Dartanyan Brown plays bass guitar and sings into a microphone

Music: The Perfect Sport Transcript

Season 3 Episode 2

Ben Binversie (00:04):

(singing)

Ben Binversie (00:05):

Dartanyan Brown is many things: journalist, Hall of Fame musician, tech guru, and teacher, all at the same time, and he’s on a quest to find sounds that heal and motivate the people.

Ben Binversie (00:18):

(singing)

Ben Binversie (00:31):

This is All Things Grinnell. I’m Ben Binversie. On today’s show, we’re joined by Dartanyan Brown, an Iowa musician and educator who has made a life of being good at a lot of things, weaving together careers in journalism, music, technology, and education, and making it sound good.

Ben Binversie (00:48):

(singing)

Ben Binversie (01:22):

Dartanyan Brown didn’t go to Grinnell, but he might as well have, and his wide-ranging skill set has served him well; a comprehensivist as he calls it. His musical résumé is certainly comprehensive, as he’s found himself a spot in the Iowa Rock ’n Roll, Jazz, and Blues halls of fame.

Ben Binversie (01:42):

Before that, he was a young journalist at the Des Moines Register. And before all that, he was a young boy growing up in Des Moines, the son of two musicians, Ellsworth and Mary Alice Brown, from a family who found a home in Buxton, Iowa. If you don’t know about Buxton, it’s a historic little town in southern Iowa. It popped up in the late 1800s as a coal-mining town, and it became famous for its racial integration and majority black population. By the end of the 1920s though, it had lost all its residents.

Ben Binversie (02:14):

We’ll get to that complicated history, but first we talk about what Dartanyan has been up to lately. He’s a teaching artist in Des Moines area schools, working with students through music and storytelling. We started talking about just how essential it is to get young people to tell their stories, and how powerful it can be to share them.

Dartanyan Brown (02:33):

That’s the most valuable thing you can give to a young person, and the most valuable thing you can pull from a young person and let them tell their stories. Because the schools as you may know, they really need help from people who are knowledgeable, who have empathy, who actually understand what community is all about. And then a kid only gets one chance to be in fourth grade or fifth grade. It’s a limited amount of time we have with them.

Dartanyan Brown (03:04):

It’s so important to let them know that their ideas matter, that their thoughts and how they express themselves matters, because there’s many things in the outside, especially in media environment, that are telling them that that’s not true, or corrupting it in some way.

Ben Binversie (03:22):

Yeah.

Dartanyan Brown (03:23):

I moved back to Iowa from California, about three years ago now. I mean, for real, I used to go back and forth a lot, but now I’m actually living in Des Moines. So I’ve been working at middle school, Harding and Meredith Middle School, North High School, because as a teaching artist, that’s what I did in California, I come back to Iowa and I want to stay connected. And looking at the landscape here, especially the way the legislature here in Iowa has funded the schools and treats the teachers across the state, it tells me that they’re in a way trying to in a sense devalue what happens in a school.

Dartanyan Brown (04:02):

And so it’s our job as artists and teachers to not only push back, but to give the kids what they need to be able to tell the story for themselves, because it will be easy to convince others once the kids speak up. They’re powerful.

Ben Binversie (04:17):

Uh-huh (affirmative).

Dartanyan Brown (04:17):

And that’s been my, in a sense, saving grace coming back here to Des Moines. The music business here in central Iowa used to be very vital. It could be again right now, though it’s a little weird. But hanging with students has been a joy. Des Moines schools have kids from… well, it’s as diverse in Des Moines, Iowa, from the school system as it is in Oakland, California.

Ben Binversie (04:44):

Really?

Dartanyan Brown (04:44):

Yes, it is.

Ben Binversie (04:46):

Wow!

Dartanyan Brown (04:46):

Every continent is represented. And the kids I’ve met from Malawi, from Congo, Ivory Coast, as well as the kids I’ve met from Myanmar, and Thailand, and Vietnam, and then kids from Poland and kids from Ukraine. It’s almost insane what they bring, because they bring their culture and their understanding of what they have had. And in most of those countries, music especially is extremely deeply embedded in culture, not just for going out on a Saturday night to dance, is part of birth, and death and everything, and they bring that.

Dartanyan Brown (05:28):

As a teaching artist, to be able to harvest that, in a sense, is what’s making my time here in Iowa very much more bearable than it would be.

Ben Binversie (05:40):

It makes the winters bearable, at least.

Dartanyan Brown (05:41):

I’ll tell you. So yeah.

Ben Binversie (05:44):

That’s good. Let’s start the story with your family’s move to Buxton, Iowa, long before you were even an idea in someone’s head or a baby in someone’s womb.

Dartanyan Brown (05:54):

Yes.

Ben Binversie (05:54):

How did that decision to move from Virginia to Iowa change your family’s life trajectory and eventually yours when it began?

Dartanyan Brown (06:02):

Oh my Lord! That’s kind of what the story really is in a sense about. I had to go back and study a little bit about post reconstruction or the institution of Jim Crow, and what was that like in the life of a person in Charlottesville, Virginia. Whoo! That was some tough reading, because that was right in the heart of, you could be lynched for just walking around at the wrong time or something, and the disenfranchisement of the rights that had allegedly been given after the war and all that.

