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Gerard D'Angelo: Who's Kidding Who?

Gerard D'Angelo: Who's Kidding Who?
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The old adage about those who can do and those who can't teach doesn't fit nicely into any music tradition. If this fallacy were to hold true, then it would be best for music history books to write off Joseph Haydn for taking on pupils—Beethoven being one of the more famous ones. That old idiom penned by George Bernard Shaw doesn't hold up for traditional Western music, it doesn't hold up for other musical traditions where practitioners are required to go through an apprenticeship with a master, and it certainly will not hold up against the jazz tradition. Without great sages that act as mentors to younger musicians, there is a risk of losing tradition. Without tradition and history, moving forward to stretch boundaries become more difficult.

Prior to being part of the faculty at Manhattan School of Music and The New School, pianist Gerard D'Angelo had a healthy career as a sideman. The New York native has played as Glenn Miller
Glenn Miller
Glenn Miller
1904 - 1944
trombone
, Zoot Sims
Zoot Sims
Zoot Sims
1925 - 1985
sax, tenor
, Ira Sullivan
Ira Sullivan
Ira Sullivan
b.1931
reeds
, Mel Lewis
Mel Lewis
Mel Lewis
1929 - 1990
drums
, Nat Adderley
Nat Adderley
Nat Adderley
1931 - 2000
trumpet
, Red Rodney
Red Rodney
Red Rodney
1927 - 1994
trumpet
, Bucky Pizzarelli
Bucky Pizzarelli
Bucky Pizzarelli
b.1926
guitar
and others. Before teaching notable artists—both privately and in classroom settings—like Robert Glasper
Robert Glasper
Robert Glasper
b.1978
piano
, Manuel Valera
Manuel Valera
Manuel Valera
b.1980
piano
, Anat Cohen
Anat Cohen
Anat Cohen

sax, tenor
, Ambrose Akinmusire
Ambrose Akinmusire
Ambrose Akinmusire
b.1982
trumpet
, Becca Stevens
Becca Stevens
Becca Stevens

vocalist
, Marcus Strickland
Marcus Strickland
Marcus Strickland

saxophone
, EJ Strickland, Fabian Almazan
Fabian Almazan
Fabian Almazan
b.1984
piano
and Christian Sands and countless others, the professor himself studied under past masters like Jaki Byard
Jaki Byard
Jaki Byard
1922 - 1999
piano
, Lennie Tristano
Lennie Tristano
Lennie Tristano
1919 - 1978
piano
, and Charlie Banacos.

Despite a feathery touch on the piano that harkens to Bill Evans
Bill Evans
Bill Evans
1929 - 1980
piano
, D'Angelo has only released one record as a leader through Mapleshade, Not What My Hands Have Done (2002). Today, 12 years after his first release as a leader, D'Angelo plans to showcase the voicings and exercises he's taught students in his latest album, Ninth Avenue Jam (Self Produced, 2014).

All About Jazz: Your father knew how to play stride. Did he teach you how to play at an early age?

Gerard D'Angelo: My dad played piano by ear as a hobby and he played everything in stride. The kind of influence it had on me was that it was fun to have music around the house. We always had a piano, a little organ, and drums. Playing music around the house was something he always did. I believe it had a really big influence on me because he loved music.

My dad was a dressmaker who had a shop. We lived in Long Island and his shop was in Brooklyn, where he grew up. My dad had this talent where he could hear a song once and play it. Although he played everything in C, he was good at it.

AAJ: [laughs] Really?

GD: . [laughs] Everything! No matter how sophisticated the harmonic structure of a song was, he reduced it down to a tonic, dominant, sub- dominant thing and it all sounded good! He could make "Stella By Starlight" sound good with just C and G7.

He mostly played songs from his era. He knew songs like "Ain't She Sweet?" and these really old songs that were from the 1930s and 1940s that really had that kind of harmony of tonic-dominant relationship. But the truth is, he really could play anything he heard. If he heard a Beatles song, he could play it once. If he heard a classical piece, he would be able to play the theme. He would do this thing with octaves and move up down to fake the whole thing. So he had great ears and he was a beautiful influence on me.

AAJ: I assume that you played a little bit by hanging around your father, but was there a particular moment—or a record perhaps—that really made you want to pursue music?

GD: I recall a certain record and a certain time when I said, "Man, this is great." I was only 12, but I remember hearing Ramsey Lewis
Ramsey Lewis
Ramsey Lewis
b.1935
piano
' The In Crowd (Argo, 1965). It was a really funky, boogaloo, jazz piano [record] that made it to the commercial scene. It was one of those things where a jazz player has a song that makes into the commercial scene. The In Crowd was really cool and funky; it had those bluesy Horace Silver
Horace Silver
Horace Silver
1928 - 2014
piano
licks and a little bit of an Oscar Peterson
Oscar Peterson
Oscar Peterson
1925 - 2007
piano
vibe. I thought that it was the coolest sound that I had ever heard.

