Dan Sumner: All That Jazz
Bayou Artist Dan Sumner talks to BayouLife about his musical career and his new adventure with Louisiana Soul Revival.
article by Kay Stothart Rector | photographs by Brad Arender
Soft-spoken and reflective, Daniel Sumner is a talented, classically trained jazz guitarist, at home at Fort Sumner, his Garden District music studio in Monroe. A Benedetto guitar leans against the wall near his chair. He gestures toward the grand piano that sits in the middle of the studio. “That’s my sailboat,” he chuckles. “Courtesy of Hurricane Katrina.”
For Sumner and his family, the route to Monroe, Louisiana was a circuitous one. Originally from Indianapolis, Sumner was introduced to music at an early age. His mother played the guitar, as did his first grade teacher. Distant relatives include J.D. Sumner, a member of Elvis Presley’s band. He developed his musical talent and interests while attending a Jesuit prep school in Indianapolis, playing piano, cello and guitar. He was eventually awarded a music scholarship to Capital University, a small liberal arts college in Columbus, Ohio. While at Capital, Sumner honed his skills under the tutelage of Stan Smith, and fell in love with jazz. During his college years, he toured with different bands around the United States while completing his undergraduate degree. After graduating from Capital University, he received a scholarship to study at the New England Conservatory in Boston, where he earned a Master’s degree in Jazz Studies. “The musicians at NEC were the cream of the crop,” Sumner says of New England Conservatory. “It was a wonderful experience, being around fantastic musicians all the time.”
Sumner left Boston to go to Europe on his first extended professional tour, playing in Germany, France and England with the pit orchestra for Jesus Christ Superstar. When that job ended, he and his wife moved to New Orleans, where she enrolled as a law student at Tulane University.
While in New Orleans, Dan served as the Music Director at Lusher Charter School, running the school’s widely celebrated jazz band. Many of his Lusher jazz band students went on to become professional musicians–among them, Joey Peebles, drummer for Trombone Shorty and Orleans Avenue. “They’re all doing phenomenally well. I’m really proud of them. And I get to play with them from time to time, too.”
Of his time in the Big Easy, Dan recalls fondly: “It was a dream situation, really. I would wake up every morning, go to school and work with the most talented young musicians in New Orleans, and then go play gigs at night.” His gigs always varied, which kept his musical life interesting. He was what he describes as a “gun for hire,” lending his talent as a guitarist to different bands and artists as needed.
It was in New Orleans that Sumner first began collaborating with Louis Romanos, an immensely talented drummer and composer. In 1996, the duo formed Permagrin, a band with an acid jazz sound, combining jazz, soul and funk. As Permagrin, they wrote and recorded three albums and played extensively throughout New Orleans and in other cities in the U.S., performing at the SXSW music conference, the NOW music festival, and the Boom Boom Room in San Francisco. Permagrin was nominated for a Gambit award and for Best Electronic Band in New Orleans in the 2005 Big Easy Awards. The Louis Romanos Quartet, consisting of Romanos on drums, Sumner on guitar, Alex Noppe on trumpet and Luca Lombardi on acoustic bass, was also founded in New Orleans.
New Orleans, the birthplace of jazz, was the Sumner’s home for 13 years, until that fateful day in August of 2005. When Hurricane Katrina hit, people in New Orleans scattered. The Sumners left with very little other than the clothes on their backs, the kids, the dog and one guitar. They evacuated first to Meridian, Mississippi and then to Bloomington, Indiana where they had family. When they were finally allowed back into their New Orleans neighborhood weeks later, they found total devastation. Their house had taken in 8 feet of water, and they lost everything they owned, including Dan’s restored 27 foot sailboat. With no place to sail near their new home in Indiana, Sumner used the insurance funds to buy a grand piano instead. Dan was offered a position as a teaching assistant at Indiana University, and the family stayed there for four years. He continued recording and playing gigs with other musicians while in Indiana. As part of a classical guitar duo with B.G. McPike, Sumner won 1st prize at the International Classic Guitar Ensemble Festival at the University of Texas at Brownsville.
In the fall of 2009, Sumner became a member of the faculty at University of Louisiana Monroe, teaching music education and guitar. In addition to teaching, Sumner continues his association with Louis Romanos, touring the Southeast and Northwest United States, Hawaii and Europe during semester breaks as a member of the Louis Romanos Quartet. LRQ released its debut album, Take Me There, in 2015. Sumner has also been responsible for bringing talented musicians like Romanos and Stan Smith to perform in Monroe.
Teaching, co-writing and producing for young musicians remain rewarding aspects of Sumner’s career. He attributes his own success in part to those teachers who saw potential in him. “When I was a young musician, Stan Smith was one of those people who helped me and had a tremendous influence on my career. I wasn’t a traditional music student, but I had a lot of music in me. Stan saw that, and he took a chance on me.” Of teaching, Sumner says “Music education, from my perspective, is about the individual realizing his or her potential. It’s about helping students figure out who they are through an art form, as opposed to just fitting a peg into a proverbial hole.”
When he is not playing, arranging or lecturing, Sumner spends hours in the studio with talented young area artists like Kailey Fox and Hal Mayfield, both wonderful musicians and star students. “My goal for students,” explains Sumner, “is not to turn them into me or even turn them into guitar players, but to help them have positive experiences with music, and to realize their dreams and their potential through music.”
Realizing dreams is something that Dan Sumner knows a little something about. He does what he loves, and does it extremely well. As a sponsored Benedetto artist, Sumner plays a one-of-kind, custom 16-B archtop jazz guitar, handmade by master craftsman Bob Benedetto. “An incredible instrument,” Sumner says, pointing out that Benedetto means “blessed” in Italian. At the start of 2015, another blessing was still on the horizon for Sumner, in the form of Louisiana Soul Revival.
