021 virtual concert series throughout New Mexico and Colorado, which earned a $30,000 grant from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation.
GRAMMY.com gave Delbert Anderson a ring about his straight-ahead jazz beginnings, how he began communing more closely with his Navajo roots and how he mourns the melodies lost to time that double as a fertile source of mystery.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
I'm amazed by the melodic strength and integrity of some of these Native American tunes you transmuted into jazz. Where did they come from?
We started out playing jazz standards, and we weren't getting anywhere. We sounded like every jazz combo in the world! [Laughs.] So, we decided to dig a little deeper into everyone's culture. Mike [McCluhan], the bass player, obviously, is white. [Drummer] Nick [Lucero] is Hispanic, and actually comes from Peruvian culture. At the same time, both of them were urging me, "We need to do something Native American, with that kind of influence."
So, I went to this Aztec library that's 12 miles from where I live right now. I found this tape of Navajo spinning songs. At that time, I didn't really know what spinning songs were. I knew of them. But after doing a lot more research and speaking with some of the elders that are still on the reservation today, [I learned] they were basically social songs that taught their children or outsiders manners or how to operate. It's really neat that they used music to teach those things.
Just an example: When the song starts, it's the male who would have to ask politely for the lady to dance. There was a certain gesture they would make. They would dance, and that was a time they would get in a conversation. They had a very specific dance. It seemed pretty intense. It wasn't like today, [where you're] both dancing however you feel like. There were certain structures to it. It was really well-disciplined.
They had songs for everything. They had songs for love, songs for war, ceremonial healing-type songs, but there were also just spinning songs. The Navajo spinning songs that I started to be influenced by were those social ones. The reason why I chose those songs was that I didn't want to be playing ceremonial, sacred music and then get in trouble by someone who says that it's too sacred to share. [Laughs.] We ran into a lot of that stuff all the way through.
The melodies that caught my ear were what I focused on. We paid attention to how we mixed those together with the Latin [melodies] that Nick brings and the jam-band that Mike brings. We found out the hard way that when we create really heavy Navajo melodies, we lose the audience a bit. We lose certain people because it becomes a little too native; we fall into a hard, general category of being just Native American music.
We paid close attention to fusing those songs together to where it blends better or has a more palatable sound to everyone versus a particular demographic.
I feel like the average American may be aware of Native American history, but not be able to subdivide it. I'd like to place these melodies at a specific point in history. In the context of Navajo people, at which point did these tunes spring up?
This is something that's always been a little weird for me. Because, to tell you the truth, I didn't really grow up 100% traditional.
The only traditional music I know probably comes from my grandparents when they were traditional. Actually, both sides of my grandparents [converted] to Christianity at a later time in their lives. However, they used to be traditional, and they made this decision to follow a Christian faith instead of their traditional spiritual faith that most Native Americans follow right now.
I was still a baby when they were traditional. I would say when I was 14 or 15, that's when they decided to [convert] to Christianity. They never allowed me to go to ceremonies or put that on me to go and learn them. However, when I started, in 2013, I started to do research. I went to some of the more traditional families and asked, "What is the earliest melody you guys can remember?" A lot of them couldn't recall, but they did some humming for me and I recorded it on my phone.
My paternal grandfather was really heavy [into] tradition and still remembered his great-grandfather's melodies. One of those—we haven't released it yet or anything—but he did the same thing. He hummed it out and said he had no idea where it came from. It's just something that his great-grandfather would sing around.
However, when I paired that melody with the research I found on the tapes from the 1920s [era], it was a bunch of chiefs singing chants. There were no words. It was just pure chants. I found some similarities. One was that everything was pentatonic. Most of the time, they were in minor pentatonic. In that tape from the 1920s—who knows when it came from—it was really hard to pick out a melody.
I honestly don't know how long these songs have gone back. There are a lot of musicologists, and even Native American musicologists, that say they've been way, way early. Like, as back to as far as we can trace. The thing that I found out is that everyone has a different story. Everyone believes it came about differently. It's hard to say when or where.
There are historians that have really hard dates. But even then, to figure out the music portion is very complicated. Nothing was written down. Nothing was preserved.
Delbert Anderson. Photo: Maurice Johnson
When you think of the knowledge that might be lost forever, do you process that in a grieving way or as a mystery to explore?
It's a little bit of both. I wish I could know straight out what a certain era sounded like. But the thing that keeps me going is that whole mystery aspect, too. I don't even know if I'm going to find anything else, more, but I'm starting to listen to these earlier tapes I found a little more closely. I'm trying to figure out, "Is there anything I'm missing?" That stuff is really encouraging; it keeps me going.
I am somewhat sad that there isn't a recording or a piece of paper that says what happened back then. I tend to stay more on the mystery side of things—figuring it out maybe later down the road.
