Vol. 14 No. 1 (2023)
The Bridge

Thursday at Miller's: John D'earth on Teaching the Creative Process

Brian E. Jones
Francis Marion University

Published 2023-05-30

How to Cite

Jones, B. E. (2023). Thursday at Miller’s: John D’earth on Teaching the Creative Process. Journal of Jazz Studies, 14(1), 120–133. https://doi.org/10.14713/jjs.v14i1.218


At seventy-three years old, jazz trumpeter/composer/bandleader John D’earth remains a vortex of swirling energy: gigging constantly, ceaselessly composing, and tirelessly teaching. An iconic musician with a world-class reputation, D’earth is a gifted post-bop trumpeter with a fat sound, a dense knowledge of harmony, and a virtuosic sense of rhythm. D’earth is the type of player that would demand attention in any major metropolitan jazz scene, but within the small confines of the Charlottesville, Virginia jazz community, D’earth is a pillar of influence.  Simply put, D’earth is the heart and soul of the central Virginia jazz milieu. 

Beyond his skills as a performer, D’earth is a revered teacher and mentor. As the Director of Jazz Performance at the University of Virginia, D’earth has certainly helped hundreds of promising young musicians navigate the vicissitudes of institutional learning. But it is D’earth’s work as a teacher outside the academy that will ultimately cement his legacy. D’earth has been leading a Thursday night weekly gig at Miller’s, a beloved tavern in downtown Charlottesville, for over thirty years. Miller’s on Thursdays is a laboratory—a musical workshop—where D’earth holds forth with both his students and his colleagues. On the Miller’s bandstand, D’earth puts professionals next to amateurs, beginners alongside experts. Everyone solos, all players add to the collective musical interplay, and each musician has a voice within the group. 

This project engages D’earth in a series of interviews exploring his holistic approach to jazz pedagogy. Beyond interrogating D’earth’s specific teaching system(s), I inquire into his views about both the pitfalls and advantages of jazz in the academy, how improvisation can build social, political, and economic alliances, and the ways in which music can act as both a form of resistance and a strategy for survival in neoliberal times. At the forefront of my agenda is a discussion on how the jazz ecology of Charlottesville was affected by the events of August 12, 2017, when a misguided “Unite the Right” rally ended in the tragic death of Heather Heyer, bringing political upheaval and racial turmoil to the city of Charlottesville. Finally, I dissect the Miller’s phenomenon with D’earth, attempting to explain how this particular location has operated as both a performance environment and important pedagogical space for such a remarkably long time and yielded such a wealth of creativity and access to musical insight.