Dartanyan Brown (06:44):

So for them to leave that environment or to survive that environment, first and foremost, I don’t even know what to say about that as far as the respect and the newfound awe of what they did and how they did survive. But then to see probably a sign on a post maybe or maybe a flyer saying, come to Iowa because there are coal-mining jobs there.

Dartanyan Brown (07:16):

Okay, that’s probably the real reality. I don’t know it was in their heads, and I don’t see much from when I interviewed my grandmother, she doesn’t really say a lot about what got them to move out. But I mean, to me, it’d be almost rather obvious that, well, you stay here and you can be disenfranchised completely, or you can move to this new place, Iowa, where you hear that there’s work and that there’s not discrimination in the standard or way that you’re used to.

Ben Binversie (07:48):

Right. So you grew up in Des Moines yourself, because your mother wanted to return home?

Dartanyan Brown (07:54):

That’s right.

Ben Binversie (07:55):

I’m sure it’s hard to think about because it’s the only thing that you knew. But you spent enough time in both Iowa and California to maybe have some perspective on how growing up in Iowa maybe impacted your life.

Dartanyan Brown (08:07):

Oh, great. Yes. One thing, for sure, Iowa being sort of rural and all that and Des Moines being the capital city, so there was a good mix of both city stuff and farm stuff in my early life. My grandmother lived in Fort Dodge. So we traveled from Des Moines to Fort Dodge to see grandmother, and so you’re going through the fields. So that was a good thing to understand that there wasn’t just cement. My grandkids live in Paterson, New Jersey, and yeah, a couple of times a year they’ll get out of the city.

Ben Binversie (08:44):

So they may see some grass.

Dartanyan Brown (08:45):

Yeah. Right. So, but that’s a big thing. And then the other huge, huge thing was just the fact that because Buxton was an integrated community, the churches weren’t even segregated in that community. You could go to whatever church you wanted to. Everybody looked after each other’s children. Again, that’s why they would call it a utopia, because there was no personal violence being visited upon you like in Virginia. And at the same time, you could go to school and you could do whatever you had to do.

Dartanyan Brown (09:23):

So the fact that they were able to do that and understand that that other person, it’s another human being; and not only another human being, but as a human being that you can deeply become involved with, and love the same things that they love and really get to that real point of humanity. And that’s what they were able to do. Now that changes everybody who’s involved in that.

Dartanyan Brown (09:47):

So I remember we’d drive out in the country to see grandma’s friends, and they’d all invariably be white people, but it was like they were all brothers and sisters. Now, when people talk about that Buxton experience, it’s almost like black people got to Iowa, and the sky opened up and it was integrating.

Ben Binversie (10:11):

Magic.

Dartanyan Brown (10:12):

Yeah. Exactly. No, not quite. But I mean, that’s kind of the impression, and of course the overall impression is very positive, but that positivity had to be earned. And I’m just sort of coming to this realization recently, Rachelle Chase, a woman who has just finished a new book about Buxton.

Ben Binversie (10:35):

Okay.

Dartanyan Brown (10:37):

So when the black miners, coal miners came to Iowa from Virginia, they were brought in not just as workers, they were also strikebreakers. So the Swedes, the Germans, the Norwegian guys, they were already there. Right?

Ben Binversie (10:56):

Yeah.

Dartanyan Brown (10:56):

So when the African Americans roll into town, wait a minute here, that’s certainly not a We’re Glad To See You moment.

Ben Binversie (11:06):

Right. Open arms.

Dartanyan Brown (11:07):

Yeah. Yeah, yeah. Quite the opposite. So the labor struggles of that time. So they ended up working together. They eventually went back to work. And then while they were working side by side, they are talking to one another because you have to, and they find out no matter what color they were, what ethnicity they were, that they still had a common issue as far as they were all being asked to work, it was 80-hour weeks. This is like a 10-hour or 12-hour days.

Ben Binversie (11:45):

Yeah. In coal mines no less.

Dartanyan Brown (11:51):

To me, that’s the very hard-won realization here, and that’s why it’s so even today. Even today, they do not want unity. That’s why the forces now seem to want division so much. They’re really invested in othering. Everything is an other. Nobody seems to be able to find a point of solidarity? Really? Right. So that’s the thing you see after studying labor history over the years.

Ben Binversie (12:25):

Yeah.

Dartanyan Brown (12:25):

I was a journalist. I worked for Des Moines Register for a long time. And learning how to do good research and talk to people, to reach that point where they will give you the story that you need to get from them, they have to trust. I would not have been able to do that had it not been for the experience of my grandmother and our family. She would say, "Do not come in this house telling me that a white person is holding you back from something that you need to do. If you need to get it, you get in that room because the books are in that room, and you get to get it done."

Dartanyan Brown (13:04):

They couldn’t almost dare think like that in Charlottesville. Her folks, as I said, my grandmother’s, her folks had moved to Iowa. But as grandmother said, we didn’t know anything about any segregation. All she knows is Iowa. And the fact that you can be a doctor, there is black doctors in Buxton, Iowa, not just white doctors, the whole thing. So they, in a generation, were hardly a generation.

