PHOTOS BY KODY FORD + CHERMILLA HENTHORNE
Damen Tolbert is enamored by multiplicity. A musician, composer, producer, poet, and educator, the South Side Chicago native has never been one to relegate himself to a single mode of artistic expression, though the infinite possibilities of music especially captivate him.
“Music was the one profession that I could think of and had available to me that involved an infinite equation, where there is never an answer that is 100 percent right but there’s an endless amount of right answers,” Tolbert says. “When I was 16, I knew I was either going to be a musician or be an astronaut. For an astronaut, the answer to those equations is either a one or a zero. But with music, you can go your whole life and never figure it all out.”
When Tolbert picked up a saxophone as a sophomore in high school, he had no idea that his future would become intertwined with the instrument. In 2009, he enrolled at the University of Arkansas Pine Bluff to study music technology on scholarship. After graduating, he returned to Chicago to earn his master’s in music education from VanderCook College of Music, before becoming a music instructor at UAPB, where he has been teaching since 2016. Tolbert remains as awestruck by the communicative power of music as he was as a ten-year-old listening to John Coltrane in barbershops with his father.
“If there’s a space for music, my brain, my subconscious mind, automatically thinks of ways to fill it up using my instrument,” he says. “Music, as a form of communication without words, is another language. It doesn’t matter where you come from. An octave sounds like an octave. A major third sounds like a major third, wherever you’re from. The only difference is cultural context.”
With three albums and an EP under his belt, Tolbert is preparing for the release of his fourth album, Groove Absolute, this summer and continuing to polish his most representative and ambitious project thus far: To, For, and From. This summer you will find him sharing his talents at local music venues, including the Brandon House Cultural and Performing Arts Center in Little Rock. For Tolbert, music is braided into his way of making a living, his daily life, and his raison d’etre.
“Samurai follow a code called bushido in which they use the techniques that they’re learning with the sword and philosophy to perfect themselves. My saxophone is my bushido. My saxophone is my soul,” Tolbert says. “The problems you encounter with teaching and playing music reflect the problems we encounter in real life. So if you’re impatient with your instrument, you’re impatient in real life. As I perfect my saxophone, I perfect myself.”