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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.

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

AAJ: He's been given credit for the use of the ride cymbal to maintain the beat.

DM: I think there's controversy about who used it first, whether it was Jo Jones, Kenny Clarke, Max Roach or maybe someone else who was the first to use the ride cymbal as the primary time-keeping device. But I will say that Jo Jones was one of the grand masters of the instrument. He was so swingin'!

AAJ: The drummer Shadow Wilson comes to my mind in connection with your own style. Is there any connection there?

DM: I'm very flattered you would say that. I wouldn't claim him as a major influence. I do remember checking him out when I was in college and just marveling at his sense of time, his left hand comping, the sound he would get from the snare drum, and the way he would punctuate phrases. It was perfect, and effortless too, especially his work with Thelonious Monk in Europe.

AAJ: Monk's syncopation was uniquely held away from the downbeat in a way that has been called "angular" or "perpendicular" to the beat. How did his drummers deal with that unique rhythm?

DM; Generally, Monk's drummers gave him a lot of space to do his thing. Monk's playing itself had a lot of space, which made his rhythmic placement that much more effective. So the drummers would leave a lot of room for him and not try to cram too much in. They would keep the time and provide a canvas onto which Monk could put his stuff. Monk had his own unique voice and was not apologetic about it. He once said, "Those notes are correct because I played them."

AAJ: Among the great drummers, you can't not talk about Elvin Jones.

DM: Of course Elvin had a profound impact on me and just about everyone else. I marvel at the vast range of his playing. One of my favorite records is Tommy Flanagan Overseas (Prestige, 1957) on which Elvin plays brushes on the entire record. He's one of my favorite brush players. Of course I love him with Coltrane. During his time with Coltrane, he also did records with Wayne Shorter where Elvin plays entirely differently during the same period in his career. He played so many different ways and was always swingin' no matter what. Anytime, I hear Elvin, I'm awestruck.

AAJ: What always impresses me about Elvin's playing is its musicality. He's not just knockin' off rhythms, but almost seems to be talking and singing through the drums, conveying a message.

DM: He's got incredible independence and layer upon layer of ideas going on, and you're right: the end result is beautiful music.

Day to Day Work as a Drummer

AAJ: Let's talk about your routine on gigs. Do you have a regular drum set that you take with you?

DM: I have a couple of drum sets that I usually use, but I might adjust it for a particular group. If I'm playing with a large ensemble, I might bring a bigger bass drum. Of course, some places have their own on site drum sets that I use.

AAJ: Do you favor any particular brand of cymbals or drums?

DM: I use Agop Istanbul cymbals. I've been an endorser for them for many years. I play mostly Gretsch drums, although I have an old set of Rogers drums that I like to bring out once in a while.

AAJ: For many gigs, the musicians have little or no rehearsal time. They just do a sound check, the leader calls out the tunes, and they start playing. What goes through your mind at that point?

DM: I don't have a formulaic answer to that question; it depends on the situation. Of course, I'll think of the melody. But I'll just try to stay open to whatever the moment is going to bring. I try to be as supportive as I can to the music that's happening around me. I embrace what the others are playing and try to match my playing to whatever is going on around me.

AAJ: Would you say that you're listening more than thinking?

DM: Definitely.

AAJ: I was struck by a YouTube with you and Larry McKenna in Chester Springs, PA where you guys play a swinging rendition of "Will You Still Be Mine?" We all know that Larry is a master, one of a kind. What do you do to enhance his playing?

DM: There's not much anyone can do to enhance Larry's playing! He speaks so well for himself! I just want to be swingin' and complement his phrases in any way I can. If I can catch his quotes and have a little interactive moment, that's great. I just want to give him the best backing I can, and I'm sure anyone who plays with him is going to say the same thing.

AAJ: Larry comes from a background with the Woody Herman band. Do you relate to that style?

DM: No. I really just try to play in my own way. I don't try to categorize Larry's style. He just plays unquestionably beautiful music. So if I'm working with him, I just want to be swingin,' supportive, and not interfere with his brilliance.

AAJ: A propos of maintaining the swing, do you use a particular part of the drum set to maintain the pulse?

DM: If I'm playing with sticks, I focus my energy on the ride cymbal and use it to state the pulse, keep the time. I'll add the high hat on the two and four. I'll use the bass drum and the snare drum to interact with the soloist and punctuate the phrases.

AAJ: Do you use the bass drum at all?

DM: I do what's called "feathering" the bass drum, which is to play quarter notes very softly so that they are felt and not heard. Every time the bassist plays a note, I play the bass drum, but I want it to be under the volume of the bassist so it sort of adds an inaudible "thump" to the ensemble. If you can actually hear it, then it's too loud, and it's awful. Occasionally, though, I'll use the bass drum more firmly in response to something in the tune.

AAJ: For time-keeping, does the bassist follow you, or do you follow the bassist?

