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Dan Monaghan: The Man Behind The Swing

Victor L. Schermer By

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Dan Monaghan is a working drummer who makes an indispensable contribution to the music by being the one who provides the swing and support that allows the other musicians to achieve their diverse objectives. He performs so often in the Philadelphia area that if you go to a jazz show, there's a fair chance he'll be the drummer. He's a sensitive musician, responsive to everything the players are striving for. He leads from behind. As Mahatma Ghandi said, "I am their leader; therefore I follow them." Without such steady, supportive musicians, jazz could never have evolved in so many powerful directions and achieved such artistry and depth of expression. In particular, every great jazz group can mention one or a couple of drummers who allowed them to reach for the heights. Dan Monaghan is one of them.

Monaghan has performed with some of the top names in contemporary jazz, including Eric Alexander, Peter Bernstein, Joe Magnarelli, and Randy Brecker. In addition, he has recorded with Jimmy Bruno, Elio Villafranca, Joanna Pascale, Larry McKenna, Tom Tallitsch, Meg Clifton, Mike Kennedy, Norman David, Brian Woestehoff, Big Five Chord, John Vanore and Abstract Truth, and many others. He is on the jazz faculty of Temple-Boyer College of Music and Rowan University. His styles range from swing, bop, and fusion to heavy metal. In this interview, Monaghan reflects on his musical interests, education, and career. In addition, he talks about the role of the drummer in the group and the contributions of some of the great drummers, always emphasizing that his over-riding purpose is to support his fellow musicians.

All About Jazz: What would be the five or six recordings you'd take to the desert island?

Dan Monaghan: Oh, man! That list would change every week for me, but right now, I'd probably take John Coltrane: Live at the Half Note; One Down, One Up (Impulse, recorded 1965; released 2005);. There are two Shirley Horn Records: Loads of Love (Verve, 1963), and Shirley Horn with Horns (Verve, 1963). And then, maybe, Miles Davis' Miles Smiles (Columbia, 1967) or Nefertiti (Columbia, 1968), either of those two. And there's an Uri Caine record called Blue Wail (Winter and Winter, 1999), with James Genus on bass, and Ralph Peterson, Jr. on drums. From a different genre, there's an Eastern European metal band called Meshuggah. Their latest record, called The Violent Sleep of Reason (Avalon, 2016), is one of my favorite ever recordings.

AAJ: I know from your bio that your parents were classical musicians, and you studied classical percussion. So I'm surprised that you didn't mention any classical recordings.

DM: I rarely listen to classical records. But I do love to go to live classical concerts. I think the last classical record I listened to were some Ravel piano works.

AAJ: Of the many great Coltrane records, why do you especially like that specific recording at the Half Note?

DM: That one was recorded in 1965 at the zenith of the quartet with McCoy Tyner, Jimmy Garrison, and Elvin Jones. There's a complete take of "Song of Praise," which is one of the greatest things I've ever heard in my life. The way the time feels, the way the ensemble plays together is fantastic. It really doesn't sound like jazz as such, more like its own thing. It transcends all the compartmentalization. It's a musical performance that's so great, I can't even wrap my brain around it. It was released a few years ago from a radio broadcast hosted by Alan Grant in 1965.

Background: Long Day's Journey Into Jazz

AAJ: You have a wonderful talk on YouTube about your early development. Perhaps you can tell us here more briefly about your childhood, especially your exposure to music and how you became interested in the drums.

DM: When I was two years old, my grandmother gave me a toy drum. It immediately became my favorite thing, and so I guess I always wanted to play the drums. My parents are classical musicians -they both play flute -and so there was a huge library of classical recordings in the house. There was music in the house all the time, but it was only when I started listening to pop radio programs that I heard real drum sets and got engaged in the music. My parents didn't like pop music, so I had to listen to it with headphones, and I had magical experiences listening to rock bands. My parents didn't want me to be a drummer, but I wore them down, and eventually they gave me a drum set.

My parents were classical musicians and academics, so when it came time for me to go to college, they wanted me to follow in their footsteps. I started college at Arizona State as an education major and orchestral percussion student. It so happened that there was a brilliant drummer in the Phoenix area named Dominick Moio, and I took a weekly master class on drum set with him. I started listening to jazz and played in a couple of combos. But I was really green and uninformed, trying to play mostly by ear. I went to Arizona State for two years, but didn't like it, dropped out, and drifted around for a while, eventually working in a construction company in Ithaca, NY.

Then I got serious about music and went to Mansfield University in my home town and started taking drum set lessons with John Riley. That's when I really knew, this is what I want to do. Riley lived a few hours away, north of New York City, and I would drive there every week for lessons. I was thinking of taking a jazz major, but didn't know where. Then, I worked with some guys in a show band at an amusement park. They were jazz students at Temple University. They suggested the jazz program there, and that led me to move to Philadelphia, and I enrolled in that program.

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