I had taken piano lessons prior to that but I was just learning stuff on my own and figuring it out. I figured out a blues and a few simple tunes. I had a small repertoire of songs that I would just play endlessly. Although I wasn't getting that much of a sophisticated education, I was jamming a lot with my friends and I was beginning to enjoy the art of improvisation with very simple blues scales—like a lot of kids.

But I could copy my dad from looking at him. I would watch him kind of like how someone would watch a player piano. I ask him, "Dad show me something." So he was always there and he was kind of my fake book except I'd look at his playing instead of reading music. The reading came a little later for me.

AAJ: You've mentioned that your dad would take you as a kid and the two of you would catch Bill Evans at the Vanguard or at this club in Midtown. What were some of your early recollections of watching Evans play?

DG: I was around 12 to 14 at the time and I was just enjoying my own little thing and I never thought that I wanted to pursue [music] in any professional way; I never really even thought that I was talented enough to do that. I was just playing a lot and I was having fun. Then at 14 or 15 I heard Bill Evans. A friend of mine, Joe Zappa, who also played piano and I would teach other what we knew.

So here we were showing each other stuff and we both liked Ramsey Lewis and a few other jazz players, but we didn't really know jazz that well. All the sudden, he gets hooked up with someone who knew about Bill Evans, so I got this Bill Evans record and I thought it was the greatest thing I ever heard in my life. I found myself going back and listening to his earlier records, but basically [Evans] sounded like the coolest thing in the world to me.

So that was what really prompted me to study more seriously. I started taking lessons with Milton Krauss on the north shore of Long Island. He was an amazing musician and he could read anything. He graduated from Juilliard back in 1820.

AAJ: Really?

DG: [Laughs] No, I'm kidding! He was around 70 in the '70s, so he might have gone to Juilliard in the 1930's. He was a phenomenal musician; he could read and transpose anything. I studied with him while I was a junior in high school. He was teaching me all my basic chords and he taught me how to read a little bit. He was really blown away and upset that I could play a lot of piano and couldn't read anything. He would put simple things in front of me like "Camptown Races" and I couldn't read it, but I could move around the piano with stuff I knew. So that kind of irritated him, and he really got me to read. I learned all my chords and all my scales. Then my father discovered Berklee and he said, "Why don't you take a summer course at Berklee?"

But in the meantime, I fell in love with Bill Evans and I showed my dad who Bill Evans was. My dad had never really heard modern jazz. My dad was born in 1920 so he was 50 years old by that time, and he was really brought up on popular music. He loved all kids of music, but he [listened] to Erroll Garner
Erroll Garner
Erroll Garner
1921 - 1977
piano
, Art Tatum
Art Tatum
Art Tatum
1909 - 1956
piano
and Count Basie
Count Basie
Count Basie
1904 - 1984
piano
. But he knew the popular jazz guys, he didn't really even know people like Evans, Peterson and Thelonious Monk
Thelonious Monk
Thelonious Monk
1917 - 1982
piano
. My dad turned me on to all kinds of music during my life and here I am as a teenager turning him on to all the jazz. It was kind of like "Hey dad, look at this," and he just loved it and he said, "Wow! We gotta go see this guy."

We only lived a half an hour from the city, and we used to drive in and catch Bill Evans play at the Vanguard and Top of the Gate. As I remember Top of the Gate, you would walk down a few steps and there would be Bill Evans playing. So [Evans] would play there and the Vanguard. There were a couple of times where he would play at this club in Midtown called The Half Note, but it was mostly at Top of the Gate or Vanguard.

AAJ: So it was mostly the downtown scene?

GD: Yeah, mostly the Downtown scene and not much in Midtown. So my dad and I would always come into the city whenever Bill was in town. I was a young kid so I had to get in to the clubs with my dad. I remember when the Vanguard was $5 and I remember when it was even $3.50. I remember when it went up to $5 and I thought, "Wow! It's getting expensive."

Back in those days, Bill would play all night. He would do four or five sets. It was never called a show; they were just called sets. Later on they [billed] it as a show so they could charge each set as an individual entity, but back then it was just a gig with sets. There were times that he would play up until midnight or later! I would go there and hear four sets!

