Interview with Daniel Louis White, Jazz Saxophonist
Dave Wirth: Hey everybody, welcome to the YouTube channel of The School of Feedback Guitar. If you dig interviews with real working musicians, musicians who have made music a part of their lives, I think I would highly recommend that you subscribe to this channel right now. I would be doing a ton of interviews in the near and far future. My guest today is just jazz saxophonist Daniel Louis White. Daniel, thanks so much for - Let me pastor you with questions.
Daniel Louis White: Awesome, It's really cool.
I want to get started really quickly with your musical background, how you started to learn saxophone, how you came to learn that saxophone was something that you really wanted to do? When did you start playing?
Well, I was a clarinet player in middle school. And my middle school band director kind of forced me into it. It wasn’t something that I joyously kind of found and fell in love with. It was more like, “Hey, I need someone in the jazz band.” And he was really a passionate jazz player himself and he could not find talent to kit his own kids playing the music, so, he, “Okay, I have the saxophone, you’re going to play it.” And I learned it. And I was terrible at it.
How old were you when you did this?
I was probably about 14 years old. So my experience of music up that point was just little classical repertoire, nothing crazy very elementary stuff and eventually I needed lessons on it because I - He told me it was like the clarinet. It was not like the clarinet at all, so I -
The fingerings aren’t similar?
They’re similar but it’s different.
It’s a little bit different bag of tricks, so I needed a lesson teacher and that guy really kind of gave me some passion for music and yeah, I guess from there I moved around. This isn't what you were taught in Kansas at the time, and family, they moved back to Texas. I'm a Texas native, and at that point, I was just trying to get as much knowledge as I could, going from teacher to teacher to kind of utilize, to get any sort of skill that I could because I did love it. I found that I was good at it once I practiced it and someone showed me, “Hey, this is how this works.” And I played skills every day. And from there, I started learning tunes and transcribing and depending on who I was studying under, you know, I just - I found the passion for the music.
And eventually that led you to higher education.
Yeah, so I guess when I was in high school, by the time we moved back to Texas I was already getting private lessons by the people at UNT.
University of North Texas?
Which is an incredible jazz school.
Yeah, so, I eventually ended up going to UNT but the pathway to get there, I’ve thought about going up to New York and studying at the New School. Yeah, it’s just a really great affordable option for me and as years went on, leading up to high school, this is what I wanted to do, be a saxophonist and not the easiest path in the world but it’s one that I find rewarding.
So, you worked with a teacher just to kind of like learn the fundamentals of saxophone.
And a lot of people out there are very, super convinced that this just going along and just learn on their own, and I'm certain that that has a lot of merit to it. But, what sorts of benefits did working with a teacher have for you?
Well, yeah, to keep in mind that there’s absolutely no way - When I started playing the saxophone, I was so horrible at it I could not figure it out. So, and it’s actually more of a rudimentary instrument than a clarinet but even so, I needed help. So, I came from the perspective of, “Hey, I know nothing, teach me.” And he did. And from there, I felt comfortable because at that time, I wasn’t really good at creating any goals for myself or pushing myself to become something better than I was. So, I think a private lessons teacher, when you’re at a certain age, or if it works up into your adulthood, great, but I mean, when you’re learning an instrument, it helps you stay focused and it helps you create goals and try to meet those goals to the best of your ability, because you’re paying the guy money, your parents are paying him, I mean there’s an investment there and so, you need to make it worth your time.
Absolutely, absolutely. We were talking not too long ago about technical exercises and doing them kind of like I got this sense that we both as musicians at one point ran into the problem of focusing too heavy on the exercises unless I'm mistaken on that. I think you and I both got into that trap and I'm curious. Am I correct on that?
To an extent. So, I still work on exercises. I still do all that stuff. That to me is the science of being a saxophonist. It’s me lifting weights. It’s not the only action that I do but it’s part of it. And yeah, if you get caught up and how the technicalities of everything, although they are important, it can, it can kind of miss the point of why you’re doing this in the first place and I believe it’s good to continue, being strong on whatever instrument you choose or whatever that looks like, whatever genre of music or whatever. But it’s only an aspect. It’s not the whole picture.
Yeah, I feel the same way. I feel the same way. So, it’s almost like people don’t get the chance to just jump into the actual heart of playing music and playing music with other people too.
