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.

AAJ: Did you have any interest in jazz early on?

DM: When I was a kid, my father would sometimes bring home a couple of jazz recordings from the music library. I remember a Buddy Rich record and a couple of Wynton Marsalis albums like Live at Blues Alley (Columbia, 1967). My friend's father was a jazz fan, and he gave me my first copy of Miles Davis' Kind of Blue (Columbia, 1959), and I loved it. I got a copy of the Weather Report's Heavy Weather (Columbia, 1977) out of the public library. And at some point in high school I bought Miles Davis' Four and More (Columbia, 1964) and My Funny Valentine (Columbia, 1964), the well-known Valentine's Day concert.

When I listened to My Funny Valentine, I was terrified! It was too advanced for me. And in fact, it might have put me off jazz a little bit, because I thought, if this is jazz, if this is the standard by which jazz is judged, I could never be able to play this music! Obviously, I appreciate it much more now. But when I went to Arizona State, it was easier for me to catch on to things from the 1970s, like electric jazz and fusion because I was coming from a rock'n roll place. So, with jazz, I really worked myself back chronologically from fusion to hard bop, bebop, and swing. But jazz didn't hit me as a passion until I was around twenty-one and studying with John Riley.

AAJ: What drummers came to your attention at that point when you got the jazz bug?

DM: At that time, I became totally fixated on Tony Williams. I especially got into the quintet he had with Wallace Roney, and Bill Peirce, Ira Coleman, and Mulgrew Miller. Tony was using giant drums, and he had a rock sound. I was coming from John Bonham and Alex Van Halen, and there was a point of relation there for me. And I also listened to a lot of Jeff "Tain" Watts. And I started checking out Roy Haynes and Vernell Fournier -I love the Ahmad Jamal album, At the Pershing: But Not for Me (Argo, 1958), one of my all time favorites that belongs on the desert island list. And of course, Jimmy Cobb. His work on Kind of Blue defined for me what jazz drumming is all about, and he still sets the standard for me.

Making It as a Drummer in Philadelphia

AAJ: When did you first start playing gigs?

DM: I played around with rock bands in high school, played some parties. At Arizona State, I played a few jazz gigs, and I joined a country rock band for a while. I had a jazz gig at a bar in Mansfield, but it wasn't until I got to Philly to go to Temple that I started seriously playing jazz gigs. That was in 1998. so I've been in Philadelphia for twenty years. In my last semester at Temple, I started playing out and around on a regular basis.

AAJ: So could we say that Philly was where you came of age as a jazz drummer?

DM: Absolutely! As I finished my degree at Temple around the summer of 2000, I did a session with saxophonist Victor North with Kyle Kohler on organ. At that time, guitarist Craig Ebner had a steady gig at Chris' Jazz Café, and he needed a sub one week. So I started working with Craig, and there I started meeting a ton of people. I hit the ground running, meeting people and playing wherever I could. It was a great experience.

AAJ: Who have been some of the musicians and groups in Philly you've most enjoyed working with?

DM: I've had the great fortune to work often with saxophonist Larry McKenna. I've been playing with baritone saxophonist Denis DiBlasio and guitarist Brian Betz for several years now. I work a lot with vibraphonist Tony Miceli. Early on, in addition to Craig Ebner and Victor North, I worked with bassist Madison Rast a lot. I was working with Elio Villafranca when he was still living in Philly. Guitarist Jimmy Bruno started calling me, and I worked with him for many years. Vocalist Joanna Pascal and I were in the Temple jazz program together, and I worked with her often. I've worked with saxophonist Chris Farr and trumpeter/valve trombone/EVI player John Swana. The great saxophonist Bootsie Barnes had me on a lot of his gigs at Ortlieb's Jazzhaus. Bootsie was very supportive when I was just starting out. I was in a sextet with Bootise, saxophonist Pete Souders, trumpeter John Swana, pianist Sid Simmons, and bassist Bim Strasberg. It was an incredible group. I still can't believe I had the opportunity to do those gigs. I was very green back then, and all these guys were so supportive. I think they could tell how much I loved the music.

Contributions of the Great Drummers

AAJ: Let's focus on your instrument, the drums. I think most readers know that drummers can make all the difference in the band, but not so much about what the drummer does other than maintain the swing. So let's talk about it. To start out, I'll mention some drummers, and you give us a snapshot of your thoughts about what each one contributed to drum approach and technique. The first one is "Papa" Jo Jones.

DM: I'm neither an authority on the subject nor a historian. But when I think about "Papa" Jo Jones, I think of the way he played brushes and the way he played press rolls on the snare drum
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