Merging Cuban and Jazz music seamlessly, Doug Little gives us insight on his background, inspirations, integrating creativity into his everyday life, and how he gets away with playing a cowbell in the library.
Hi Doug, I know what a busy schedule you have these days so thanks so much for taking the time to be interviewed! Can you tell us what your art form is and a little about your background?
I do music as a professional saxophonist, flutist, composer, and educator. I grew up in the center of Silicon Valley in California but was more interested in saxophone and jazz than in computers. I attended Macalester College where I studied political science and French. I also spent some time at the Berklee College of Music. While in college in the Twin Cities I studied music privately and played in groups all around the metro area.
Do you remember when you first became interested in music? How did it happen? Did you have any big influences?
When it came time to pick an instrument in 5th grade I really, really wanted to play the saxophone. I am not sure where that desire came from (maybe Zoot from the Muppets?) but I was really adamant about it. The school did not offer saxophone to beginners, only clarinet, so I went off and studied with a teacher for the first six months on my own. Looking back that was a lot of dedication for an 11 year-old. I did not have many influences at home. Both my parents were white collar professionals. Later I was influenced by the music I heard live and recorded when I entered high school.
Can you tell us how you got into Jazz and Cuban music?
I enjoyed soloing and jazz band. In high school I was introduced to major guest jazz artists who performed once a year with the jazz ensemble. During that same time I was discovering classic jazz recordings. This all got me very interested in the richness in jazz. Also, this was in the 1980s and living close to San Francisco I was able to see some of the jazz greats live. Many have since passed on that toured through the city or lived in the area - Horace Silver, Bobby Hutcherson, Stan Getz, Joe Henderson, Nat Adderley, and others.
Cuban music was a different story. Like so many in the late 1990s I was blown away when I first heard the music of Buena Vista Social Club. Interested, I applied and received a Jerome Travel Study that allowed me to go to Cuba and learn the music at its source for two months in 2002. Since then I have been back there ten times on trips as long as 3-months. I also spent two months in Brazil. The music of Cuba and Brazil interest me as they have the same improvisational spirit as jazz but has a different intriguing and highly complex rhythmic vocabulary that is part of the music. I am on an endless learning experience.
As the leader of Tres Mundos, what are your goals for the group’s performances? What do you hope the audience gets out of it?
We want the audience to enjoy the music and at the same time learn about how these different songs and rhythms came about.
What do you get out of teaching solo versus performing with the group? Do you have a preference?
Teaching and performing feed off of each other. The teaching brings us closer to the audiences and the performing gives weight to our teaching and of course nurtures our creative selves.
Tres Mundos has been touring this spring through the MSAB Arts Touring grant. How has it been going? Do you notice any similarities or differences in the communities you’re visiting?
We have visited 23 libraries throughout the state of Minnesota. It has been an amazing experience to visit small and big towns and interact with all these audiences. We have come away realizing how much of a need and appreciation there is for great art. Obviously these communities do not get a lot of Latin music trios touring through town. It feels great to bring the diversity in music to them... it is also a lot of fun to play a cowbell in the library which I was never allowed to do as a kid but now that I am a COMPAS touring artist with a Latin trio I am supposed to!
Have you been working on any other new projects lately?
Always. In 2016 my group Charanga Tropical released our CD ‘In Cuba’ which was recorded in Havana as part of a landmark tour. That group will be playing throughout the summer including dates in Chicago, the Twin Cities Jazz Festival and the Minnesota State Fair. I have a commission to write new music which is exciting. Also, in 2018 Charanga Tropical will be returning to tour Cuba, this time with an arts focused tourist group in tow. That’s all getting organized and it’s a complicated undertaking. I know it’s going to be amazing for me, the band, and the tourists who sign up to come along.
You’ve been on the COMPAS roster for close to ten years now. What’s it like for you to be a part of COMPAS?
It is great. As an independent artist COMPAS provides access to presenters and support to make shows happen. The organization brings artists and communities together that would otherwise never meet. I am so grateful.
How do you practice creativity in your everyday life?
I practice every day. I improvise every day. I try to think of my work managing my career and bands in a strategic and creative way. So often amongst artists and non-profits business gets a bad name but running a good organization is in itself a kind of art, an ancient art even, that has been around for centuries or more.