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Dan Wilensky was born in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and moved to Berkeley the
following year. Music was in the air at the Wilensky house: every family member
played at least one instrument, and family jam sessions were frequent. He began
piano lessons at age 8 and saxophone the following year after hearing the Duke
Ellington Orchestra perform at Berkeley High School on a field trip. Wilensky
flourished in the rich school music program created by Herb Wong, Dick
Whittington, and Phil Hardymon, and also studied with BHS grad Steve Elson, and
his teacher, Hal Stein. As a teenager, he street played, performed with
schoolmates Benny Green, Craig Handy and Steve Bernstein, gigged with local
bands, attended jazz clinics, won top honors in various competitions, performed
at the Monterey Jazz Festival three times, and was a guest soloist with the Woody
Herman Orchestra. When he was 17, he studied for a year with lazz legend Joe
Henderson, and received a scholarship to the Eastman School of Music.
The summer after high school, Wilensky heard that Ray Charles was looking
for a lead alto player for his big band. He auditioned, and got the gig. “Ray told
me to be in LA on Monday. It was surreal,” Wilensky recalls. After six months
with Ray, a brief stint at Eastman, and six months with Brother Jack McDuff, he
moved to New York.
“It was like starting all over. I was street playing again, doing rodeos out at
Nassau Coliseum, and playing funerals in the Village,” Wilensky says of his first
year in the Big Apple. He recorded, gigged and toured with dozens of small
groups, including Who It Is (with Cornell Dupree, Steve Gadd, Will Lee, and
Richard Tee), Slickaphonics (featuring Ray Anderson and Mark Helias), Tom
Pierson, Teramasa Hino, Scott Johnson, Peter Moffit, Tim Ouimette, Jens
Wendelboe, Joe Locke, and Scott Hardy. In 1985/’86, Dan won a National
Endowment for the Arts award for jazz performance and composition, played in
Bob Fosse’s Big Deal (racing across town every night to play with the Playboy
Club house band), and toured with Steve Winwood. Back in town, he played on
numerous commercial jingles, film soundtracks and TV themes, and can be heard
on over 250 records, including hits by Santana, Madonna, R. Kelly, James Brown,
Janis Siegel, Hall & Oates, Linda Eder, Freddie Jackson, Faith No More, Mark
Murphy, and Melissa Manchester, as well as more esoteric projects of all stripes.
Other career highlights include touring with Joan Baez as her pianist,
performing in several videos and TV shows with David Bowie, Steve Winwood and
and Prince protégé Martika, playing with Rick Derringer in the TV house band for
Joy Behar’s Way Off Broadway, and gigging with Ben E. King, The Four Tops, The
Temptations, Carole King, Cab Calloway, Darlene Love, and Aretha Franklin.
Wilensky also performed extensively at many of New York’s legendary (and sadly
defunct) clubs, including The Bottom Line, The Village Gate, Sweet Basil, Mikell’s,
Seventh Avenue South, and The Lone Star Roadhouse, as well as larger venues
such as Madison Square Garden.
Currently, Wilensky performs, records, and teaches in Portland, OR. His 5
CDs as a leader are available at CDBaby.com, Amazon.com and iTunes.com. His
method book, Advanced Sax, is available at danwilensky.com. His new book,
MUSICIAN! A Practical Guide for Students, Music Lovers, Amateurs,
Professionals, Superstars, Wannabees and Has-Beens is available at your local
bookstore, Wilensky's e-Store, and Amazon.com.
Visit danwilensky.com for more info.
I started teaching when I was 15. One day I got a call from a nice woman who
asked me if I would teach her son, Joshua Redman, because his father, Dewey,
was living in New York. Dewey Redman was one of my favorite saxophonists, and
I was flattered, but felt like I was way in over my head. She insisted, though, and I
gave Josh his first five or six lessons. I’m sorry to report that he had a short
attention span, no apparent musical aptitude, and very little interest in the
saxophone. What a difference a couple decades makes!