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Rooted in Jazz: Devin Phillips Straight Ahead

By Jordon Frauen on July 31st, 2007 •

The melodic euphoria, the gyrating funk progressions, and the warm rumblings of Devin Phillips' tenor saxophone grab your attention right from the get-go.

However, it's his life experience resonating through his horn that really lures you in. An evacuee from Hurricane Katrina, this 25-year-old jazz man left behind his beloved New Orleans and started over two thousand miles away.

Since then, he's not only taken his new city's music scene by storm, but continues to headline acts from Barcelona to Tokyo and Istanbul. Devin has played with modern-day jazz icons like Wynton Marsalis and the Headhunters, as well as rocker Lenny Kravitz. And with his debut album, Wade in the Water, recently hitting the shelves, he's enticing a new generation to rediscover jazz.

New Orleans born and bred

Born and raised in a city known as the birthplace of jazz, Devin's exposure to music came at a young age.

"Before I was even interested in playing the saxophone," he says, "I was influenced by jazz, because it's everywhere in New Orleans – it's a part of the culture."

When Devin was eight, his teacher suggested that playing an instrument might help him perform better in school. His mom, a single-parent raising three kids, borrowed her sister's credit card to buy Devin his first saxophone – their instincts were right. Learning to play the sax not only cultivated his direction in school, but it also gave him an identity. Playing music, Devin says, "was something that wasn't exclusionary: It didn't matter if it was the richer kids or the poorer kids in the class – either you could play or you couldn't."

After improving his musical chops throughout grade school, Devin was accepted to the legendary New Orleans Center for Creative Arts (NOCCA) – an exhilarating place to attend high school. He graduated in 2000 with top honors, joining the ranks of other NOCCA grads like Wynton and Branford Marsalis, and Harry Connick Jr.

"I've never had any doubt that I can do this the rest of my life," he quips. "I love my job and I would never do anything else – even for a lot of money." This kind of dedication would be his saving grace down the road.

Sound and fury

In 2005, Devin was busy establishing himself in the New Orleans jazz world with a band of his own and an album in the works. No amount of hard work or talent, however, could prepare him for the coming storm. One of deadliest hurricanes in U.S. history to date, Hurricane Katrina decimated the city and silenced its musicians. Devin and his family evacuated before the hurricane tore their house to shreds.

"When you evacuate from a situation like that…something so dark, so evil, and so negative like the hurricane," Devin says, "you're forced to grow up really fast."

While most of Devin's family relocated together, he knew his own path would be very different.

"I have a different type of job than the average job," Devin says. "It's unfortunate that musicians can't really pick up and go anywhere, you know, there are very select places."

Crossroads

With immense drive to keep moving forward with his music, Devin soon discovered a relief program called nola2pdx. It was a remarkable community effort to help relocate displaced jazz musicians from New Orleans to Portland, Oregon. Knowing very little about his destination, Devin decided to push forward to a city and a future without family or certainties, clinging to his notion: "I'll lead, I'll take it, I'll do it."

Devin proved resilient and expertly improvised in his new home. He reformed his band, New Orleans Straight Ahead, with other displaced musicians. In 2006, he finally released his debut album.

"The hurricane gave me a sense of urgency with my career," says Devin. "And not only did it give me a sense of urgency, but it touched me spiritually, so it affected my soul."

It's no coincidence that the album's title song is Wade in the Water. Devin's version of the old school spiritual is a reverent nod to the recent storm in New Orleans and its tragic aftermath. When you really listen to the album, as Devin says, "you can hear our experience – our life experience of the hurricane."

Straight ahead

Since Devin's relocation to Portland, he's dazzled crowds with his onstage swagger and musical gusto. Apart from the halogen limelights, however, he's also mastering the demands of the music biz.

Devin leads two bands, each with a slightly different sound and a few different members. The Devin Phillips Band, a five-piece ensemble with strong ingredients of funk, is drawing trendsetting twentysomethings at venues around town. With New Orleans Straight Ahead, Devin will be embarking on a prestigious international fall tour, promoting American jazz abroad on behalf of the U.S. When he isn't center stage, he's practicing four to six hours a day in his apartment. The neighbors don't complain – no doubt they're dancing behind their doors.

It hasn't taken long for Devin to start giving back to the community that was so eager to help him. In just his first year after relocating, Devin founded the Oregon Jazz Orchestra. OJO, as it's called, will create epic exposure for jazz yet unseen in his new state.

Devin also earns some of his bread by heading back to school. Every week you'll find him in a junior high classroom sharing the joy of jazz in his lilting Louisiana accent. He's not looking to replace hip-hop or pop, he's just working to get jazz into the ears and onto the playlists of young people.

Ragtime riches

While Devin humbly points out he won't be buying a BMW M5 anytime soon, he does note that he's got pretty sharp-looking shoes and cable television.

"I feel sorry for anybody who has this opinion: If you're going to be a musician, you should be prepared to be broke, or you should be prepared to live some type of small lifestyle or something like that," Devin says. "I don't live like that, and I never plan on living like that."

For Devin, it's more than just the money – it's about making the music he loves. The sounds from his saxophone blend artistry and virtuosity with tradition and heritage: New Orleans style – straight up. He can make you get up and dance. He can move you to tears. But most importantly, he can inspire. Devin is proving the only thing you ever need, especially when you've got nothing else left, is your passion. And that makes anyone unstoppable.

"This is a very tough business, but it's attainable. You can do it, I'm telling you – you can do it."