ARTICLES (Jazz Improv)
Published in ‘Jazz Improv’ Vol. 8 #2 / Summer 2008

INTERVIEW by Winthrop Bedford

Daniel Smith is a multi-talented musician best known for his pioneering work on the bassoon. This Brooklyn native attended the Manhattan School of Music where he studied classical music while merely listening to jazz. He has had quite an illustrious career as a classical bassoonist, most notably in England, and he has lived in Europe on and off for 20 years. Although citing Benny Goodman as the man who sealed the deal in his decision to dedicate his life to music, it is only recently that Daniel has taken up jazz - becoming the first bassoonist to lead his own group and bring the instrument out-front in an improvisational jazz setting. He shows a particular fondness for bebop and traditional jazz and is quoted to have put Charlie Parker's genius on par with Mozart's. His two jazz CDs are entitled 'Bebop Bassoon' and 'The Swingin' Bassoon'. You can learn more about Daniel at

JI: Could you talk about your albums BeBop Bassoon and The Swingin' Bassoon, your creation of the music and selection of personnel?

DS: I had met Martin Bejerano, the pianist on these dates, some years before. He had not yet made his name in jazz at that time. We hit it off right away and came to an agreement to work together later on if things were to develop for either of us. When the opportunity of making jazz albums for the Zah Zah label in Switzerland came to be, I immediately contacted Martin to ask if he could line up a first rate rhythm section for these albums. At this time, both he and John Sullivan, the bass player on the dates, were working with Roy Haynes' band. Their first choice of a drummer to round out a back-up trio was Ludwig Alfonso, who then shortly afterwards went to join up with Spyro Gyra. I then went over many pieces with just Martin on piano and myself to see which ones worked best. Next came three days of rehearsals with the full trio where we eliminated more pieces which did not come together as convincingly as some others. Keeping in mind that, given the particular nature of the sound of the bassoon, we had to make careful choices as to what would sound good with a bassoon-led jazz quartet. The bassoon of course was amplified for all the music we recorded. Once we started to record over a three-day period in a studio, further ideas came into play as to how to approach certain pieces. Some came out better than others, but overall, I believe we accomplished what we set out to do as evidenced by the many wonderful reviews and extensive airplay that has taken place since we made the recordings.

JI: What was it that attracted you to play the bassoon, a double woodwind instrument, over all others?

DS: I was already an accomplished player on all the other woodwinds earher in life, having studied saxophone with the same teacher who had taught Stan Getz and also received my degree on flute. On each and every woodwind instrument, I studied with some of the best teachers in the New York area and played professionally in many areas of music ranging from name bands to Latin bands, show bands, orchestras and so forth. Over the years, and especially when my daughter was born, while I was a member of the West Point Band (where I played solo piccolo and flute), I thought it would be prudent to add on a double reed instrument to increase my chances of making a living in music when I re-entered civilian life and to become a bona fide 'doubler'. I started taking lessons with a bassoonist in the band and went on to further studies with many prominent bassoonists (and contrabassoon as well) with members of several major symphony orchestras. I found from the start that the bassoon was a much more difficult instrument than any of the others I already played, and that it was a great challenge to master it. Later on, and in stages, I drifted into doing solo performances and recordings on the bassoon, and eventually it became my main focus when an important decision was made to become a soloist on the instrument and to drop the other instruments. By this time, the sound of the instrument became my own particular 'voice' and I started to delve into not only classical repertoire but also crossover, ragtime, vocal adaptations, new age, etc. and then onto jazz.

JI: How did your work in more strictured and structured - and what improvisers might say are confining -situations such as symphony orchestras and classical chamber groups, contribute to or challenge your development as a creative musician?

