Donny McCaslin: Feeling the Spirit
“ ...It isn't the notes that you play, it's how you play them... ”
When I play, I try to remember what this music means to me as a listener. When I hear something that really speaks to me on an emotional level like, say, a solo by Lester Young that is when I know what this is all about.
The speaker is Donny McCaslin, who was born on August 11, 1966, in Santa Clara, California. Although his parents, Don and Jeanina, were divorced when he was a small child, their continuing support and encouragement for his musical ambitions turned what might have been a divisive and disturbing childhood into a secure base for a musical future that has already brought international acclaim.
This conversation took place in May 2000, when Donny was touring Europe with the Brian Blade Fellowship Band.
'My father was a professional musician, playing vibraphone and electric piano, and he had a regular gig leading a small band that played at a shopping mall in Santa Cruz. I was living with my mother but I would see my father one day a week when he would pick me up and take me down to the mall where I'd help him set up the vibes and the piano. Then, because I was too young to walk around on my own in the mall, I would just sit there. He had a chair for me in the middle of the bandstand and I would sit and listen to them play for three or four hours.
'They played a combination of standards and Duke Ellington's music, that kind of American popular songbook. Songs like 'My Funny Valentine', 'Autumn Leaves', 'Take the "A" Train' and 'Satin Doll'. And also some Latin jazz, Cal Tjader-ish stuff. Afterwards we'd take down the instruments and then go play basketball and have dinner. That was how the day was spent and that was how I became exposed to music. But I didn't really start playing until I was twelve. That was when I made an impulsive decision and chose the tenor saxophone. Partly, I think it was because the saxophonist in my dad's band was a very charismatic guy. He had this wild, tie-dyed T-shirt and the people loved it when he played his solos. So, to me, at that age, this was very attractive and exciting. And it was great, because as soon as I told my father that I wanted to play he bought me a horn and I got into the beginners' orchestra at my junior high school. Dad arranged for me to have lessons with the saxophonist in his band, Brad Hecht, and it just kind of went from there. Dad would come over to my mother's place where we had a barn up behind the house and he'd take his electric piano up there, set it up and he would comp for me for hours.
'At this time I wasn't really studying music formally. I was in the band at school and I was taking private lessons once a week but that was pretty much the extent of it. When I finished junior high school I knew that there was a really great high school band programme in the next city, Aptos. So, although I lived with my mother in Santa Cruz, I used my father's address so that I could get into that particular high school and join their jazz band. The head of the band was Don Keller, who was a friend of Bill Berry who regularly works with high school bands in California. It was a great band. The book comprised a lot of Ellington charts, some of them originals that Bill had gotten when he was in the Ellington band. It was amazing. I was fourteen years old, I could barely play, and yet there I was, playing some of the greatest music ever written.
'I was also listening to records. I started with Charlie Parker and Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane and also Paul Gonsalves, who was a big influence on me at that stage, because we were listening to that music and playing those charts. Later, I also listened to musicians on other instruments. I love piano players, Bill Evans and Herbie Hancock, Thelonious Monk, Duke Ellington. I feel like I've learned a lot listening to piano players. Trumpet players, of course: Miles Davis, Freddie Hubbard, Woody Shaw and Clifford Brown.'
At the time he was growing up, not many of Donny's contemporaries were listening to jazz.
'I never listened to radio so I wasn't somebody who was always listening to pop music. At home I think I mostly listened to jazz but there were also certain pop bands that I liked. I grew up in California, so I listened a lot to the Beach Boys, a California band. And I remember I was fan of the hard rock band, AC/DC. I liked them a lot, and Chuck Berry and things like that. But once I got into jazz it just snowballed and I primarily listened to jazz around that time. And it was strange because sometimes I wouldn't even know the songs that my friends, who weren't musicians and were very engrossed in pop culture, were listening to.'
The Monterey Jazz Festival...