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Take Five With Dan Wilensky

AAJ Staff By

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Meet Dan Wilensky:

Saxophonist, composer, and author Dan Wilensky has toured and recorded with hundreds of artists, including Ray Charles, Jack McDuff, Joan Baez, Santana, Steve Winwood, Donna Summer, R. Kelly, Melissa Manchester, Faith No More, Hall & Oates, Freddie Jackson, Linda Eder, Mark Murphy, James Brown, Deborah Harry, The Manhattan Transfer, David Bowie, and Madonna. He has played on numerous commercial jingles, film soundtracks and TV themes, including The Nanny, Hollywood Squares, Sex In The City, ESPN Sportscenter, The Montel Williams Show, A Chorus Line and Hairspray, and can be heard on over 250 records.



In 1986, Wilensky won a National Endowment for the Arts award for jazz performance and composition. He has led or been a member of dozens of bands, notably Slickaphonics (featuring Ray Anderson and Mark Helias), Who It Is! (Cornell Dupree, Richard Tee, Will Lee and Steve Gadd), and Rick Derringer's house band for Joy Behar's talk show, Way Off Broadway.

Currently, Wilensky is featured on the music for the Emmy winning PBS children's show Between the Lions, and performs, records, and teaches worldwide. His new book, Musician!, his new CD, If You Only Knew, and his method book, Advanced Sax, are available at fine websites.

Instrument(s):

All Saxophones, flutes, keyboards.

Teachers and/or influences? I studied classical piano with Julian White, and saxophone with Joe Henderson. I'm influenced by everything I hear.

I knew I wanted to be a musician when... I realized that I was a musician.

Your sound and approach to music: Sound is where it's at! Just the fact that as humans, we use our eyes more than our ears, says it all. We are clearly not finished evolving. Seriously, just being blessed with the ability to hear is enough for me. I listen to everything, learn from what I hear, and try not to get in the way when I play or compose. I try to think like a singer, and make every note count. If I have a musical goal, it's to keep listening. And I like the idea of less notes in general.

Your teaching approach: Every student is different. I tailor the lessons to what each person needs and wants. That said, one thing I encourage all my students to do is to listen to everything.

Your dream band:

My goal right now is just to keep a working band together without having to make too many calls! And I want to work with everyone. Almost.

Road story: Your best or worst experience: In ancient times, before e-mails provided written evidence of gig details, I got a call from a club date office to play solo saxophone for a wedding ceremony at a church on lower Fifth Avenue in New York. The job entailed waiting outside the church; when the doors opened at 11am, I was to play a jazzy version of Mendelssohn's "Wedding March," the classic wedding recessional. The newlyweds would hustle down the steps in a hail of rice, laughter, and joyful saxophonistics—an easy gig by any measure.

This particular Sunday morning was damp and gray, and there was a chance of a shower. I showed up early to get the lay of the land, and find out where I should play if it started raining. With the exception of a few pedestrians, no one was around, and I thought it was best not to enter the church in case the ceremony was in progress.

At 10:57, I focused all my attention on the church doors, horn at the ready. At the stroke of 11, a fellow in a dark suit slowly opened the doors; he didn't see me, and he hustled back inside before I could flag him down to get an update. Something felt wrong. A moment later, I saw several people coming towards the exit, so I busted into my swingin' take on the happy tune. Heads turned, and I thought I heard a woman scream. Just as I really start jamming, I heard someone yell: "Stop that right now! Get out of here! What in the hell are you doing?" Another guy comes running down the steps, looking like he was going to try to tackle me. I hustled my vintage Selmer to safety, and braced for a confrontation. The angry fellow bellowed:

"I don't know who you are or why you would play such a sick joke, but you should leave right now or you're going to get hurt."

Assessing my options, I made a gentle inquiry: "Isn't this the Parker wedding?"

"Listen to me carefully, young man. I don't know where you're supposed to be, or who sent you here, but you've just ruined this funeral. Leave now."

I could see the casket coming down the stairs behind him.

"I'm so sorry," I offered. "Apparently they sent me to the wrong church."

"Leave!"

I quickly packed up, and escaped down the block to a pay phone. I called the club date office and left the gory details on the machine, then beeped-in to get my messages. After several vitriolic diatribes from the boss ("Where the fuck are you? You're fuckin' late!"), there was a long apology from Jenny, the office manager, followed by a short apology from the boss. It began to rain; I was wearing a nice suit, so I treated myself to lunch at a swank restaurant and called it a day.

Favorite venue:

The Beacon Theatre in New York, and Quasimodo, in Berlin.

Your favorite recording in your discography and why? My new record, In Our Time, simply because it's where I'm at now.

The first Jazz album I bought was: Cannonball Adderley, Somethin' Else.

What do you think is the most important thing you are contributing musically? Playing live music. Not succumbing to pop culture

Did you know...

Even though I've made my living playing all types of music, I'm a jazz junky at heart!

CDs you are listening to now: Donny McCaslin, In Pursuit (Sunnyside);

Marisa Monte, Infinito Particular (Monte Criacao E Producao Ltda).

How would you describe the state of jazz today? Well, as long as we're talking about the music, and not the jazz "business," I'd say that it's the same as it ever was: 90% of everything is either mediocre or downright lousy, and 10% is either good or spectacular.

It's just more difficult to find the 10% now, because there is so much to choose from. Of course there are other giant changes: jazz is obviously not the popular music it was when the originators walked the earth; there are less places to play; the term "jazz" itself is almost meaningless in the face of web-assisted sub-categorization. The list goes on. But good musicians will always find a way to be heard.

What are some of the essential requirements to keep jazz alive and growing? Government support, corporate support, union support, partnerships with schools, services like All About Jazz, and record companies, club owners and promoters who are dedicated to the music and the musicians.

What is in the near future? My new CD, If You Only Knew, will be out by September 23, 2010. I've got a righteous band—Bob Himmelberger, Dean Johnson, and Scott Neumann. My new website, www.danwilensky.com, will also be finished by that time. I've been having a blast doing reading events for my book, Musician!, at libraries, book stores, and schools. I bring my horn and sometimes a band to those events, and demonstrate the art of improvisation and whatnot.

By Day:

Wrangling my kids, composing studio work, teaching, and trying to keep up with the garden.

If I weren't a jazz musician, I would be a: Scientist. And a more prolific author.

Photo Credit

Photo Courtesy of Dan Wilensky
About Dan Wilensky
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