Well, when you come from a jazz background and what I’ve learned is that no matter how many times you always hear practices, perfect practices, makes perfection, I really don’t believe anyone ever really becomes perfect and it’s just a human perception on what another individual achieved. And I really feel like in order to play jazz, you have to not think. You have to listen. And so, if you - even now, we’re talking, right? If you’re already thinking about what you’re going to say to me next you can actually listen to what I have to say, right?
Yeah, exactly, yeah.
So, that’s how I think music works. It’s you spend all these years learning and getting to a place of technical proficiency but when you’re thrown into the mix, it’s time - It’s a different ball game and there’s nothing that can prepare you for that. You have to listen, just takes a different muscle, your brain, you know?
Yeah, totally. So, do you suggest for people to perform at all? Do you think it’s beneficial for like...
I mean, I think everyone’s career looks differently. I don’t really judge. I'm not going to give you standardization on what’s important or not important or how many times should one play in a week or I mean that referred to me in different equations on that but - And I don’t perform a whole lot as I used to, but it’s important. It’s an aspect, just like the technique. It’s all a piece of the bigger puzzle. And performing helps you to learn how to listen because you’re in a conversation, every night is different, ever day or whenever you play, you’re putting the scenario where you have to kind of free up your expectations and be a part of what everyone else is, even if it’s your own tune that you’re playing. You have to -- there’s an empathy in communication that happens and that’s really where the magic is. And if you want to touch on jazz like my whole - in terms of performing whether it’s performing for recording or performing in a live setting. They’re all important and they’re all very different, but one thing remains true for me is I only view myself when I'm improvising as a window for the other musicians.
Wait a minute. Can you describe that a little bit more?
Well, I’ve written this tune and I get three other guys to perform it with me. When it gets to a point, where it’s my turn to play, the way to get the best out of your performance is like I said to listen to the other people and let them shine through your performance. That creates a much better experience because you’re lis-, everyone is involved, it’s not just about you.
Well, we’re going to take a quick break here and we’ll be right back out with my interview with jazz saxophonist Daniel Louis White. Please stick around on the course, you know. Think about subscribing to this channel. We’re going to be doing bunch of interviews like this in the future but we’ll back in the just a few seconds.
Welcome back to the YouTube channel, The School of Feedback Guitar. I'm back here with my guest Daniel Louis White. And I want to actually ask you more about the creative more compositional side of jazz which is something that I'm gathering that you really, really care about this very -?
That’s how I tend to identify myself. I definitely put myself more in the realm of artist composer than just a tender saxophonist. That’s kind of my - what makes everything pull together.
Yeah. When you’re writing, do you have a specific process that you follow? Is it more random? I mean, I don’t know if you could describe in broad gash strokes or anything for --
Well, generally I started from a direction. I don't know what that direction is going to be. I don't want to speak in riddles or anything but generally I'll hear an aspect of what becomes a full composition. I'm not a musical genius. I can hear all these simultaneous layers at the same time in Eureka. I have a symphony orchestra. It’s more or less I tend to compose from the bottom up. So, in a jazz ensemble if you have, drums, bass and piano I'll think about how I want the bass to move and -
What do you mean move?
Well, a lot of times -
I'm sorry to interrupt you -
When I compose, I don't know if you call them basslines or what you want to call them but I want there to be a sense of groove in my pieces because I listen to a lot of electronic music, I listen a lot of minimal repetitious music. That’s what I like. So, when I compose, a four-bar or eight-bar repetition with bass, I have to make sure that the angularity is right, it’s just - That’s where my identity is. When you hear my work that’s where I want to pop up the most, and so, from there, I will get on the piano and try to find the cord changes that I think are the best fit for that, they could kind of lay a little bit on hitting every one of those notes that, you know, repositions. So, bass playing a lowest note and then a cord that matches each one of those phases but - or it could just be bassline and just little sparse cords in between. From there a lot of times I have what I need to create a melody because I've already kind of thought about what the mood is going to be like at that point and I may have the drum part, and so I kind of work in reverse, so I start from the bottom and built it up to - because I want my melodies to be memorable and I want them - I mean, that’s what most of people recognize anyways, recognize the more bass structures of my music, the -
Or depending on the type of music you listen to - I mean, since you listen to electronic music but I reckon I can see how you would want to start with the bass and everything because that is super prominent in electronic music.
