We are very happy to introduce you to the music of jazz, hip-hop and soul artist and producer Desmond Mason. As both solo artist and keyboardist for the Kansas City jazz outfit Shades of Jade, Mason performs widely in and around Kansas City in addition to his position as Director of Music at Good Samaritan Missionary Baptist Church (not to mention his day job at Park University's Registrar's Office). He is a relentlessly creative artist who composes on the bus, on his lunch breaks, and anywhere else he finds inspiration. Mason was generous enough to share some insights into his creative endeavors as well as an extensive list of the music, movies and books that provide inspiration to him on a daily basis.
Please introduce yourself. Where do you live and work? What does a typical day look like for you?
My name is Desmond Mason AKA dmasontheprofessor, and I'm a multi-instrumentalist/composer/producer from Kansas City, MO. Most times, you'll catch me playing piano, Hammond B3 organ, keyboards, synthesizers and vocoder, although I've had past experience playing drums, violin, and bass guitar. My day job consists of working at Park University in Parkville, MO in the Registrar's Office where I process student records of all sorts (putting my history degree from UMKC to good use!). During some evenings of the month, I am playing music at multiple venues around the Kansas City metropolitan area such as The Phoenix Jazz Club, The Green Lady Lounge, The Tank Room, Coda Bar and Grill, Sullivan's Steakhouse in Leawood, and a plethora of other venues. During other evenings, I'm either rehearsing with my main outfit Shades of Jade, or creating/composing. Every weekend, I render service as Director of Music at Good Samaritan Missionary Baptist Church.
My typical day is rather busy all week around. I'm basically working a full-time job and two part time jobs due to my commitments to Shades of Jade and Good Samaritan MBC. During weekdays, like I alluded to above, I go to work 8am-4:30pm at Park then I do one of three things: rehearse/create, gig, or spend time with family. During the weekend, I usually rehearse and play service on Saturday and Sunday mornings then I either rehearse/create, gig, or spend time with my family. I'm a very busy man that takes small hiatuses here or there when needed.
Can you point to one time in your life where you knew you wanted to be a songwriter? Who inspired you early on to write music and what were your earliest compositions like?
I think I wanted to be a songwriter/composer ever since I formally started music in elementary school. I just didn't have the confidence to act on that desire until I joined a jazz combo in college while working towards my history degree. During my time in the combo, I wrote my first ever tune called "Prelude to Stage II". It's a sad tune that also longs for the future (I wrote this shortly after breaking up with my high school sweetheart). After performing it live for the first time with the jazz combo, and after I saw the really positive reaction it garnered from the audience and my instructor, I was finally confident in my songwriting/composing skills to dedicate time to it.
As you can tell, I was inspired to write by life experiences. I think all of the tunes that I've written and performed thus far have came from life experiences. For example, I have two tunes (one sampled) on Shades of Jade's Fingerprinted Memories pt. 1, called "At Work" and "The Pleasant Part of the Grind" (sampled in Dominique Sander's "Daydreaming"). "At Work" was written literally during my ten minute break one day at Park University and it represents the environment around my office, especially the view of Parkville from the third floor in Mackay Hall (majestic). "The Pleasant Part of the Grind" was written one day on public transportation right after I got a $500 check for some debate coaching I did on the side. Life experiences influences the colors that I use in my compositions.
My earliest compositions are much like my latest ones, except for the fact that my recent compositions have been influenced more by people than life experiences. For example, all of the tracks that I've made that's on my soundcloud page were all made with an influence or local singer in mind (as I am trying to prove my worth as a producer). My most recent tune is a biographical tune in honor of my high school debate coach Leon Scroggins aptly called "Mr. Scroggins". Nevertheless, most of my compositions have easily singable melodies and forms because I strive to create music with or without lyrics that people can feel.
You’re active as both a solo artist and as a member of the jazz fusion ensemble Shades of Jade. How did you get involved with Shades of Jade? How does this collaboration inform your own work?