Ben Binversie (13:30):

Yeah.

Dartanyan Brown (13:30):

We went from a slave mentality, if you will, to, "Woo-hoo! Your brain is as good as anybody else’s. Get after it." Mentality. Never met a harder worker. Ask grandmother, "How did you make it?" She says, "Good hard work, and lots of it." So it isn’t about waiting around for somebody to give you something. They saw that the way was now open and you can now take it.

Ben Binversie (13:58):

Take it, to step through the door.

Dartanyan Brown (13:59):

You better believe it. And not in hate. In love.

Ben Binversie (14:02):

Yeah. I think very few people would think of Iowa as a beacon of diversity.

Dartanyan Brown (14:07):

Amen. That’s right. Especially now.

Ben Binversie (14:09):

Yeah.

Dartanyan Brown (14:10):

There is a flexor, is an and ebb and flow to culture and history.

Ben Binversie (14:13):

Yeah. Yeah. But it definitely sounds like, I mean the role of your grandmother and her philosophy of, maybe not necessarily she would have called it diversity, but you know-

Dartanyan Brown (14:23):

Right. But it’s just getting along. A pretty simple way to say it, the golden rule. You really didn’t have to get much beyond that. And if somebody came to the door who was hungry, you gave them something to eat. They came through the Depression and all that, too. Right?

Ben Binversie (14:43):

Yeah.

Dartanyan Brown (14:43):

So all of these cultural elements that we come through. And when you say now as a young person, I don’t know how old you are, but the Iowa I left 30 years ago, well, I’ll just say, the radio stations in Des Moines, Mr. Limbaugh was just coming on radio when I left to go to California. And I said, at the time, "Nobody will accept this. He’ll be gone in two weeks, because this is toxic. Who is this guy? He’s talking bad about everybody and making all this. What is this?" It seemed ridiculous to me. And then I come back, and, "Holy moly!" So yeah. And I wonder, almost in an anthropological sense, "How does that happen?"

Ben Binversie (15:32):

Yeah. Yeah. That’s interesting.

Dartanyan Brown (15:34):

Yes, sir. There you go.

Ben Binversie (15:36):

So moving from your grandmother to your parents. Both of them were very musical. Your father, Ellsworth, was inducted in the Iowa Jazz Hall of Fame.

Dartanyan Brown (15:45):

Mm-hmm (affirmative). He got here in 1949.

Ben Binversie (15:47):

And your mother was just as obsessed with music, perhaps as him.

Dartanyan Brown (15:52):

Until she became a mom.

Ben Binversie (15:54):

Until she became a mom.

Dartanyan Brown (15:55):

Yeah.

Ben Binversie (15:56):

But from the time you were born, you were surrounded by music. What was that like having music as such a central part of your life growing up?

Dartanyan Brown (16:04):

The sound’s whatever is in your environment as a baby, you just-

Ben Binversie (16:10):

Even when you’re in the womb. Yeah.

Dartanyan Brown (16:12):

Oh man. My son’s a drummer. When Marcia and I were pregnant with him, we were in a band, and I was playing with one of the strongest drummers I’ve ever worked with. This guy was relentless, man. And my boy couldn’t wait to start playing drums. So I think there’s got to be something. He definitely conditioned early.

Dartanyan Brown (16:37):

But anyway, yeah, mom and dad. Mom, she loved Spanish music, Rumba, Latin music, and she loved orchestral music. So I got to hear Ravel and all this stuff really, really early. But then dad was playing Charlie Parker stuff in the house, and all the guys in Des Moines who were into bebop and swing were at our house playing.

Dartanyan Brown (16:59):

So kids, we’re at the top of the stairs, looking down into the family room, and they’re either arguing about the chord changes to the song or working out all these things. So I started singing. That’s why I started singing. And I’d sing along with the orchestras, because I just thought that’s what you did.

Ben Binversie (17:18):

Something like that.

Dartanyan Brown (17:24):

Yeah. Right. Mom had just graduated from college in LA when she got pregnant, LA City College. She was in the very first band that was ever on a televised football game. The first time a college game was ever televised, she was in the band at halftime.

Dartanyan Brown (17:44):

She talked to me a lot through my life about what it was like to be in a college, to be in LA and to see all the different kids and all of the different ways people make it in the world, after coming from Iowa. And I swore my kids were going to have all those experiences. So for us it was very eclectic, very deep experience.

Dartanyan Brown (18:13):

I didn’t even start playing music for myself, though, until I was in high school. It was something that the adults did, and I was observing and doing my little internal thing, but it took the Beatles to get me to actually start to want to do for myself.

Ben Binversie (18:27):

That’s funny.

Dartanyan Brown (18:27):

There you go.

Ben Binversie (18:28):

So yeah. You didn’t always want to be a professional musician necessarily, and I read you decided when you were a little boy that you wanted to be a writer.

Dartanyan Brown (18:36):

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Ben Binversie (18:37):

How did you become interested in telling stories as a reporter rather than as a musician?

