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Gerard D'Angelo: Who's Kidding Who?

Gerard D'Angelo: Who's Kidding Who?
DanMichael Reyes By

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The old adage about those who can do and those who can't teach doesn't fit nicely into any music tradition. If this fallacy were to hold true, then it would be best for music history books to write off Joseph Haydn for taking on pupils—Beethoven being one of the more famous ones. That old idiom penned by George Bernard Shaw doesn't hold up for traditional Western music, it doesn't hold up for other musical traditions where practitioners are required to go through an apprenticeship with a master, and it certainly will not hold up against the jazz tradition. Without great sages that act as mentors to younger musicians, there is a risk of losing tradition. Without tradition and history, moving forward to stretch boundaries become more difficult.

Prior to being part of the faculty at Manhattan School of Music and The New School, pianist Gerard D'Angelo had a healthy career as a sideman. The New York native has played as Glenn Miller, Zoot Sims, Ira Sullivan, Mel Lewis, Nat Adderley, Red Rodney, Bucky Pizzarelli and others. Before teaching notable artists—both privately and in classroom settings—like Robert Glasper, Manuel Valera, Anat Cohen, Ambrose Akinmusire, Becca Stevens, Marcus Strickland, EJ Strickland, Fabian Almazan and Christian Sands and countless others, the professor himself studied under past masters like Jaki Byard, Lennie Tristano, and Charlie Banacos.

Despite a feathery touch on the piano that harkens to Bill Evans, D'Angelo has only released one record as a leader through Mapleshade, Not What My Hands Have Done (2002). Today, 12 years after his first release as a leader, D'Angelo plans to showcase the voicings and exercises he's taught students in his latest album, Ninth Avenue Jam (Self Produced, 2014).

All About Jazz: Your father knew how to play stride. Did he teach you how to play at an early age?

Gerard D'Angelo: My dad played piano by ear as a hobby and he played everything in stride. The kind of influence it had on me was that it was fun to have music around the house. We always had a piano, a little organ, and drums. Playing music around the house was something he always did. I believe it had a really big influence on me because he loved music.

My dad was a dressmaker who had a shop. We lived in Long Island and his shop was in Brooklyn, where he grew up. My dad had this talent where he could hear a song once and play it. Although he played everything in C, he was good at it.

AAJ: [laughs] Really?

GD: . [laughs] Everything! No matter how sophisticated the harmonic structure of a song was, he reduced it down to a tonic, dominant, sub- dominant thing and it all sounded good! He could make "Stella By Starlight" sound good with just C and G7.

He mostly played songs from his era. He knew songs like "Ain't She Sweet?" and these really old songs that were from the 1930s and 1940s that really had that kind of harmony of tonic-dominant relationship. But the truth is, he really could play anything he heard. If he heard a Beatles song, he could play it once. If he heard a classical piece, he would be able to play the theme. He would do this thing with octaves and move up down to fake the whole thing. So he had great ears and he was a beautiful influence on me.

AAJ: I assume that you played a little bit by hanging around your father, but was there a particular moment—or a record perhaps—that really made you want to pursue music?

GD: I recall a certain record and a certain time when I said, "Man, this is great." I was only 12, but I remember hearing Ramsey Lewis' The In Crowd (Argo, 1965). It was a really funky, boogaloo, jazz piano [record] that made it to the commercial scene. It was one of those things where a jazz player has a song that makes into the commercial scene. The In Crowd was really cool and funky; it had those bluesy Horace Silver licks and a little bit of an Oscar Peterson vibe. I thought that it was the coolest sound that I had ever heard.

I had taken piano lessons prior to that but I was just learning stuff on my own and figuring it out. I figured out a blues and a few simple tunes. I had a small repertoire of songs that I would just play endlessly. Although I wasn't getting that much of a sophisticated education, I was jamming a lot with my friends and I was beginning to enjoy the art of improvisation with very simple blues scales—like a lot of kids.

But I could copy my dad from looking at him. I would watch him kind of like how someone would watch a player piano. I ask him, "Dad show me something." So he was always there and he was kind of my fake book except I'd look at his playing instead of reading music. The reading came a little later for me.

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