Damani Phillips, professor of Jazz Studies at the University of Iowa and international jazz performer, spoke with BYU-Idaho Radio recently about what his path in the music world has looked like.

He said he more or less stumbled into it—basically on accident. Growing up around jazz, he was surrounded by it and the surrounding culture but didn’t find interest in it himself. 

That was until a man entered the music shop he worked at asking for a saxophone player to fill in for their band member who had just quit. Phillips pushed against it before reluctantly agreeing to help out. 

“Once I got my foot in the door I found myself really enjoying it,” he said. “The way the music interacts with people. People literally throughout the entire performance interacting and exchanging energies.” 

Phillips said it’s that idea of building human connections and interactions that has shaped the way he writes and performs his own music.  

He’s produced albums such as “The String Theory,” “Yaktown Nights” and “Duality” over the past two decades.

He feels his music “has a responsibility in some way, shape or form to connect with people.” 

Phillips described the challenges he sees facing the jazz music genre right now, saying music should be “accessible” to everyone. It should easily take on meaning to people from all walks of life. 

Part of that effort means creating a crossover between jazz and other genres, in an attempt to reach new audiences. Much of Phillips’ work has elements of hip-hop intertwined, reminiscent of his urban Midwest roots. 

“I grew up with [hip-hop]. That’s a big part of who I think I am and what I have to offer for the future,” Phillips said. “That seems to be the thing that I do best—to meld things.” 

Phillips also recently released a book, “Soul,” which covers the conflict between ethnically-derived art forms and the modern academic world. 

He believes an attitude shift needs to occur in the music world. He believes individual expression in music is almost universally forgotten in the professional and academic worlds in pursuit of perfect chord-playing and following rules. 

“When your knowledge of that theory comes together with that ability to bend the music to exactly what you want, you become a powerhouse,” Phillips said, describing the creative process of music. “More importantly, you become someone who is wholly equipped to open up your heart and speak something that no one else on the planet can speak. You don’t sound like anyone else because no one else can be you.”