Dezron Douglas may be a new addition to the Trey Anastasio Band’s lineup, but the bassist has actually been in the project’s orbit since its inception. A musical prodigy, the Hartford, Conn.-bred Douglas grew up playing the low-end instrument in church and studied African American Music at the Hartt School of Music. While in that prestigious program at the University of Hartford, he met trumpeter Jennifer Hartswick, who left the Hartt and began playing in an early incarnation of TAB. Hartswick and Douglas stayed in touch during the years and the bassist eventually met and befriended the other members of Anastasio’s current touring combo: late bassist Tony Markellis, trombonist Natalie Cressman, drummer Russ Lawton, keyboardist Ray Paczkowski, percussionist Cyro Baptista and saxophonist James Casey. Following the April 2021 passing of Markellis—TAB’s charter member—Douglas felt like a natural addition to the ever-evolving ensemble and he will make his live debut with the group on their fall tour. However, he won’t be the only new face onstage during TAB’s fall tour: After Casey revealed that he will have to sit out the run after being diagnosed with cancer, longtime Dap-Kings member and Robert Walter collaborator Cochemea Gastelum was announced as a sub saxophonist.
Shortly before the band’s Maine tour opener, Douglas discussed his deep connection to the members of TAB, his own spiritual journey and why you may have seen him in the parking lot of a Dave Matthews Band show decades ago.
You were recommended to Trey Anastasio by Russ Lawton but your deepest connections to the Trey Anastasio Band are actually through Jen Hartwick. How did you initially become involved in their circle of musicians?
Well, it started in 1999 when I met Jen Hartswick. We met at the Hartt School of Music in Hartford, Conn.—in the Jackie McLean program—and we became instant friends. This is right before she got the gig with Trey. [Hartswick appeared on Phish’s 1998 album The Story of the Ghost and Trey Anastasio’s 1998 solo debut, One Man’s Trash before formally joining his band in 2001.] After she got the gig with Trey, she left Hartt, and I felt like I lost a best friend. She was one of the great trumpeters in the program.
Then, in 2003, she had a gig at Berkfest opening up for Medeski Martin & Wood, and she called me to play with her. There were a bunch of bands at that festival. That was also the first time I saw The Motet. Their bassist, Garrett Sayers, and I go back to our high school days in West Hartford, Conn. We went to rival high schools, and he played in a band called Miracle Orchestra
So I drove up and that’s where I met Russ and Ray [Paczkowski]. It was one of the first, if not the first, incarnation of the Jennifer Hartswick Band. We all became instant friends and, since then, I have spent many, many years playing different venues and bandstands with Russ and Ray. But it was all through Jen.
I met James Casey and Natalie [Cressman] through Jen as well. Jen had been talking about them just about every time we connected so, when we finally played a few gigs together, I felt like I already knew them. I just officially met Cyro [Baptista] when we had a rehearsal a few weeks ago, but I did have the chance to talk to him when TAB was recording Live at The Fox Theater a few years ago. That same weekend [in 2017], I was playing at the San Francisco Jazz Center with Ravi Coltrane, and Jen called me up and invited me to soundcheck. So I hopped over the Bay and came to the soundcheck. That’s also where I actually got to hang out and talk to Tony [Markellis] for at least 15 minutes during the soundcheck. We just chopped it up.
It’s funny, Jen had been talking about Tony for years—and I was a big fan of his playing and his musicianship—but we had never officially met. It was even funnier because I had been playing with Russ and Ray for over 15 years. So I have shared many moments with everyone in the band besides Cyro—who has already become an instant friend—over the years. It is definitely a family. And it’s a family who all possess a high level of musicianship and also a high level of love. There’s just a high vibration and, more than anything, I am excited to join a family that thinks the same way I do.
When did you and Trey first cross paths?
The first time I actually met Trey was also a little over 15 years ago. Phish played a show in Vegas right before their  hiatus, and Jen was hired to play the after party. So, of course, she called me for that gig. And Trey showed up right at the end of our set and sat in. We wound up playing for another hour or so.
Did you have an official audition for Trey Anastasio Band?
Trey called me up and asked me if I would be interested in working with him and playing with him, and we got together for a jam. We set up a little rehearsal—Trey, Russ, Ray and I. Along with Tony, those were the original members of the band. [Paczkowski joined in 2001 but has toured as part of Classic TAB since 2008.] I shedded the most recent album and checked out some of his tunes and we had a great little session over the course of two days. It wasn’t really an audition because I had been playing with all of them for years. So, what I would say is that Russ recommended me, Ray cosigned it, Jen cosigned it, Natalie cosigned it and James cosigned it.
Tony’s groove-style of playing has long been a foundational element of TAB and your style of playing is quite a bit different, though equally distinctive. How did you balance paying homage to Tony’s style and showcasing your abilities during that rehearsal?
My first thought was that I could never replace Tony. It’s been tough for them, for me and for the fans. Tony was a key member of that band. He played Trey’s wedding. You can’t replace a heart and a vibration like that. All I can do is be me and have fun playing the bass. I’m always going to be paying homage to everyone that comes before me. So I’m not trying to change anything that Tony created. All I want to do is share my take on the vibration of the band.
You mentioned that you studied at the Hartt School of Music. After you finished school, did you immediately head onto the road?
Jazz is really African American classical music. And it is really the only classical music that the United States has. I actually learned it from the source—it’s been in my family. My great-uncle played drums and was a great composer who worked with Stan Getz and was one of the original Birdlanders. So the city of Hartford is rich with African American classical music. And I studied with Jackie McLean at the Hartt School and he’s very much an influential figure in my life—continually, posthumously. And through the faculty there, there were so many amazing artists who came up and spent time. It was just a fruitful ground for information if you wanted it. You just had to ask and the information was there for you if you wanted to graduate.
Two years into my time there, I actually went on my first tour. I toured the country on the Chitlin’ Circuit with a deep blues musician named Johnnie Marshall. It was a trio and we toured all around—it was my first time in Chicago, it was my first time in Denver, it was my first time in Montana and Texas. We drove in a van and, through Johnnie Marshall, I actually got to work with a bunch of blues guys: Carl Weathersby, Phil Guy, Johnny Rawls, Guitar Shorty.
But Jackie McLean was upset that I left school, and he made sure that I promised to come back and finish, which I did. That was my total intention, but I also thought, “Man, you need to go out here and learn what the blues is. The blues is a heavy influence on everything.” So that was my first tour and then I came back and finished school and then, when I graduated, my first trip to Europe was with Pharoah Sanders.
Pharaoh took me to Paris and the Middle East. I was actually subbing for my mentor Nat Reeves, who is in Pharaoh’s band and recommended me. That was an experience and a half. I also went to Europe with Michel Carvin, who I had recorded with around 2005. A lot happened in 2005 as far as people were waiting for me to get out of school and then asking me to play. It was like chaos.
I got to meet and work with a lot of people. I joined the Cyrus Chestnut Trio in 2006 and had a longstanding association with him. Steve Davis, who was one of my professors at the Hartt school, immediately asked me to play on his next two or three records after I graduated. And, at the same time, I’ve always been leading my own gigs. I’ve led my own gigs with my own music and my band from college since I was 19.