The Zen of Zinn: Tenor Sax Jazz Great Teaches Kids What It Takes

  • January 9, 2012

By Andrew Gilbert

     Like the old violinist giving a curbside recital in Manhattan, Dann Zinn knows how you get to Carnegie Hall. He can also give you directions to Zellerbach Hall, Herbst Theater, or even the Village Vanguard, venues accessed by the same exacting route. As a jazz educator who has mentored dozens of young musicians distinguishing themselves as top-shelf professional players, the Alameda-based Zinn is a guru with a mantra: practice, practice, practice.

     “My job is to get them to take it as seriously as brain surgery, practicing like their lives depend on it,” says Zinn. “I love practicing myself. It’s one of the best parts of being a musician. I try to get them to see that it’s not a chore. We’re lucky to be able to do it. Digging for something new is what jazz is all about.”

     While he’s on faculty at Cal State East Bay, U.C. Berkeley and the Jazzschool in Berkeley, Zinn works most of his magic one-on-one at his home studio. Many of his students are talented musicians who are destined to make a living in another field, but he specializes in helping highly gifted high schoolers reach their potential, which often means scoring a full scholarship to a top institution like Boston’s Berklee College of Music, the Manhattan School of Music or the Univer-sity of Southern California. Sometimes tears are shed in the process.

     “One of my students just got a full scholar-ship to USC, which is worth something like $200,000,” Zinn says. “In his junior year he said he’s quitting. He was crying at lessons and just really frustrated. He hit bottom, but he stuck with it and figured it out. Last year he was in the SFJAZZ High School All-Stars. I’m sure his mom is glad that all those lessons paid off.”

     Zinn didn’t aspire to a career as an educator, but he has found working with young musicians almost as gratifying as pursuing his own music. The Hayward native makes a point of not pushing any particular style. You can’t argue with the results. His former students include Oakland tenor saxophonist Dayna Stephens, who earned a full scholarship to Berklee and the Thelonious Monk Institute and is now a thriving New York player whose debut CD received glowing reviews. Another Berkeley tenor saxophonist, Hitomi Oba, now based in Los Angeles, released a CD featuring her encounter with saxophone legend Ernie Watts.

     And Santa Cruz tenor saxophonist Jesse Scheinin attended Berklee on a full scholarship and is honing a highly personal sound he describes as “Sigur Ros meets Wayne Shorter.” Scheinin heard about Zinn from another brilliant Santa Cruz saxophonist, Remy Le Boeuf, whose full scholarship to the Manhattan School of Music paved the way for his emergence as an important new voice on the New York scene.

     “I had heard about Dann from all of my friends in the SFJAZZ High School All-Star Band who told me I absolutely had to study with him,” Le Boeuf writes in an e-mail. “I remember after our first lesson, he gave me hours of things to practice, and this set a standard that I was happy to strive toward during my years of study with him. Dann was always very Zen in our lessons; he only said what was necessary and most of his comments were made as questions that I had to answer for myself.”

     Not surprisingly, Zinn is also a highly regarded player who has developed a striking sound of his own shaped by his synthesis of seemingly polar influences. For many years he tried to model his sound on Norwegian tenor saxophonist Jan Garbarek, who plays unadorned, folk-like themes with cool, blue-flame intensity. Best known for his work on ECM, Garbarek recorded albums such as Belonging and My Song as part of pianist Keith Jarrett’s great 1970s European quartet.

     Zinn’s music often combines Garbarek’s crystalline sound with a handful of East Bay grease, a la tenor saxophonist Lenny Pickett, a Tower of Power alumnus who’s now music director for the Saturday Night Live Band. It’s an approach that Zinn’s been working on for about a decade.

     “It’s a concept where I take folk melodies, but harmonized like Bartok,” Zinn says. “I try to make the music accessible through the melodies, but the harmonies are kind of weird and I like messing with the textures.”While he took saxophone lessons as a teenager, Zinn did some of his most intensive studying in the audience at the North Beach club Keystone Korner in the 1970s, soaking up sets by tenor sax titan Dexter Gorden, trumpeter Woody Shaw and altoist Phil Woods.

     “That’s how you learn,” Zinn says. “Later on I took a few lessons with most of the great players in the area — Joe Henderson, Mel Martin, Larry Schneider. It was cool, but in many cases they weren’t teachers. I remember asking Schneider, how do you do this? ‘I don’t know.’ Well, how do you do this? ‘I don’t know.’ Really, you can’t tell me?”

     While his own music might sound mysterious and perplex his collaborators, Zinn has spent his life off stage demystifying jazz for his students, showing by example that the best players work the hardest at their craft. He doesn’t often get to play in Alameda, but Zinn has connected with a group of musicians in his neighborhood, including saxophonist and DJ Bob Parlocha and saxophonist Ron Graham. He plays piano and they perform regularly at school events.

     “We call ourselves the Post Street Players,” Zinn says. “We do Labor Day, the Spring Fling in May, and Carnival in October. It’s Alameda at its finest.”

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