Communicating Jazz, Improvisation, and Harmony with Your Students

An Interview with Danny Janklow

Date Posted: February 28, 2018

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What methods do you use to teach beginners, and why have you found these to be effective for you and your students?

Danny Janklow: I started karate when I was 3 and a half years old, and by the time I was 9 I earned my first degree black belt and began teaching lessons and competing; so my concept of education came from teaching martial arts. When I started teaching private music lessons and doing masterclasses at all different levels, the thing that really stuck out to me the most was reading the different students because not everybody reacts the same way to a specific teaching method or way of doing things.

So the first thing I do with education in general is read the level and experience of who I’m teaching and try to grasp if they understand things better from an aural or theoretical perspective - and if they’re past a certain level I love talking about broader musical concepts.

Saxophone-wise, one of my favorite books to work with is the Universal Method book. Personally, I started studying this book in 2002 - I’ve been with this book for a long time! It’s like the holy Bible of saxophone and it really taught me how to articulate, phrase, and execute anything I’ve needed to execute on the saxophone. Conceptually, you can teach a student jazz and improvisation but unless they have chops, they won’t be able to execute it.

So you typically start them from a technical approach?

DJ: I try to develop my students as a sax player first with a solid concept about sound and phrasing (whether improvised or not). It’s always about sound, phrasing, and control of the horn. It really starts with being disciplined and engaged in the process of learning the technique of the saxophone.

Whether you’re coming at harmony from a shape perspective, a theoretical approach, or playing by ear, you’re not going to be able to execute what you want to unless you have a foundation in sound, technique, and fluidity. And the connection between the two takes a long time. For me, you have to come at it from both sides, the saxophone side and from the musicality side, and if you can bridge that gap that’s the name of the game.

After they have this technical foundation and have a solid idea about getting around the saxophone, how do you walk them through the process of improvising for the first time? It can be a daunting concept to newcomers…

DJ: The goal is to take those concepts and technical passages and apply the same instrumental discipline to your improvising self. To reach clarity in one's ideas there needs to be a seamless relationship between your body (more specifically your fingers) and your mind. Improvising with musicality and spirit poses a different set of challenges to teach. It's really the students’ responsibility to go experience the music and culture for his/her self.

I have been blessed to have taught and been taught by some really great players of all ages from all over the world. So many great saxophone players!

When you’re learning to improvise no one’s expecting you to have the technical facility of an improviser like John Coltrane or Sonny Stitt, but we all would love to hear the development of a true melodic idea - that never gets old – and that’s what a lot of students don’t always understand. The more students connect with their playing the more inspired they are to keep pursuing a more technical approach to improvising. Obviously no one gets this overnight.

How do you motivate them to do this?

DJ: In education it's important to keep inspiring students to inspire themselves. If the only time they’re inspired to practice is right after the lesson, yes I’m doing my job but I’m not doing good enough. I want to make sure they’re inspired to keep pushing themselves, practice as much as they can, and have their own sort of reserve fuel for when I’m not there to push them.

I need to ask students regarding improvisation, "what feels better to play: something that you have no idea if you can execute or not or something that you can play, feels good, and others can likely relate to?" It’s simple, real, and genuine ideas that inspire an approach to improvisation that will take you in a genuine direction.

Any specific area of the ‘saxophone skill-set’ that you think isn’t addressed enough?

DJ: Articulation for me isn’t talked about enough. Articulation really can get in the way of what you’re doing if you’re not an accurate articulator or don’t have the flexibility to articulate in a variety of different styles. It starts from the classical stuff – being able to tongue legato, staccato, marcatto – to then understanding the stylistic approaches of Dexer Gordon, Lester Young, Sonny Rollins, Cannonball Adderley…

Articulation really can make or break what you’re doing.

DJ: Isolating your skills is one of the most import practices you can have – whether it’s improvisation, sound or articulation. For many years I was studying and inspired by the articulation of Sonny Stitt, in particular I reference Dizzy Gillespie’s record with Sonny Stitt and Sonny Rollins, Sonny Side Up. On that record it was important for me to see the wide dynamic range of articulation that can be done on the saxophone just between Sonny and Sonny. Those two guys really laid it all out there. To me that’s really the holy grail of articulation on the saxophone, so I often reference it while teaching.