Sometimes there would be no one there at the fourth set. There might have been four or five people there on a weeknight and [Evans] would go back up and play. There was this one time at Half Note where he went on to play when there was no one there except for my father, this couple and me. He was really upset and he had a spat with the owner and he just left. It was just unbelievable to think that here was Bill Evans- -who I thought was one of the greatest musical geniuses—go through that. I felt like watching Bill Evans play was like getting to see Beethoven play.

AAJ: What was Five-Week program like for you at Berklee?

GD: It was my the summer of my junior year in high school and I really felt like I wanted to do music. I thought it was great to be at school and hang out, listen to records, and play. I went to Berklee and I met a lot of people who had a similar vibe as me. I enjoyed it thoroughly and it was an incredible summer. That summer was more about realizing how important it was to be motivated. The jazz stuff—even the theoretical part of it—was really fun, and I was able to get into it.

AAJ: Who were you checking out by that point?

GD: By that point, I was constantly buying records here and there. I had discovered all the major cats by that point. I knew Oscar Peterson; I fell in love with him and bought all his records. Keith Jarrett
Keith Jarrett
Keith Jarrett
b.1945
piano
, Herbie Hancock
Herbie Hancock
Herbie Hancock
b.1940
piano
, Chick Corea
Chick Corea
Chick Corea
b.1941
piano
, McCoy Tyner
McCoy Tyner
McCoy Tyner
b.1938
piano
, Thelonious Monk, Horace Silver, Red Garland
Red Garland
Red Garland
1923 - 1984
piano
, Wynton Kelly
Wynton Kelly
Wynton Kelly
1931 - 1971
piano
, Phineas Newborn
Phineas Newborn
Phineas Newborn
1931 - 1989
piano
. You name it and I loved it.

When I heard Bill Evans I knew that there had to be more people like him. Before I went to Berklee, I just bought any record that said the label "jazz piano." I figured if [Evans] is around, then there had to be more. It wasn't really until I had started meeting more friends and people, discovering WBGO, and meeting other players who were jazz oriented who would say, "You gotta hear Oscar Peterson."

So I was listening to all those people. When it came to watching shows, I was watching a lot of people. I saw a lot of Bill Evans because he was the most accessible and inexpensive. The reality was—as I remember—Oscar Peterson wasn't playing a lot of the small clubs in New York at that time. I don't ever remember ever seeing Oscar Peterson at the Vanguard. Seeing was Evans was easy because it was affordable. A lot of the other guys weren't playing those clubs until later on in the '80s. During those years, in the '70s, when I was in high school and post-high school, I would go to the clubs and listen to Sonny Stitt
Sonny Stitt
Sonny Stitt
1924 - 1982
saxophone
, Red Garland in Boston, McCoy, Ramsey Lewis and other people.

AAJ: What happened after high school?

GD: I went to Berklee for a year and I got a gig from this team, Bobby and Pat—it was this husband and wife duo. Bobby came up to me one time when I was in a practice room at Berklee and said, "Man you sound great." He needed a pianist to play bass. Back in those days, in the commercial world of club dates, bands rarely had bass players. All pianists would have to play bass.

AAJ: Really?

GD: Yeah, go back and ask the older guys. There were bass players but they weren't using them. It was cheaper for bands to get away with pianist who could play bass—we all had split-bass. We had Fender Rhodes that had the bottom two octaves act like a bass. It was all about how well you could play bass lines. Bass lines on piano were something I grew up doing so I felt comfortable doing it. It was perfect for me because as a kid I was always playing boogie-woogie for years. I couldn't play stride like my dad, so I played more bass lines.

So that was one of my first gigs and I did that for a year. I couldn't manage both things— school and gigging. So I ended up moving back home and I went on the road with a few shows. But my dad really pressured me to go back to college. He said, "You have to get at least an Associate's Degree." This was the early '70s and it was getting important to get an education from college because it was becoming clear that a degree was essential to earning a living.

I ended up at Five Town's College and got my Associate Degree. Believe it or not, but while I was there, I got my first teaching gig. Within the first year, the school gave me a teaching gig and I ended up teaching enough to pay my tuition. So I got my degree and I taught there for two years.

AAJ: So how did you end up getting your Bachelor in Music degree?

GD: [Laughs] So I got my Associate's and to brush through the whole thing, I was gigging until I'm 36. So I move into the city and I managed make a living gigging. I did all sorts of gigs. So I hit 36, and I start subbing at The New School thanks to Gary Dial.

AAJ: So Gary Dial was teaching at New School?

GD: Gary was one of the first teachers at New School. He was with the first group of teachers from the very beginning. He was really instrumental to introducing me to everyone at the school. So I was subbing for him, it went well, and all the kids liked me. Then a class opened up and Gary said, "Hey, there's a class opening up."