DM: I don't think of it quite like that. The bassist and I both play time, and we just work together toward the same common goal. But if I decide to interact more in conversation with the soloist, then I'll let the bassist keep time in quarter notes. And vice-versa. So there's always somebody minding the store, as it were.

AAJ: Do you use polyrhythms in your playing?

DM: It depends on your definition of that term. Can you be more specific?

AAJ: For me, polyrhythms are when you superimpose one rhythm or tempo upon another. My earliest fascination with polyrhythms goes back to the Dave Brubeck Quartet in the 1950s, when Joe Morello would be playing two or more different rhythms, tempos, and/or time signatures simultaneously. Today, I dig how Adam Cruz does something quite similar in his own way.

DM: I do that. For me, it all depends on the context. If the soloist starts playing his own rhythmic pattern and the band is still keeping time, I might play a complementary rhythm to what the soloist is doing while continuing keeping time with the ride cymbal and the high hat. I might sometimes play multiple rhythms to be the liason between the soloist and the rest of the rhythm section, straddling both sides of the fence. But for me, it all depends on the moment and whether the situation calls for it. I see myself as supporting the group, so I'll only use polyrhythms under certain circumstances.

Beyond the Drums

AAJ: Drummers are of course skilled at rhythmic possibilities, but I was told by a very reliable source, a fellow musician of yours, that you also have a really good ear for melody and harmony, which isn't true of all drummers. I understand that you teach music theory, which drummers don't ordinarily do.

DM: I've been teaching in the theory department at Temple for many years now. I was fortunate to study with great theory teachers like Dr. Michael Galloway at Mansfield University, as well as Ben Schachter, Greg Kettinger, and Mike Frank at Temple. All are great musicians and educators, and all were encouraging and supportive. I'm trying to pay that forward.

AAJ: Do you ever compose?

DM: I've written a couple of things. I do more arranging than composing. For example, I did some of the arranging for The New Gypsies recording I recently made with vibraphonist Tony Miceli. We took the music of Django Reinhardt and others who came out of the gypsy culture and arranged it for a modern jazz group.

Spirituality, Advice to Young Musicians, Upcoming Projects

AAJ: I'm really struck by your frequent emphasis on serving the other musicians rather than coming from your own ego needs. Selflessness is a part of our spiritual nature. Since there are many connections between jazz, meditation, and spirituality, I often ask musicians about their own spiritual ideas and practice. How does that all add up for you?

DM: I meditate on occasion, and I read the Tao Te Ching here and there, usually when I'm on the subway. I try to remember that I don't know everybody's back story, and their travels in life may be way more painful than mine, so even if there's a conflict or a hassle I try to be understanding and compassionate. I am grateful that the field of music is infinite, so I'm never at a loss for productive use of my time and energy. I'm never bored. I always try to stay positive and engaged with the world.

AAJ: It sounds like you've learned a lot from Buddhism. But I don't have the impression that you have a formal set of beliefs and practices.

DM: You're right. I don't have a specific practice or adhere to a particular religious orientation.

AAJ: You've logged many hours in your career, and are very accomplished and happy in your work. What advice might you give to a young musician just out of school who is embarking upon a career in jazz?

DM: One thing I definitely suggest that they're not doing enough these days is to go out and hear live music. While there are great records to draw from, I get a lot more out of hearing the music live. And you can see and hear the way the musicians communicate on stage, so you can learn things you can't get from a recording. I also recommend talking with the great players. Like when I first got to Philadelphia, I talked with drummerByron Landham a lot, and my mind was blown by our conversations. I did the same with Mickey Roker. So, just stick around and hang and go out and be in the middle of the scene that you want to be in the middle of.

AAJ: What are some of your current and upcoming projects?

DM: I'm very excited about The New Gypsies recording which I mentioned before. I joined with Miceli as well as Chico Huff on bass, and Vic Juris on guitar, a true master who was very gracious to join us. We made our own arrangements of some old French gypsy jazz tunes. We added a modern edge but tried to stay close to the original flavor and intention that makes those songs so great. Early French jazz, Django Reinhardt, "La Vie en Rose," those sorts of things. That'll be released soon.

AAJ: That's a great concept. How did you come up with that idea?

DM: Tony, Chico, and I have known each other for a long time, and we recently started working as a trio. We loved the chemistry between us, and we wanted to make a recording together. Around that time Tony was asked to do a performance of re-imagined old French jazz tunes. So we made some arrangements for the gig and invited Vic Juris to join us. Vic is into gypsy music, and a stream of beautiful music always flows from him all the time. We loved what we did together, and we decided to make a recording of it.

On another note, vocalist Joanna Pascal and I are going to hook up with the Larry McKenna Jazz Orchestra for some live performances and hopefully a recording. I've done four records with Jon Lundbom & Big Five Chord with Jon Irabagon, Bryan Murray, and Moppa Elliott. We're going to follow up with another one soon. And generally, I'm trying to stay open to whatever might come up, being grateful for all of it, constantly growing and learning, being awed by all of it.

Photo Credit: Victor L. Schermer


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