Moira Crone- cover of Southern Review
Keep in Step with Sullivan Dabney
By Veronica Cross
May 29, 2022
Sullivan Dabney is a professional drummer and vocalist born, trained, and based in New Orleans. For five decades-plus, he has performed in bandleader and support roles, debuting his first band during high school, The Orientals, and starting his long-term project, Sullivan Dabney Muzik Jazz Band, in 1972. Mr. Dabney has toured extensively throughout the US and abroad. He’s been a staple at both French Quarter Fest and Jazzfest, and headlined multiple international jazz festivals in the UK, Germany, Switzerland, and beyond. He’s appeared in numerous films and commercials, performed for entertainer Chris Owens, Representative Lindy Boggs, and for eight years he played with the Krewe of Bacchus parade. With his Muzik Jazz Band, long-term local residencies include Harrah’s Casino and from 1986 – 2019, he performed on the Creole Queen, Cajun Queen, and River Rose New Orleans Paddlewheelers, where he was also the Director of Entertainment from 2016-2019.
Mr. Dabney’s musicality developed from percussion experiments with his mother’s pots and pans to memorizing the lyrics that drifted through the neighborhoods from local jukeboxes, porch steps, and radio. Early performance experience included playing trombone in the LB Landry Junior Marching Band and becoming the school’s flag bearer in its Senior Band. Dabney then was transferred to George Washington Carver Senior High School. There, under the tutelage of influential music educator and bandleader Miss Yvonne Busch, Dabney honed his craft and cultivated the discipline required of a working musician as he started playing the drums again and then became the section leader of the school’s band.
He shrugs off the label of traditional jazz often assigned to him, instead describing his style as a synthesis of jazz dialects, R & B, and various New Orleans phrasings. In his words, he plays to the room, “a little bit of everything to please everyone”, adding that he “seasons” the music to taste. In 1967, Mr. Dabney joined Tommy Ridgley’s R&B outfit, The Untouchables. Ridgley became a mentor, stressing the importance of professionalism and presentation, and learning the business of music. Dabney later toured with Ernie K-Doe for five years, and played with greats like Johnny Adams, King Floyd, Irma Thomas, Eddie Bo, Porky Jones, Jean Knight, Margie Joseph, Sammy Ridgley, among many others.
Witnessing famed musicians miss out on their royalties also galvanized Sullivan Dabney to maintain control over his business and rights as an artist. By 1996, he established his own production and publishing companies, Ronrel, and Jelron, respectively. That year, he released his first CD with his Muzik Jazz Band, Sings and Plays, followed by Down in New Orleans with All That Jazz (2000), and then Swingin’ in Christmas Volume 1: All that Jazz New Orleans Style (2002). His signature composition, “New Orleans is a 24 Hour Town”, for which he received an award from the CD, DVD, and Blu-ray manufacturer, Disc Maker, was licensed in a commercial for the first Zurich Classic, a local golf tournament. Sullivan Dabney owns all the rights to the music he has recorded and written.
As a bandleader, Sullivan Dabney has always paid his musicians first. His professional credo is DWYPTD, meaning, “Do what you promised to do”. For one long-term residency, he established an earnings reserve to ensure his musicians were paid. When the venue used subterfuge to delay and avoid payment, he appealed to the Musician’s Union to intercede, but they were unable to assist. Mr. Dabney could not keep waiting to be paid for his work, and as the holiday programming approached, would be responsible for compensating multiple bands. Petr Verner, Director of Operations at the New Orleans chapter of the Jazz Foundation of America (J.F.A.) referred him to The Ella Project. The Ella Project represented Dabney’s claim pro bono, even without requiring him to appear in court. Ella was able to collect the monies in arrears owed to Sullivan Dabney.
In his home studio, Mr. Dabney’s photos, newspaper clippings, and awards from his archives read like a “Who’s Who” of music. He has paid Ms. Busch’s good direction forward by mentoring youth through a program established right after Katrina by the J.F.A., serving up to 60 schools. Dabney stresses that applying the same level of discipline to managing one’s business as maintaining one’s chops supports longevity of career, quality of life, and autonomy. The Ella Project recognizes the need for advocacy and education, responding in-kind with pro bono legal services, workshops, and counsel so that musicians, artists, and culture bearers can sustain healthy careers. Sullivan Dabney continues to perform and publish. A recent recording with Smokey Johnson via the J.F.A. will be released in the future.
Special Thanks to The Ella Project!!