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Derek Gray

This week we feature drummer, composer, and educator Derek Gray, who has established himself as an up-and-coming drummer and percussionist on the Canadian music scene.

Derek completed a Bachelor of Contemporary Music at Humber College 2011, studying with teachers including Steve Mancuso, Pat LaBarbera, Larnell Lewis, Brian Dickinson, Ravi Naimpally, Waleed Abdulhamid, and Luis Mario Ochoa. He has also been selected to participate in residencies at the Banff Centre for the Arts and Betty Carter Jazz Ahead program in Washington, DC.

He spent the summer of 2009 in Ghana studying ethnomusicology at the University of Ghana as well as traditional West African hand drumming with master drummers Kwasi Dunyo and Ledzi Agudzemegah. Derek founded the Hand Drumming in the Schools program which presents hand-drumming workshops for students of all ages at schools in the Toronto area.

In Toronto, Derek works extensively as a bandleader, composer, and sideman performing regularly with a variety of projects, including modern-jazz quintet Tesseract, Gray Matter, and the Indo-Jazz ensemble Monsoon. He has also performed with David Buchbinder, Justin Gray, Dave Holland, Ingrid Jensen, and Pat LaBarbera.

Derek participated in our Jazzology program in 2011. Here he shares some of his thoughts on the program and discusses some of his current musical activities:

1) Describe your experience with the program. What was your favourite aspect?

I was featured on JAZZ.FM91’s Jazzology program while at Humber College a few years back now. It really is a great program – a chance for students to share what they’re into. Choosing what music to play on-air was my favourite part.

2) What is your strongest memory of the program? Are there any funny stories or incidents that come to mind?

Can I respond, “Getting my radio voice on”? Chatting with Brad was great. The whole taping had such a warm, conversational vibe.

3) Would you recommend this experience to other young musicians?

For sure! Gaining experience working with the media is as important as ever. Plus, the chance to talk about your own experience and have it broadcast on JAZZ.FM91 is a great opportunity for any musician!

4) How has this experience helped in your personal and professional development?

I’ve kept working with the team at JAZZ.FM91, including a Live-to-Air interview earlier this year talking about Gray Matter. Jazzology is where that all began.

5) This program is made possible by our generous donors and sponsors who strongly believe in the importance of arts education initiatives. If you had the opportunity to thank them in person, what would you say?

Thank you. Supporting JAZZ.FM91and its diverse programming is an important part of keeping the music alive. From the Junior Jazz Jam Series to Jazzology to Live-to-Air Concerts – their outreach programming encourages a vibrant arts community in Toronto and across Canada. Let’s strive to keep the healthy balance – supporting the arts supports the community.

6) Why is music education important?

Music education has so much to offer. In 2008, I started the Hand Drumming in the Schools program. I travel across Canada facilitating hand-drumming workshops for students of all ages. Since then, every drum circle helps me rediscover the importance of exposing people (of all ages) to music. Music helps us connect with ourselves and with everything around us; not to mention the other aspects it helps develop: Confidence, Creativity, Leadership, Discipline, Teamwork, Listening …

7) Since participating in the program, what have you been doing?

I’ve tried to keep learning and growing – and travelling. My Batá studies took me to Cuba and Switzerland last year. In between, I spent time practicing and workshopping with Roarshaq as part of the Winter Residency Program at the Banff Centre.

When I’m in Toronto, I’ve been lucky to do a lot of playing of late. A couple of upcoming things include: David Buchbinder (June 20 @ The Jazz Room) and Kayos Theory featuring saxophonist Tony Malaby (June 28/29 @ The Rex).

This spring was all about recording: Gray Matter, a groove jazz band that I co-lead with my brother, Justin Gray, recorded an album with guests Ingrid Jensen and Eli Bennett in March. Roarshaq is getting set to mix our debut CD. And currently, Monsoon, the Indo-Jazz ensemble with saxophone brothers Jonathan & Andrew Kay, has been working on an upcoming album to be released in November. Lots of new music coming your way soon!

8) What music are you listening to at the moment that you find particularly inspiring?

Brian Blade, Batá, and John Coltrane.

Brian Blade for the unique expressive energy he brings to the music. Last year, I heard him live three times with the Wayne Shorter Quartet (Montreal, Ottawa, and Toronto), as well as one night with the Joni Mitchell Tribute at Massey Hall. Brian embodies everything that I love in music. Check him out! Records to buy: w/ Wayne Shorter Quartet (Beyond the Sound Barrier, Without a Net), w/ the Fellowship Band (Landmarks, Season of Changes, Perceptual), w/ Joni Mitchell (Travelogue, Taming the Tiger) and so many more!

Batá are the sacred drums of Cuban Santeria. The ensemble consists of three hourglass shaped drums. It’s such a beautiful and powerful tradition with roots in West Africa - I’m trying to go deeper. Records to check out: Julio Davalos (Antologia Yoruba), Grupo Ilu Aña (Sacred Rhythms).

The music of John Coltrane is an incredible source of inspiration. Recently, I’ve been focusing my listening on his later works – especially Meditations and Interstellar Space. I’m very happy to get the chance to explore that repertoire playing with two groups: Impulse (lead by bassist Julian Anderson-Bowes) and Kayos Theory (playing June 28 & 29 at the Rex as part of the TD Toronto Jazz Festival).

9) What are your plans for the future?

To be honest, I’m trying to stay open to the adventure as it unfolds in front of me. Toronto is a beautiful place to be and I’m grateful for the many music-making opportunities that are presenting themselves. I’m always excited to keep playing and sharing my music within the community.

Later this summer, I’m heading on a month-long tour with Ventanas, a gypsy/flamenco ensemble lead by Tamar Ilana. Then, I’ll be touring with Monsoon in the November and Gray Matter will be releasing our CD across Canada in March.

In the meantime, I’m excited to spread the word about the recently launched “Live & Interactive” Series at the Emmet Ray. While walking the Camino de Santiago last fall with my Mom, I got the inspiration to start this series in Toronto. Every fourth Sunday of the month, I invite an artist to share their music, stories, and passions. The upcoming installment (Sunday, June 22) will feature my brother-in-music guitarist/pedalist Patrick O’Reilly.

10) How can people learn more about you and your activities?

I keep my website up-to-date: And you can always find me on Facebook and Twitter (@DGrayDrums). Of course, the best way: come say hi at an upcoming concert!

11) Is there anything else that you want to add?

Many thanks to my family and friends for the ongoing support. Peace and love, Derek.

Jazzology is proudly sponsored by RBC Emerging Artists Project.


About RBC and the Arts
RBC sponsors a wide-range of grassroots and local initiatives that contribute to the cultural fabric of our communities. Proud to support events and passions that resonate with our clients and all Canadians, RBC provides opportunities for up-and-coming artists through programs such as the RBC Canadian Painting Competition, one of the largest competitions of its kind in the world; and the RBC Emerging Filmmakers Competition, part of our commitment as the Official Bank and major sponsor of the world’s top public film festival – the Toronto International Film Festival®.

Learn More about the RBC Emerging Artists Project

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