AAJ: What was the class?

GD: It was a harmony class, it's the same one I've been teaching. That's all I ever taught! Eventually the Theory and Performance class opened up at New School and I began teaching that. Around the same time I also began subbing at Manhattan School of Music and I eventually became part of their faculty.

So here I am teaching kids that are about to graduate with a Bachelor's Degree and some of them were graduate students at MSM and I only had an Associate's Degree! So I went back to Five Towns College and finished my Bachelor's. I think they're a little bit stricter now with that and I probably wouldn't have been able to teach now without a degree.

AAJ: You mentioned that you played with Billy Crystal. What was that like?

GD: He would do his stand-up routine and I would improvise behind him. I remember this gig I did with him at this venue called my Father's Place. He was midway through his routine and people started booing him off the stage. But even throughout all that, he never doubted that he would make it big and became a star. He would just play these college gigs and these venues that were not really that big of a deal. But even after that night at Father's Place with someone throwing an orange at him, he still was upbeat that he was going to make it, and he did. He got into Soap, rose to stardom and that was the end of that story. I've never seen him since then.

[laughs] Usually when people become successful, I don't see them anymore.

AAJ: Well, I guess that's a nice segue to talk about some successful people that you know. You've seen musicians like Robert Glasper
Robert Glasper
Robert Glasper
b.1978
piano
, Fabian Almazan
Fabian Almazan
Fabian Almazan
b.1984
piano
, Ambrose Akinmusire
Ambrose Akinmusire
Ambrose Akinmusire
b.1982
trumpet
, Christian Sands and Takuya Kuroda
Takuya Kuroda
Takuya Kuroda
b.1980
trumpet
in your classrooms. They've definitely all achieved great things. By your estimation as a teacher, what is it that about these students that propelled them to have great careers?

GD: I think it's a lot of things and it's different for different people. But if you go back and listen to anthology of John Coltrane
John Coltrane
John Coltrane
1926 - 1967
saxophone
when he was 18 years old in the navy band... he's really not that good. If I heard him then and I was auditioning him, I would think that he's not a very good player, but as we all know, he went on to be John Coltrane.

You can never really tell when you hear someone who is 18 years old. Some of the most deceiving people are a lot of the kids that are fancy when they're 18, but it doesn't mean that they're going to be the best. Some of the greatest kids that come through really worked hard through their college career. Robert Glasper was very talented when he came in, but when he left he was much better.

Sometimes it's really obvious when it comes to talent. I think Christian Sands is a good example of someone who is really talented as an incoming student. But I've had a lot of students who did not show that. I think when everything is said and done it's different for different people, but what they all have in common is the desire and passion to work really hard.

AAJ: I've met a lot people from your generation who were able to go on the road right away after college. In some cases—like yours—they didn't even have to finish college. Do you think it's just a different time and a different industry? Or are we all just lazy and should all just transcribe more?

GD: When I was young, you could work if you wanted to work. Lounges all across the country had live band, every hotel had a live band, and bars had bands—my friends grew up playing rock and roll in bars everywhere. You had all of that music and you didn't have to be the crème of the crop to work, which was good. Not everybody can have the greatest jazz gigs, but what about everyone else who needs 10 years between 20 and 30 years old to hone their craft?

I was lucky to have worked in Bermuda where I played in a hotel band for a year. I would play piano six nights a week. The thing that was happening for a lot of us, in terms of developing skills as a commercial musician, was learning how to function in different situations. I played with the Glenn Miller Orchestra and when I first started playing in the big band I didn't know what to do! I never played in big band when I was in school and when I started playing the bandleader told me, "Hey man, you're playing way too much." But they were willing to tell you those things! It wasn't like you were hired then you were fired. They knew that they were never getting a ready-made artist or musician. Everyone was rough around the edges in [his or her] 20s. So they would work with what they had and that was okay.

When I think about the amount of hours I gigged, I was up at the Rainbow Room six nights a week and five sets a night playing dance music! I had to go in and play tunes all night long and 80 percent was without music and they were medleys. You would go and play and they would say three flats and that was it. So you were learning tunes, how to play, and how to function in that role. You couldn't be super hip and you had to comp a certain way.

It's a much bigger thing that the artist and it reflects the music business. I feel bad that a lot of younger people don't get the opportunity unless they're extremely gifted ones. I'm happy for the talented ones and of course they deserve it, but I feel bad for everybody else who can't get the opportunity to get out there and play. I hope something changes in the music business that causes people to change their attitudes to listen to artists who are growing and not this finished product.

