Dom Minasi is a truly gifted and adventurous Jazz Guitarist out of New York City who has played many styles under the Jazz umbrella and now plays in the avant-garde idiom. In this interview he shares his thoughts on everything from his musical background, to the realization that to be truly free one has to be honest and true to ones nature. A most revealing and wonderful read.
Interview by Lyle Robinson via email 2004
“If you are young and a good player, don’t be so cocky. There will always be someone better. Start networking young. Get to know as many musicians as you can. If you like the way someone plays, say it. If you don’t, keep it to your self. What you say and do may come back and bite you in the butt someday. If you are making a living playing music you have to be grateful you are playing music and your instrument and not swinging a hammer somewhere.”
JGL: How old are you?
DM: 61 born (3-6-43) March 6th same birth date as Wes Montgomery!
JGL: What geographical area do you live in?
DM: I grew up in Queens NY and lived in NYC most of my adult life.
JGL: At what age did you first get into guitar playing and were you interested in jazz, be it free or otherwise, from the beginning or were there other musical interests before jazz? What was the motivating experience to get out involved in this particular music and instrument?
DM: When I was 4 years old my father & I went to visit an older cousin house. He picked up a guitar and started strumming chords. I was so intrigue by the idea of playing that I begged my parents for a guitar. Finally at age 7 I got one. I studied with one teacher for a year. I hated it and the teacher. It wasn’t so much the studying of the instrument, it was the teacher. He was awful so I quit. My parents found me another teacher by the name of Joe Genelli. He was everything a teacher is suppose to be. He became like a father to me. I stayed with him for 7 years.
Joe was a consummate musician. He played all kinds of gigs including studio work. He was the one who taught Chuck Wayne to read. He also played lots of jazz. So I heard it from him. When I went to John Adams HS I joined the swing band..I was the baby in the band. All these guys were into jazz. The band loved to play so much so we would also rehearse outside of school. The first time we did was at the drummers house, Mike Simonetti. I got there early. Mike asked me if I ever heard of Johnny Smith. I didn’t. He put on the Moonlight In Vermont album. I couldn’t believe what I heard. He was amazing. A few weeks later I saw that Johnny Smith was appearing at Birdland (the original one 1957) I begged my father to take me. I sat up front and watched with my mouth opened. I knew right there and then, that’s what I wanted to do the rest of my life.
JGL: What kind, if any, formal training do you have (ie: lessons, schooling, that sort of thing). And how did these experiences help you get where you are today?
DM: Besides the first 2 teachers, I studied with Sal Salvador, Dan Duffy & Jim Hall. When I was 48, I went back to school to get a degree in composition and I studied with Dr. Monroe Cooper and John Corigliano. I also spent many years studying harmony & chord substitution on my own. I also spent many hours at Birdland, The Five Spot & the Vanguard watching and listening and learning from giants of the day.
JGL: What was your first guitar?
DM: I was so young, I don’t remember what it was. I do remember it was a very small guitar. My second one was a Harmony non-cut-away. My first real guitar was a custom made D’Angelico which John made for me when I was 15 years old.
JGL: What are you playing now?
DM: For recording and non road gigs I use a Carlo Greco Custom Archtop. ( Which is the best guitar I have ever played )
JGL: Who were your influences on jazz guitar when you were beginning?
DM: Everyone who was anyone then. Johnny Smith, Tal Farlow, Jimmy Raney, Chuck Wayne, Wes Montgomery, Sal Salvador, Mundell Lowe, Kenny Burrell, Barney Kessel, Les Spann, Jim Hall etc
JGL: Have they stayed the same or have they changed over the years?
DM: I stopped listening to guitar players when I was 17.. I had a friend , John Ruta, whenever we played on a job together he would say today you sound like Tal Farlow or Wes etc. I got so pissed off that I stopped listening to guitar players for years. I made up my mind I wanted to have my own sound and I liked the way horn players sounded more than guitar
JGL: Who are you listening to today (guitarists or non-guitarists)?
DM: The guitarist I like today are: Jim Hall, Vic Juris, Rodney Jones, Russell Malone, Jimmy Bruno, Pat Martino, Dave Stryker, Ken Hatfield, Joe Finn, Jay Carlson, Johnny Asia, Bruce Eisenbeil, Nels Kline, Derek Bailey, and Jonathan Kriesberg. I still listen to Miles, Monk, Trane, Cage, Schoenberg, Borah Bergman & Cecil Taylor, Mark Whitecage & Joe McPhee , Joe Giardullo. When I have a chance I listen to mostly non-conventional instrumentalist.
JGL: When you were younger what was your band experiences like? Did you have friends who were involved in music as well or did you have to search for people to play with.
DM: All the guys from my High School band and orchestra hung out and played together. I also had my own trio from the time I was 15. I started gigging when I was 14. I joined the musicians union when I was 15.
JGL: Did you know early on that music was something you wanted to do as a career choice and if so, what were some of the things you did to make this choice work for you?
