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Dion Parson is an internationally renowned drummer, bandleader, composer, and educator whose idiosyncratic musical sensibilities and dedication to mentorship are paving the way for a new generation of jazz listeners and players in the Caribbean.
Born and raised on the island of St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands, Parson initially took up the trombone before discovering his love for the drums at age 15. He received a grant from the Virgin Islands Council on the Arts to study at the famed Interlochen Music Academy in Michigan and was later selected to represent the USVI in the McDonald’s All-American High School Band. Parson attended Rutgers University in New Jersey, and studied percussion with Keith Copeland and William Moersch, and eventually earned a BM in Music Education and a Master’s in jazz performance. He also studied for 14 years under master drummer Michael Carvin, who remains his mentor.
In the 1990s, Parson was a fixture on the New York scene, performing with jazz icons including Milt Jackson, Jon Faddis, Ernest Ranglin, Baaba Maal, Monty Alexander, Geri Allen, Lee Konitz, Dianne Reeves, Wycliff Gordon, and Cyrus Chestnut, among many others. He has also enjoyed a prolific career as a recording artist, appearing on dozens of albums on major labels like Columbia, Sony, Blue Note, Verve, and Concord Records. His first album as a leader, 21st Century, was released in 2000 with saxophonist, co-leader, and fellow USVI native Ron Blake, followed shortly after that by People Music in 2001.
In 1998, Parson and Blake founded the 21st Century Band, a unique ensemble combining mainstream jazz influences with rhythms from the musicians’ home islands. 21st Century Band with US Virgin Islanders Dion Parson (drums), Ron Blake (saxophone), Rashawn Ross (trumpet), Reuben Rogers (bass) and Victor Provost (steel pan) accompanied by Melvin Jones (trumpet), Kenny Davis (bass), Carlton Holmes (piano), and Alioune Faye (percussion and sabar drums), has since released a series of albums featuring prominent guests such as Terell Stafford and Marcus Printup, including St. Thomas. This 2015 release pays tribute to the eponymous island where Parson, Blake, and other musicians in the group were born and includes contemporary riffs on classic compositions such as “Rockin’ In Rhythm,” “All Blues,” and–of course–the Sonny Rollins standard “St. Thomas.”
Parson’s commitment to his USVI roots is not merely performative–in addition to shining a spotlight on significant jazz talent from the Islands through his 21st Century Band. Furthermore, Dion devotes his time to helping aspiring young musicians in the Virgin Islands and throughout the Caribbean to learn more about their cultural heritage and become competent artists and creators in the process. Founded in 2012, Parson’s nonprofit United Jazz Foundation (UJF) seeks to identify, educate and mentor USVI students interested in pursuing a career in music. UJF also offers an interdisciplinary music curriculum for students in Pre-K through high school that uses culture–both local and global–to inspire self-confidence and academic achievement. At the university level, Parson is shaping the studies and careers of a new generation of USVI arts professionals as Chair of the Communication and Performing Arts Department of the University of the Virgin Islands.
Parson’s efforts to educate and uplift his fellow Virgin Islanders, while also raising the profile of his home territory’s musical traditions, have crystallized further in the inception of the Caribbean Jazz Institute (CJI), a summer jazz education program that debuted in 2017 at the Snow Pond Center for the Arts in Sidney, Maine. Under the direction of Mr. Ron Blake, CJI brought together leading jazz musicians from the Caribbean, including Parson and Steel Pannist Victor Provost, for an intensive 10-day program of study with student musicians focusing on small ensemble performance, the introduction of rhythms of the Caribbean through the adaptation of original and standard jazz repertoire, creative practice techniques, ear training, music theory and more.
CJI has since evolved into the Caribbean Music Institute, launched in 2020 by United Jazz Foundation, which continues Parson’s mission to elevate and promote the musical heritage of the Caribbean worldwide. In 2021, the Institute plans to unveil the Caribbean Music Institute Orchestra, a large ensemble featuring faculty and alumni from Parson’s numerous educational and community outreach endeavors over the past decade.
Unsurprisingly, for the International Jazz Day, 10th Anniversary Celebration in 2021, Parson plans to showcase top talent from the USVI in a unique performance program produced in collaboration with the USVI Department of Tourism. The performance will appear on YouTube, Facebook, and jazzday.com. Follow and subscribe to International Jazz Day to receive the latest updates from partners like Parson and the United Jazz Foundation.
International Jazz Day is pleased to welcome Dion Parson into our worldwide family of partners in 2021.