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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.

AAJ: You've mentioned that your dad would take you as a kid and the two of you would catch Bill Evans at the Vanguard or at this club in Midtown. What were some of your early recollections of watching Evans play?

DG: I was around 12 to 14 at the time and I was just enjoying my own little thing and I never thought that I wanted to pursue [music] in any professional way; I never really even thought that I was talented enough to do that. I was just playing a lot and I was having fun. Then at 14 or 15 I heard Bill Evans. A friend of mine, Joe Zappa, who also played piano and I would teach other what we knew.

So here we were showing each other stuff and we both liked Ramsey Lewis and a few other jazz players, but we didn't really know jazz that well. All the sudden, he gets hooked up with someone who knew about Bill Evans, so I got this Bill Evans record and I thought it was the greatest thing I ever heard in my life. I found myself going back and listening to his earlier records, but basically [Evans] sounded like the coolest thing in the world to me.

So that was what really prompted me to study more seriously. I started taking lessons with Milton Krauss on the north shore of Long Island. He was an amazing musician and he could read anything. He graduated from Juilliard back in 1820.

AAJ: Really?

DG: [Laughs] No, I'm kidding! He was around 70 in the '70s, so he might have gone to Juilliard in the 1930's. He was a phenomenal musician; he could read and transpose anything. I studied with him while I was a junior in high school. He was teaching me all my basic chords and he taught me how to read a little bit. He was really blown away and upset that I could play a lot of piano and couldn't read anything. He would put simple things in front of me like "Camptown Races" and I couldn't read it, but I could move around the piano with stuff I knew. So that kind of irritated him, and he really got me to read. I learned all my chords and all my scales. Then my father discovered Berklee and he said, "Why don't you take a summer course at Berklee?"

But in the meantime, I fell in love with Bill Evans and I showed my dad who Bill Evans was. My dad had never really heard modern jazz. My dad was born in 1920 so he was 50 years old by that time, and he was really brought up on popular music. He loved all kids of music, but he [listened] to Erroll Garner, Art Tatum and Count Basie. But he knew the popular jazz guys, he didn't really even know people like Evans, Peterson and Thelonious Monk. My dad turned me on to all kinds of music during my life and here I am as a teenager turning him on to all the jazz. It was kind of like "Hey dad, look at this," and he just loved it and he said, "Wow! We gotta go see this guy."

We only lived a half an hour from the city, and we used to drive in and catch Bill Evans play at the Vanguard and Top of the Gate. As I remember Top of the Gate, you would walk down a few steps and there would be Bill Evans playing. So [Evans] would play there and the Vanguard. There were a couple of times where he would play at this club in Midtown called The Half Note, but it was mostly at Top of the Gate or Vanguard.

AAJ: So it was mostly the downtown scene?

GD: Yeah, mostly the Downtown scene and not much in Midtown. So my dad and I would always come into the city whenever Bill was in town. I was a young kid so I had to get in to the clubs with my dad. I remember when the Vanguard was $5 and I remember when it was even $3.50. I remember when it went up to $5 and I thought, "Wow! It's getting expensive."

Back in those days, Bill would play all night. He would do four or five sets. It was never called a show; they were just called sets. Later on they [billed] it as a show so they could charge each set as an individual entity, but back then it was just a gig with sets. There were times that he would play up until midnight or later! I would go there and hear four sets!

Sometimes there would be no one there at the fourth set. There might have been four or five people there on a weeknight and [Evans] would go back up and play. There was this one time at Half Note where he went on to play when there was no one there except for my father, this couple and me. He was really upset and he had a spat with the owner and he just left. It was just unbelievable to think that here was Bill Evans- -who I thought was one of the greatest musical geniuses—go through that. I felt like watching Bill Evans play was like getting to see Beethoven play.

AAJ: What was Five-Week program like for you at Berklee?

GD: It was my the summer of my junior year in high school and I really felt like I wanted to do music. I thought it was great to be at school and hang out, listen to records, and play. I went to Berklee and I met a lot of people who had a similar vibe as me. I enjoyed it thoroughly and it was an incredible summer. That summer was more about realizing how important it was to be motivated. The jazz stuff—even the theoretical part of it—was really fun, and I was able to get into it.

AAJ: Who were you checking out by that point?

GD: By that point, I was constantly buying records here and there. I had discovered all the major cats by that point. I knew Oscar Peterson; I fell in love with him and bought all his records. Keith Jarrett, Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, McCoy Tyner, Thelonious Monk, Horace Silver, Red Garland, Wynton Kelly, Phineas Newborn, Jr.. You name it and I loved it.

When I heard Bill Evans I knew that there had to be more people like him. Before I went to Berklee, I just bought any record that said the label "jazz piano." I figured if [Evans] is around, then there had to be more. It wasn't really until I had started meeting more friends and people, discovering WBGO, and meeting other players who were jazz oriented who would say, "You gotta hear Oscar Peterson."

So I was listening to all those people. When it came to watching shows, I was watching a lot of people. I saw a lot of Bill Evans because he was the most accessible and inexpensive. The reality was—as I remember—Oscar Peterson wasn't playing a lot of the small clubs in New York at that time. I don't ever remember ever seeing Oscar Peterson at the Vanguard. Seeing was Evans was easy because it was affordable. A lot of the other guys weren't playing those clubs until later on in the '80s. During those years, in the '70s, when I was in high school and post-high school, I would go to the clubs and listen to Sonny Stitt, Red Garland in Boston, McCoy, Ramsey Lewis and other people.
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