AAJ: I edit a lot of self-interviews at All About Jazz through the Take Five section of the website. It's really a great service that the website does for the musician who is trying to reach a wider audience. One of the common grievances that I see in these articles are older cats complaining about younger generations and their reliance on fake books, play alongs, and to some extent, jazz education. It seems like a lot of them are saying that they learned how to play in the "streets" while we're learning how to play via YouTube and bitTorrents. Being a jazz educator from that generation, what's your take on this matter?

GD: I think you can't compare because it's a different generation. It's ridiculous to compare the generations because it's a different era. Life was a certain way when I was growing up and the culture reflected that. The culture reflected the way we learned and how we did what we did. Jazz institutions were beginning to become popular. Berklee was great, Five Towns College was offering music courses, Manhattan School of Music opened up in the '80s. A lot of my friends were going to Berklee and it wasn't that much different from what you were doing at New School. But even then, the older guys would say the same stuff to us! They were saying, "We never went to school!"

Everyone has their war stories and everyone likes to tell how they did it and how it should be done. The reality today is that people are doing what they need to do in order to learn. There's not a lot of gigs so you have to create the situation.

I was fortunate to have grown up to having grown up with Gary Smulyan
Gary Smulyan
Gary Smulyan
b.1956
sax, baritone
who lived closed by and we played every night. I was fortunate that I had a big nice downstairs and my parents let me play there. They were happy that I wasn't out at night running around. My friends would come over every night and we would play all the time.

But let me tell you something about play-a-longs. Years later, my friend Gary Dial began playing with Red Rodney
Red Rodney
Red Rodney
1927 - 1994
trumpet
. Red was a trumpet player with Charlie Parker and it's around 1980 and Gary's a young kid—he's around 20-something years old— and they began playing "Giant Steps" and Red Rodney couldn't solo over it. He was playing things like "Blues For Alice" with Bird but he couldn't solo on "Giant Steps." So Gary Dial was writing out exercises for Red Rodney to hear and feel the changes and then Red Rodney began using Aebersolds to learn.

Red was a genius, he played amazingly well by ear, and he could bop with the best of them. He didn't really know any of the technical terms and that's sort of how he learned. He loved young players and he had no problem with anything, for him it was just about playing how you played.

The thing about Red was when things became a challenge, he used play-a- longs and he thought it was great. No one thought it was bad yet. But on the other side of the coin, it's not good when a musician gets stuck on it. What happens is that—I know what the older guys that are my age are talking about—it [hinders] the communicative element and that's the biggest thing. We played everyday when I was a kid and we would laugh and hang out. When we played a whacky chord we would respond. For better or worst, we were communicating and it was all about communicating. It was all about getting a groove going. If you play with play-a-long records from the time you're 18 to the time you're 25, you're not going to get that. But to do it for a few years in high school could be very rewarding.

A lot of older players have to realize that a lot these kids are young. Where were you at when you were 22? You have to try to remember when you are that age because a lot of development really happens between 20 and 30.

AAJ:You think so?

GD: Yes, because that's when you're out there. That's when you're out there and you really start to get your ass kicked and you really start to develop as a player. That's when you learn how to comp as a pianist. I really hope that gigs for younger people happen again, because for me, that's when I felt I really started to develop much more. Again, if you take the extreme like Glasper then that's different, but I was just one of the regular kids. I was just trying to learn this thing so it took a lot of time.

But you need that time. A lot of my students come in and they want to be really good at be-bop by the end of the year and I'm like, "Take your time and let it grow." But I understand that, I remember feeling that way myself.

AAJ: You took numerous gigs throughout your career, is there anything in particular that stands out?

GD: There was a lot. I was playing with Gary Smulyan during my early years. I was playing with someone who was a naturally gifted person. He had photographic memory, he could bop ass off, he digested every Julian "Cannonball" Adderley
Julian
Julian "Cannonball" Adderley
1928 - 1975
saxophone
and Bird record he ever bought and he went on to become a really successful musician. It was really great for me to play be-bop with him constantly in those early years. I always tried to play kind of like him in my own way and try to capture that energy a little. So he was really wonderful.

I had a gig in Bermuda and Garry Dial and I worked in separate hotels. We used to get together after the gig and play all night. We were in our 20s then and we would take out index cards with ii-V's in every key and play all night long. We made up exercises for each where I would comp and play bass lines and he would solo. The chord changes could go anywhere and he would just have to solo and he would do it for me. We would try to make it sound like bop, except we didn't know the changes we were playing and it was really more about playing by ear.

I had experiences playing with Red Rodney, who is a legend and that was wonderful. I played with Nat Adderley. I played with Nat for a year in Florida and he would tell a story on every show. On every gig he would get up and tell a story.

