Interview with Dayna Stephens

by Emma Johnson

Interview w/ Dayna Stephens

Dayna Stephens is an internationally renowned jazz saxophonist and composer who has released ten albums and toured extensively across the globe. Most recently, Dayna has been on tour around the west coast of the U.S., promoting his newest album Right Now! Live at the Village Vanguard with Aaron Parks, Ben Street, and Greg Hutchinson as the Dayna Stephens Quartet. Raised in the San Francisco Bay Area, Dayna attended Berkeley High School, known for its jazz program. He went on to graduate from Berklee College of Music and continued his studies with jazz icons such as Terence Blanchard, Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock at the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz. Currently, he teaches at Manhattan School of Music and William Paterson University.

On top of these impressive credentials, Dayna is also an incredibly genuine and humble guy, and it came as no surprise to me when he agreed to take time out of his hectic schedule for a short Zoom interview with me.

Emma: What is your earliest musical memory?

Dayna Stephens: You know, it’s funny, I’ve never been asked that question specifically like that, or not that I can remember anyway. I’m having a hard time remembering specifics. I do remember being very small – I’m looking at the very saxophone I saw when I was like two years old and it was taller than me at that point. I remember seeing that saxophone. But then I remember hearing things like Earth, Wind, and Fire in the house, just like R&B, things like that, the blues. I had no idea what I was listening to. I remember hearing Stevie Wonder, Stevie may have been the first person that I knew who I was listening to at like five or six years old, but it’s so hard for me to remember back then at this point.

E: Coming from the Bay Area, what do you think are some of the biggest differences between the scene there and the scene here in New York City?

DS: Well, I feel there’s more of a need to be versatile in terms of what genre one plays in the Bay Area just because there are not as many musicians, the musicians there are need to cover a lot more ground. I mean, you do have people who really focus on jazz or really focus on salsa or different genres, but I find that a lot of the jazz musicians branch out into other genres. I feel there are certain instruments that are in higher demand because there aren’t as many people playing them. Like bass, for example, when I moved back to the Bay Area after college I was playing more gigs on my bass than I was on my saxophone just because there are not many bass players around. So, you know, things like that. Whereas in New York, there is a lot to choose from. Scarcity is not a problem in New York, I don’t know if it ever has been. Oh, the venues – there aren’t as many listening venues for jazz in the Bay Area. There are venues where you’re

background music, I call it “wallpaper music,” you’re there as part of the ambiance not necessarily to be listened to. But venues where local artists come to listen to each other, just to hear what they’ve been working on, I don’t find a lot of that in the Bay Area, unfortunately.

E: As a teacher, how do you connect with your students and what is the number one thing you hope to impart on them?

DS: A sense of confidence in bringing out their authentic musical vision. That’s it, really. Sometimes that’s through technique, sometimes it’s through giving another perspective on something that they wrote. Just reiterating the things that have been impactful in storytelling in the past. It involves a lot of things but at the end of the day it’s about them bringing us into their world as musicians, especially in this artform. Classical is all about being proficient on the instrument, making sure you have a good sound, and you’re telling someone else’s story. That’s a different story than in jazz, where it’s become what it is because of the unique voices within the genre and the way those voices tell their own story.

E: Speaking of jazz, how do you feel about the genre and what it looks like today?

DS: Well, to be honest, all words are tools, they’re pointers. So to me, “jazz” is just that. It’s a tool to kind of establish a common ground of where to jump off into things that are hopefully a bit deeper beyond the word jazz. For me, I don’t hold too much weight in the term. There’s just as many interpretations of what that means as there are people who listen to it, so it’s hard to nail down. Some elements are improvisation, composition – but again there are always outliers that go completely against all of the rules. I can say that I can feel happy and confident that it’s evolving as it should. I don’t think that it’s being restricted or confined in any way. The outcomes are always going to be subjective to the person listening. As long as it’s able to grow and breathe into all these other branches of this big, mega tree of different styles and unique blends then I’m cool with it. It’s just overwhelming because you really don’t have enough time to meditate and explore each one of those branches. But to me, I’m happy that jazz is continuing to evolve and represent the times that it lives in.

E: I know this might be a bit cliche, but what advice would you give to a younger version of yourself who was just about to release his first album?

DS: Patience. Patience. Be patient. There’s a lot involved with that, but it all boils down to being patient. Like, ignore that sense of unworthiness that you have. I could go so deep into what patience means to me. Keep on your path. I would also say look for help, you can’t do it all yourself.

E: Before the end of your career, what is one thing you’d like to do or accomplish?

DS: That’s funny, I should think these things, but I don’t! There are players that I want to play with, that’s it for me. I want to play with Kurt Rosenwinkel, Jack DeJohnette, Dave Holland, and I don’t know, Brad Mehldau. And I’d love to play Carnegie Hall! But that one’s on everyone’s bucket list, I guess. But really, I’m mostly thinking, “what chord should come after this chord?” I’d rather stay in the micro.