Student wins national award for jazz recordings

A University of Florida architecture-scholar-turned-music-student has won national recognition for a series of jazz recordings that might never have happened, had it not been for a chance jam session with friends.

Derris Lee, who is scheduled to graduate in August with a degree in music, won the 45th Annual DownBeat Student Music Award for Outstanding Performances in the Best Jazz Soloist category at the undergraduate college level. The award is considered among the most prestigious in jazz education.

Lee submitted three recordings as a drummer, percussionist, keyboardist, vocalist and producer.

The recording of the first piece, “Cherokee” by Ray Noble, was a live performance Lee did with UF faculty in a joint recital in September 2021.The tune was performed at 380 beats per minute – roughly twice the speed at which it is normally performed.

The second piece features a song titled “Close to You,” from jazz vocalist Donna Scott’s 2021 album, “A Carpenter from Chicago” inspired by The Carpenters, in which Lee incorporates an innovative West African approach that pays homage to his Liberian heritage.

The third piece is an original composition entitled “Drumming River,” which highlights Lee’s multifaceted musicianship.

Pursuing a Bachelor of Arts in music with a minor in sustainability and the built environment, Lee’s path has been anything but a straight line.

Originally from Palatka, Florida, Lee arrived at UF in Fall 2017 after transferring from St. Johns River State College, where he sought out UF for its architecture program. After finishing his second fall semester at UF in 2018, Lee and his classmates attended a get-together at a professor’s local architecture studio in which there was also a music room. As the professor and other students began selecting their instruments, Lee sat at the drums and began to play.

His performance left his friends gobsmacked.

“When I got to the drums and began playing, to my surprise, my friends said, ‘Dude, what? I didn’t even know you could drum like that. What are you doing here?’” 

Lee’s parents, both musicians, supported his decision to change his career trajectory. His father is a drummer and his mother a vocalist.

“My father exposed me to influential drummers at a young age: John Blackwell Jr., Carter Beauford, Sonny Payne, Gene Krupa and Buddy Rich,” Lee said. “As I dedicated several hours a day to the drum set after school, I would transcribe all the solos from videos of them playing in the studio and live performances. It was the pertinent training grounds for my development in becoming a professional drummer and an arts entrepreneur.”

Upon arriving to the UF School of Music, Lee became interested in the jazz genre. Scott Wilson, associate professor of jazz studies, offered Lee a position as a drummer in UF’s jazz band. Lee seized the opportunity to learn more about jazz traditions alongside adjunct professor Clyde Connor.

“I became immersed into a musical world that I have always loved. With Professor Wilson’s guidance as an internationally renowned musician and musical director, he taught me more about the connections between gospel, jazz and rhythm and blues,” Lee said.

Head of music business and entrepreneurship José Valentino Ruiz was recognized by DownBeat Magazine as Lee’s faculty advisor. Ruiz is one of Lee’s mentors in the School of Music and has trained him in the disciplines of cross-genre musicianship, production and technology, business leadership and social entrepreneurship. With a passion for global outreach and mission work, Ruiz and Lee researched African diasporic entrepreneurial expressions of drumming that conveyed messages of hope and resiliency, influencing Lee’s “Drumming River.”

“Dr. Ruiz and I have enjoyed providing students with experiential learning opportunities within the professional space, and I look forward to continuing this powerful joint venture,” Lee said.

This fall, Lee will begin a Master of Music in percussion performance and was also awarded the first graduate assistantship in music business and entrepreneurship at UF. He believes the opportunity to study with Kenneth Broadway, professor of percussion studies, as well as Ruiz, Wilson and Connor will equip him to one day be a professor of percussion performance, production and entrepreneurship.

“The joy in winning a 2022 Downbeat Student Music Award is seeing the results guided by the wisdom of my parents, church, musical inspirations, professors and mentors,” Lee said. “I aim to create art that compels listeners to seek faith, hope and love in a world in dire need of it.”

UF News May 18, 2022