The story of how I got involved with Shades of Jade changes depending on who you ask. When/if you interview Shades of Jade, you should ask Josh a similar question about each member of the group! From my perspective, it was a random occurrence. I was on hiatus from pursuing my history degree approximately four-plus years ago and one day I was called in for an audition at a room within the performing arts center at UMKC (I think Ryan Lee referred me, but my memory's foggy; I was referred for sure though). This is when I met trumpeter Josh Williams for the first time. I already knew Dominique Sanders and Ryan Lee on bass and drums respectively (which completed the very first lineup; the lineup has changed several times after that, with myself being the constant most of the time). We played through some tunes, all of them which I read from sight and I was a member of Shades of Jade after that. I still have access to a few recordings from that day, and let me tell you, Shades has come a LONG WAY musically since the beginning!
This collaboration has informed my work in groups and on my own big time, and has given me opportunities to play music in public, especially play MY music in public, that I otherwise wouldn't have had or that would've taken me longer to realize. Shades of Jade is definitely a vehicle for experimentation with compositional/songwriting ideas because of the level of musicianship at each instrument in the group. This collaboration also made my views about the end-all purpose of music more mature. The goal of Shades of Jade is to paint musical pictures about life's experiences. This is very similar to my approach to composition/songwriting, which gives my creativity and music making an ultimate purpose.
Delve a little into your own process of songwriting. What may surprise a listener of your music about how you create it? What tools do you use?
The best way to describe my songwriting process current is "spontaneous inspiration". All of my songs have really come spontaneously out of a feeling, and they have been written for the most part very quickly. In my answer to another question, I spoke about it taking only ten minutes and a short bus ride to compose songs. I also have this other song out with lyrics called "Into the Unknown". Into the Unknown came about 30 minutes after a band rehearsal, and the poem that's set to the music was written on another ten minute break at work. So most times, my creative process is a sprint rather than a marathon, most times. The process is slower when I'm creating tracks for others while producing, because I like to think about instrumental and musical arrangements a great deal before I settle on a finished product to put out. Nevertheless, the creative process is boom or bust for me and starts and stops at very random times.
When listeners hear my music, I think they will be most surprised by how quick my music was conceived and created. Both "At Work" and "Into the Unknown" have tricky time signature changes and chord change sequences to establish a certain mood, yet both were conceived in the span of an hour!
When composing music, I use anything at my disposal, including just my brain, some staff paper and a pen/pencil. Most times, I use a piano that's available, my Yamaha MOXF8 at home, or I bring my Yamaha MX61 to work to do music during lunch break. Both "At Work" and "The Pleasant Part of the Grind" were composed with only my brain, a pocket staff book and pen/pencil, however. When it comes to production work and composing in that way, I use cubase, my macbook, and my MX61 as a controller. When inspiration hits, I really use what's available to me at that time. I usually don't record instances of inspiration aurally. I usually hurriedly write them down, and then develop them in outfits such as Shades of Jade later. My itunes library, outside of life's inspiration, is a very important composition tool as well because the music of my predecessors provides some foundation for my original music (this is true for every creator in music, as all composers/songwriters are influenced by a composer/songwriter that has done it before).
Talk about your musical influences. Who or what inspires you now?
I've had many formative experiences in music, so I'll give a compact summary of these experiences. I first wanted to do music due to my grandmother renting me a violin and the talented musicians at Palestine Missionary Baptist Church when I was a child. I started playing drums after seeing the late Adam Williams Sr. play drums, and then I REALLY wanted to play B3 organ after seeing Richard Marks Jr. play organ for the young adult choir. What attracted me to his style was that he sounded different from everyone else and the chords he was playing were very dark and modern. I wanted to be cool and make music like that! Later, the music of Joe Pace and the Colorado Mass Choir really influenced my gospel playing. I was forced to take piano lessons, however, by another organist at PMBC (which was made possible by Drs. Nelson and Anne Johnson, to which I am forever grateful) to gain the technique necessary to play organ. It was under Scott Anthony at the community music and dance academy at UMKC where I fell in love with the music of Frederic Chopin.
