Bebop and Pancakes: Q&A with Jazz Musicians Atla and Matt DeChamplain

Toledo Local Features  |  By Kelly Thompson  |  12/07/2015

Atla and Matt DeChamplain have a connection to Toledo that is invaluable to them, as both musicians studied under Jon Hendricks, the ‘father of vocalese,’ at the University of Toledo. Matt, 30, an accomplished pianist, and Atla, 29, a vocalist who takes pages from the likes of Hendricks and Ella Fitzgerald, have just released their first album, Pause. On December 18, they will appear at The University Church, 4747 Hill Ave. in Toledo. I had the opportunity to talk with them about their debut effort, bebop and pancakes.  - KT


Connecticut NPR recently referred to you as the “Jazz Power Couple.” How did you meet?

Atla: Matt and I met when I was 15 years  old. He was the pianist in the jazz choir at my high school — we went to a magnet school for the performing arts in Hartford (CT). Matt was in the corner playing, and we became friends, and started dating shortly after. We started playing together,staying after school to hang out. We were tiny children, but we made music, and it was the cornerstone for our relationship, making the music that we both already loved.

How did you end up in Toledo?

Atla: I did my first year of undergrad at UT, and moved back to Hartford to finish,. We were teaching at the same high school we met at, and UT invited us to the master’s program, and we went back to UT. We completed our master’s programs under Jon Hendricks, which was awesome.

How has music affected your relationship?

Matt: I think that a lot of the decisions we make, career-wise, are 100 percent invested in music in some way. We both teach in some capacity, and so we have multiple streams of income. I teach at the Hartt School of Music where we both did our undergrad.

Atla: After a gig, we go home together. After every performance, we talk about what went well, and what we could change. So it’s a lot of being together to improve our music, you know, we practice at home and all that, but the biggest thing for me is that when you’re headed to the pillow at night, and you start thinking about your day, thinking about the direction your week is going, we’re there together, so we can talk all the time. We’re there for each other. This music is life-affirming for us; you wouldn’t do this career if you didn’t absolutely love it, because it is tough. There’s a lot of competition, there’s a lot of wonderful musicians who’ve been on stage longer than Matt and I have been alive. And at the end of the day, we remind each other that we’re doing it because we can’t imagine doing anything else.

Matt: We both love to learn, and you never stop learning in jazz. It’s a self-improvement thing.

Can you talk a little bit about how Pause was conceived?

Atla: We worked on it for a long time. It started before we even got into the studio, with picking repertoire. That was the most fun things I’ve done, picking out what we would do. We wanted it to be representative of what we’d been doing live, in front of actual audiences, so a lot of picks on there are crowd favorites, like “Them There Eyes,” the last track on the album. We usually end every live set with that one, so everyone who’s seen us live has heard us perform it. We get the most feedback on it too. “Spain” is the second track, and it’s Matt’s parents’ favorite track. His father is a musician, too, and it’s a song from his generation that he learned to play. So there are a lot of connections with people who are important to us, and specifically, what we’ve done live.

We also have a clear tie to Jon Hendricks. He’s a living legend who we both absolutely love. It’s a privilege that we got to spend a year and a half studying with him, so we wanted Pause to be linked to his [vocalese] tradition. That’s what this music is — most jazz musicians will tell you that you have to learn from the people who come before you. Of course, Matt and I are constantly thinking about our own sound and what makes us unique, but you can’t develop that without studying the masters, and Jon has had a major impact on both me and Matt. We wanted that to come across in the repertoire we chose.


Your music is largely defined by bebop tradition. What drew you to that style of jazz, as opposed to others . . . like stride, or free jazz? Was it a conscious choice?

It stems from the fact that Atla and I both learned that music. For instance, I learned from my grandfather, who was a vocalist. He had player pianos in the house, the rolls were cut by Fats Waller, the stride pianist in the 1920’s. So I got interested in that music first, and that slowly led me to listen to Oscar Peterson records, and Charlie Parker.