DM: Yes I knew early on as I mentioned earlier. When I was 18 I just started gigging around with all kinds of different groups. In those days up to 1968 there was tons of work. I kept myself busy and 3 other guitarists busy. I also had a heavy teaching practice. The Beatles were hot and every kid in America wanted to play guitar.
JGL: Were your parent(s) and family members supportive of your musical career choice?
DM: Absolutely not! My father wanted me to be an accountant and my mother didn’t care as long as I had a job and would someday marry an Italian girl. Up until her death this year at 93, the first question she asked when I called was are you working? and the the next was are you getting paid?
JGL: What was your practice routine like when you were beginning
DM: In the very beginning it was 1/2 hour to 1 hr a day till I got the bug. By the time I was 14, I was practicing 10 12 hours a day in the summer and 6 in the winter. I would do something like 2- 3hours of warm-ups..different scales and arpeggios. 2- 3 hours of difficult reading, 2-3 hours working on chord melodies and learning tunes and another 2-3 hrs improvising. In those days, there were no books on chord substitution or on improvising. I learned to improvise by playing a chord and seeing & listening to what notes worked.we didn’t have small tape recorders either. You were strictly on your own.
JGL: ...and what is it like now? Are there specific areas that you work on or do you just play through tunes?
DM: Now I basically still do an hour of warm-ups ( scales, arps etc.) sometimes I work on tunes, sometimes just free-form improv and sometimes I compose and arrange.
JGL: How difficult do you find it making a living as a musician? Or have you found it to be relatively easy?
DM: There were times in the early days when it was no effort at all, but I was playing all kinds of music then. Since the 70s it has gotten harder with each passing year. I survive mostly through workshops, arranging projects and private teaching.
JGL: How do you go about searching for gigs or do they come to you now that you are known? And what have you found in your experience that makes looking for gigs easier?
DM: I may be known, but I’m not a super-star. Gigs sometimes come and sometimes I have to actively pursue them, but the rep makes it easier to get through the door.
JGL: Could you describe some of your best musical situations or experiences and the worst?
DM: I think there are two bests for me. The first one was recording Takin The Duke Out live at the Knitting Factory here in NYC. This was the debut of my new group with Jackson Krall-drums and Ken Filiano-bass and the first recording to be made for our new label CDM ( Carol Dom Minasi). Carol is the one who inspired me to see this through. I had no idea what to expect. We rehearsed, but rehearsing and playing are two different animals. I didn’t expect anyone would show up and if they did, would I get booed off the band stand?
You see, I knew this was a radical approach to Ellington and this might be our first and last gig and recording and besides that, we had to nail it in an hour. It was like magic. The place had standing room only. The three of us played better than we had expected and the crowd went wild after each solo or collective improv. Jazz journalist Bill Milkowski was in the audience and he became an ally. He wrote the liner notes and helped spread the word about me.
The second was my first concert 30 days after I had quadruple by-pass heart surgery. Blaise Siwula-sax, had gotten a grant and there was no way to get out of if. So after speaking with Joe Diorio’s wife ( Joe couldn’t play for 6 months after his operation) I started practicing 7 days after the operation. I could only play for 10 minutes, but each day I kept increasing the amount of time. 30 days later I was performing with Blaise, Peter Kowald (legendary avant- bassist from Germany who tragically died 2 days later from a heart attack), myself and drummer Jeff Arnell. I had played up to par and I was thrilled that I could, except that I was so exhausted I had to rest for 2 weeks. There have been too many bad experiences, but that goes with the territory. Not everyone is going to like or even try and understand what you are going. If you cant take the heat, get out of the fire.
JGL: What type of musical situation do you enjoy the most (ie: trio, quartet, duo, solo, etc.)
DM: The truth is I enjoy all of them.
JGL: You definitely have your own voice which obviously transcends the typical jazz guitar musings. Could you talk a bit about how you came to play the way you do?
DM: When I realized I wanted to be a different type of player I started listening a lot of Miles, Monk, Trane, Dolphy Albert Ayler, Cecil Taylor and many of the 20th century composers.
JGL: Who, if any, are or were your influences in this musical expression?
DM: All the above and vibraphonist, Harry Shepherd. Harry is an amazing player. Playing with him was an education in how music should be approached. Harry could do it all. Play in, out , in & out , free etc.
JGL: You are considered to be an avant-garde jazz guitar player. Yet there is obviously much more going on. Do you find this label to be too limiting, or is there another way to describe the type of guitarist/composer you consider yourself to be?
DM: Yes, I think the label is confining, especially when radio supervisors refuse to listen to something with my name attached to it. They assume it will be too far out. First and foremost I consider myself a musician that means to me, I can play on changes in or out. I can play free in or out. I can play tonally or atonally or poly-tonally. I can sight read, transpose and arrange for small groups or orchestra. I not only do not want to be confined by a label but I get bored playing the same music all the time. I like variety and I like stretching the limits. With this definition in mind Id rather be known simply as a 21st century musician/composer.
JGL: Have you had much association with other free guitar players like James Blood Ulmer or Sonny Sharrock? And what is your impression of such guitar players?
DM: I never met them, and I never really listened to them till someone said I should. I have heard James play live. He has his own thing, but I don’t consider him to be very out, but he is different. I like Sonny’s playing. I also like Henry Kaiser and Marc Ribot and Elliot Sharp.