Dartanyan Brown (18:45):

Wow! Telling stories. I wanted to be a writer because Clark Kent was a writer. I mean, really, it seemed cooler to be Clark Kent than to be Superman, because he was going out there and finding stuff out, and I’m curious kind of guy, so that always had a great attraction. And it became a thing. I mean, I became very passionate about wanting to be a reporter.

Dartanyan Brown (19:09):

Well, it just so happened that in Des Moines we had the Des Moines Register. And at that time, it was one of the very finest newspapers in the world. The only domestic newspaper getting more Pulitzer Prizes at the point in this late, say, ‘64 till ’70, was The New York Times.

Ben Binversie (19:27):

Huh.

Dartanyan Brown (19:29):

So I decided that I’ll do anything to work in the newspaper business. So I walked up to the Register and said, "What can I do?" And it turned out to be right in the middle of a football editing session on a Saturday when all the colleges and all the high schools were playing football and reporters were flying in with video, and audio and pictures.

Ben Binversie (19:53):

Trying to make the deadlines?

Dartanyan Brown (19:54):

Oh, Jesus. It was crazy. So I walked in at that moment, and it just seemed like, "This is heaven. This is where I want to be." And Leighton Housh, the editor, I asked if there was anything to do, he said, "Well, come back tomorrow, and we’ll see." And I did, and I ended up being on sports phones. But the nice thing about it, here was Bill Bryson and a bunch other great writers who I got a chance to look over their shoulder, and ask questions too. So that was the real gift.

Ben Binversie (20:24):

Yeah.

Dartanyan Brown (20:24):

Yeah. Learning from the guys who were the best. And then they’d learned how to tell stories and how to social engineer. We’ve heard about social engineering in the digital world, but it’s kind of a variation of that, where you’re getting a story and you know that this company or whatever, there’s something they’re trying to hide. "Well, okay, the boss isn’t going to tell me, but if I call the secretary…"

Dartanyan Brown (20:48):

And so, that was how good reporters figured out how to find out what other people didn’t want them to find out. And knowing those things is invaluable in life, never mind working for newspapers.

Ben Binversie (21:00):

Right.

Dartanyan Brown (21:01):

Yeah.

Ben Binversie (21:01):

So at the Register, you were the only African American on the editorial staff for a while.

Dartanyan Brown (21:06):

For a while. Yeah. Yeah, yeah.

Ben Binversie (21:08):

So you became general assignment reporter after MLK’s assassination.

Dartanyan Brown (21:13):

Yes. Yeah. That’s very interesting time for a lot of us. When I say "us" as black journalists in the United States. Ed Bradley from 60 Minutes, saying he had the same experience. So I was working in the sports department, and didn’t have any really big assignments yet. So when Martin was killed back in April, this is ’68, the editor came up to me, I was on the sports phones, and he asked me, would I want to help cover the story?

Dartanyan Brown (21:48):

And I said, "What’s going on?" And he says, "Well, the white reporters do not feel comfortable going into the neighborhood the way it is now." And so, that was the deal. Like, "Hey, dude, you can put eyes on and get the story. Do you want the opportunity?" And if you want to be a journalist, you’re not worried about whether you’re black or white, you’re worrying about, "When am I going to get an opportunity?" And that was it.

Dartanyan Brown (22:13):

Same with Ed Bradley. Same with a bunch of guys around the United States at that particular time. They got an opportunity to actually report on the biggest story of the day. And depending on how you covered it, well, from then, that’s how I became a police reporter and general assignment, and led to a bunch other cool stuff.

Ben Binversie (22:30):

Yeah. And then eventually, you were working concurrently at the Drake newspaper where you went to school, university, and the Des Moines Register, and then trying to be a student, and do music.

Dartanyan Brown (22:43):

Yes.

Ben Binversie (22:44):

It’s not surprising that like when I go through the list of all the things that you’ve done in your life, it started early where you were trying to do way too many things.

Dartanyan Brown (22:51):

Yeah. It was weird because when you’re the kid at a banquet and you don’t know when to say no.

Ben Binversie (22:58):

Yes.

Dartanyan Brown (23:00):

I mean, this was interesting. I had gotten a full scholarship to Drake.

Ben Binversie (23:02):

Okay.

Dartanyan Brown (23:05):

I had a full scholarship from an insurance company, which I had a job working for an insurance company. Then my passion was to be a journalist, and I had walked on at the Register. So I had that gig. I was a sports editor of the Times-Delphic at the same time. Oh yes, and also the Vietnam War is going, and I’m not sure if I would get drafted or not, and let’s get down in here on the commons and protest with everybody else, because we know this is wrong. So there was a lot of stuff.

Ben Binversie (23:35):

There was a lot going on.

Dartanyan Brown (23:36):

Yeah.

Ben Binversie (23:36):

And then, you talk about this, you went from covering the news to being the news. You were arrested for possession of marijuana, a little bitty, half-smoked joint, and you weren’t even the one who smoked that.

Dartanyan Brown (23:50):

That’s right.

Ben Binversie (23:51):

How did that experience impact you, though?

Dartanyan Brown (23:53):

Wow! Wow! That’s right. Because the thing was about the size of my thumbnail. But of course.

Ben Binversie (23:58):

It doesn’t matter to the police, right?

