Gerard D'Angelo: Who's Kidding Who?

DanMichael Reyes By

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AAJ: [laughs] Of course, who doesn't?

GD: [laughs] I played in all the clubs where people threw up on the piano and people are just screaming "Quit playing!" The beautiful thing about being a musician is that you're playing in that dive in downtown with a drunk throwing up in a piano, and the next thing you know, you're playing for royalty in the most prestigious venue.

AAJ: Another very famous student you had was the actor, Ben Stiller. How did that happen?

GD: I have to thank Gary Dial. About three years ago, he had been in with a lot of big time people. He was going to teach Ben Stiller but then he was so busy that he couldn't. So I ended up working with Ben for four months. He didn't play a note of piano and I used to go his house and I used to teach him piano. He had to play four songs and sing.

AAJ: What songs were they?

GD: The play was House of Blue Leaves. It was about a guy from Queens—played by Ben Stiller—who worked in a zoo. His character was a zookeeper, but he was also a wanna-be singer-songwriter. So it was like a weird comedy with a dark side to it. It was Ben's first big professional gig around 1980. Ben was in the play back then but he was going to do it as a star.

From what I could see when I got to know him, he's really a hard worker and he really wanted to play the piano. He could have just sat behind the thing and had someone else play, but he wanted to play it. I would go to his house two to three times a week and give him lessons.

AAJ: Does your teaching approach differ between a celebrity like Ben Stiller, your music theory class, and your private students through MSM and New School?

GD: First of all, it's important to understand that you're teaching people—human beings. People have feelings and we're all in the same boat. Developing a sincere rapport with people as human beings and having a respect for people is important and that's my thing. It's not just a hierarchy; I'm dealing with human beings who have goals and dreams just like myself. That helps put it perspective because it creates this feeling of communication and a vibe that I'm real. I think that this allows you to begin to see where this student is. It's not about me; it's about them. It's not about showing them how skilled I am, it's about trying to find out what they know and what they need to know. My wife has helped me with this. In the beginning, I would get freaked out and get anxious. They would all just be staring at me. I don't know what they're thinking and they're just sitting there. It's the first time in college for some of the kids and they're young so they're trying to impress each other, and no one gives it up.

It can be intimidating and I'm thinking, "What are they thinking of me." But my wife would say, "It's not about you. It's about why you're there." Whenever I get intimidated or psyched out, I always just try to remember that I'm there to help people out. So that's where I start and that's the common denominator with everyone whether it's a vocal student at Manhattan School of Music or Ben Stiller.

I never asked Ben about any of his movies. I didn't even acknowledge him as a movie star. It was all about what he needed from me at that time, which developing piano skills.

But you really develop a lot of things that you can kind of draw on. It's like having a jazz vocabulary where you can draw on stuff when it's a blues in F or a Bb rhythm changes. You kind have your raw elements but you're also improvising—like we are now when we're talking. Some kids don't flourish with technical jazz studies, other kids do. You have one kid that can play incredible bebop but he can't even spell C7. Another kid might know a lot of theory but he has trouble feeling 32-bar forms. You really have to be flexible, but at the same time you have to listen and try your best to help.

You also need a strong repertoire of material. Sometimes [students] aren't thrilled about it, but sometimes they know that it's going to help them and they need to know things like modes. If they're a serious student of jazz and they're in music school, you don't want them leaving without knowing certain things.

AAJ: So I want to backtrack a little. How did your arrangement of "What Are You Doing New Year's Eve?" end up being played at Lincoln Center?

GD: It might have been 2005 or 2006 when I was working with Stokes. There was this time when he went to San Francisco and he was just going to use local guys there. There were times that he would take me when hit the road, but at times— for budget reasons—he would just use local guys. It was New Year's Eve and he needed an arrangement. He came over to the piano and he sat next to me and we just knocked this thing out. He would sing things and I would move chords around and he would say, "Oh! I like that! Go that way!" We sort of carved this thing out together.

So I gave it to Stokes. I said to him, "Hey man, you've been so great to me. You don't have to pay me for this. It's yours, you can keep it." Then the next thing I know, he made an orchestra version of it and he played that version with the San Francisco Orchestra. 10 years later, my friend Gary Haase who plays bass was with Stokes and he was about to play at Lincoln Center with the Philharmonic. Gary was there along with Buddy Williams.

So they were rehearsing and they pull out this chart that they were going to do for an encore. They pull it out and it says arranged by Gerard D'Angelo and Brian Stokes Mitchell. So then Haase calls me up and says, "We just did one of your charts with the Philharmonic." I was just excited about that because the idea that they played something that I arranged blew my mind. I'm sure that arrangers and writers do that kind of stuff all the time, but I don't. Haase taped it on his iPhone it. He asked me if I wanted to come hear but I was teaching so I couldn't, but he did send me a recording so I was able to listen to it.


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