Bobby Zankel: Peaceful Jazz Warrior
AAJ: Now, let's get back to Dennis Sandole. I've picked up bits and pieces about him from various musicians who consider him a genius, yet he remains almost a mystery to many people.
BZ: He is a mystical figure.
AAJ: So there you are in the firmament with all these guys doing new things, but yet Sandole pulls you into his sphere. And you're not alonethere's Pat Martino, John Coltrane, James Moody, Chuck Anderson, and many talented and innovative players. They all came to Sandole. But I can't quite get what it is that they got from him.
BZ: That's great! And that probably frames a question that people all over the world probably have. Even in New York, I met people who knew Sandole, and I read that Coltrane studied with him. So when I moved to Philly, one of the first things I did was to look up Sandole in the phone book, but I couldn't find him! It turned out later that he lived in Springfield in the suburbs, and even though he taught in South Philadelphia, he had no phone listing there.
Dennis taught about tonal relationships both vertically and horizontally. He was an Italian guy from South Philly who came up in the late '30s and '40s, and sometimes called himself "Denicio." He was what you call an autodidact, that is, he taught himself music, and as a guitarist, he had the whole orchestra at his fingertips. In terms of making a living, he played guitar with Charley Barnett and the Dorsey Brothers and Boyd Raeburn, those modern, high level working bands. He somehow developed a profound understanding of tonal relationships, how tones combine, of how tones resolve or not, which is how western harmony and jazz as such came about. He really knew how to create colors with chords, and add real interest to simple progressions and develop polytonal lines.
He was also a master of the art of teaching. He really knew how to impart information. And he was totally non-judgmental, and not about any particular style. He was about tones and about creativity. So he taught tonal movement, and he could do it from the points of view of chords and melody. He could make you hear lines, and the way he would make you hear it is that he would write out these short exercises that would illustrate certain ideas. It's just like if you wanted to teach a child one plus one, you could give him one apple and then another apple, rather than deal with numbers which are an abstraction.
So what Dennis would do is, rather than telling you that this tone can go with that tone, he would write out these exercises, and then you'd have to memorize in one key and play them in all twelve keys. He would say "barbells on the ears." Rather than telling you what worked, he would put it in your fingers and your ears. And each student would respond differently, so he would take them in different directions. Like certain notes don't usually go with some chords, but under some circumstances they might. So then you'd have to play through that in all the keys, so you'd have to hear it and get it in your fingers. So he was expanding your vocabulary.
Some people take Charlie Parker's solos and play them all over the horn. So you learn Charlie Parker's language, and that's great. But what Dennis would do is give you, every week, something you hadn't heard before. We did some stuff from records, but Dennis would write four bars out, and you could spend hours trying to get it. You'd only be in his office maybe 20 minutes. Most of the work you did at home.
He was different with every student. With me, he saw that I was interested in writing, so he had me get orchestration and counterpoint books. He had me take a chapter or two and outline it and read back what I had written. He made me learn it myself. He really pushed me writing-wise. I'll never forget when I was with him a couple of years, and he made me write out this little eight bar figure, and I related it to Stravinsky. And he said, "Yeah, but what you wrote is better than Stravinsky." He made you feel great. And he did that in away with all of his students. He would make you feel that you were the special one. And then the next guy would go in, and he was the special one. He would kick your butt with that material. I got so caught up in it, that I stayed up nights working on it. It was such an exciting time. Then, after a while, I got caught up doing gigs and recordings, but I always wanted to continue learning from him. And I studied with him until the end of his life.
AAJ: You portray the experience so richly, I could almost visualize myself being in the room with him. He sounds like a remarkable teacher who literally made musicians bring out their true potential.
BZ: And if you don't believe me, he has a couple of recordings- very few. One was on Fantasy called The Brothers Sandole (Fantasy, 1999), with his brother Adolph, who was a fine teacher too but not what Dennis was doing. You can see how talented Dennis was from the guys on his records: Art Farmer, James Moody, Teo Macero, John Portergreat players. People saw Teo in that movie with Monk, and he looked like a clown, but he was a great musician. The material is so modern it sounds maybe like George Russell of that period.
AAJ: In addition to Sandole and Cecil Taylor, have you had any other serious mentors?
BZ: In fact, I guess my greatest fortune has been in the area of mentorsI have been really blessed. In 1999 I was introduced by pianist Joe Locandro to Ornette ColemanFor about four years, I went up to Ornette's loft maybe monthly and he generously shared so many of his ideas about music and life. His approach, which he named harmolodics, is extremely personal as he proved with 60 years of brilliant compositions and improvisations. Ornette's mentorship was totally profoundhe showed me things on paper and most often through the horn. Mentors are extremely important in life and art: animals have parents, but only humans can form the special bond of mentor and disciple.