Dartanyan Brown (24:00):

That’s right. Oh my God. Back then. Oh my God. So it impacted me in ways that actually I can only now talk about and articulate, because the shame of that instance was crushing. I mean, you’re used to like having an unbroken string of successes and people will trust you, and this and the other, you are known, all of that sort of thing, and then this happens. And the next thing you know, you are part of the system in that way, and what it meant for my folks and everything. So it was like a trial by fire. Most certainly.

Dartanyan Brown (24:42):

Staying in school after that did not seem logical, because here I am trying to be a media person, news person. Back then, there was no thought of you becoming part of the story. You’re anonymous. You’re writing, but there’s nothing outsider. Well, hell, that was practically front page news when I got arrested. So my own internal quality control said, "Dude, you just smoked it. You can’t do that. You can’t do that anymore."

Ben Binversie (25:20):

Right.

Dartanyan Brown (25:21):

Now, that’s not necessarily true, but that’s what I thought, and I was holding myself to a standard, that, "Oh, okay." So then, that’s when I understood Brown’s law of falling up. Because in thinking it was over and knowing it was over and thought, "That’s it," I was basically relegated to playing music. But in my secret world, that’s when I was going, "Yeah! I get to play music!"

Dartanyan Brown (25:48):

And the scene and guys and girls that were playing at that time, the ‘60s, late ‘60s, was amazing. It was the most amazing time for music, for people coming together. So I died, almost literally died to the world of being a journalist, but was reborn into the world of being a musician.

Dartanyan Brown (26:10):

And because of everything that was in my heritage of music, which was sort of lying there dormant but unused, as soon as I picked up a bass and got with the guys and started jamming, it all came forth, and we were the ones helping make the scene happen.

Ben Binversie (26:26):

Yeah.

Dartanyan Brown (26:26):

Yeah.

Ben Binversie (26:27):

So your father had not been present in your life for a while at this point.

Dartanyan Brown (26:32):

Yup.

Ben Binversie (26:32):

And you decided to try to reconnect with him. First, you called him, but then you went out and visited him. Is that reconnection with your father part of what made you focus more on music again?

Dartanyan Brown (26:47):

Wow! Very good. Not really. A father is a much deeper connection. It’s deeper than any activity, music and all that. And when mom and dad got divorced, that was what, 1961 or so. All right. And so, he was here and then he wasn’t here, and didn’t see him for quite a while.

Dartanyan Brown (27:13):

So I was running on the energy that I had, but then by the time 1969/70 got here, it was like, "Whoa! Wait a minute," because I didn’t exactly, couldn’t put my finger on what was wrong, "Maybe he will have the answers."

Ben Binversie (27:28):

Yeah.

Dartanyan Brown (27:28):

Very primal. Just like, trout swim back upstream. It’s that kind of a thing. And I believe that’s such an important thing. Especially now as a teacher, I see so many kids today… and again, whether or not it’s in a poor inner city school or a rich private school, and I’ve been teaching for two decades now in both, in inner city schools or exclusive private schools.

Dartanyan Brown (28:00):

And in both cases, if father is too busy or just not there, whatever way that shakes out, the kid’s still going to be in pretty much the same circumstances. And so when it happened to me, something tripped that told me, "Wow! If I ever have this example or if I have this opportunity, I’m not going to do it this way."

Dartanyan Brown (28:29):

When my father and I got back together, it was very momentous in the first meeting. I went to New York, and he took me out to the club and introduced me to a bunch of great players. I mean, amazing. Some jazz legends. That’s what he had been. That’s what he did.

Ben Binversie (28:47):

Yeah.

Dartanyan Brown (28:49):

And that was great, but that was not enough to sustain a true father-son relationship. That’s just kind of star stuff or whatever.

Ben Binversie (28:57):

Like, "Oh. Cool, dad."

Dartanyan Brown (28:58):

Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. And then more importantly, and sort of I guess sadly but reality is that, in missing all that time, I had created my own value system, my own stability system. I was already devoted as far as practicing or trying to. My grandmother and my family instilled the drive to excel. So that was already happening. I already had that. I didn’t need that.

Ben Binversie (29:32):

Yeah.

Dartanyan Brown (29:33):

So it’s almost as we reached a point of, "There’s going to be a distance here, because there’s something that’s missing."

Ben Binversie (29:41):

Yeah.

Dartanyan Brown (29:42):

Didn’t mean we didn’t respect each other, and certainly didn’t mean we couldn’t play music together, because we did. It was cool. But at the same time, that taught me something that with my own son, I would never let that happen.

Dartanyan Brown (29:56):

And so when his mother and I separated and there was an opportunity for me to not be in his life, that’s why I became a teacher, because he was in a school and I knew that he wasn’t getting along too well. So I quit my job. I had a Silicon Valley marketing gig for a while in the ‘90s, and I quit that to be a what, 23-grand-a-year computer geek at my kid’s school, just so I could be in the same building with him. That was the start of it. It was the best thing I’d ever done in my life.

Ben Binversie (30:32):

Wow!