Red Rodney was wonderful, and I realized it was really about the art of being good and not being different. Rodney's solos weren't that much different, but they were really great. A solo was a work in progress. It was almost like he was working on the same solo every night. I realized that everyone has [his or her] own way of perceiving it. For Miles Davis
Miles Davis
Miles Davis
1926 - 1991
trumpet
, it was about being different and new rather than being good. Although Miles was great, he was willing to take a chance for it to not be good rather than playing "Stella By Starlight" his whole career. Bill Evans on the other hand, played "Stella By Starlight" for 30 years and made it really good. It's a different [philosophy] for different players. Bill Evans played "My Romance" throughout his entire career. I learned a lot of from Red Rodney. Chris Potter
Chris Potter
Chris Potter
b.1971
reeds
was in the band with Red and I never experienced anything like that kind of playing.

But an outstanding moment for me was playing with Brian Stokes Mitchell, which was not a jazz gig. He was such an outstanding singer—he won a Tony for Broadway- -and he just got this gig at the Lincoln Center. Believe it or not, he heard me during a holiday party; it was like a scene out of a Hollywood movie. We were at a Christmas party and my friend had a piano and he told me to play, so I sat down and I just played for a few hours and no one was really listening. I didn't really know anyone at the party so I didn't really care and I just sat there and played. Eventually a guitarist started playing with me and I didn't think anything of it. A year later Brian Stokes left Broadway and his [regular] pianist was very busy for the gig so he thought about me from that party. He called up my friend Gregory Generet and he called me up and gave me the gig.

So he gave me the gig on the basis of hearing me play during a party. We got together and we really worked well. That was great for me because having done all the gigs I've done in the past really allowed me to be able to play with him because I had to play Broadway style, I had to play jazz, solo piano, I had to play with an orchestra, the Boston Pops, all these different orchestras, and duo. I had to play with him duo in front of 2,000 people; you have to smash that thing up. He wants sound, he wants it big and Broadway.

Suddenly I realized that I acquired skills that not even really great jazz players could do. The benefit of doing a lot of music is that it makes you function well in a variety of commercial settings. There are so many types of music. If you put me on a hip hop gig with Eminem, then they'd probably fire me. So everything has it's own specialty. It was a great time with Stokes and I played with the National Symphony Orchestra in D.C. It was Marvin Hamlisch conducting.

Another great moment was going over to Japan and playing with the Glen Miller Orchestra. We travelled all over Japan and we were really well received. It was really fun to travel and be able to do that. I like gigs that had nice venues.

AAJ: [laughs] Of course, who doesn't?

GD: [laughs] I played in all the clubs where people threw up on the piano and people are just screaming "Quit playing!" The beautiful thing about being a musician is that you're playing in that dive in downtown with a drunk throwing up in a piano, and the next thing you know, you're playing for royalty in the most prestigious venue.

AAJ: Another very famous student you had was the actor, Ben Stiller. How did that happen?

GD: I have to thank Gary Dial. About three years ago, he had been in with a lot of big time people. He was going to teach Ben Stiller but then he was so busy that he couldn't. So I ended up working with Ben for four months. He didn't play a note of piano and I used to go his house and I used to teach him piano. He had to play four songs and sing.

AAJ: What songs were they?

GD: The play was House of Blue Leaves. It was about a guy from Queens—played by Ben Stiller—who worked in a zoo. His character was a zookeeper, but he was also a wanna-be singer-songwriter. So it was like a weird comedy with a dark side to it. It was Ben's first big professional gig around 1980. Ben was in the play back then but he was going to do it as a star.

From what I could see when I got to know him, he's really a hard worker and he really wanted to play the piano. He could have just sat behind the thing and had someone else play, but he wanted to play it. I would go to his house two to three times a week and give him lessons.

AAJ: Does your teaching approach differ between a celebrity like Ben Stiller, your music theory class, and your private students through MSM and New School?

GD: First of all, it's important to understand that you're teaching people—human beings. People have feelings and we're all in the same boat. Developing a sincere rapport with people as human beings and having a respect for people is important and that's my thing. It's not just a hierarchy; I'm dealing with human beings who have goals and dreams just like myself. That helps put it perspective because it creates this feeling of communication and a vibe that I'm real. I think that this allows you to begin to see where this student is. It's not about me; it's about them. It's not about showing them how skilled I am, it's about trying to find out what they know and what they need to know. My wife has helped me with this. In the beginning, I would get freaked out and get anxious. They would all just be staring at me. I don't know what they're thinking and they're just sitting there. It's the first time in college for some of the kids and they're young so they're trying to impress each other, and no one gives it up.