There are pivotal moments in an artist’s life, chance encounters that alter the trajectory of a career. For Dan Sumner, one of those moments occurred on April 17, 2015. “I was playing at Bella Stanza, in downtown Monroe, with Jeremy Davis and the Fabulous Equinox Orchestra. There was a guy there on the piano named Doug Duffey. I caught part of his solo act before we went on, and the crowd loved him. The band then did a song called “On Your Way Down” by Allen Toussaint, with Doug leading vocals. We started the number, and after just a few notes, Doug turned around and looked at me. There was an immediate connection,” says Sumner, an undeniable synchrony in their music.
The two artists would not meet again face to face until months later, but that experience stayed on Sumner’s mind. Soon after that, on the road with the Louis Romanos Quartet, he played a gig in Sun Valley, Idaho, where LRQ was part of a larger group of musicians doing a fundraiser for the Sun Valley Opera Company. It was a really big ensemble, complete with horns and singers, playing a show with a Motown feel to a sold out crowd of about 5,000 people. They did two sets, and the first set went pretty well. Just before the second set, someone asked if they could “turn it up.” So they did. And, as Sumner recalls, “the second set was just incredible. The audience really came alive, dancing and having a great time. That left an indelible impression on me. I was deeply affected by it, and I remember thinking, ‘people want to hear funky, soulful music.’”
Funky, soulful music is what Louisiana Soul Revival is all about. What started as a feeling very quickly coalesced into reality. Sumner, along with drummer Adam Ryland and bass player Ben Ford, met with Doug Duffey in Sumner’s studio. The initial idea was to create a band that only did music from Louisiana. Front man Doug Duffey, inductee of the National Blues Hall of Fame and Louisiana Music Hall of Fame, described it as a “cultural project, aimed at reviving the songs of other Louisiana artists.” They decided on a list of ten songs for the band to do, including Doug’s original “New Orleans Rain.” The potential in their collaboration was evident right away.
They worked diligently over the next few weeks, adding talent and narrowing the song list to a short five piece set. Once Sumner completed the arrangements, they had a party at the studio and, with their guests as a live audience, filmed a music video that instantly became a YouTube sensation, garnering over 25,000 views within just five days. That first video led to invitations to play Pig Fest, a private music festival in Tallulah, and the 2015 Northeast Louisiana Music Awards. As the featured act at the NELA Music Awards, the newly formed group performed “Nothing Takes the Place of You” by Toussaint McCall, the highest charting song ever written by a Monroe native. As they closed out the show with this tune, McCall joined them onstage, to the delight of the audience. “It was a great night,” says Sumner.
Other gigs then followed, until Doug left in December of 2015 for a previously booked solo tour of Europe. Before he left, Doug played Sumner and Ryland demos of some unreleased songs he had written—some of them dating back to the early 1970’s. “Dan and Adam were flipping out. I was just looking at them like they were crazy,” recalls Duffey. “I had written some of this stuff when I was in my 20’s.” “We were blown away,” Sumner says of their reaction to music from Duffey’s personal archives.
With this new discovery, the band changed its focus. Sumner and the other band leaders chose nine of Duffey’s original songs, and Sumner went to work on the arrangements. Within a few weeks, Louisiana Soul Revival featuring Doug Duffey recorded their self-titled debut CD at Fort Sumner, with Mike Healy Productions engineering the sound. Some of the keyboard parts were arranged and recorded by Duffey while he was in Switzerland. The recording was released locally on February 20, 2016, with a release party at Live Oaks Bar and Ballroom, where Monroe Mayor Jamie Mayo appeared, pronouncing it “Louisiana Soul Revival featuring Doug Duffey Day.” International release was May 20, 2016, coinciding with a performance at the Bob Dylan tribute show at Enoch’s Irish Pub. The next day, LSR headlined the 1st Annual Louisiana Food and Music Festival in downtown Monroe. A few days after that, they hit the road for a brief tour of the Midwest, playing clubs and festivals.
This summer promises to be a busy one as this musical phenomenon gains fans and momentum. Louisiana Soul Revival featuring Doug Duffey returns home to Monroe in time for a show at Live Oaks Bar and Ballroom on June 11th, where they will debut a couple of songs written by Duffey. And, says Sumner, “Don’t be surprised to hear some Prince at our next show. We were all fans.”
A diverse bunch of artists, LSR members range in age from early 20s to mid-60s. “We have a great, positive group with amazing energy and a sound that is powerful and uplifting,” says Doug Duffey. “Doug is the star,” quips Sumner, “and I’m the arranger.” Regardless of their roles, these talented musicians are all excited to be a part of this dynamic group. In addition to Duffey and Sumner, members of Louisiana Soul Revival include drummer Adam Ryland, Ben Ford on bass, Cody Holder on baritone saxophone, Johnathan Patterson on trombone, Mason Howard on alto saxophone, Bert Windham on trumpet, Tony Cortellini on organ, and vocalists Betsy Lowe and Naomi Holder.
Although he misses his adopted city of New Orleans, Sumner says “I’ve always been inspired by the talent that is here in the Monroe area. Doug Duffey is an example of this. He is a world class musical talent.” The future looks bright for this North Louisiana sensation, and Sumner is anxious to see where this new road takes him. “We’re going to take it as far as we can take it,” says Duffey. “Making records, doing concerts. Just playing our music.”
Louisiana Soul Revival featuring Doug Duffey is available on iTunes. Booking information is available on the band’s Facebook page.