Sean Dobbins & the Modern Jazz
Some years ago a boy named Sean Dobbins joined the jazz band at Washtenaw Community College that was directed by Morris Lawrence. Lawrence took in kids of every level of ability and had developed a repertoire of original tunes that could be played by anyone on any instrument. A small group of us sat in a circle as Doc--the name Lawrence always went by--familiarized himself with the new crop.
He instinctively realized that the young drummer was the one true talent in the group. To get Dobbins to focus, he suddenly started singing the opening bars of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony--and asked the student to play what he was singing on the drums! Dobbins was understandably incredulous, but Doc patiently explained that it was all jazz--call and response, theme and development, and plenty of soul. He told him to go home and learn much of the first movement on the drum set. It was an amazing demonstration of pedagogical insight; some may find it eccentric, but it was a perfect example of Doc's marvelous way with kids and music. And it worked, because Dobbins stayed with the drums, grew up, and developed into one of the leaders of our jazz community.
Dobbins developed his skills in the Ann Arbor school system, where he was fortunate enough to study and eventually perform with Louis Smith. Early on in his career he perfected highly developed technical skills, while also demonstrating a serious love of jazz history. One drummer he has always admired is Art Blakey, a pioneer of modern jazz who for decades led one of the greatest bands in the history of the music--the Jazz Messengers. When Dobbins leads a group, it often seems to continue the story of the Messengers, and he has often used that word in the names of his bands. But while his concept is inspired and informed by a study of the hard-driving modern jazz of Blakey's groups, he takes the music in new directions.
Every now and then he may inject some of Blakey's characteristic drumrolls or cymbal work, but this is for reference only. Perhaps the most important thing that Dobbins learned from listening to the master was how to lead a group from behind the drum set in a way that is subtle and yet definitive.
In the latest edition of his Messengers, Dobbins has surrounded himself with some of the best musicians in the state. Rodney Whitaker, for many years the bassist with the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra and first call in Detroit on the instrument, now leads the faculty of the jazz program at MSU, which also includes saxophonist Diego Rivera. Trombonist Vincent Chandler has worked with Dobbins for years, and the group is rounded out by pianist Roger Jones. They play the Kerrytown Concert House on Saturday, May 21, and Dobbins returns to KCH on Friday, May 27 with his Dobbins-Krahnke-Weed Trio.
[Originally published in May, 2011.]