Yeah. Do you go about like notating everything that you want to hear in the drum part of you’re on - or just like just generally play like this or -
It doesn’t matter what I write for drums. The drummer is going to do what he’s going to do. Now, I will say, when I want to be specific, I’ll be specific but if I'm too specific, not relying on my musicians to really add anything, you know what I mean? There are some things that I choose to write very strictly but I leave it enough open for interpretations so that my drummer can express something that says something about him.
It's kind of like what you were saying earlier about, you improvise saying as a window for everybody else to explore themselves, and now, you would - I mean, well, I'm assuming you would use the composition itself as a chance for everybody to kind of explore themselves and with some boundaries -
Well, there’s definitely boundaries like not doing someone or something, or saying “Play whatever you want.” But I am saying, “Hey, look, I’ve already had your mind for this that’s why I'm calling you and that’s why we’re on the studio together.” And this is the kind of mood I want. And these are the little things. I may write because I listen to a lot of drum and bass, electronic music and stuff I can’t explain, I might put a snare part and then kick drum part. And that will give him enough information. If I want it to feel the certain way, I don't necessarily, if I want something a little or theorial, I might write washy crash symbol and it will take up four bars or whatever and although I'm playing around with it but I won’t be too specific. So, there, it takes a little bit of the fun out of it.
Yeah, it takes the mystery and the spontaneity out of it too.
But I usually have very clear ideas about what I want, I mean, I write out as much as I can, when I'm arranging it for each one of the instrument, so I kind of delegate how I want my musicians to interpret it or leave enough for interpretations that they can fill my gaps. But usually throughout the whole process, even in their recording studio, they have suggestions that mean a lot for the overall impact of what the product ends up becoming - the tune, the composition, whatever it is.
It’s a funny thing too as when composers get too much inside their owns heads whatever they can't really see outside of the, I know that’s happened to me plenty of times but it’s kind of a danger -
You’re not alone. I mean, the times that I can write the best or the times that I just kind of I almost treat the form of, or the composing as though it were just another improvisation. I don't go into sitting on my piano thinking, “I really want this kind of tune, it sounds like this.” I know I can hear anything because it’s -- I'm not going to write anything that day and I'm going to end up frustrated. And it still happens and I learned my lesson I guess in terms of not doing it but --
Let’s leave it there.
I keep coming back to that point. I may make that mistake once a week though.
I think it’s kind of healthy to make those kinds of mistakes myself. It’s been like I messed up, whatever, it’s cool. I'm going to come back tomorrow, whatever. No big deal.
Yeah. It’s usually a little more dramatic but -
Totally man. But I did want to touch on just one more thing before we’re done with the interview and you recently kind of have Let me know if this is not kind of something you want to talk about or whatever. If it’s just so new or whatever but, you went out to Los Angeles not too long ago to work on more orchestral things from what I get. Just wondering if you could talk about that experience? What kind of people you met? What it was all about? I mean, I'm still fascinated with it.
I have the Jazztimes newsletter and there was this advertisement for this JCOI, Jazz Composers Orchestra Institute, and I had never heard about it but it sounded really interesting. They basically teach jazz composers, and write for string orchestra and I thought this is a really cool opportunity for me. I don't really have that much background with large instrumentation but it was really cool. John La Barbera was there, one of the premiere big band writers, Yusa's student, Ravi Coltrane was supposed to be there and --
Ravi Coltrane was there?
Yeah. It was really cool and I met so many people like [?]Quincy Nachab which is a great Brooklyn bass saxophonist and so many kids the whole monk institute was there. Steve Coleman was the teacher there. It was a really, really cool. I felt like I was definitely like, wow, I can’t believe I'm with these genius type people and -
Right where you’re going to learn.
I couldn’t believe that I got in. There are two phases to the program. One I went to which was kind of like, “Okay, here is of orchestral music.” “Here it is of foreign and European, now you go and listen one week." At the end of every day your mind is just spinning with all the information that you just crammed between years and it was amazing. I mean, that was the first part, just learning the needy-greedy of each instrument and the string orchestra, not really how they work but just what their limitations are and then they’re like, "Well, you should write a minute's worth of music and that's your phase two." You know, about half of the students got picked to go and write their own string orchestra and have it performed. I was, unfortunately not one of those but I learned a lot. I learned that maybe string and orchestra music isn’t for me, but it really expanded the potentials with writing music, so I don’t regret going there at all. It was amazing experience. I got to meet a lot of really great people. They really opened up my mind about what's possible.
