Turning Up the Volume: Nick Dunston (Bassist, Composer)

Turning Up the Volume is a collection of interviews that focuses on the individual stories of up and coming musicians in American classical music. These interviews explore topics of race, gender, ethnicity, sexuality, and disability as they apply to historically underrepresented artists. But most importantly, Turning Up the Volume is a platform for these musicians to share their experiences in their own words.

This month we talk with Nick Dunston, a bassist, composer, and scholar. Dunston has played across North America and Europe at the Edition Festival in Sweden, Guimarães Jazz Festival in Portugal, and the Jantar Jazz Festival in Poland just to name a few festivals. Additionally, he has performed with esteemed musicians Tyshawn Sorey, Matt Wilson, Jeff Lederer, Amirtha Kidambi, Vijay Iyer, Marc Ribot, and Jeff “Tain” Watts. Although a phenomenal jazz bassist, Dunston’s music is not easily confined to the classification of one genre, and his compositions draw from the experimental and avant-garde. Being multiracial, black and Puerto Rican, and grappling with depression and anxiety–Nick Dunston discusses the struggles of being perceived as not black enough and the effects of being an overachiever on his music in this interview.

In our preliminary talks you described being an overachiever. Can you talk about the anxiety surrounding that pressure?

I was taught from a young age that it was a necessity to be an overachiever just to attain a certain level of “success.” I was taught that shit is just straight up harder if you’re a person of color in this country, and that any sort of drive I have has to be an internal thing. And that while external forms of success can be motivating, they shouldn’t ever by my primary driving force. That has to come from inside of me and the love for what I do. My parents really instilled a sense of purpose in me, and empowered me. That’s ultimately where my work ethic comes from.

I still feel compelled to be an overachiever, and I think that’s connected to my interests in so many things – which is why I’m so busy and anxious all the time. Being in a bunch of fun bands learning music, practicing, composing, playing occasional sessions, getting my school work done for both of my degrees, working small part-time jobs…and that doesn’t even account for things that have nothing to do with music, like just hanging out with friends and taking care of myself. It’s led to some weird sensations where I can’t really internalize my external accomplishments.

It’s an honor and privilege to play with the musicians who I get to perform with, and to travel a lot to do so. I’m objectively proud of myself – I guess. But I don’t really feel that sense of accomplishment deep down in my core because I’m very preoccupied with improving as a person and musician and just getting shit done. Sometimes, at best, it feels like I’m barely treading water, and at worst, I feel like I’m a fraud, and that’s where a lot of my depression comes from. That’s definitely something about myself that I need to work on.

Nick Dunston

Nick Dunston–Photo by Zosha Warpeha

Do you ever feel like your audience has a hard time embracing you as an individual due to your minority status?

It depends on the audience. I’m starting to get more into the contemporary classical scene, and in all those situations I’ve been in I’m always labeled as a jazz player. Which I am, but based on the work I’m doing in these circles, I’m doubtful that most of that labeling isn’t just because of my race. This perception of me as the “jazz player” puts a biased filter on how people perceive my work. The problem is that it distracts from the merit of my work.

Within the world of improvised music and jazz, I feel like I’m individualized but not always in a positive way. I’ve been told a lot that I’m not black enough and my music isn’t black enough. Even though I feel respected to some degree by my black peers, I still feel a strong sense of apprehension, and that I’ll always be somewhat of an outsider.

How do they perceive your music not being black enough?

So much of black culture and music comes from the black church, which I did not come up in. Within the black community of musicians I’m surrounded by there’s a lot of praise and talk over music that is unapologetically black, but I think what they mean, is music that sounds very obviously “black”, according to whatever the mainstream idea of that is. For example, music that is very explicitly coming out of black church music.

My music is unapologetically black, it just doesn’t fit the typical mold of what people think black music ‘should’ look and sound like. The people who say this bullshit to me and about me have very clearly only checked out a tiny sliver of the wide range of aesthetics that black American artists have contributed to music.

Among many things, for example, my music is heavily informed by artists associated with the AACM, the Black Artists Group, and New York Downtown Scene of the mid 60’s and early 70’s. Those musicians generally aren’t in the mainstream of what black music is perceived to be. It’s labeled as “other.” “Avant-garde.” “Cerebral.” Very often is it seen as less than, or less unapologetically black.

My piece “A Seat at Both Tables” is about that. Being ostracized as a black musician within a white supremacist society, but then also being ostracized in the community of black musicians for not being ‘that’ thing enough.

Why is diversity important to you in contemporary music?

To strive for diversity within the field of contemporary music in the 21st century means to actively fight against white supremacy and patriarchy. If you’re part of any privileged demographic, it’s easy to think you aren’t a part of the problem because you aren’t “doing anything wrong”. A lot of people don’t realize that being born with privilege also means being born with responsibility. It’s important not to forget that systemic privilege is always paired with systemic oppression. That power dynamic is what actually makes them systemic.

In the interest of producing the best work as a larger society, though, lack of diversity in certain fields begs the question: do we really think that we’re collectively championing our greatest minds in music by ONLY pulling from the same pool of white guys? Lately I’m seeing a ton of collective efforts and discussions to improve women’s visibility and representation in classical music, as well as programs specifically designed to nurture young female composers, such as the Luna Composition Lab. The organization, resilience, and momentum that these women have built in a field that marginalizes them is really inspiring.

The future looks bright. I hope that the people who are having discussions and making decisions about the future of contemporary music can learn from this, and can make the lens of discourse more intersectional. It’s important that we start to see more of these discussions also inclusive of black and brown people, and it’s important that we look to programs like Luna Composition Lab as role models for which we can cultivate the next generations of composers of color-and I’m not going to wait around on anyone to start these conversations or these initiatives.