ONE OF THE BEST NEWER ARTISTS IN JAZZ, SAXIST DAYNA STEPHENS HAS CARVED OUT AN INTRIGUING CAREER, USING HIS MUSIC TO REFLECT HIS STAGES IN LIFE AND HEALTH. ETCHING OUT AN IMPRESSIVE COLLECTION OF STINTS WITH THE LIKES OF VETERAN KENNY BARRON AS WELL AS CONTEMPORARIES SUCH AS JULIAN LAGE, BRAD MEHLDAU AND AMBROSE AKINMUSIRE, STEPHENS HAS PUT TOGETHER A STRING OF WARM AND MELODIC ALBUMS OF HIS OWN, WITH THE LATEST, GRATITUDE, A SONIC BALM.
HIS MUSIC IS ALSO A REFLECTION OF HIS PERSONAL TRIALS AND VICTORIES. IN 2009, STEPHENS WAS DIAGNOSED WITH A RARE KIDNEY DISEASE, FOCAL SEGMENTAL GLOMERULOSCLEROSIS (FSGS). SINCE THEN, STEPHENS WENT THROUGH A MYRIAD OF TREATMENTS, FINALLY RECEIVING A KIDNEY FOR TRANSPLANT IN 2015.
OBVIOUSLY A TRIAL SUCH AS THAT AFFECTS YOUR CAREER, YOUR MENTALITY AND SPIRIT. STEPHENS WAS GRACIOUS ENOUGH TO SHARE HIS REFLECTIONS ON HOW THE ENTIRE DISEASE AND HEALING PROCESS HAS CHANGED HIS PERSPECTIVE ON MUSIC, LIFE AND HIMSELF.
WHAT’S THE BIGGEST THINGS YOU LEARNED AT BERKLEE AND THE MONK INSTITUTE?
Just to keep my ears open.
WHAT ATTRACTED YOU TO THE TENOR SAXOPHONE?
My grandfather played tenor. That’s mainly it, but then I got into Sonny Rollins. I do play tenor, but the baritone is really my favorite. Gerry Mulligan is my favorite baritone sax player, but also Pepper Adams. I just love that instrument and how far it can reach.
YOUR ALBUM TITLES SEEM TO GIVE A PROGRESSION OF YOUR REACTION TO YOUR HEALTH CONDITION.
I never really thought about it, actually. On the first one, I definitely didn’t know what I was going to go through. All the albums after my first one (The Time Is Now) I guess you can see a link. The first one, and Today is Tomorrow, those were reminders to me that there really is no such thing as time. I was trying to get out of thinking about the past and the future.
The next one was just imagining the world where there was no sorrow and all that kind of stuff.
I’M SURE THAT YOU KNOW THAT NEPENTHE IS A MEDICINE FOR SORROW
Right. It is a broad theme, and I can see that there is a connection. I’ll Take My Chances was definitely about my health, and Peace is where I am now. I can go along with it!
ONCE YOU WERE DIAGNOSED WITH THE DISEASE, HOW DID YOU COMPARTMENTALIZE YOUR HEALTH WITH YOUR CAREER?
I’m definitely not one to avoid who I am when it comes to writing and making music, so it’s all in there, man. For me, music was a bit of a medicine. Not that it is now, but It has always served that purpose; medicine can be a medicine in a lot of ways. It gets your energy and focus into a better place, into a more creative spot.
It can be deeper if you’re going through life’s challenges, whether it is a relationship or health. Life is always in a state of some sort of disintegration, so we’re always having some sort of problems.
DID ANYONE GIVE YOU ANY HELPFUL ADVICE THROUGH THE WHOLE PROCESS?
(Pianist) George Cables was a big inspiration for me. He’s had two kidney transplants and one liver transplant. Before I underwent dialysis he walked me through the whole process; what it was going to be like. He prepared me, and then right before the transplant he told me about how great I would then feel. He was more than right.
Also Duane Burnham. He passed a number of years ago, but he checked up on me regularly, and I’m forever grateful for that. I dedicated my latest record to him.
I also had a fantastic doctor in San Francisco, Kerry Cho. I could not have been more fortunate to have had him as my first doctor. He gave me the rundown on what to expect.
After the surgery, it was not the same kind or health care I had received before.
HAVING BEEN THROUGH A MAJOR HEALTH CRISIS, WHAT’S YOUR THOUGHTS ON THE AMERICAN HEALTH CARE SYSTEM?
I’m embarrassed by it. When I think about the nations that are industrialized, I’m pretty embarrassed. I was just in Rome a couple of weeks ago, and I needed a medication that is not that expensive, as I left it home in Jersey. I started freaking out because I didn’t know a doctor there. But it was the easiest thing in the world. I didn’t even need a prescription and the whole thing cost be just a dollar.
That’s just for a prescription, it was only 50 dollars for an emergency room visit. The focus seems more on the patient than on the profit. I do understand that people have to get paid and all that. You need to keep doctors motivated, and in some fields it works better than others. We’ve got to realize that the current way in America is not working. I could go on about it for days (laughs)
I really love capturing that searching quality that one has when they are looking at and making music for the first time.
IS THERE A FUND TO FINANCIALLY HELP YOU, OR ARE YOU ABLE TO HANDLE IT NOW? 933
I’m ok at the moment financially. At one time there was a fund drive going; it was to take care of the medications that I have to pay for when I had the transplant. In a year and a half, they are going to consider me cured, and so I’m going to be responsible for my whole bill of medication, which is over $1000 a month.