Dartanyan Brown (30:33):

Yeah. Because we’ve never been separated. He was supposed to be here in Grinnell with me to play this week, but he is playing in Memphis tonight with the Greg Tardy Trio. Greg is one of the finest tenor saxophonist in the world. He used to work with Elvin Jones. And their group has been playing together like 15 years, and they’ve got a major concert tonight in Memphis.

Ben Binversie (30:57):

Okay.

Dartanyan Brown (30:57):

So that’s okay, son. We’ll get it together.

Ben Binversie (31:01):

Uh-huh (affirmative). So you’ve been an educator, a newspaper reporter, you worked in the tech sector in California, all in addition to your musical career. In which of those environments do you really feel at home, or like you found your people?

Dartanyan Brown (31:17):

Whoo! Music.

Ben Binversie (31:18):

Yeah.

Dartanyan Brown (31:19):

Yeah. I mean, the camaraderie. Because to me music is, especially the music that we play, jazz, the significance of the music is often, often, more often than not, lost in our society because the fine points of our society are so often like pushed aside and all. But it’s a perfect sport. It’s physical. It’s emotional. It’s intellectual. It has a science involved. There’s a huge amount of history involved in the music. It’s the most perfect thing I can think of for me to be doing, and it allows me to enrich not only my own life but the lives of my students and the people who come to see us. It’s a great way to approach reality.

Ben Binversie (32:09):

Uh-huh (affirmative).

Dartanyan Brown (32:10):

Yeah.

Ben Binversie (32:11):

That is perfect sport. I’ve never thought of it that way.

Dartanyan Brown (32:13):

Oh yeah.

Ben Binversie (32:14):

I play a lot of sports, but music is not a sport that I usually play. I guess I’m on the sidelines usually, cheering everybody else.

Dartanyan Brown (32:24):

There you go. There you go. You dive in.

Ben Binversie (32:25):

Somebody has got to be there too.

Dartanyan Brown (32:25):

Dive in.

Ben Binversie (32:26):

Yeah. Wow! Okay. Thinking about the influences of your music, there are a lot of people who’ve been mentors to you, but I think most musicians might say that their music is also inspired by their life and by things that maybe you’re not even conscious of, experiences from childhood, thoughts and ideas that you’re wrestling with, whether good or bad, that’s what comes out in the music sometimes. So where do you feel like your music comes from, and what does it mean to you? If you can put it into words.

Dartanyan Brown (32:58):

Wow! It depends. I guess I can say it depends on what it is I’m writing.

Ben Binversie (33:05):

Okay.

Dartanyan Brown (33:06):

Tonight, you will hear some of my electronic music, too. And I’ve been working with oscillators, filters, and modulators, and synthesizers since they were invented, practically. ‘70s I started working with them. And some of the pieces that I do, they’re almost large when you go to the museum, and you’ll see the larger pieces on at the art gallery. That’s how I view my electronic works.

Ben Binversie (33:38):

Okay.

Dartanyan Brown (33:39):

Yeah. They’re almost like there’s something to be absorbed. For me, there’s a healing aspect to them because of the tones that I use. Often, it’s about vibrations. Everything in the earth is vibrations. And so everything has vibrations that are sympathetic or not. I’m constantly on the quest to find sounds and vibrations that are healing to people or motivating to people.

Dartanyan Brown (34:09):

Jazz is… Yeah. I mean, what’s not to like about it?

Ben Binversie (34:33):

No. And no words necessary for that. That says it all.

Dartanyan Brown (34:36):

Yeah. Really. Jazz is what I am. I was born into it. I dare not think too much about how it happens.

Ben Binversie (34:44):

Uh-huh (affirmative). Yeah. And you can’t when you’re up there if you’re improvising stuff. You’re not thinking about it. You’re feeling it.

Dartanyan Brown (34:51):

Well, yeah. And of course, the thing in the learning aspect was learning about the materials for all the music majors out there: the major seventh chords, the minor seventh chords, the diminished seventh chords, the augmented chords. You practice all that stuff. If you put about, who is it, Malcolm Gladwell says 10,000 hours, put that in, then it becomes yours, and then you can deal with it how you wish.

Ben Binversie (35:14):

Yeah. Okay. So you might want to smack me for this, but in my limited experience, which is mostly from going to concerts, it seems like bass players are always kind of the awkward ones. I don’t know if it’s because of the size of the guitar or the way you have to hold it, but you can’t move like you can with a smaller guitar, and you kind of stay in there all awkward-like. And I haven’t seen you play.

Dartanyan Brown (35:36):

That’s right.

Ben Binversie (35:37):

So maybe you’ll change my mind tonight. What are your thoughts about that?

Dartanyan Brown (35:41):

Good. Well, it depends. For me, the movement aspect depends on who I’m playing with. If I’m with a band, then you’ll see me jumping around a lot, especially if the drummer is funky.

Ben Binversie (35:50):

Uh-huh (affirmative).

Dartanyan Brown (35:50):

Oh yeah. The ‘70, ‘78 through was a beautiful time because people wanted to dance, and disco, yeah, wasn’t necessarily a dirty word. And no, I had a great drummer, drummers and bass players. Man, we made it rock. But when I play upright bass, or depending on what it is, yeah, I’m kind of stationary. Yeah.

Ben Binversie (36:16):

Have to be.

