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Gerard D'Angelo: Who's Kidding Who?

DanMichael Reyes By

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AAJ: Well, I guess that's a nice segue to talk about some successful people that you know. You've seen musicians like Robert Glasper, Fabian Almazan, Ambrose Akinmusire, Christian Sands and Takuya Kuroda in your classrooms. They've definitely all achieved great things. By your estimation as a teacher, what is it that about these students that propelled them to have great careers?

GD: I think it's a lot of things and it's different for different people. But if you go back and listen to anthology of John Coltrane when he was 18 years old in the navy band... he's really not that good. If I heard him then and I was auditioning him, I would think that he's not a very good player, but as we all know, he went on to be John Coltrane.

You can never really tell when you hear someone who is 18 years old. Some of the most deceiving people are a lot of the kids that are fancy when they're 18, but it doesn't mean that they're going to be the best. Some of the greatest kids that come through really worked hard through their college career. Robert Glasper was very talented when he came in, but when he left he was much better.

Sometimes it's really obvious when it comes to talent. I think Christian Sands is a good example of someone who is really talented as an incoming student. But I've had a lot of students who did not show that. I think when everything is said and done it's different for different people, but what they all have in common is the desire and passion to work really hard.

AAJ: I've met a lot people from your generation who were able to go on the road right away after college. In some cases—like yours—they didn't even have to finish college. Do you think it's just a different time and a different industry? Or are we all just lazy and should all just transcribe more?

GD: When I was young, you could work if you wanted to work. Lounges all across the country had live band, every hotel had a live band, and bars had bands—my friends grew up playing rock and roll in bars everywhere. You had all of that music and you didn't have to be the crème of the crop to work, which was good. Not everybody can have the greatest jazz gigs, but what about everyone else who needs 10 years between 20 and 30 years old to hone their craft?

I was lucky to have worked in Bermuda where I played in a hotel band for a year. I would play piano six nights a week. The thing that was happening for a lot of us, in terms of developing skills as a commercial musician, was learning how to function in different situations. I played with the Glenn Miller Orchestra and when I first started playing in the big band I didn't know what to do! I never played in big band when I was in school and when I started playing the bandleader told me, "Hey man, you're playing way too much." But they were willing to tell you those things! It wasn't like you were hired then you were fired. They knew that they were never getting a ready-made artist or musician. Everyone was rough around the edges in [his or her] 20s. So they would work with what they had and that was okay.

When I think about the amount of hours I gigged, I was up at the Rainbow Room six nights a week and five sets a night playing dance music! I had to go in and play tunes all night long and 80 percent was without music and they were medleys. You would go and play and they would say three flats and that was it. So you were learning tunes, how to play, and how to function in that role. You couldn't be super hip and you had to comp a certain way.

It's a much bigger thing that the artist and it reflects the music business. I feel bad that a lot of younger people don't get the opportunity unless they're extremely gifted ones. I'm happy for the talented ones and of course they deserve it, but I feel bad for everybody else who can't get the opportunity to get out there and play. I hope something changes in the music business that causes people to change their attitudes to listen to artists who are growing and not this finished product.

AAJ: I edit a lot of self-interviews at All About Jazz through the Take Five section of the website. It's really a great service that the website does for the musician who is trying to reach a wider audience. One of the common grievances that I see in these articles are older cats complaining about younger generations and their reliance on fake books, play alongs, and to some extent, jazz education. It seems like a lot of them are saying that they learned how to play in the "streets" while we're learning how to play via YouTube and bitTorrents. Being a jazz educator from that generation, what's your take on this matter?

GD: I think you can't compare because it's a different generation. It's ridiculous to compare the generations because it's a different era. Life was a certain way when I was growing up and the culture reflected that. The culture reflected the way we learned and how we did what we did. Jazz institutions were beginning to become popular. Berklee was great, Five Towns College was offering music courses, Manhattan School of Music opened up in the '80s. A lot of my friends were going to Berklee and it wasn't that much different from what you were doing at New School. But even then, the older guys would say the same stuff to us! They were saying, "We never went to school!"

Everyone has their war stories and everyone likes to tell how they did it and how it should be done. The reality today is that people are doing what they need to do in order to learn. There's not a lot of gigs so you have to create the situation.

I was fortunate to have grown up to having grown up with Gary Smulyan who lived closed by and we played every night. I was fortunate that I had a big nice downstairs and my parents let me play there. They were happy that I wasn't out at night running around. My friends would come over every night and we would play all the time.

But let me tell you something about play-a-longs. Years later, my friend Gary Dial began playing with Red Rodney. Red was a trumpet player with Charlie Parker and it's around 1980 and Gary's a young kid—he's around 20-something years old— and they began playing "Giant Steps" and Red Rodney couldn't solo over it. He was playing things like "Blues For Alice" with Bird but he couldn't solo on "Giant Steps." So Gary Dial was writing out exercises for Red Rodney to hear and feel the changes and then Red Rodney began using Aebersolds to learn.

Red was a genius, he played amazingly well by ear, and he could bop with the best of them. He didn't really know any of the technical terms and that's sort of how he learned. He loved young players and he had no problem with anything, for him it was just about playing how you played.

The thing about Red was when things became a challenge, he used play-a- longs and he thought it was great. No one thought it was bad yet. But on the other side of the coin, it's not good when a musician gets stuck on it. What happens is that—I know what the older guys that are my age are talking about—it [hinders] the communicative element and that's the biggest thing. We played everyday when I was a kid and we would laugh and hang out. When we played a whacky chord we would respond. For better or worst, we were communicating and it was all about communicating. It was all about getting a groove going. If you play with play-a-long records from the time you're 18 to the time you're 25, you're not going to get that. But to do it for a few years in high school could be very rewarding.

A lot of older players have to realize that a lot these kids are young. Where were you at when you were 22? You have to try to remember when you are that age because a lot of development really happens between 20 and 30.


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