All of the money that was raised before my transplant is just sitting there. With what’s happening politically now in this country with health care, that money is going to become extremely important, as it could go quickly. I’ll have two years to figure out whether to even stay here in this country whether or not they put a good health care bill together.
WHAT HAVE YOU LEARNED ABOUT YOURSELF THROUGH THIS WHOLE PROCESS?
(laughs) I’m a lot more resilient than I give myself credit for. I now don’t take anything for granted, and I really appreciate a lot now; I don’t need much to make me happy. Just being alive is quite enough! (laughs)
WERE THERE ANY BOOKS THAT HELPED YOU THROUGH THE TOUGHEST TIMES?
I’m really big into philosophy. There was a writer named Christopher Hitchens; I started going through my thing the same time he did with his, in June of 09. I had just gotten into him, and while I didn’t agree with everything he said,I was knocked away by his intellect and speaking.
Watching him go through that and not bat an eye or slow down in the slightest was majorly inspirational for me. It didn’t shake him to become more religious; it didn’t stop him from being a fierce debater or brilliant writer. That’s one aspect
I also checked out a guy by the name of Eckhart Tohl, who was very spiritual. He is a mystic, and is still around. I really resonate with him and named my first two records after him, The Time is Now and Today is Tomorrow, coming out of his line of thinking. I’m always checking in on him.
Another guy is J Krishnamurti, who along with Tohl serve as great reminders to me of where to put my concerns.
I now don’t take anything for granted, and I really appreciate a lot now; I don’t need much to make me happy. Just being alive is quite enough!
ONCE YOU HAVE A BRUSH WITH DEATH, IT CAUSES A CHANGE OF PRIORITIES
It does, automatically; even if you don’t want to, they do!
HAS IT CHANGED ANYTHING ABOUT YOU AS A MUSICIAN?
For 6 years not having the physical ability to play the instrument like I wanted to, not having the energy or stamina, it definitely made me play with more space, which I really began to appreciate. Now that I have just a little more energy, I have to almost force myself to remember the pacing, how much music can be made with fewer notes.
I don’t ponder about or care about the mistakes as much, because they don’t mean as much (laughs). It was all ego. When you go through something like this, your ego gets a revamping too, and a much needed one.
TELL US ABOUT YOUR ALBUMS WITH LAGE AND MEHLDAU. IT FEELS VERY CASUAL. WAS THERE MUCH REHEARSING?
I rehearsed with Julian (Lage) and Larry (Grenadier) beforehand. I had sent the music to all of the guys, so they knew what to expect. What you’re hearing is that a lot of the songs are first takes, which is my preference.
I really love capturing that searching quality that one has when they are looking at and making music for the first time. Once you go through the second and third time, you kind of know what to expect and you’re editing a little bit more, and it becomes a little more “planned”, for the lack of a better word.
I’m really happy with the way it turned out. In general, the session was meant to be a more intimate recording than the display of technical abilities.
YOUR ALBUMS ALWAYS SEEM RELAXED. IS THAT DUE TO NATURAL TEMPERMENT, OR FROM YEARS OF DEALING WITH YOUR HEALTH ISSUES?
Well, it may have come from my temperament, but it definitely got accentuated going through what I went through. I’ve always appreciated Miles (Davis) and cats that really took their time and let their ideas digest before moving on the next one. So I’ve always appreciated that.
The other thing is that two heroes that I admire are Michael Brecker and Sonny Stitt, and those guys are just phenomenal musicians, and I don’t think that I’ll ever get to that point! (laughs) I lean into what I can do!
RIGHT NOW YOU ARE TOURING WITH BILLY CHILDS. ARE YOU GOING TO TOUR TO PROMOTE YOUR OWN ALBUM?
As you can imagine, it’s kind of tough to get all of these guys in the same room. Brad is touring a lot, and when he’s not he really appreciates his time off, which is understandable as he’s got a family. The same for Eric (Harland), and Julian is very busy these days. We did a few dates on the East Coast, but even there I wasn’t able to get the whole band together.
I’m going to be coming through (California), maybe not with the exact same personnel, but definitely with a bunch of that music. Hopefully in early fall.
SOMETIMES WHEN YOU RECOVER FROM AN ILLNESS, A CERTAIN URGENCY AND EDGE IS LOST. DO YOU THINK THAT COULD HAPPEN TO YOU AND IT WOULD AFFECT YOUR PLAYING?
There’s always a chance that the disease will come back, and I’m very aware of that. That six year experience will never leave me. I still literally have scars (from dialysis) to prove it and remind me of it.
In terms of “the edge” being lost, I get enough “edge” just living life! Being a musician and trying to keep your head above water is enough edge for me (laughs)
WHAT WOULD YOU LIKE YOUR LEGACY TO BE?
Hmmm. What do you think of when you think of Charlie Haden? You think of someone who just created as much beautiful music as possible. Charlie was my hero. I wrote a song for him; I met him a few times. The first time I met him in ’01, he just said “Man, just make the most beautiful music that you can.” That’s been my mantra ever since. I saw him struggle with his health issue, too.
YOUR ATTITUDE ABOUT DEATH IS YOUR ATTITUDE ABOUT LIFE