And that’s where the foundation from the method book is so imperative…

DJ: You’re not going to be able to get to the level you want to artistically if you don’t first learn how to properly articulate on the horn.

What was it that inspired you when you were a student and how has that shaped your approach to teaching?

DJ: I was really fortunate to go to this high school called Agoura High School and Lindero Canyon Middle School and they were both a very high performing public schools. I was around teachers that gave me positive reinforcement but also pushed me. Pushed me to work hard, pick up different instruments (clarinet and flute), transcribe solos from Ellington in the style of Jimmy Hamilton, Ben Webster, or Johnny Hodges - having that definitely shaped my approach to musicality.

One of the things that really helped me to start improvising was writing out my own solos, physically writing them out like composing a tune over a set of chord changes. When you get to that certain point where you have the theory and technical knowledge, it helps to really get inside your own creativity.

Take Days of Wine and Roses and check out as many recordings as you possibly can and sit down and tell yourself “I’m going to put as much thought into creating a great chorus as I possibly can.” That makes you challenge your own approach because either it works, or it doesn’t, and when you take it out of real-time to the process of composition, you really find what works and what your hearing. When you have all the time in the world to make choices you’re not limited by your technical ability, only your creativity and harmonic knowledge.

As a young professional in the music business are there any obstacles you’ve had to overcome?

DJ: I will preface this by saying that it doesn’t matter who you are, how talented you are, or how hard you work, there will always be obstacles, but it’s about how you overcome those obstacles in your career that really defines how far you’re going to go. Whether it’s musical, professional, or personal obstacles, everyone has obstacles, but it’s about having a creative vision, being dedicated to exactly what you want to do, and surrounding yourself with inspiring people. I’ve been lucky to be surrounded by inspiring people throughout high school and at Temple University. I studied with some truly phenomenal individuals. Dick Oatts and Terell Stafford were huge influences and mentors during my time at Temple. Mentors, teachers, and my fellow peers continue to fuel my inspiration tank.

I think the most important part about being a young professional in the music industry is finding what exactly it is you offer to the industry and be exactly that, don’t second guess or try - just do it. You either offer it or you don’t.

Any advice you’d share for aspiring professionals?

DJ: My big advice to all students is yes, acknowledge the obstacles and do your best to work through them. When you do get through to other side and you feel like you have something to say and you really get to say it, there is no greater feeling in the world than creating art that you are really proud of. It inspires you to do more and it inspires other people to do more. It’s easy to want to be famous, it’s easy to want to sell records, it’s easy to want to have thousands and thousands of followers whether it is Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook, it’s easy to want to have a large following, but it’s not easy to be a quality and genuine artist. We need more people that believe in their art enough to really put out a genuine whatever it is; music video, record, collaboration, etc. As long as it is genuine art and you really believe in it, the audience will feel that.

Talk a little about your own original album, ‘Elevation.’

This is my debut album with Ben Williams, John Beasley, Eric Reed, and Sam Barsh who just won two Grammy’s for Kendrick Lamar’s recent album. All three are incredible cats and they’re all longtime friends and supporters of what I’ve been doing. We came together and they really elevated the music and brought so much life, passion, and musicality to the music I’ve been dreaming of getting recorded for seven years.

Back to obstacles – there are a lot I had to overcome in order to get to this point with the recording. Financially, it’s extremely hard for the young professional in trying to get your own music out there at this point. First of all, you have to have a plan, save money, and have people that are willing to really back your goals. It really takes a village to do this. Especially because it’s not being handed to me, I think that’s why I appreciate the process more. That’s the biggest part, it’s all my own creative music and it took a long time to plan it and really get to the point where I felt like it was going to be a successful execution all the way through the process.

You really have ownership over the whole process; it’s your original project.

DJ: Absolutely, you really have to believe in yourself enough to invest not only months and months of writing, but also spend the time to coordinate how you are going to execute it and why you want to do it. Why is it important to you? I think for a lot of musicians it takes multiple recording efforts to really understand how to get though the process. For me, it’s all about the vibe that you set when you are in the studio. If you get the right cast together, you have a really positive vibe, and things are prepared and things are working, then it’s going to be a successful process.

I feel more purposeful as an artist and as a person after doing this record because it’s something I’ve always wanted to do. This record came out better than I expected and that’s saying a lot because I really had high expectations!

Check out Danny's CD Elevation

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