Dana Hall—drummer, percussionist, composer, bandleader, educator and ethnomusicologist—is an associate professor of music and the director of the jazz studies program.

His latest work—“The Hypocrisy of Justice: Sights and Sounds from the Black Metropolis (Riffin' and Signifyin(g) on Richard Wright's 'Native Son')”— is a long form, multi-movement composition featuring nine musicians and a narrator. After its premiere in June at Symphony Center, Howard Reich of the Chicago Tribune wrote:

“Seventy-five years after Wright's Chicago novel jolted America with its harrowing view of the effects of racism on everyone, Hall unflinchingly showed how much of our world remains the same … [The work] proved compelling on both musical and conceptual terms…the music spanned a wide range of jazz idioms, from bebop-tinged passagework evoking Wright's era to the free-form improvisation you might encounter in a jazz club today. Hall's score, in other words, palpably linked past to present, [tracing] the sweep of the American story of the last several generations.”

In 2009, Hall was named a Chicagoan of the Year by the Chicago Tribune—the only professional musician selected that year—after the release of “Into the Light,” his acclaimed first solo album. Here, he talks about how and why he makes music.

Are writing music and being a leader of musicians two very different jobs?

Not for me. As an improvising musician, and a jazz musician, I’m always composing. By this, I mean that I’m perpetually in a conversation with other musicians: What I play is either a question I’m hoping they’ll answer musically or a response to questions they’ve posed to me musically. 

As a composer, I give musicians parameters in which to converse—a script, if you will. Sometimes they go off script; in fact, that’s when most of the great music happens. I like the idea that composers create spaces where musicians can use their own creativity to make music. That sounds like a 21st century concept, but it’s really a return to ideals that were common in the Baroque period: If you went to hear Bach when that music was new, you would have heard improvisation. 

What draws you to jazz rather than other forms?

Music is a language, and jazz has a personal vocabulary, one that lets me express a lot of different emotions. I have to invest myself to get a nuanced result. With a lot of other musical genres, at least how they’re handled today, you play what’s on the page. But with jazz, I can add commentary, especially about where we are as a society. 

But I’m interested in every kind of music—rock, folk, soul, classical. The most profound musicians, in my observation, are cognizant of the fact that music crosses borders. To say “I do only this kind of music” would be odd to me. Still, I am most attracted to jazz because it gives me agency.  That’s not to say that jazz musicians can play whatever we want, exactly.

If music were baseball, classical music follows the “classic” rules of the game: You run around the diamond from first base to home.  But with jazz, you might decide to go to third base first: You can choose a different pathway. But there are consequences: The other players react to the choices you make.  That’s where the personal voice comes in. Whenever I present a composition, it’s my hope that the musicians will take what I’ve given them and make something more. What I hear in my mind is only a fragment of what’s possible.

What’s your process for writing music?

Writing music starts with an idea and with the elements of harmony, rhythm and the relationships between notes. Sometimes, I’ll get a melodic motif in my head, then sit at the piano and develop it. Or I’ll hear a rhythm, a particular rhythmic idea, and put that to notes.

Of course, music is also fleeting and fickle.  Sometimes, I can sit down and go “plunk, plunk, plunk,” and there’s a song, fully formed. I’ve woken up in the middle of the night and sang something into my phone, got up later, and found it was a complete composition. But for some pieces, I’ve struggled and struggled and struggled, and they’re still not finished after years! So, like other disciplines, music writing sometimes happens with great ease, while other times it’s quite labored. Going to school, or studying recordings, or having conversations with other composers, is also part of the process.

What do you like about teaching? Is that a whole different skill set?

Nope, it’s the same thing. When I’m teaching, I’m having a conversation with my students, trying to get them to imagine themselves as artists, while getting inspiration from their commitment to artistic practice.  It’s the same type of sharing that happens on a bandstand.

As a teacher, I like sharing information and perspectives on life and art with students. I enjoy seeing lights go on in the minds of young artists and playing a part in their development as musicians. I appreciate the opportunity to share what I love with others who are like-minded.

Skill in making music or writing music comes with practice, practice, practice. I think two things are true: Music is in everyone, and music is a lifelong pursuit.

Photo by Todd Rosenberg Photography​