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Tuesday, November 28, 2023


When Dion Parson comes home to the Virgin Islands to perform, he brings a lot of baggage. It goes with the territory when you're a drummer.
But when he heads back home to New York, he travels light.
That's because he leaves his drums behind – by design.
"It started two years ago," Parson says. "Every time I come home, I donate a set of my drums to a school." He's given sets to Eudora Kean and Charlotte Amalie High and helped Central High get a set. After Saturday night's concert at the Reichhold Center for the Arts by 21st Century, his New York-based jazz band, he'll be donating the set he uses to a school to be announced.
Each set he gives away is "the set I actually play on for the concert," he explains. "I get some drums, I tour the world with them, then, when I come back home, I leave them and go back and get a new set." While he does have some personal drums that "I would never give away," the ones he uses on tours "are drums I get for the purpose of giving them away." It's not too painful parting with them, he says, because "I have endorsement companies now" that supply the instruments he plays.
The idea of donating drums was a natural outgrowth of Parson's commitment from hi college years to conducting school music workshops when he's on island. He still has this memory from when he was doing one at then-Bertha C. Boschulte Junior High School of "drums held together with strings, sticks broken." He says, matter-of-factly, "When I was a kid, I would've spent my lunch money to buy new sticks, but that's not how it is today."
Now, don't get the idea that Dion Parson is a totally selfless musician. It's important to him that he get credit where credit is due, and he makes the point in talking about 21st Century, the jazz band he and saxophonist and fellow St. Thomian Ron Blake started three years ago.
21st Century came about, Parson says, through "an ongoing process" that led to the "actual formation of the band when we did the first CD" – released in 1998 and titled simply "21st Century." The process got a jump start nine years earlier, when Blake, a graduate student at Northwestern University, and Parson, an undergrad at Rutgers, spent a week playing in a pickup quartet with fellow Virgin Islander Bryce Sebastien, in from New York, on string bass and University of the Virgin Islands faculty member Martin Lamkin on trombone.
The occasion was the Premier Virgin Islands Jazz Festival, which had saxophonist Gary Bartz as one of the headliners. Blake and Parson sat in with the Bartz trio and a relationship resulted which has continued through the years.
Parson, son of the late Niels "Sonny" Parson and Winifred Sullivan, and Blake, son of Tommy and Gwendolyn Blake, have also performed with Nancy Wilson, David Sanchez, Terence Blanchard and Diana Reeves and appear on more than 50 recordings in addition to the two 21st Century Cds to date.
On St. Thomas, 21st Century made its debut at Insomnia with Blake doing most of the introductions and fellow St. Thomian Reuben Rogers playing bass. The CD that came out soon thereafter has nine songs, three written by Blake and three by Parson. The CD itself and the spine of the plastic jacket read simply "21st Century / Dion Parson and Ron Blake." It was clearly a crediting of equals.
Now, things have changed.
The concert Saturday night is officially called "Dion Parson Project 2001 with 21st Century and Ron Blake on Sax."
"It's my band," Parson says. "I'm the band leader. Ron is the featured artist of the band."
The new album, recorded in New York last March, is titled "People Music." The cover is a photograph of drums, with the title words across the top and "Dion Parson" in capital letters and "featuring the 21st Century Band" in smaller letters across the bottom.
Although Saturday is the official release date for the album, Parson will be at the Modern Music store in Nisky Center at 6 p.m. on Friday to sign copies – and sell his own "Musicwear" line of T-shirts and hats. "The Musicwear logo is the logo for both 21st Century and for Dion Parson," he says. "It doesn't say either; it promotes the band and it promotes me."
The other members of the band are Carlton Holmes (piano), St. Thomian Reuben Rogers (bass), Ron Jackson (guitar), Robert Thomas Jr. (percussion), Denise Jannah (vocals) and St. Thomian Rashawn Ross (trumpet).
All "have some kind of Caribbean connections or tropical descent," Parson says. Thomas is from the Bahamas, Jackson is from the Philippines and Holmes is someone he has known "for 10 years, since I've been in NewYork; I just introduced him to Jon Lucien and they've been having a wonderful time."
What's on the new album
For "People Music," Parson says, he "basically wrote eight of the nine songs (he composes at the piano), did all of the pre-production, designed the graphics myself." He offers these brief descriptions of the tracks:
– "'Promise to the Future' is a song about a world filled with laughter where our kids can grow strong … Music is the answer." Although he's not a parent, he says, "I have personal meanings behind it." The song was "written for kids and parents. You do what you have to do today so tomorrow will be better."
