BWW Interview: Darrian Ford of NEW STANDARDS at Birdland
Once, Darrian Ford had everything for which he had worked since the age of 13. He had danced in New York with prestigious dance companies. He had appeared on Broadway. He had a career as a working actor. He had achieved the dream of every musical theater performer who dreams of a career in their chosen profession.
Sometimes, the dream for which you work and strive reveals itself to be something less than your heart's true desire, and the dream begins to fall away.
When what falls away falls away, everything else falls into place.
It took ten years of hard work on the inside and on the outside, but Darrian Ford searched his soul and found that path upon which his journey lay. It was a new path and a new journey, but the journey has brought him back to New York City, this time as a jazz singer with a chart-topping CD. His new dream and life set in motion, Darrian Ford accepted an invitation to celebrate his journey, his artistry and his CD NEW STANDARDS with a concert at the renowned jazz club Birdland. In the days leading up to his Birdland debut, I got on the phone with Darrian to talk about his decision to leave New York and show business, the lessons he learned during those ten years off, and how he successfully rebuilt himself and his life.
This interview has been edited for space and content.
Darrian you are performing at Birdland on November 5th -- Is this your first time on the Birdland stage?
Yes. It is my first time at Birdland.
But it is not your first time working in the clubs of New York City.
No, no, no. I've done 54 Below and Minton's and a few of the other jazz spots around the town. But this is definitely my first time at the world famous Birdland. So I'm definitely excited about that. It's right there in Midtown, so I'm expecting and hoping for a lot of drop ins
Your show on the 5th is to celebrate the success of your 2018 CD New Standards, right?
It's to celebrate the album, but it's also to celebrate the years since the album has come out. The thing about putting out an album is that you learn all the important stuff after the album is out. So it's really about the years since the album came out, you know, expectations met, expectations not met, and the various ways that I've grown as a person, as an artist, in response to the album.
Now, is it fair to ask what you've learned or do we need to get people to come to the show to find out?
(Laugh) Yeah it's fair to ask. A lot of what's on the album was that very personal. I took the 10 year hiatus from being on stage, theatrically speaking, and that 10 year hiatus was necessary because before I took that break I found myself at a point where I was really unfulfilled by my own work. I didn't really believe in my work. I stopped really believing that it was effective and that it affected other people. So it was a real point of discontentment. And then I had to really figure out what it was that I was so dissatisfied with, and in that ten years, not only was I able to get some insights into my own disconnection from my craft and my gift, but a lot of stuff from like my childhood through adulthood that kind of added up to me coming to that place of other dissatisfaction with my own creativity. So the music on the album is about those issues, some parental issues, issues of depression, issues of parental abandonment, all of which are part of my story. So the years since the album came out, a lot of those things that I thought I had resolved are settled. As it turns out they're never really resolved and that was a big part of this last year since the album came out. My dad died about a month and a half ago. I wrote a song for the album called Fatherless Son. My father abandoned me... I was I think three years old. The last time I spoke to him I was 11, as a child, and I spoke to him once again in 2013; but I wrote the song to kind of pack away all the pain and damage of being a fatherless son. But my dad died about a month and a half ago and I found that I had really not dealt with the permanency of this. Now the dynamic of the new relationship is there's never going to be a reconciliation. I'm never going to hear: "Sorry, I loved you." So that was really impactful for me to find that I have not actually put a nice little pretty bow on it. And there are several things in the album that have come back to me that said to me it's never really settled. So that's really what this content is about. Nothing is ever really settled. It's never finished, packed away. You know what I mean? It comes out and you have to kind of deal with it, which shows up and hopefully you have more insight and information to respond differently than before.
As an artist, when you write a song and perform a song about an issue that you've been carrying around for a long time, at any point do you begin to be able to let go of that balloon and let it fly away? Does it get any easier?
It does get easier. It gets easier, but it doesn't go away. Like I said, I thought that I had basically packed away the whole father issue. While I had dealt with the absence, I didn't do it with the permanency of his death. It's never going to happen. So it gets better. I don't know if you're ever able to let go that balloon. It doesn't feel as painful, I don't feel personally responsible anymore. Cause there was a lot of time during my childhood and my teenage years in my early adulthood where I actually felt at fault with his decisions. I used to feel at fault for my mother's emotional abandonment. I used to feel at fault for things that were totally out of my control. And unfortunately I carried a lot of that stuff right into adulthood and it really kind of impacted and chipped away at my own self belief, my own understanding of what my purpose is. So all of that had to be stripped away over the last decade. And some of it's still being stripped, you know, it's still being cured every day, every day.
Obviously, since you're playing Birdland, the music that you are singing would be labeled jazz - but beyond that, assume I know nothing about you or your music and tell me what I'm going to see on November 5th at your show.
We're going to see actually a mix of music. It's not just going to be the music from the album. I guess you could really call me a jazz crossover artists. When people hear me they seem, they typically either, pick up Nancy Wilson or Al Jarreau. Well, I've come to accept that they view me as Nancy Wilson and Al Jarreau's love child. So you have work on the album, but you're also going to hear a lot of jazz and standards. Then they're going to hear me talk about some of the songs on the albums that now have changed. You know, I say to people, even though I wrote the whole album, some of the songs returned to me over the last year as though somebody else wrote them all together. I say that they come through me, not necessarily to me, and then sometimes they circle back around and kicked me right in the head. It's just really going to be an intimate evening about the album, the post album discovery, rediscovering, things like that.
