Dr. Murry N. DePillars’ influence on the Richmond jazz scene

Murry DePillars, holding a pipe, in a hallway talking to attendees at a VCU jazz show

The city of Richmond has a rich and celebrated jazz history. Jackson Ward, in particular, served as a hotbed of jam sessions featuring musicians like Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway. But by the 1970s, touring jazz musicians were passing over the city, their sights set on towns with more lucrative audiences.

That’s when a group of nine jazz enthusiasts banded together to form the Richmond Jazz Society and bring jazz back to the forefront. The nonprofit started by hosting jam sessions in a local seafood market on Brookland Park Boulevard and organizing a monthly guest educator and concert series. They also formed a partnership with VCUarts thanks to the involvement of former Dean Murry N. DePillars, Ph.D.

Forty years later, the Richmond Jazz Society is as active as ever with jazz programs in schools, theaters, churches, libraries and more. It has a scholarship fund and has created exhibitions showcasing the history of jazz and local musicians.

B.J. Brown, executive director, has been involved with the Richmond Jazz Society since its inception. She talks about DePillars’ contributions to the organization and the society’s influence on the city of Richmond.

How did the idea for the Richmond Jazz Society begin?
[Saxophonist] J. Plunky Branch, at the time, had his own nonprofit organization called Branches of the Arts and he was very instrumental in helping arts organizations get started. I think he and Dr. DePillars and some others had gone to the Virginia Commission for the Arts and talked to them about making sure that grant money was being provided for African American cultural organizations in town. They wanted viable organizations in town that could support the cultural arts, and wanted our state organization to fund those groups. With that in mind, Plunky put an ad in the paper and wanted to know if there were any people interested in starting a forum for jazz.

About nine of us met and decided we really want to do this. We wanted to form an organization with a mission and the whole nine yards—nonprofit, a mission statement, a purpose, and really become a viable organization for jazz.

When did RJS begin partnering with VCUarts?
In 1979, we got rolling and we would do jam sessions in Piranha Seafood [owned by RJS co-founder Eric E. Stanley]. At the same time, Dr. DePillars, was proposing that we do a jazz series at VCU and he invited us to work with him in collaboration. Being from Chicago, he knew a lot of these musicians and he knew that he could work with them to come to Richmond. He knew he could get some grant money from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Virginia Commission for the Arts to help develop an audience for jazz in Richmond.

But the issue was, many people in the community did not feel welcomed at VCU. They felt that the programs on campus were designed specifically for students. Dr. DePillars wanted to make sure that the community had a better feeling about coming to VCU, and came in and enjoyed these musicians. After all, why bring these artists if there’s nobody in the audience?

So, we had a collaborative decision that our organization would do a lot of the legwork in the community. It would make the community feel better about coming on campus, and it would introduce people to the Richmond Jazz Society. It was a symbiotic relationship.

How did the relationship between the two organizations progress?
Dr. DePillars did at least three, maybe four, of those spring and fall jazz series. He was bringing in national artists like Hugh Masekela and Art Blakey and Sonny Rollins and Sonny Fortune. They did workshops and clinics for the students during the day, and then they had the concerts at night.

And Doug Richards started, around the same time, the VCU Jazz Orchestra. They became an award-winning jazz orchestra; they were winning national competitions and international competitions.

It was like a triumvirate: Richmond Jazz Society, Dr. DePillars and Doug Richards, we got our heads together, to see how we could work together rather than everybody going off [on their own]. It felt like a golden age of jazz again because people were coming out of out of the woodwork. We realized that we had to do what we could to educate people so they would know how to listen to jazz, and about the historical significance of jazz. We also wanted to preserve the music because we knew that Richmond had a very rich jazz history.

What do you consider Dr. DePillars’ legacy?
Back in the ’80s, what Dr. DePillars was doing for jazz and the city was just so phenomenal. Style magazine did an article and they had this gorgeous picture of him on the cover, and the title of it was The Jazz Czar—and that kind of said it all.

He was extremely well known in the visual arts field, internationally renowned, and here he was sticking his neck out for jazz for the city of Richmond. I think that made a huge impact. It helped the Richmond Jazz Society grow. It helped us build a jazz audience. It helped musicians get gigs in restaurants—and to be paid for what they’re doing, to bring a level of respect. And I think that that was critical.

In September 2020, the VCU Board of Visitors passed a resolution to recognize former VCUarts Dean Murry N. DePillars, Ph.D., by naming the fine arts building on West Broad Street in his honor. The longtime educator, who died in 2008, oversaw a period of tremendous growth as dean of VCUarts from 1976-95, and elevated the school’s national reputation.

Photo: (left to right) Murry DePillars, RJS President Robert Payne, then-freshman Steve Wilson, and RJS Executive Director B. J. Brown listen to Mrs. Buttercup Powell, wife of the late great pianist Bud Powell, at “the old church on Grove Avenue,” now the James Black Music Center. Credit: Jerri Bass/RJS Archival Collection.