I've also been looking into number sequences. The number four is really important to Diné culture as well as a lot of other cultures. I was trying to listen to the music and find a significance for [the number] four in their piece.
More in-depth research like that is what I've been clinging to. I'm still writing my own tunes, but [they’re] inspired by what I'm finding in the earliest recording I can find. That's as deep as I'm going. I don't know if it would make sense to visit some more places or talk to more elders. I've only been able to get, maybe, two generations back.
Anything like three or four [generations back], it's really hard. Everyone at that point is like, "I don't remember," or "I have no idea. I was too small." We never had historians. We kind of go on a telephone system.
I don't want people to walk away from this article—and this subject—simply saying, "Oh, that's cool." How can people interface with Native American jazz and support it?
I honestly never thought of it. One thing I try to do, especially when filling out grants or anything like that, is that I want to get to the core of the healing process of music. I think Native Americans share a lot of similar history with African Americans.
I think one thing is that our African American ancestors were able to get through the worst time ever in U.S. history. Not "get through it"; I know some were lost. But for the majority, a lot of African American ancestors got through that period of time, and they did it with music; they did it with self-expression. In fact, a lot of people now aren't calling it jazz. They're calling it "Black liberation music."
Liberation music itself is what I really wanted to focus on because I think there are similarities. The Native American tribes, we have the history of genocide and all that stuff. But there are people that got through it, and I'm wondering if any of those used these songs. Obviously, there are healing songs in our ceremonies and stuff like that, but I wanted to find the core reason for it.
It's a very tough question. We're kind of the only ones doing it, you know? There's not a lot of people that are trying to preserve this music. That's what I would say: We really want to highlight the healing components of this Indigenous music to everyone. I think the support would be to these areas of research of how liberation works, or how music really heals people.
People say it's good for the soul and it makes you happy, but there has to be more than that. If somebody wanted to support it, I would go with historian research, and almost like medical research, on this type of Indigenous music.
Rotimi On Performing At ESSENCE Fest, Growing Up African-American & More
The Nigerian-American singer and actor sat down with the Recording Academy to talk about what inspired his latest album, 'Walk With Me'
In 2015, Rotimi stepped into the New Orleans Superdome for the first time to experience the magic of ESSENCE Fest. Four years later, in 2019, the "Love Riddim" singer returned to the celebration as a performer, something he said was spoken into existence.
"Last year me and my manager had a conversation and I said, 'Listen, I'm going to be on the [ESSENCE] mainstage this year. 365 days later, we did it," Rotimi told the Recording Academy at the 25th annual ESSENCE Fest.
Rotimi, also an actor on Starz' "Power," has evolved since his last album, 2017's Jeep Music, Vol.1. The singer said he really hit home with its follow-up, the recently released Walk With Me, a project he worked hard for, putting in hours in the studio after filming on set.
"Walk With Me is the first time I actually felt like I was giving myself as an artist, and personally I feel like with everything else I have going on I wanted to show people that this is really what I do," he said. "I wanted people to understand who Rotimi is, who Rotimi was before, who I want to be and just understand my growth and the journey and my passion for what I do."
Part of why the album felt like such a representation of him is because it embodies beats of his African roots, something he said was very present growing up Nigerian-American.
"I grew up with a lot of Fela Kuti and I grew up with Bob Marley," he said of his musical roots. "But I also grew up with Carl Thomas and Genuine and Usher, so there was a genuine mixture of who I am and what I've grown up to listen to. The actual Walk With Me project was a mixture of influences of Akon and Craig David."
Photo: Christopher Polk/Getty Images
Recordings By Janet Jackson, Louis Armstrong, Odetta & More Inducted Into The National Recording Registry
Selections by Albert King, Labelle, Connie Smith, Nas, Jackson Browne, Pat Metheny, Kermit the Frog and others have also been marked for federal preservation
The Librarian of Congress Carla Haden has named 25 new inductees into the National Recording Registry of the Library of Congress. They include Janet Jackson’s “Rhythm Nation 1814,” Louis Armstrong’s “When the Saints Go Marching In,” Labelle’s “Lady Marmalade,” Nas’ “Illmatic,” Kool & the Gang’s “Celebration,” Kermit the Frog’s “The Rainbow Connection” and more.
“The National Recording Registry will preserve our history through these vibrant recordings of music and voices that have reflected our humanity and shaped our culture from the past 143 years,” Hayden said in a statement. “We received about 900 public nominations this year for recordings to add to the registry, and we welcome the public’s input as the Library of Congress and its partners preserve the diverse sounds of history and culture.”