You started in the business at an early age...
Yeah. I got my union card, my equity card at 13, in Chicago doing a show called The Great Nitty Gritty. Then after that I didn't do another show again until my first Broadway show, which was Tommy. I was a dancer. I love to dance. I moved to New York to dance with Alvin Ailey and Donald Byrd. Dancing was my passion. It was my single vision. Even though I was singing all the way through, dancing really was the thing. I didn't really come to understand my vocal power until I started doing musicals. And people started to respond to it. Like: "Whoa, you've got quite a voice there, little dancer guy." And then it was kinda like, "Oh, okay, well here's the thing that I can do as well." The dancing and the music kind of took a nosedive in my forties. And I had to go and recalibrate and figure out what all of that was, But, yes, I started out pretty early.
How does a person so young end up in show business?
Actually I was sent to an afterschool program. That's really how it all began. I was sent to an after school program because I was a latchkey kid, single parents. I had to let myself in, let myself out, and I was registered to a YMC afterschool program, and they had what was called a drum and bugle corps. It had like a line of baton twirlers, a line of rifle twirlers, which led to choreography. And so I took a liking to the choreography part of that and I became a dancer. I really enjoyed it. I went to the high school performing arts in Chicago on a full dance scholarship. So it was the dancing that propelled me into performing and into theater. And I miss that single solitary laser pinpoint vision of when I was dancing. Like there were no other options, there were no other considerations. I only wanted to dance. So I miss that kind of specificity and commitment to a thing -- where there's no of it guesses.
Do you continue to dance today?
I take class from time to time and I move around a good deal in my show. I'm pretty energetic in my concerts; but no I don't dance like that. If I should wind up in another musical or a theater production, I suppose I'll be doing this a good measure of moving and dancing. But definitely not like that concert work that I did with the Ailey company, definitely not like that.
In your first email to me you told me you had reinvented yourself as a jazz singer. I know many people who are unhappy with their current life who dream of reinventing themselves. What words of hope and wisdom would you give to them?
Well, I guess it started with a kind of a clearing house. Like I said, I had such discontent and dissatisfaction about my life as an artist at the time that I put it all down. There was a good three years where I did not want to sing. I just didn't have any motivation or inspiration - I could not sing. And then it slowly began to return to the singing. I did a show. I created a show in 2006 in New York City called The Cooke Book, the music of Sam Cooke. That was the first thing I picked up again. I started singing that a little bit and I started finding it joyful. And I think one of the greatest lessons I learned about life is: more than it is about adding things to you, it's about peeling away what doesn't belong to you. I was able to peel away all the should've, would've, could've, but I had learned about performing over the years. I learned how to get real intimate with the material, rather than sing to the back of the room, rather than being concerned about the notes or the phrasing or the riffing. So things had to be peeled away before I could begin again. And then once I had that seed a contentment it felt right to me, I began to kind of try to rock forward and stay on that course. Sometimes I fell off and was like, "Oh this is really, this is going to be really good if I if I start it really high." But then I have to self correct. It's not a perfect path but it's a more guided path I ever had before. When you're young, you get into show business, the path kind of rolls out before you and you don't really have to make decisions for a long time. But in any path in life, if you go a long way without making decisions, eventually you'll have to face that indecision. I really had to peel back on it. Just, just take out a whole lot of stuff that wasn't me.
And how are you enjoying your new life as a successful nightclub performer?
I love it! I love it because I feel really satisfied and accomplished and happy with what it is that I'm presenting. My life definitely does not look like what it looked like when I was doing tours and Broadway and larger projects. But if feels like me. Number one, I'm making decisions. I'm deciding what I want to do next, as opposed to just going in to audition for any old show. I don't have that compulsion anymore. If I'm interested, I go in, I audition for it, and I leave it in the room. I'm not stretching in every direction, just trying to work anymore. I'm focused on the music, the writing and presenting it honestly. And it feels like what I wished that I had been able to get attached to decades ago. That's neither here nor there, as they say, but it feels right. I feel like I'm in my right place. I feel like I am my right side cause I'm focused on the right things.
Your show opens right after Halloween and a couple weeks before Thanksgiving. It's all Holidays for the rest of the year. Do you have any festive things planned?
I don't have a holiday show planned this year, but I'm hoping to possibly give to get an impromptu stretch somewhere that I can invite people to, to hear a little holiday music. Last year I had a holiday show at Minton's on the 21st. But this year I'm not scheduled for a holiday show. I do plan on enjoying New York City Christmas, which I love, better than I did last year. When I got back, I still had clay feet. I wasn't, we wouldn't be able to go out and see the city or spend any money or do any shopping, you know, cause I just moved back in October. This year I feel much more secure. I'm happier. I feel free in my spirit. So I'm looking forward to enjoying holidays, for sure.