All right. I realized we’ve kind of talking a lot about the composition and everything but I wanted to bring it back around to pedagogy and for advice and everything. And I want to specifically just ask you just one more question about, if you could just imagine somebody is really struggling learning to play an instrument. It doesn’t matter what instrument. It could be guitar. It could be saxophone. It could be drums. It could be piano. It could be, bassil, whatever. It doesn’t matter, right? And they’re just starting. I am curious, what advice you could give that person, timely advice and why is all the advice that you could give that person knowing what you know and all, what would you tell them?
Well, I guess it’d have depend a little bit on how old they were but generally I would just try to encourage them and show them how practice should look. And I think that’s really important and I don't think enough people know what practice should look like.
What should practice look like?
Well, I think you need to be patient with yourself. I think that’s, I mean, everyone works at different, some people would get this aspect of the instrument down really quick. While others may take a really long time. I still work on things that are rudimentary and that’s another thing. I was like I haven't stopped learning, I having stopped moving forward and I think everyone does have the potential to do that and that should be encouraging. There are things I practice for 15 years that I still haven’t mastered. And so -
Here I got the same stuff, yeah.
So I mean, we’re all different. We’ve all different strengths, even as musicians, I think it’s important to point out we’ve all different strengths even in just music, and even in jazz, I have certain strengths and I then, I have certain weaknesses. I think the best thing to do is even though you’re struggling with a certain aspect to keep in mind what your strengths are in continuing to work on them because that’s - well, ultimately, it’s going to encourage you to get over the hump and to know that there are certain things that you’re not going to be good at. And that’s another things. It was like, even when choosing a genre of music or like what instrument to play or whatever it is, just because you’re not necessarily great at one thing, doesn’t mean that you don't have the potential to get something else.
I think a lot of beginners have that problem. They do think that. “Oh, I'm not good enough at, you know, for guitar.” “It’s like my rhythm is terrible or something.” There’s other ways. There are certainly other things you can focus on.
Well, the other thing is you got to be patient. I mean, this is, I mean, any musical craft takes many years to develop and become good at to, to pick up an instrument and to expect perfection or if you have rhythm problems or had a hard time playing in weird time signatures at one point, but if I hear it, I can play it.
Not so much anymore man.
So, I mean, if you could --
You don't have any problems with that anymore.
Well, if I can hear it, I can play it. I think a lot of people -- and I know I was one of those kids, I would try to think about what my problem was but my ears weren’t open. That goes back to what I'm saying about playing alive with the group. If your ears aren't open you’re not going to say anything. And I think, you know, as a young man, I understand what it must be like for a kid to -They’re trying to get something so hard and beating themselves up so hard for not being able to get this one thing right away but you only need to relax and to hear it, and whatever takes for you to hear it that’s how you’re going to play it because if you can’t hear it you are never going to be able to play it. And this like - this whole music I mean -- it goes 30 years. It doesn’t --
That's what it’s all about, yeah.
It goes through the ears. You know, it doesn’t go through the eyes, you know, it’s not -- I mean as visual as music can be. I mean, you still have to use this first վersus trying to like doing number crunching or see it. And even when you’re playing a sheet music, you should learn how to hear it before you play it. That takes time too but basically, what I'm trying to say is relax, take your time and learn how to train your ears. And, going back to one of your first questions. If you need someone to help you do that, get the help, because there’ve been periods where I couldn’t -- there’s no matter how much I spent time on something, I was wasting my time because I didn’t know how to do it. It’s like trying to never working on a car and then my engine gives out and me trying to fix this. It’s never going to happen. I'm wasting my time. So, know how to delegate that if you have a problem on something, sometimes it can get worked out. And if it comes to a case where you get frustrated, just cool out, your turn to do it.
You know - Oh, I'm sorry -
No, that’s good. I'm good.
Okay, all right. Daniel, thank you so much for allowing me to ask you a bunch of questions about this.
I wanted to make sure to point out that you have your music is online and well -
Or will be on your website?
Yeah, yeah, it’s danilelouiswhite.com and L-O-U-I-S.
L-O-U-I-S, yup. Danilelouiswhite.com.
Yeah. I’ve got album True Communication on there and will have Natural Consequences hopefully be dropping next year, by next year.
Excellent, all right. Well, thanks so much you guys for sticking around to. And I guess I will see you guys for the next interview and bye for now.