DS: As my jazz skills kept getting better and better, I found playing in orchestras very confining and which challenged me to focus on improving my improvising skills. Eventually I stopped playing with orchestras and ensembles and focused exclusively on pushing a career showcasing jazz and solo pieces on the bassoon. I still enjoy playing recitals and performing concertos with orchestra as these situations give me a chance to express myself with my own style in classical music. Next season, for instance, I will be giving the world premiere of Robert Farnon's jazz-oriented bassoon concerto "Romancing the Phoenix" in the UK. This will involve two symphony orchestras combining forces along with a jazz rhythm section on stage for sections within the concerto where the bassoon opens up and improvises ... sometimes against the orchestra and sometimes with the trio backing. But overall, I find playing jazz a much more rewarding challenge. As Wynton Marsalis once said: "In classical music you are a recreator of music ... in jazz you are a creator of music."

JI: Could you talk about some of the artists and or recordings that inspired your interest in jazz?

DS: When I was a teenager, I became a very big jazz fan. I went regularly to the original Birdland on 52nd Street, using a fake draft card to gain entry and was usually the first on line to buy a ticket for exactly $1.80! Once inside, I sat next to the piano in the 'Peanut Gallery', where there was no drinking. I heard many of the jazz greats ... the bands of Basie, Ellington, Kenton, etc, Stan Getz, Bud Powell, Miles Davis, Clifford Brown, Dizzy, Gerry Mulligan, Dinah Washington, even Lester Young shortly before his death. I also built up a large collection of jazz LPs. As for my inspirations in jazz, this would include Stan Getz, Charlie Parker, Clifford Brown, Sonny Rollins and a few others who really excited me in those years and where I later found I could use their styles in my own jazz playing on bassoon.. As with many other musicians, I also feel that Charlie Parker was the greatest jazz genius ever, akin to a Mozart who only appears once in a century or so ... and the likes of which may never appear again. I was recently in Bremen, Germany at the Jazzahead Convention where I heard Trilok Gurtu perform with his band. I was absolutely stunned at his virtuosity and the excitement generated at this performance. Hearing him has inspired me to investigate the idea of applying this sort of jazz-fusion world music onto my own style to open up more possibilities as a jazz artist.

JI: Talk about some of the observations you made and/or lessons learned from some of your mentors that have made a significant impact on you personally or your artistry?

DS: I remember well comments from various teachers and musicians I have worked with where I began to see the possibilities of approaching the bassoon as a solo instrument and extending its use into a broad range of music, and in my very own way. Once you go in this direction, you should be prepared for virtually anything to happen since not everyone will understand or like what you do. Fortunately, about 95% of the reviews of my performances and albums, whether jazz or classical, have been extremely positive. There seems to be no middle ground, and if someone does not like my style or approach to music in jazz or otherwise, they seem to go ballistic ... which is fine with me as everyone is entitled to their opinion. But it is indeed very gratifying to hear from bassoonists in many countries who like what I do and to get positive feedback from audiences and critics from my live performances and recordings.

JI: One of the ways artists in jazz have in large part, developed their own styles and or reputations, has been to apprentice - to play in the groups led by high-profile, established jazz artists for extended periods of time. Could you comment on how your own independent path has helped or hindered your music and opportunity in light of the aforementioned realities?

DS: Given that there is no blueprint or role model for jazz bassoon playing, one has to not only learn the craft on an instrument several times harder than the usual jazz woodwinds such as saxophone, clarinet and flute, but also virtually invent a style as well. I started off playing jazz in public (this after years of classical performances and many recordings) by performing at private parties. Then on to some jazz clubs and concert series ... all the time trying to judge the level of where I was at with each new engagement. Eventually I felt comfortable enough via trial and error to perform with, and heading bands, using highly skilled and experienced jazz players. I also believe that my earlier skills on all the other woodwinds have helped to incorporate subtle nuances in the sounds I strive to create with jazz improvisation on the bassoon.

JI: Could you share some of your perspectives about learning how to improvise and the process of improvisation?