Dartanyan Brown (36:17):

Yeah.

Ben Binversie (36:18):

So the title of your essay in Rootstalk is “My Integrated Life.” And obviously, there are multiple connotations of the word integration as you talk about. But it strikes me that your careers have been really integrated. On its face, it might seem like tech sector, education, journalism, music, or kind of disparate and maybe wouldn’t make for seamless integration, but you’ve really incorporated your work, each of them, into who you are.

Dartanyan Brown (36:45):

Yes.

Ben Binversie (36:45):

So how do you think about all the different experiences you’ve had in channeling them in the various parts of your life in different modes that you experienced-

Dartanyan Brown (36:54):

Good. Good question. Wow! Nice one. R. Buckminster Fuller. Do you know who that is?

Ben Binversie (37:00):

I know it because I read your essay.

Dartanyan Brown (37:02):

Okay. Well, R. Buckminster Fuller, great American theorist, scientist, inventor. The geodesic dome, it’s his.

Ben Binversie (37:16):

Okay.

Dartanyan Brown (37:17):

Dymaxion, D-Y-M-A-X-I-O-N, Dymaxion thinking. That’s him. He was what you call a comprehensivist. He came out of navy thinking, and sailor thinking, world-around-water thinking. When you’re in the 13th, 14th century, 15th century and you’re in a boat and you’ve left land, you got to be pretty brave mainly because the most of your countrymen think that when you get up to the horizon you’re going to fall off.

Dartanyan Brown (37:53):

And once you got out there in the middle of the ocean, you had to be really good at labor relations, because if you didn’t and you pissed off the crew, you’d get mutinied. You had to be also really good at materials and understanding, "If I got a hole in the sail or a hole in the deck or something, what am I going to use to fix it?" You also got to know how to defend yourself. So that idea of being a comprehensivist. You had to know the stars.

Dartanyan Brown (38:27):

In the ‘60s, after Sputnik, specialization. It seemed like they wanted you specialize in something.

Ben Binversie (38:36):

Yeah.

Dartanyan Brown (38:37):

Meanwhile, Bucky was saying, no, man, you have to be a comprehensivist, and like being a comprehensivist attracted me, being good at a lot of things, and seeing the actual organic connections between those things.

Dartanyan Brown (38:53):

Hey, music is in everything. So once I found out you can make music with circuits, "Whoa! Yeah, let’s go." And then that led you to the whole thing of understanding how microprocessors work, and then that led you to the understanding of the languages, how do you talk to them in machine. And then the people that talk to the machine, that’s a whole different crew of people. In fact, Bob Noyce. Grinnell is famous for one of the first guys that ever thought this way. And I mean, is again, a cross-pollinization of cultures, of ideas, of modalities of living and looking at reality.

Ben Binversie (39:38):

Yeah.

Dartanyan Brown (39:39):

It’s just incredibly fun. Which again, starts-

Ben Binversie (39:43):

It is nice to see the connections materializing.

Dartanyan Brown (39:43):

Yeah.

Ben Binversie (39:45):

Yeah.

Dartanyan Brown (39:45):

Yeah, yeah. Which again, goes back to grandma, saying, "No, no, no, no, no. Get them books," and understanding that the education was the real freedom. That is the truth. But now in America or maybe in the world, God knows, the admission scandal, the college admission scandal. Wow, man! One of the schools I taught at, one of the high school is a private, $45,000-a-year high schools I taught at, had a couple of parents that got caught up in that.

Ben Binversie (40:18):

Really?

Dartanyan Brown (40:19):

Yes, sir. But they wouldn’t have gotten caught up in it if the whole education thing is now turning into a sellable thing versus, "Hey, no, we’re going here to enrich our minds." Thank God. Grinnell is still… man, I’m telling you what, since I’ve been here on campus, I’m very impressed because the philosophy of what education is supposed to be still lives here.

Dartanyan Brown (40:47):

Despite I see all the new buildings going up and all that, and I know it takes money to do that, but the class sizes are still the same. The student to faculty ratio, which is the key deal is still the same, and there’s still that going on. You can’t do that at Iowa State. You’re not going to get that done in U of I anymore. You could have done that in days past. But the way the legislature here in Iowa now is toying with the university and the public school system here is criminal to me.

Dartanyan Brown (41:16):

As an Iowan, I’m offended by what they do. I haven’t been here that long, but we’re getting started, we’re active, and this will change. The students of Iowa, hang in there. The teachers of Iowa, hang in there. You have support. People are with you. You just have to get them mobilized.

Ben Binversie (41:38):

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Dartanyan Brown (41:40):

Oh yeah.

Ben Binversie (41:40):

Okay. So you’ve lived quite a life so far, and you’ve got more life to live, more Hall of Fame inductions than I have fingers to count, and that’s just in one of your careers. But there’s a saying that I’ve heard and it’s always resonated with me. It’s, "Wherever you go, there you are." And to me, it’s like we all have dreams of what we want to be, goals of accomplishing certain things, whether we want to be a reporter for the Des Moines Register or a rock star. And then if and when we do achieve those things, there we are.

Dartanyan Brown (42:11):

Yeah.