It can be intimidating and I'm thinking, "What are they thinking of me." But my wife would say, "It's not about you. It's about why you're there." Whenever I get intimidated or psyched out, I always just try to remember that I'm there to help people out. So that's where I start and that's the common denominator with everyone whether it's a vocal student at Manhattan School of Music or Ben Stiller.

I never asked Ben about any of his movies. I didn't even acknowledge him as a movie star. It was all about what he needed from me at that time, which developing piano skills.

But you really develop a lot of things that you can kind of draw on. It's like having a jazz vocabulary where you can draw on stuff when it's a blues in F or a Bb rhythm changes. You kind have your raw elements but you're also improvising—like we are now when we're talking. Some kids don't flourish with technical jazz studies, other kids do. You have one kid that can play incredible bebop but he can't even spell C7. Another kid might know a lot of theory but he has trouble feeling 32-bar forms. You really have to be flexible, but at the same time you have to listen and try your best to help.

You also need a strong repertoire of material. Sometimes [students] aren't thrilled about it, but sometimes they know that it's going to help them and they need to know things like modes. If they're a serious student of jazz and they're in music school, you don't want them leaving without knowing certain things.

AAJ: So I want to backtrack a little. How did your arrangement of "What Are You Doing New Year's Eve?" end up being played at Lincoln Center?

GD: It might have been 2005 or 2006 when I was working with Stokes. There was this time when he went to San Francisco and he was just going to use local guys there. There were times that he would take me when hit the road, but at times— for budget reasons—he would just use local guys. It was New Year's Eve and he needed an arrangement. He came over to the piano and he sat next to me and we just knocked this thing out. He would sing things and I would move chords around and he would say, "Oh! I like that! Go that way!" We sort of carved this thing out together.

So I gave it to Stokes. I said to him, "Hey man, you've been so great to me. You don't have to pay me for this. It's yours, you can keep it." Then the next thing I know, he made an orchestra version of it and he played that version with the San Francisco Orchestra. 10 years later, my friend Gary Haase who plays bass was with Stokes and he was about to play at Lincoln Center with the Philharmonic. Gary was there along with Buddy Williams.

So they were rehearsing and they pull out this chart that they were going to do for an encore. They pull it out and it says arranged by Gerard D'Angelo and Brian Stokes Mitchell. So then Haase calls me up and says, "We just did one of your charts with the Philharmonic." I was just excited about that because the idea that they played something that I arranged blew my mind. I'm sure that arrangers and writers do that kind of stuff all the time, but I don't. Haase taped it on his iPhone it. He asked me if I wanted to come hear but I was teaching so I couldn't, but he did send me a recording so I was able to listen to it.

AAJ: Has anything else that you've arranged or composed been played or recorded by anyone else?

GD: There have been a few things. I would always write stuff but I would never write them down because I didn't think it was that good. I thought of myself as a working musician whose emphasis was jazz, which I loved the most.

But when I was working with Nat Adderley, I played something that I was writing and he said, "Man, that's great! Put a bridge on it and we'll record it." So I wrote a bridge and we recorded it.

AAJ: What was the name of the song?

GD: It's called "Who's Kidding Who?" All of a sudden, everybody thought it was the hippest song in this little circle of people. Nat Adderley played it, Larry Willis
Larry Willis
Larry Willis
b.1942
piano
played it with Eddie Gomez
Eddie Gomez
Eddie Gomez
b.1944
bass
and Al Foster
Al Foster
Al Foster
b.1944
drums
, and Red Rodney was also playing. It was this new hip tune that a few people were playing. So I was thinking, "Wow! They really like this thing I wrote."

Vincent Herring
Vincent Herring
Vincent Herring
b.1964
saxophone
recorded it with Wallace Roney
Wallace Roney
Wallace Roney
b.1960
trumpet
. So I have all these people recording this one tune! I'm like, "Hey guys! I have other tunes!" So Vincent came over and asked what else I was writing. So [Herring] recorded another song I wrote called "Holly's Secret," which I wrote for my stepdaughter. Then Red Rodney recorded another record with Gary Dial and myself where I was playing synth. Downbeat reviewed me as a synthesist, I was called a "bop synthesist." The record was called Red Alert (Landmark, 1991).

Red wanted to reach a wider audience so he decided he wanted to more commercial. He liked my be-bop playing so he wanted me to be a part of the record. It didn't pay that much or anything, but I didn't care, if it were free I would have [still] done it. Red wanted everyone to write so everyone in the band wrote. So I wrote a few things and he really liked some of my pieces. There's also this saxophonist, Mark Vinci
Mark Vinci
b.1960
who recorded a few of my songs. He recorded my song called "Flight of the Feather."