DS: For starters, I would like to point out that at the time I made a decision to plunge into jazz and improvisation, I was already a 'virtuoso', so to speak, on the bassoon, having recorded many award-winning classical and crossover albums as well as performing concertos with orchestras and recitals with piano. I quickly found out that this was to be of no help at all in learning the jazz vocabulary and then moving on to actual improvising. It was only after a number of years of working my way through many levels of moving upwards with my jazz skills that the technique I already had in classical music came into play and could be incorporated into my jazz improvising. First came the long and drawn out process of learning all the jazz scales, chords and blues scales in every key and from the bottom to the top of the instrument. Since these scales do not appear in classical music, it required training muscles in my arm never used before and resulting in some rather painful moments when I thought I was going to permanently injure my right arm. But just at the point when musical ideas started to come flowing in a natural manner, and when my fingers automatically went down on the right keys to play the ideas in my head, the pain stopped and everything started to flow ... and has been getting easier and easier since that time. I can now perform a two-hour jazz concert completely from memory and with the sure knowledge that any and all musical ideas which come to my mind, my fingers will execute perfectly ... but I don't have a clue as to how this happens. I have been in touch with Oliver Sacks, the world famous author ('Awakenings') and neurologist on this subject. After an hour and a half of discussion and playing for him at his Manhattan office, he came to the conclusion that he too did not understand what goes on in the mind with jazz improvising ... and suggested to me that I just 'keep doing it and don't even think about it'. He has since sent me some research papers by someone now delving into this ... but I still don't understand why the fingers will go to the right keys to execute musical ideas which come flowing into my mind ... and well in advance of actually playing these musical ideas. And probably most important of all ... whenever I pick up the instrument to improvise, whether I played it the day before or a month before, the musical ideas always come out on a higher level than the last time I played! Double-time figures, using spaces, using dynamics, whatever my mind can come up with ... it seems to always move to a higher level than the last time I improvised. Someone now doing research on this phenomena described this as being 'out' of oneself, or as Stan Getz once put it when he was really playing well, that he had entered an 'alpha' state.

JI: What are the pitfalls in life and business about which an artist must be cognizant to achieve and maintain success?

DS: Staying power ... and more staying power ... and if this fails, still more staying power. There is no rational reason why some very gifted musicians and people In any art form rise to the very top while others with similar talents just struggle and never achieve any great degree of success. Of course, there are a few geniuses such as Picasso, Charlie Parker, Mozart, etc. who belong in a special category, but for most of us, it seems to be a combination of lots of hard work, experience, fate, luck and if you have a lot of money to spread around, this helps quite a bit, given the nature of the music business as it is today where many second rate talents and sometimes no-talents have major careers. As Winston Churchill once said: "never, never give up." Beyond this, I am always aware of the fact that success can come and go at a moment's notice and you always have to give things your best shot no matter what the obstacles are. Otherwise you might as well sign up for accountancy school and leave it at that.

JI: What have you discovered about human nature in jour journey as an improvising artist?

DS: Same as human nature outside of music. While the world is full of treachery and deceit, there will always be good and decent people to be there for you. I used to think that those in the arts were somehow better than other people, but as many encounters have proved to me over the years. in the word of music you have the usual mixture of decent honest people, along with those who will backstab or try to bring you down. and those who simply love what they are doing and will support your own efforts. On an optimistic note, I am now involved in my career with some very intelligent and hard working people who are completely trustworthy. This includes our agents now representing me worldwide, an art design person who has developed highly effective promotional materials working with me, a public relations person who has helped spread the word and pushed me onto the jazz radar screen, and several more individuals who have been of great help and support. So, in summation, and from my point of view, human nature is completely unpredictable ... but keep your eyes and ears open just in case!

JI: How do you stay balanced - as an artist, as an individual given the many distractions that surround us and the stress?

DS: My balance seems now to come with the underlying belief that when one has a purpose in life and always strives to fulfil that purpose, somehow you will always rebound from what seems at a given time like all is lost when things go downhill. And to quote poet e. e. cummings: "To be nobody but yourself in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else, means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight. and never stop fighting"" Amen!

- Winthrop Bedford






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