Drummer and composer Dana Hall is one of the busiest people in the world of jazz. Besides being an Assistant Professor of Music at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, he serves as musical director of the Chicago Jazz Ensemble, tours as a member of groups led by trumpeter Terell Stafford and saxophonist Ralph Bowen, has a weekly Windy City club engagement with a quartet called spring, and leads an all-star quintet made up of himself, Stafford, soprano and tenor saxophonist Tim Warfield Jr., pianist Bruce Barth, and bassist Rodney Whitaker that has just released its debut CD on Origin Records. Titled Into the Light, the recording features Hall for the first time on disc as a bandleader after nearly two decades as a sideman with Betty Carter, Ray Charles, Joe Henderson, Branford Marsalis, Maria Schneider, and many other giants of American music.
Dana Hall was born in Brooklyn, New York, on March 13, 1969, and was raised in Philadelphia, where he was exposed to that city’s distinctive soul sounds, then at their peak of popularity with artists such as Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, the O’Jays, and Billy Paul. Through his parents, he also came in contact with Philadelphia’s jazz scene, and Jimmy Smith and Stanley Turrentine were among the musicians who visited the Hall household. He moved to Voorhees, New Jersey, at age 12 and began studying drums in junior high and oboe in high school. He also became fond of rock music, especially that of Rush and Van Halen, and began dreaming of becoming an aerospace engineer.
After attending Iowa State University, where he majored in both aerospace engineering and percussion, Hall spent two years with the Boeing Company in Renton, Washington, where he worked on propulsion systems and the initial design of the 777 aircraft. He also played drums in Seattle blues bands during that period.
“My idea of what aerospace engineering was very different from what it ultimately became for me,” he says. “My idea of being an aerospace engineer was to facilitate and assist and one day hopefully travel into space, but music was something that I had a passion for even while I was working out there. I was of an age and at a stage in my life when making a big change was possible. I could not put it off any longer. That was the time for me to do it, rather than think about woulda, shoulda, coulda later on in life.”
Having finally committed himself to music full-time, Hall threw himself into the thick of New York City jazz activity as a freelance drummer, circa 1991-1994, with the likes of Betty Carter, George Coleman, Roy Hargrove, Branford Marsalis, Joshua Redman, and numerous others. Over an 18-month span, he played some two dozen concerts with Ray Charles, who frequently yelled at him, as he did most of his drummers before and after Hall’s tenure. “I feel a part of that fraternity,” he quips.
Hall relocated to Chicago in 1994 because, he says, the city “afforded me the opportunity for growth with lots of different musicians of different generations playing lots of different styles.” Besides working with such Chicagoans as Von Freeman, Malachi Thompson, Bobby Broom, Patricia Barber, and Kurt Elling, the drummer also traveled out of town frequently and from 1999 to 2004 was a member of the Carnegie Hall Jazz Band, directed by Jon Faddis. Hall has worked with the Chicago Jazz Ensemble for 15 years, serving as its music director for the past two (Faddis is the ensemble’s artistic director, having been hired to lead the band five years ago following the death of its founder and leader William Russo). Hall, who earned a B.A. in music from William Paterson College and a M.A. in composition and arranging from DePaul University, has been on the faculty at the University of Illinois at Urbana- Champaign since 2004. When he’s not teaching classes, working with ensembles, and giving private lessons at the school—duties that take up about 18 hours of each week—he travels to Chicago, making the five-hour round-trip sometimes as often as six times per week.
“The only way I can stay creative is to keep moving,” he explains. “I’m an incurable insomniac. I just get about four or five hours of sleep at night and stay productive throughout the day. I’m always thinking that there’s more to do and ways to improve spiritually, mentally, and musically. I’m always working on it, and I’m not at the end yet.”
And now, with the release of Into the Light, his first recording as a leader, Hall marks a new beginning in his long, amazingly multifaceted career.