THE SUN IS ALMOST set as Delbert Anderson returns to the town of Kirtland, near the San Juan River in northwest New Mexico. Returning from a teaching residency at the California Institute of the Arts and performances in Los Angeles, he had hoped to be at his house by the time we catch up by phone, but the press of commuter traffic delays him.

In a cheerful tenor, the Diné jazz trumpeter says he tells his students, “Pay attention to classes, but never forget what makes you an individual.” While picturing Anderson passing a neat-bricked Mormon church on Kirtland’s Brigham Street, I think about the layers and tensions that form identity. For Anderson, the small community where he grew up plays a significant role. He finds solace in coming home to his wife and five children, along with the dynamic jazz scene that exists here, thanks in part to his continuing efforts.

Anderson remembers how he simply trusted his first music teacher. If she said he should play trumpet, then she must be telling him the truth. By fifth grade, he’d made it to first chair; by seventh, he’d joined the Community Jazz Big Band in Farmington. “Although I was very young, I got a lot of the style down,” he recalls.

His love of big band music won out over teenage distractions. “Especially in high school, it wasn’t the cool thing to be in band,” he says. “But I was really good at trumpet, so it didn’t really faze me. I used to hang out with the sports guys and the skateboarders, so I didn’t care.”

Soon he’d discover, join, and create smaller jazz groups. His uncle loosened him up with Santana and nineties hip-hop listening sessions, encouraging his development of an individual sound. A full scholarship to study music took Anderson to Eastern New Mexico University in Portales, where his tastes broadened. “I started meeting people that I really liked, like Trombone Shorty, Galactic, more of a New Orleans funk,” he says. “I really wanted to play that stuff.”

The Delbert Anderson Quartet on the IAIA campus. From left, pianist Robert Muller, drummer Khalill Brown, Anderson, and bassist Evan Suiter.

AS WE SPEAK, ANDERSON IS PREPARING FOR a June collaboration with the gallupARTS organization, located two hours south. The monthlong residency includes the installation of a pop-up record store at Gallup’s ART123 Gallery. Anderson describes the project as a nostalgic re-creation of his dream shop—one that showcases contemporary Indigenous artists and local musicians and is lined with posters, memorabilia, and photos of performances and the artists hanging out.

In addition to listening stations, Anderson is designing what he calls an Indigenous Rolodex, with QR codes printed on mock albums to help visitors discover previously unheard music. “We call them fake records,” he explains. “Instead of organizing it by genre, we’re going to do it by tribe: Navajo, Zuni, Hopi.” There are plans for live performances on Saturdays.

His gallupARTS residency is a slight departure for the organization, which usually works with visual artists. “The idea is to celebrate the diversity of the local music scene,” says executive director Rose Eason, “and to do what Delbert does, which is to push back on some of the stereotypes of what Indigenous or Native American music is, or could be, or should be.”

This past spring, Anderson brought his annual Blue Desert Tour of Indigenous jazz artists to Gallup for the third year. The free April concert at El Morro Theatre also featured the Nez Perce jazz vocalist Julia Keefe and her trio, and the acoustic Diné and Maori duo Indigie Femme.

Anderson’s deep attachment to this corner of New Mexico might not suggest the dizzying range of his accomplishments, including plaudits from the New York Times, JazzTimes, and Smithsonian Magazine. He has earned funding from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, a 2023 national Cultural Capital Fellowship from the First Peoples Fund, and a Presenter Consortium for Jazz Award given by Chamber Music America.

“He is blowing up professionally, but he really means it when he says he’s committed to his home community,” says Eason. “It’s so often the phenomenon that artists have these amazing careers, and their work is shown everywhere but here.”

Anderson’s “The Long Walk,” which began in 2023, will end with the last note played in June 2028.

ANDERSON DOES GET AROUND, BOTH geographically and musically. When the World of Music, Arts and Dance (WOMAD) Festival, founded by Peter Gabriel in 1980, was laying the groundwork for a South African iteration in 2022, Anderson performed and held workshops for Indigenous women there. He has also worked on an homage to free-jazz legend Don Cherry. Cherry was a pioneer of improvisation whose work with Kaw–Muscogee saxophonist Jim Pepper is honored in Anderson’s 2020 Cherry Pepper recordings.

Another of Anderson’s passions is interpreting and developing Navajo spinning songs, which include stories of relations, romance, and restoration. “Spinning songs come with a life lesson,” he says. “These songs were very social. In that circle, it was a creative composition time for our Diné people.” In his attempts to keep the song tradition alive, Anderson has been in touch with tribal elders about the thorny issue of appropriation.

“It was quite funny to make sure I wasn’t appropriating my own culture,” he says. “And it was also funny because the elders said to me, ‘Well, you’re Diné, right? So just do what you want to do!’ ”

Still, Anderson understands the importance of both the question and what it represents. “If you were to go back 10 to 15 years with my request—Is it okay to incorporate Diné spinning songs into modern jazz?—then they probably would have said no,” he says. “Back then, it was more about protecting the culture, keeping everything sacred. But they said, today, because the youth is no longer interested in cultures and because knowledge and wisdom are dying out with the elders, it’s sort of an outcry of ‘Please do!’ ”

Anderson must navigate other issues from within his community, including pressure from some Native activists to channel his success into political protest. And when he hired a new non-Indigenous manager, someone he had worked with for years, he received more than 50 private messages. “I couldn’t believe some of the comments that were just, ‘Be careful,’ or ‘You should watch out because he’s a White man,’ ” he recalls. “I just went with the best, regardless of race or ethnicity.”

