Name: Dan Wilensky
Instrument: tenor, alto, soprano saxophones and flute.
Early Years/Education: Grew up in a musical family in Berkeley, California. Berkeley in the ‘60s was a great musical time. I had two older brothers who both played a little bit, and both parents played but not professionally. Mom played classical violin, Dad played Dixieland trumpet, and my brothers were into rock. At home we had great jam sessions. My Dad taught at the university and his colleagues would come over and jam. My brothers used to sing the songs of the ‘60s very well. They’d drag me down to the clubs to see Hot Tuna, Joni Mitchell, Rahsaan Roland Kirk sitting in with Joan Baez, etc. It was a great visceral music experience.
I started piano lessons at age eight and saxophone at nine. I had good private teachers and the school music programs were wonderful. By the time we were in high school, we were groomed to be professional musicians. We had jazz bands in the 4th grade and played the Monterey Jazz Festival. I had a quartet and quintet together with Benny Green, who also grew up there. By the time I was 12, I was a serious musician; by the time I was 16, I was already playing gigs and teaching.
I gave Joshua Redman his first saxophone lessons when he was eight or nine. Josh’s mom brought him to me, and I asked, ’Is this Dewey’s kid?’ No way was I going to teach Dewey’s son. She said, ‘Dewey’s in New York.’ So I gave him a total of six lessons and told her he had no love of music, was not interested in being here, and he is never going to be a musician. I also told her I can’t teach him anymore. Needless to say, he was a late bloomer. Craig Handy was also a student of mine.
Ray Charles: This happened through participating in high school band competitions. I met a lot of musicians around the state and kept in touch with them. One of those guys became the lead trumpet player in Ray’s band. His name is Buddy Gordon. When the band came to town, I let him crash at my place. He suggested I bring my alto down to the club, [because] the lead alto just quit. He also told me, ‘You may be able to play, it’s sort of an audition.’ Ten minutes before show time, I was asked to join the saxophone section backstage to play through a chart. Before I knew it, I was on stage with Brother Ray. I stayed for six months — I was 18 years old.
After graduating high school, I received a scholarship to study music at Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York. It really disappointed my grandmother that I went on tour with Ray Charles instead of going to Eastman. I knew I wouldn’t continue with Brother Ray, I just wanted to experience it for six months. Eastman deferred the scholarship for me, but I lasted all of two and a half months in Rochester. I was there during the Spring semester of 1980. I didn’t go to class and started bands in Rochester with people like bassist Dave Fink.
New York: [Then,] I took off for New York with Lil Queenie and the Percolators. After that I went with Jack Mc Duff. In New York, I was in the house band at the Playboy Club, played in a Bob Fosse Broadway musical, then went out on the road with Steve Winwood. The jobs always come from personal contacts. In the ‘80s and ‘90s, the studio scene in New York was raging. I’d do as many as six or seven jingles in a week, a recording or two, a couple gigs, rehearsals as well as write music. I was always busy. In my particular career, I’ve done everything — teaching, Broadway, private hotels, corporate parties, studio work, road work, blues clubs, jazz clubs, classical gigs, and on the road a lot. I have no formal degree. I did 30 solid years of working, that was my school — the studios of New York.
Portland: Moved to Portland one year ago from Manhattan for many reasons. For one, sick of New York after 30-plus years. Portland is beautiful, people are nicer here, people leave more space between the cars when you’re on the road, and you don’t need to be in a particular location to do music, you can do it anywhere.
My first impression of Portland is I’ve been blown away at the level of musicianship here and all the sitting in that people do. People like Ron Steen welcome you to the stage; I haven’t done that in 30 years. What a wonderful way to get to know other musicians! Jams in New York used to be as organic and friendly as they are here, but the “loft scene” has been gone a long time.
I’m currently putting together my own bands — trios, quartets and quintets. Lately I’m really enjoying my trio of sax, bass and drums.
