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Meet Danny Jonokuchi

Courtesy Gulnara Khamatova

Sanford Josephson BY

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There was a clear-cut winner... It was a unanimous decision.
—Stefon Harris, Vibraphonist
This article first appeared in Jersey Jazz Magazine.

When Danny Jonokuchi was attending Agoura Hills High School in Agoura, CA, trumpeter Terell Stafford visited in 2006 and 2008 to conduct clinics, preparing the high school band for competition in Jazz at Lincoln Center's Essentially Ellington festival. (Agoura Hills took second place in 2006).

"I was completely blown away by his teaching and personality," Jonokuchi said. As a result, he decided to travel across country for college to major in Jazz Studies at Temple University's Boyer College of Music and Dance in Philadelphia where Stafford is Director of the program. "It was definitely a big transition, but it was a chance to study with Terell and [saxophonist] Dick Oatts."

Stafford recalls meeting Jonokuchi during that California trip. "I remember him being a very good trumpet player with a great attitude, humility, and openness to learn," he said. "At Temple, he was the perfect student! He was really hard working and absorbed every bit of knowledge shared with him. I love his playing! So melodic, heartfelt, and honest."

After graduating from Temple in 2012, Jonokuchi moved to New York and started teaching to help support himself while he began acclimating to the jazz community, with an emphasis on big bands. "I would look up where big bands were playing," he said, "and introduce myself. I went to the Village Vanguard on Monday nights. After a couple of years of going and learning, I had a last-minute opportunity to play with the band. [Trombonist] Luis Bonilla was a mentor of mine, as well as [trumpeters] The Nick Marchione Group and Scott Wendholt. I also hung out at the Garage, Jazz Standard, Minton's, Dizzy's—anywhere that had big bands."

Bonilla, who was second trombonist in the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra for nearly 20 years, recognized Jonokuchi as "a young person that had an insurmountable amount of talent. I've hired him as a trumpet player. He's an excellent trumpet player. I've hired him as an arranger. He's an excellent arranger. I witnessed his natural ability to communicate with an audience of one or 1,000. He always has the same clear mind and the same poignant message. He is all about music and has the heart and generosity to make an everlasting impact."

Jonokuchi formed The Danny Jonokuchi Big Band and a smaller group (seven to nine pieces) called Danny Jonokuchi & The Revisionists. He also conducts The New Alchemy Jazz Orchestra, a 17-piece big band which he co-leads with trumpeters John Lake and Mike Sailors, and saxophonist Steve Kryka.

Last year, an expanded version of Danny Jonokuchi & The Revisionists won the first-ever "Count Basie Great American Swing Contest," launched in September by the independent publishing and management company, Primary Wave Music Publishing in collaboration with the Count Basie Estate. Professional and amateur jazz musicians 18 years or older were asked to submit a unique cover of one of three Basie classics—"Blues in Hoss' Flat," "Jumpin' at the Woodside," or "One O'Clock Jump." The larger 15-piece Revisionists won with its performance of "One O'Clock Jump." The eight regular Revisionist members are: Jonokuchi, vocalist Alexa Barchini, drummer Kevin Congleton, trombonist Robert Edwards, bassist Noah Jackson, guitarist Greg Ruggiero, alto saxophonist/clarinetist Jay Rattman, and keyboardist Ben Paterson. All except Ruggiero were part of the group's digital album, Let Me Off Uptown. Trombonist Mariel Bildsten, tenor saxophonist Ricky Alexander, and guitarist Jocelyn Gould were among those added to the award-winning bigger band. The prize for winning the contest: An opportunity to work with some of the judges to re-record the entry in a professional studio for a final recording to be released this year.

Pre-pandemic, all the musicians would have been in New York, "but, now," Jonokuchi said, "they were all over. We had started making some videos. It was a great way to play and for me to write new arrangements. When we found out about this competition, I wrote a new arrangement." The winner was selected from 30 entries, and the panel of judges included vibraphonist Stefon Harris, saxophonist Branford Marsalis, and bassist Christian McBride. Harris told DownBeat: "There was a clear-cut winner. All the judges took a look at the videos independently, and it was a unanimous decision." Additional partners in the contest include DownBeat, the Blue Note Jazz Club, Jazz at Lincoln Center, the Newport Jazz Festival, and SiriusXM.

Jonokuchi had seen the Count Basie Orchestra, led by Scotty Barnhart, at Birdland. When he learned his band won the contest, he told Primary Wave, "The first time I ever heard Count Basie and 'One O'Clock Jump' was after I won a raffle in eighth grade and received a box set of his music. I've been a huge fan ever since." His favorite bandleaders, he told Jersey Jazz, "are Duke Ellington, Quincy Jones, Neal Heftii, Sammy Nestico, Don Sebesky. "Right now," he continued, "I'm working on a few projects. I'm arranging new albums for Ricky Alexander and [vocalist] Martina DaSilva, and I'm studying remotely for my Masters in Jazz Composition from Queens College.

At the beginning of 2020, The New Alchemy Jazz Orchestra was in its third year of a monthly residency at The Django in Tribeca. In late February, Jonokuchi went on a tour of Israel with Israeli multi-reedist Eyal Vilner. "We had done half the shows," he said, "when the rest of the tour was canceled. We had another gig in the UK, but they were talking about potential lockdowns. I got on the first plane home. That was March 7."

Jonokuchi was motivated to enter the Basie competition, he said, "to create some positivity in this tough time for musicians, to get the band together, and to inspire other musicians."

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