The National Recording Preservation Board is an advisory board consisting of professional organizations and experts who aim to preserve important recorded sounds. The Recording Academy is involved on a voting level. The 25 new entries bring the number of musical titles on the registry to 575; the entire sound collection includes nearly 3 million titles. Check out the full list of new inductees below:
National Recording Registry Selections for 2020
Edison’s “St. Louis tinfoil” recording (1878)
“Nikolina” — Hjalmar Peterson (1917) (single)
“Smyrneikos Balos” — Marika Papagika (1928) (single)
“When the Saints Go Marching In” — Louis Armstrong & his Orchestra (1938) (single)
Christmas Eve Broadcast--Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill (December 24, 1941)
“The Guiding Light” — Nov. 22, 1945
“Odetta Sings Ballads and Blues” — Odetta (1957) (album)
“Lord, Keep Me Day by Day” — Albertina Walker and the Caravans (1959) (single)
Roger Maris hits his 61st homerun (October 1, 1961)
“Aida” — Leontyne Price, et.al. (1962) (album)
“Once a Day” — Connie Smith (1964) (single)
“Born Under a Bad Sign” — Albert King (1967) (album)
“Free to Be…You & Me” — Marlo Thomas and Friends (1972) (album)
“The Harder They Come” — Jimmy Cliff (1972) (album)
“Lady Marmalade” — Labelle (1974) (single)
“Late for the Sky” — Jackson Browne (1974) (album)
“Bright Size Life” — Pat Metheny (1976) (album)
“The Rainbow Connection” — Kermit the Frog (1979) (single)
“Celebration” — Kool & the Gang (1980) (single)
“Richard Strauss: Four Last Songs” — Jessye Norman (1983) (album)
“Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation 1814” — Janet Jackson (1989) (album)
“Partners” — Flaco Jiménez (1992) (album)
“Somewhere Over the Rainbow”/”What A Wonderful World” — Israel Kamakawiwo’ole (1993) (single)
“Illmatic” — Nas (1994) (album)
“This American Life: The Giant Pool of Money” (May 9, 2008)
Press Play At Home: Watch Dodie Perform A Morning-After Version Of "Four Tequilas Down"
In the latest episode of Press Play At Home, singer/songwriter dodie conjures a bleary last call in a hushed performance of "Four Tequilas Down"
"Four Tequilas Down" is as much a song as it is a memory—a half-remembered one. "Did you make your eyes blur?/So that in the dark, I'd look like her?" dodie, the song's writer and performer, asks. To almost anyone who's engaged in a buzzed rebound, that detail alone should elicit a wince of recognition.
Such is dodie's beyond-her-years mastery of her craft: Over a simple, spare chord progression, she can use an economy of words to twist the knife. "So just hold me like you mean it," dodie sings at the song's end. "We'll pretend because we need it."
In the latest episode of Press Play At Home, watch dodie stretch her songwriting muscles while conjuring a chemically altered Saturday night—and the Sunday morning full of regrets, too.
Check out dodie's hushed-yet-intense performance of "Four Tequilas Down" above and click here to enjoy more episodes of Press Play At Home.
Whitney Houston, 29th GRAMMY Awards
Apple Music Exclusive: Watch Classic GRAMMY Performances
The Recording Academy teams with Apple Music to offer historical GRAMMY performances by Miles Davis, Marvin Gaye, Whitney Houston, Shania Twain, Kendrick Lamar, and more
To celebrate the GRAMMY Awards' 60th anniversary and the show's return to New York for the first time in 15 years, the Recording Academy and Apple Music are bringing fans a special video collection of exclusive GRAMMY performances and playlists that represent the illustrious history of Music's Biggest Night.
Available exclusively via Apple Music in a dedicated GRAMMYs section, the celebratory collection features 60-plus memorable performances specifically curated across six genres: pop, rap, country, rock, R&B, and jazz.
The artist performances featured in the collection include Marvin Gaye, "Sexual Healing" (25th GRAMMY Awards, 1983); Whitney Houston, "Greatest Love Of All" (29th GRAMMY Awards, 1987); Run DMC, "Tougher Than Leather" (30th GRAMMY Awards, 1988); Miles Davis, "Hannibal" (32nd GRAMMY Awards, 1990); Shania Twain, "Man, I Feel Like A Woman" (41st GRAMMY Awards, 1999); Dixie Chicks, "Landslide" (45th GRAMMY Awards, 2003); Bruno Mars and Sting, "Locked Out Of Heaven" and "Walking On The Moon" (55th GRAMMY Awards, 2013); and Kendrick Lamar, "The Blacker The Berry" (58th GRAMMY Awards, 2016).
The 60th GRAMMY Awards will take place at New York City's Madison Square Garden on Sunday, Jan. 28, 2018. The telecast will be broadcast live on CBS at 7:30–11 p.m. ET/4:30–8 p.m. PT.
Carrie Underwood, John Legend To Host "GRAMMYs Greatest Stories"