Visible D'earth: Blasting jazz since day one

John D'earth denies he's a musical savant, but at age two he was "stirring the soup" on the drums, and he taught himself to play the trumpet at age eight.

The young Dearth– this was before the apostrophe– had been inspired by a movie, The Five Pennies, about the life of trumpeter Red Nichols with Louis Armstrong and other Big Band greats.

His mother found a trumpet for 15 bucks, and when he played it in his hometown of Holliston, Massachusetts, "It sounded gorgeous, with the sound going over the marshes," he remembers.

His father, an "amateur drummer, professional listener," proved an even greater influence. "My course was set when my dad brought me home from the hospital and played Duke Ellington's Caravan," D'earth says.

Even as a teen during the '60s, when rock 'n roll ruled, "I was a jazz snob," he says. "I got hooked on this music."

He's still hooked on jazz. D'earth runs the jazz program at UVA and plays with the Charlottesville Swing Orchestra and Free Bridge Quintet. He gives private lessons, and he composes– right now he's working on "Concerto for Quintet and Orchestra" to be performed by the UVA Symphony and Free Bridge.

The Thompson D'earth Band, founded with his wife, vocalist Dawn Thompson, has been playing at Miller's every Thursday for so long that he doesn't know how many years it's been, other than since the mid '80s. The band has a new CD coming out around March, and D'earth calls When the Serpent Flies "probably our best album."

Thompson D'earth is descended from the '70s jazz/rock band Cosmology, which included D'earth's high school pal, local drummer Robert Jospé. Though Cosmology was cranking in New York City, after living in a loft, "We were desperate to get out of the city for the summer," D'earth says.

Thompson had attended UVA, and the couple rented a house in Greene County. A fortuitous encounter with recording studio owner Russ Hoffman hooked them into a Charlottesville lifestyle.

"People here are very open to music," says D'earth, who debunks the notion of Charlottesville as a musical backwater for a jazz musician.

Another common misperception about jazz? "That it's extemporaneous– created out of the whole cloth and made up every time," he says. "Jazz is far more sophisticated rhythmically than classical."

One other big misperception: "A lot of stuff called jazz now is not," he says, citing Kenny G as one of the most egregious examples.

And like any jazzophile from the '70s, D'earth has a Miles Davis story. "I talked to him twice, and he was very unpleasant," D'earth reminisces about the legendary trumpeter with whom he played at Montreux– "along with 54 other people."

Inquiring minds have to know: What's with the apostrophe?

"The name Dearth comes from death, and no one wants death as a name," he explains. "Quite by accident, I ended up getting a check with the apostrophe. I thought it was cool– at 22."

Now he grimaces. "Someone said it's like a tattoo."

Age: 55

Why here? Natural beauty, open ears

What's worst about living here? It's too small for even the cleverest shortcuts to save you much time.

Favorite hangout? C-ville Coffee, by the turtle

Most overrated virtue? When a virtue becomes a vice, it's overrated. One of the most underrated virtues is kindness.

People would be surprised to know: I empathize with insects, especially spiders.

What would you change about yourself? I would become organized, know much more about history, and remember everything.

Proudest accomplishment? Keeping my love of music-making and teaching fresh and alive

People find most annoying about you: I can be a compulsive teacher and not know when to stop.

Whom do you admire? Winston Churchill

Favorite book? One favorite is The Idiot by Dostoevsky. Another is Zen Flesh/Zen Bones by Paul Reps.

Subject that causes you to rant? Greed, malice, cultural insensitivity and ignorance masquerading as patriotism

Biggest 21st-century thrill? Modern medicine

Biggest 21st-century creep out? Infectious diseases and biological warfare

What do you drive? A '92 Saab 900 hatchback. It's newer and shinier than the '88 Saab 900 hatchback I had been driving.

In your car CD player right now: The master of our new CD with the Thompson D'earth Band, When the Serpent Flies

 Next journey? Within: I'm working on a piece for the Charlottesville and University Symphony Orchestra and the Free Bridge Quintet.

Most trouble you've ever gotten in? Being willful and careless behind the wheel I got my wife-to-be, my daughter-to be, my best friend, and myself stuck in a ditch, in a flash flood and lightning storm, high on a mesa in New Mexico. We were saved by three Zuni Indians in a pickup truck with a winch who just "happened" to come by. They laughed a lot and pulled us out in about 15 seconds.

Regret: Never learned to skateboard

Favorite comfort food: Chili

Always in your refrigerator: Plain yogurt

Must-see TV: Twilight Zone

 Favorite cartoon: Doonesbury

Describe a perfect day. Wake up in the forest, do yoga, make breakfast, practice the trumpet, write a tune, hike all day, end up at a gig with a killin' rhythm section and tenor player

Walter Mitty fantasy: Having the mental power to render my car invisible at speeds above 70 mph

Who'd play you in the movie? I'll play myself; I need the work.

Most embarrassing moment? Age six, watching home movies in a neighbor's darkened garage, I put my arm around Elizabeth Springsteen. My older brothers spotted me, told my family about it, and teased me mercilessly. Mortifying.

Best advice you ever got? "When in doubt, leave it out."

Favorite bumper sticker? "Don't forget the fun in dysfunctional!"


John D'earth