As explanation, he offers: "When I was a kid, I used to have constant dreams, used to see stadiums with hundreds of thousands of people going berserk. I would always see them from behind drums, a band playing." That was odd, he says, because at that time "I wasn't even playing drums. I was playing trombone." The dreams, he recalls, "stopped once I got into playing the drums."
– "'The River Rolls On' is the song (St. Thomas jazz vocalist) Cynthia Saunders did at last year's Reichhold concert. She recorded it on her CD that just came out. Jon Lucien produced the CD, and I was a part of that."
– "'Little Melonae' is a song that sax player Jackie McClean wrote for his daughter … I just couldn't get it out of my head, so I made an arrangement."
– "'Mellow D' I kinda wrote for myself. It's a reggae song, nice vibes."
– "'Lullaby for Belle' I wrote for a very dear friend of mine when she had gotten sick."
– "'To Us' is one my guitar player wrote when he was 19 years old; it's a contemporary fusion song."
– "'N.G.P., for Sonny' is my father's initials. It's my tribute to my father, who passed away last year. Niels Gerald Parson – on St. Thomas, everybody called him ‘Sonny P.'" Although his mother "knows my every more," he adds, "she doesn't know I wrote the song for my father, since nobody has heard this new CD."
– "Brazilia" is a samba he wrote after playing for a week in Rio de Janeiro and "checking out Brazilian rhythms, then hanging out in New York with newfound friends from Brazil."
– "'Child's Play' is a soca with a little twist, in six beats to the bar. I experimented with organ, a 12-string guitar and different instruments, trying to get different sounds."
Parson says he took up drums because "I had no choice. I got a lot of resistance, but every time I couldn't play the drums, the more I heard ‘no,' the more I said ‘yes!'"
Leroy Trotman was his music teacher in elementary and junior high school. Austin Venzen taught him at Charlotte Amalie until his senior year, when Georgia Francis took over the band. "My main influence was all the drummers who played in the calypso bands," he recalls, citing Freddie Canton, Lenny Monsanto, Alvin Baptiste, T
ommy Pilgrim. "They're the guys I first heard. None of them are really jazz drummers."
But the early jazz influences were there. "Seeing people do it made it more intriguing," he recalls. "I had no idea what it took." At 15, he was playing with pianists Louis Taylor, Roan Creque and the late Windsor Rhoden, "who took me under his wing."
The making of musicians
He and Blake, who is two years older and attended high school at the Interlochen Academy in Michigan, didn't meet until Parson's junior hear in high school. "One day I was playing at Magens Point with Windsor Rhoden, and Ron's father dropped him off. That's where I met Gary Bartz, who was just back from the Berlin Jazz Festival."
After getting a degree in music education from Rutgers, Parson moved to New York, and when Blake, too, made the move in the early 1990s, they became roommates for a year.
Parson got to know Rogers, several years his junior, while teaching in band programs on St. Thomas. "When I first met Reuben, he was a clarinet player. He doesn't like anybody to know it. To go from clarinet to the bass is a wonderful thing – he's a natural."
Ross "is one of the kids I used to teach in summer workshops. He just graduated from Berklee (School of Music in Boston). Now he says, ‘Man, all that stuff you and Ron used to tell me about music, I didn't take you seriously, but it's true.' He turned out to be one of the kids that took our advice and made it work for him." One element of that advice was, "You've got to prove yourself. You can't graduate with a music degree with a 4-point-0 and get a job."
In addition to his work in 21st Century, Parson performs regularly with pianist Joanne Brakeen (and recently performed in Isreal with her); Jon Faddis, director of the Carnegie Hall Jazz Band; and flautist Sherry Winston. On Fridays, he's got a regular gig at St. Nich's Pub, "one of the last remaining organ clubs in Harlem," where he plays in the Bill Saxton organ trio. His 2001 calendar includes playing in South Africa in March with Fatimah Benjamin, and in Paris and Corsica in May with a French band.
One thing Parson would like his home community to know is that "St. Thomas is a very rich culture musically. I travel the world, I hear about it. I've never been anywhere that I haven't met somebody who's been there and loved it and wants to go back."
Concert time Saturday is 8 p.m. Tickets are $25 in the covered section and $18 in the open air. They're available at Krystal & Gifts Galore, Modern Music/Havensight, Parrot Fish Music, the UVI bookstore and the Reichhold box office on St. Thomas, and at Connections on St. John. For charge card purchases, call 693-1559.

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