Not long after starting lessons, I first heard "Just Squeeze Me" by the Duke Ellington Orchestra, and I said to myself "I want to play music like that for the rest of my life!". Not long after this, I was introduced to the music of Bill Evans, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, McCoy Tyner, Herbie Hancock, Joe Henderson, and a host of others that made me fall in love more with Jazz. Bill Evans became my favorite pianist for his phrasing, and especially how he accompanied his own solos with his left hand chords. I will also argue with anybody that Bill Evans is the best ever at piano at playing the solo ballad. I have most of the music Bill Evans has ever made in my iTunes library. Herbie Hancock is another big influence. In high school, I was introduced to the music of Kanye West, then to The Roots, then to Lupe Fiasco and others which fostered my love for hip-hop, especially live hip-hop. Kamal Gray from The Roots is another influence as far as my piano playing.
Then in college, I was introduced to the music of pianist Robert Glasper, and he's one of the two artists I've tried to model myself after. With my intro to Robert Glasper, I was also introduced to Casey Benjamin, the vocoderist and the saxophonist with the Robert Glasper experiment. Benjamin is quite literally the best at vocoder that I've ever heard, and his work inspired me to take up the vocoder and to experiment with synths and effects in my live and produced music making. I also think Benjamin and Glasper are two of the best musicians at establishing moods with their music and establishing a rapport with their audiences. Correctly conveying mood and establishing rapport with my composing and music making are two things that I strive for today because of what Glasper and Benjamin done in music. As far as production, I am most inspired by Kendrick Lamar's album To Pimp a Butterfly. That album is a masterpiece as far as production, and the realism on that album is something I strive for when creating tracks.
Last but not least, I continue to be inspired by life, and the good and the bad, or what rapper Lupe Fiasco calls the "Food" and the "Liquor", that comes with it!
These ten albums all affected me musically in a positive way:
1. Waltz For Debby by Bill Evans Trio. This was one of the two albums (a big band compilation featuring the Duke Ellington Orchestra) that made me want to play jazz. This was also the album that made me fall in love with the piano playing of Bill Evans. Starting with this album, I've stockpiled many Bill Evans albums, many of which I still listen to today. Also check out You Must Believe in Spring, I Will Say Goodbye, and the two Paris Concerts CDs for some very emotion-provoking music!
2. My Funny Valentine by Miles Davis Quintet. This is a great jazz album from start to finish. I would also argue that Herbie Hancock (one of my favorite pianists and foremost influences) took the best piano solo I've ever heard on "All of You". This solo has been mentioned at length in a couple of jazz theory books I keep at home.
3. A Love Supreme byJohn Coltrane Quartet. This suite was composed by John Coltrane for the God he believed in, and has a lot of religious overtones. McCoy Tyner (another one of my favorite pianists) takes excellent solos on "Resolution" and "Pursuance".
4. The College Dropout by Kanye West. This album really got me into hip-hop in my high school years. Classic from start to finish.
7. To Pimp a Butterfly by Kendrick Lamay. Instant classic in popular hip-hop and conscious hip-hop in my opinion. This album has also heavily influenced the way I go about and think about producing tracks.
8. Lupe Fiasco's the Cool by Lupe Fiasco. This is second behind College Dropout in my pantheon of hip-hop albums. Classic from start to finish. I think this is the best album Lupe has ever made.
9. Joe Pace Presents Shake the Foundation by Joe Pace. The music of Joe Pace heavily influences my gospel music playing.
10. Crossroads by Deitrick Haddon. This album was one of the first gospel albums of my formative years and was one of the first that made me fall in love with non-traditional gospel music.
1. Coming of Age in Mississippi by Anne Moody
2. Hard Times by Studs Terkel
3. When Affirmative Action was White by Ira Katznelson
4. Bill Evans: How My Heart Sings by Peter Pettinger
5. Fire in the Ashes by Jonathan Kozol
6. Fig Pudding by Ralph Fletcher. This was the first ever full length fiction book that I've ever read. I still enjoy it to this day.
7. Hondo by Louis L'Amour
8. Kansas City Jazz: From Ragtime to Bebop, A History by Frank Driggs
9. All You Need to Know About the Music Business by Donald Passman
10. Confederate Reckoning: Power and Politics in the Civil War South by Stephanie McCurry
1. Moneyball (2012)
2. Office Space (2005)
3. John Q (2002)
4. Coach Carter (2005)
5. The Great Debaters (2008)
8. Flight (2013)