Musical Influences: Everything! I’m one of those Berkley guys who thinks nature is as much of an influence as jazz. I’ve gotten inspiration from the mountains; that’s one of the reasons I’m out here. John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley, Eric Dolphy, Stan Getz, Sonny Rollins, Gene Ammons, Dexter Gordon, Joe Henderson, Thelonious Monk, Keith Jarrett, Stanley Turrentine, Weather Report, Tower of Power and Jan Garbarek are all influences.
Most Satisfying Experience: Working with Ray Charles, without a doubt! I worked alongside Ray’s last guard: Johnny Coles, Don Wilkerson, Rudy Johnson. I learned everything I needed to know from those old cats in the six months working with them. I learned how to write big band charts, and sold my first big band chart to Ray. They mentored by example, on stage and off stage. You get with the program pretty quick; you have to.
Studying with Joe Henderson for a year is certainly up there, [too]. Getting to know him, being in his house, hanging out with him. It happened as a result of winning a soloist award when I was in a high school all-star band that played at the Monterey Jazz Festival. I won an award to study with anyone I wanted, and I picked Joe Henderson. Once a week I’d go to his house for hours, it was just me and him. He’d lead me downstairs to practice certain things, then we’d get back together and we’d do things on piano; he’d ask me to arrange a tune for three horns; we practiced classical saxophone music, etc.
Favorite Recordings: Early on, lots of music from the ‘60s, like the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Motown, Jimi Hendrix, Al Green, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, etc. Then there’s John Coltrane - “Soultrane”; Cannonball Adderley - “Something Else”; everything Miles Davis did; Eric Dolphy - “Out To Lunch”; Stan Getz - “Getz/Gilberto”; Sonny Rollins - “Tenor Madness”; Gene Ammons - “Boss Tenor”; Dexter Gordon - “The Blue Note Years”; Joe Henderson - “Inner Urge”; everything by Thelonious Monk; Keith Jarrett - “Belonging”; Stanley Turrentine - “Let It Go”; Weather Report - “Heavy Weather”; Tower of Power - “Bump City”; and currently listening to saxophonist Stephen Riley and vocalist Ceu.
Discography: Four CDs as a leader: “And Then Some” (1997), “If You Only Knew” (2010), “Group Therapy” (2011), and “Back In The Mix” (2012). As a sideman: Jack McDuff “Kisses”; Slickaphonics, “Modern Life”; Janis Siegel, “At Home”; Mark Murphy, “What A Way To Go”; “Hairspray” soundtrack; Santana, “Supernatural”; Madonna, “Erotica”; PBS’s “Between The Lions – Charlie Parker special.”
Gigs: Tuesday, December 3, 7:30 pm, with Laura Cunard, at Coyote’s, Hillsboro (a set followed by a jazz jam); Monday, December 9, 6:30 pm, Jazz Improv 101 Workshop (a three-hour workshop for vocalists), Soma Space; Thursday, December 19, 7:30 pm, Dan Wilensky Quartet at Vie de Boheme, (Ben Graves, guitar, Dennis Ciazza, bass, Ron Steen, drums; Friday, December 20, 7:30 pm, Dan Wilensky Trio with Anandi, Wilf’s Restaurant (Bill Athens, bass, Mike Snyder, drums).
Future Plans: Just keep doing what I’m doing, like teaching. I would like to do clinics. I want to keep gigging with my own band, keep playing as a sideman, etc. I love to play with singers. Vocalists tend to dig me because I don’t play a lot of notes behind them. Wouldn’t mind going out on the road again with a singer or band from Portland.
Other comments: I started out on classical piano, and it’s easier to read one note on sax than ten on piano ... Chopin is more challenging than anything written for saxophone.
Interviewer’s note: Wilensky has written two books. One is an exercise book for the saxophone called “Advanced Sax” (2000), and the other is a “practical guide for students, music lovers, amateurs, professionals, superstars, wannabees and has-beens” called “Musician!” (2010). The latter is an entertaining and compelling read.
-- by Rita Rega