AAJ: Let's move on to the present day. How did your upcoming album come about?

GD: Jana Dagdagan, my publicist, was helping me get my thoughts organized in terms of moving forward during this part of my career. She's a pretty amazing young woman who is inclined both in music and business, and has worked with quite a few notable musicians.

I did a little jazz gig a year ago and recorded it. But I was talking to Jana about a couple of things and she's been a huge encouragement. She also mastered the recording.

AAJ: But you do have a release under Mapleshade with Jay Anderson
Jay Anderson
Jay Anderson
b.1955
bass, acoustic
and Jeff Hirshfield
Jeff Hirshfield
Jeff Hirshfield
b.1955
drums
.

GD: Yeah, but that was 20 years ago and I feel like I'm a different player now. I had some great people on the record but I just feel like it was so long ago that it doesn't represent who I am now.

AAJ: So what happened in between those 20 years? I almost feel like you're a musician's musician. Students from Manhatthan School of Music and New School know who you are and speak highly of you. When I interviewed Takuya Kuroda and asked him about his time at New School, he spoke highly of three teachers: Laurie Frink, Bill Kirchner, and you. Why didn't we see more Gerard D'Angelo records between during that time?

GD: Well it had to do more with playing than recording. 20 years ago, I started teaching at the New School and I was gigging a lot. But I was taking all sorts of gigs and I wasn't really thick in the jazz scene. I did play with Red Rodney, Nat Adderley, and Chris Potter but I was also trying to survive in the music business. I was willing to do other gigs and I enjoyed doing other gigs, but I was never the hardcore jazz guy who was just out there doing that.

As much as I loved it tremendously, I never had that kind of confidence that I was that. I was just kind of who I was: this working guy. By the time I hit 40 and I got the teaching gig I thought it was great because I was teaching stuff that I loved to do. When that happened, I began to—without analyzing myself too much—see myself as a teacher and less as a player, even though I was working with Stokes and other people. I don't think I really had the confidence.

AAJ: So it didn't occur to you that you were a good musician despite teaching at two really well respected institutions that students from all over the world wish to attend?

GD: No, that never occurred to me. I always felt and fortunate that I was at those two schools, but I never saw myself as outstanding in anyway. If I had an outstanding quality, then it was my ability to relate to people. During those years, I think I didn't jump out there as much because I didn't really see myself as a really great jazz player. That's not really a good enough reason not to do it, so maybe there's more psychological reasons that's not worth figuring out because where I'm at now is more important.

But a lot of it had to do with my life going into this teaching thing. I was very busy at Manhattan School of Music and I was very busy at New School. So I was thinking, "What am I going to do? These kids all sound great. What am I going to do? Go out on stage and explode?" So in my mind, there were all these great players and students out there so I think I was becoming comfortable in my safe niche. I was hiding out in this niche. I was like, "The students really like me. Let's just behave."

You can easily become comfortable, but I do think it's important to go out there and try things. I do feel that looking back, I had a lot of wonderful teaching and playing experiences. But now, I feel like I want to— I'm a little nervous about it—put myself out there.

So my goal for the next two and three years is to record a lot, put some stuff out on YouTube, try to play, and put myself out there for better or worse. If it were to work, then maybe I can really have a diversified career. Maybe I can cash in on a little bit of a teaching a career and a playing career.

AAJ: So tell me about this record that you're planning to release then?

GD: So this guy calls me to sub three weekends in a row. I subbed and my friend, Steve LaSpina
Steve LaSpina
Steve LaSpina
b.1954
bass
was on bass, and Tony Tedesco is on drums. I just sat at the piano and called tunes all night long. It really felt nice so I began bringing my tape recorder and I taped everything.

My publicist asked me if I had anything to release and I said that I had this thing that I taped but I didn't know if it was good quality. But I went back and listened to it and I thought that there were some good moments in the recordings

AAJ: Is there anything else you'd like to add in closing?

GD: I'd like to mention my wife, Marie. She's not a musician, she's a landscape designer, but a lot of times I would come to her and she would give me straight honest answers. In a funny way, even non-musicians—if they love you and care about you —can be as much of help as anyone else.

The other thing that she told me was during a gig when we first got married. I came up to her and asked how I was doing and she said to me, "You're good but your lines. They just peter out and you don't connect them well." So for her to say that... she was going to support me but she also wasn't going to patronize me because I'm her husband. So I've really worked hard in connecting my lines over the years. It was a huge thing and no one ever told me. So she was like, "Listen to Oscar!" That was the one thing that bugged me about my playing that I didn't realize. But in a lot of ways she's been a big help and supportive.


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