Atla: A lot of people jump into jazz via fusion, or Miles Davis, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But Matt and I started at the beginning of where jazz started in America, and learned chronologically. The University of Toledo has a very modern jazz program, so I feel we’ve covered the scope of jazz in our training. What captured my attention regarding be-bop . . . it’s a deep question. Being fluent in the language of bebop is one of our mutual goals. It’s something that I’m never gonna stop doing. What draws me to it is that it’s what we consider a ‘high art’ music. It’s not something that people are going to necessarily gravitate towards if they’re not serious about music. It’s really a musical language. It has syntax, it feels like it has grammar to it. It’s detail-oriented. It’s gratifying to have a musical conversation with somebody in the bebop language, and I think that’s why I find it so fulfilling. Although it has a rap for being music for musicians only, I don’t believe that, and with this album, we wanted to show that this music is still applicable.

Matt: Bebop, out of all the different music I’ve studied, demands that you know the lineage of jazz. Even though it’s harmonically, rhythmically complex, it’s firmly rooted in what came before — Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker were in swing bands, they knew that language.

Atla: Bebop is swing-influenced, too, so it’s a natural progression. And it’s awesome.

I think the record does a good job of bridging the gap for listeners. You incorporate Ella-style singing, and familiar melodies — whether or not  people know the names of them, they’ve heard those songs before.

Atla: Adding a vocalist to a group does add accessibility. Some folks will say, ‘I don’t like jazz.’ It’s such a wide statement. Just like pop music, there are a lot of styles of jazz. Adding a vocalist helps us bring bebop to them at a different level, because there is a story, and we try to keep that story going.

On that note, how did you choose your supporting musicians? I noticed Detroit's Paul Keller was in the liner notes.

Matt: All of the musicians on the album are those we’ve worked with in the past. We started recording and it was slightly interrupted because we went to grad school. We put it on hold, and ended up playing with other musicians. We ended up with different groups — people we’d played with the most, or in the case of Paul Keller, people with whom we’d done a few gigs in the past.

Atla: We hand-selected everyone. We didn’t want this to sound like a studio session; we wanted it to mimic what people hear when they come out and see us.

When you come to Toledo on the 18th, are you bringing musicians, or performing with local players?

Atla: We’re working with Norm Damschroder, an excellent bassist in Toledo. I took lessons with him when I was 18. In the same way we picked players for the album, we did the same thing for our shows — we wanted to play with people we’re comfortable with. It’s a very intimate experience, being on stage. There’s a lot of nonverbal communication, musical conversations that happen. You want to make sure you have people you trust up there. And Norm is definitely right there with us.

What’s your favorite thing about Toledo?

Atla: You guys have a city of incredible food. My favorite restaurant is a breakfast place, I can't think of what it's called. It’s our tradition that we go there and have pancakes. When we were doing grad work we went there and had pancakes all the time. It’s on the corner, right by UT . . .

Is it The Original Pancake House?

Atla: Yeah, that’s it. I love visiting Toledo because you have excellent food all over the city. We’ll visit family there and probably all have pancakes.

What do you hope that the audience will get from your performance?

Matt: The biggest thing we’re looking for is to be able to share the joy that this music has given to us. Most importantly, we want to portray authenticity and honesty. So many times in music and art, many people — we all do it to some degree — create this false character. Rather than acting, we just want to give an honest reading and improvisation.

Atla: The folks from Toledo were so encouraging of us while we were there. People constantly asked us if we had a CD, and we had to say no over and over again. When we were creating this CD, we wanted to give our audience something. At this point, we feel like finishing the CD feels like we can move on from here, grow from here, because we’ve set in stone where we are and what we’ve been doing. It documents where we are, and helps us say, ‘where do we go from here?’ It’s been a long time coming. I’m proud of it and can’t wait to share it.


(above: Matt DeChamplain at work in the studio. Photo courtesy: douglas joel studios.)

See Atla and Matt DeChamplain at The University Church, 4747 Hill Ave. in Toledo. The show begins at 7:30 p.m. on Friday, December 18.