The Delbert Anderson Quartet plays in the black box theater at IAIA’s Performing Arts and Fitness Center.

It is from this environment of varied influences and considerations that Anderson creates his music—like a tornado collecting and projecting diverse material out of its gyre. “Once we’re all mixed together, that’s what comes out,” he says. “That’s how I explain the healing and connecting relationship part of the arts.”

Anderson powerfully engages in Indigenous activism and cultural education via his composition “The Long Walk,” an ongoing four-year performance that began when the first note was played on November 1, 2023, and will end with the final note on June 1, 2028. The next note will be played September 10 at 7:30 p.m. MST. Scaled to 1,674 days, “The Long Walk” matches the duration of forced marches and ethnic cleansing of Navajo people by the U.S. government that began in 1863. More than 10,000 Navajo were marched 300 miles from their ancestral lands west of the New Mexico Territory to Fort Sumner at Bosque Redondo. Thousands died.

Conceptually, Anderson joins an avant-garde movement of composers with work played over extreme time periods. He calls his piece modest compared with John Cage’s 639-year-long “ORGAN2/ASLSP (As Slow as Possible)” or Jem Finer’s 1,000-year-long “Longplayer,” which both depend upon electronic looping of sounds for their duration.

By contrast, Anderson’s work is profoundly personal, human, and intimate despite his use of large intervals of space and time. For “The Long Walk,” a single note is played at intervals over time. Any musician can take part in any location by following Anderson’s published notes.

The piece emerged after Anderson read about Navajo cornetist Jacob C. Morgan (1879–1950), who was controversial for his assimilationist stance on Native–Anglo cultural relations. Morgan’s descriptions of the origins of the Long Walk inspired Anderson to further research the subject, locating contemporary military diaries and documents.

The duration of the piece is by design, Anderson says, “to bring people into the facts of the Long Walk and the stories that are untold.”

According to one diary, while digging a seven-mile canal for water, one of the Diné men complained to a captain. In retaliation, rations were cut in half. “At that time, they were only living on a pound of food a day, so that was now half a pound of food,” he explains. “For three to four months, 28 to 35 men were dying every day, until eventually the captain put the ration back to one pound a day. But they already knew that a lot of people were going to die. The conditions of the walk would take a lot of people out. It was definitely planned.”

The duration of the piece is by design, Anderson says, “to bring people into the facts of the Long Walk and the stories that are untold.” He makes information on the historical displacement available alongside these single, remote notes, both online and in printed materials. “After the first note, there were two or three people who called and they said, ‘I had no idea how deep this was,’ ” he recalls. “Some were in tears. Some were honored to play. It put them in a very serious spot. It was never just about the notes.”

Santa Fe composer and saxophonist Chris Jonas, who has worked with experimental and free-jazz legends Anthony Braxton and Cecil Taylor, has been thinking about “The Long Walk” as he prepares for July shows with his own Desert Quartet, featuring Anderson on trumpet. “Anderson provides a framework to spend time here together,” Jonas says of the composition, “without the rush that is driven by short attention spans and a European approach to concert music. Here we can consider this terrible history while feeling the continuity of connection that still exists in spite of efforts to sever it.”

Delbert Anderson performs with Julia Keefe. Photograph courtesy of Delbert Anderson.

ACTIVISM, PROTEST, AND THE TRANSMISSION of cultural knowledge can take many forms, and sometimes they’re long-form and contemplative. Playing jazz requires discernment and discipline; otherwise, the shamanic flights of improvisation it contains lose force and meaning. From the moment he achieved first chair in trumpet for the Kirtland school band in fifth grade, Anderson has been serious about listening and learning, about collaboration and community.

This fall, Anderson will be in New York with the Julia Keefe Indigenous Big Band, and later, in Hawaii, composing under volcanoes and sharing Indigenous connections there. Dates in Europe and Asia are forthcoming. His life as a professional musician can be frenetic, yet he is more able to pick and choose his projects these days. “I try to be back home as much as possible now,” he says of Kirtland. “I call this place my personal practice room. I live about half a mile from the river, so it’s really soothing to be back, to be with my wife and children.”

I consider the long stretches of time away from home ahead of him, the different physical and psychological landscapes in which individuality is discovered and honed. I wonder how Anderson will experience the playing of the final note of “The Long Walk” on June 1, 2028. One imagines a bit of melancholy and some hope along with a sense of accomplishment, the last note ghosting toward both the past and the future.

Read more: Avant-garde musician Raven Chacon has gone from playing heavy metal on mesas to creating groundbreaking compositions that unspool lesser-known chapters of Indigenous life and history.


Find details and notation for “The Long Walk” at


Delbert Anderson’s guest curation at Gallup’s ART123 Gallery runs from June 8 to July 6. The Chris Jonas Desert Quartet featuring Anderson plays the Outpost, in Albuquerque, on July 18, and Paradiso, in Santa Fe, on July 20.