Ben Binversie (42:12):

You know you’ve got to set new ones. It’s almost a little bit of, grass is greener on the other side as well, once you get there. So in a roundabout way, what I’m really asking is, what keeps you going now that you’ve done so much?

Dartanyan Brown (42:27):

Well, this isn’t visual aid time, because we’re on a podcast.

Ben Binversie (42:31):

Use your voice.

Dartanyan Brown (42:31):

So if I showed you the pictures of the students I’m working with now as a teaching artist in Des Moines schools, again, kids from all around the world, so diverse, so beautiful. That’s what’s keeping me from being an old curmudgeony guy because they’re bringing spirit, they’re bringing pure life to you. And in helping them realize what they’re all about, it’s a killer. It’s amazing process.

Dartanyan Brown (43:04):

I’m 70, really near 70 here in October, which is freaking me out to even say it, because the last time I looked up I was like 38. That’s the thing. Once you have all these opportunities, it’s like none of these things were about watching the clock, it was just like you get headlong into it, and three years would go by before you look up and see, "Oh. What’s the next assignment?"

Dartanyan Brown (43:27):

Being in California during the ‘90s, George Lucas was bringing, and the guys who wrote Photoshop, the original version of Photoshop which was on floppy disks. I was working at the Macintosh sales store in George Lucas’s neighborhood, when Tom Knoll, the original writer of the program, brought it to us and said, "Hey guys, play around with this and tell me what you think." And to see all the… you know what MIDI is?

Ben Binversie (43:54):

No.

Dartanyan Brown (43:54):

Okay. MIDI, M-I-D-I.

Ben Binversie (43:57):

Okay.

Dartanyan Brown (43:57):

The musical instrument digital interface.

Ben Binversie (44:00):

Okay.

Dartanyan Brown (44:00):

That’s how computers talk to music keyboards, synthesizers and all that, and sequencers, EDMs, all that stuff. So that was a revelation, because then I can do this but then something will happen over there. And so now, instead of having a band of humans, I now have my band of droids essentially, and they do what I say.

Dartanyan Brown (44:28):

And now, just what I said there. Think of the implications everybody, what I just said. Instead of having to have a band, like in the ‘60s, that was the lingua franca, the gold standard, you were in a band with human beings and you guys are getting after it. By ‘90, that was gone, was diminished because technology, MIDI, came in and allowed one guy to be the whole band. Now that’s a cool thing, but it has implications for the society and the culture around it. That’s the takeaway of this, today, kids.

Ben Binversie (45:05):

Yeah.

Dartanyan Brown (45:05):

Yeah.

Ben Binversie (45:06):

And it’s not just specific to the music industry either. That’s-

Dartanyan Brown (45:10):

Everything. Don’t get me started on Facebook.

Ben Binversie (45:14):

I won’t. I’ll stop there. So thank you, Dartanyan, so much for coming to Grinnell and sharing your wonderful story with us, and for coming to perform tonight in what will be your first performance in Iowa in a long, long time.

Dartanyan Brown (45:26):

Thank you. And boy, thanks to Jon Andelson too, and all the guys at Rootstalk, and all the people here at Grinnell. I am loving this campus, and I’ll see you tonight, we hope.

Ben Binversie (45:34):

It sounds good.

Ben Binversie (45:43):

We did indeed see him, and he put on a memorable show, a little sampling of his life; his father’s music, some of his early stuff with the Chase band, and then his electronic audioscapes.

Ben Binversie (45:54):

If you check out the podcast webpage, I’ve got links to Dartanyan’s music, his personal website, and a beautiful essay series he wrote for Rootstalk, the journal of the Center for Prairie Studies here at the college. It’s called “My Integrated Life.” And he tells his story better than I ever could. So I encourage you to check that out.

Ben Binversie (46:13):

Dartanyan story music resonates with me in so many ways, but his quest for solidarity and connection is what really sticks. And it feels very apt, given his family’s history in the coal mine town of Buxton. I can’t say for sure, but I bet those miners had some songs to share. Solidarity can be hard to find in a seemingly fundamentally divided society, but we have to seek it out and nurture it wherever we can find it.

Ben Binversie (46:37):

To that end, I’ve also got some resources from D., for Iowans looking to find solidarity and work to make some positive change, newspapers and organizations like Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement. Check him out on the webpage.

Ben Binversie (46:54):

That’s it for this episode. On the next episode, we’ll talk to the artist, Jean Ulrick Desért, who joins us to discuss creative responses to racism, something urgently needed right now. Music for today’s show comes from Brett Newski and Dartanyan Brown.

Ben Binversie (47:12):

If you want to get in touch with the podcast, email me at podcast@grinnell.edu. Make sure you subscribe to the show to get new episodes when they come out. Thanks for listening. If you enjoyed the show, pass it along to a friend. And take care. I’m your host, Ben Binversie. Stay weird, and keep working towards a better world, people.

We use cookies to enable essential services and functionality on our site, enhance your user experience, provide better service through personalized content, collect data on how visitors interact with our site, and enable advertising services.

To accept the use of cookies and continue on to the site, click "I Agree." For more information about our use of cookies and how to opt out, please refer to our website privacy policy.