JGL: How has your music been accepted by the listening public?
DM: I play where I know the music is accepted. I have an audience when I play now, but I still couldn’t get into a club like the Vanguard, they feel its too out.
JGL: Do you feel that you have been accepted as a serious player by the jazz guitar world in particular and the jazz community in general, or is there a bias towards the music you play?
DM: There is definitely a bias towards what I play from the jazz guitar world. That doesn’t mean guys like Pat Martino, Russell Malone, Jim Hall, Vic Juris or Rodney Jones. These guys are open to different approaches and they love the adventurism, but on a whole the guitar community in general is stuck somewhere between 1940 & 1962 and they put anyone down who doesn’t fit into that mold of what they think jazz guitar should be. Its a shame too. There’s room for everyone. We should be supporting one another not criticizing each other.
JGL: Amen to that Dom. Where would you like to see jazz guitar go in the coming years?
DM: As far as all the other instrumentalist have gone. The word here is searching. The guitar is an amazing instrument. Its only limitations are ones we put on it.
JGL: What is your focus when you give workshops? Do you come from a more traditional approach to improvised music or do you attempt to bring in elements of your own musical vision? And if so, how is the response.
DM: I approach from a traditional point of view and gradually bring in modern elements. Everything I play comes from a harmonic point of view. Once they understand what I am talking about ( it can be complex) they become more open and responsive.
JGL: In your role as educator you do a lot of work with children as well as having recorded a number of children’s tunes. Could you talk about your role as educator and how Jazz and your music in particular has an impact on the younger generation. How have the children responded to your vision?
DM: Working with kids is as rewarding as any musical experience Ive ever had. If you get them young enough you can get them to listen and love jazz. One of the workshops I teach is how to write lyrics and compose a blues. Most kids don’t even know what a blues is unless they’ve seen the Blues Brothers. I give them a short history on how and where it started and after they learn to write the lyrics to what I call a down & dirty blues. Then we move on to a rock & roll blues which is the same as early rhythm & blues. When that’s done I teach them what a jazz blues sounds like and we work on scat singing. Kids love it and it introduces them to jazz. I am especially moved when teachers and principals tell me of kids who never responded but are now participating because of the music.
JGL: In a video interview with jazz journalist Bill Milkowski you mentioned that you have found yourself having to shift from the music you like to play to the music that others want to hear and that finally, you decided to only play the way you hear the music as an extension of your own voice. That was obviously a bold move on your part and one that I am sure wasn’t taken lightly. Has this decision affected your getting work and musical social life in a way that you weren’t expecting? Or has everything been positive?
DM: Many things have been positive. I have played with some of the best avant-musicians in the world. I have a great trio and my other groups are starting to happen and through the power of the internet I have connected with all kinds of people around the world and have re-connected with some I haven’t seen or heard from in 30 years. Sometimes I feel like an outcast from the guitar world I grew up with, but that’s the price sometimes for doing what you want. I play this music because I love to play it. I don’t have to play it.
JGL: How have you been able to reconcile your musical expression with those who may not share your vision? Or has it not been much of an issue?
DM: As I said earlier, there are some that accept what I do and love it and some who hate. But I know I’m on the right path when Jim Hall comes up to me at the IAJE conference and tells me how proud he is of me or when Pat Martino hugs me and says “Dom, I love your stuff.”
JGL: Has living in, or around, New York been a help in getting your music taken seriously and finding the right musicians to play with? Or do you think that if something has musical integrity it can be accepted anywhere?
DM: Living and playing in NY is a definite plus. We have the best of everything here. We also have the worse. Like I said earlier I am fortunate to be among such greatness. But it is true. If the music has integrity and honestly it will stand up anywhere. I have found that when I play out of town, the audiences sometimes may not understand what the music is about, but they do respect the effort, honesty and musicianship that goes into it.
JGL: You compose for, and play in, many different groups. How do you maintain the energy, both musically and physically, with what seems to be a lot of different musical roles?
DM: Love! I love what I do. I love playing. I love teaching. I love composing and arranging. I love writing arrangements that make the cello, bass and guitar sound like an orchestra behind my wife’s voice. I get bored fast so maintaining and writing for all these situations is a joy.
JGL: Have you ever had second thoughts about your choice to have music as a career and if so, what other career path do you think you would have followed had you not been a guitar player.
DM: This will sound weird, but probably a cop. More like a detective. I am very nosy and inquisitive.
JGL: If there was one thing that you could do differently what would that be?
DM: I would not have turned down so many opportunities to go on the road when I was younger, especially with Buddy Rich for a 3 month tour, and there were many more like that.
JGL: Any advice for the younger guy or gal who is thinking about music as a living?
DM: If you are studying with a working musician ask him or her to take you along on some of the gigs, which should include the best and the absolute worse. You need to know what you have ahead of you. Practice as much as you can and learn to sight read. There was a period in my life that reading kept me working. Learn to transpose instantly especially if you work with singers. Learn to play all kinds of music. You never know, you might need it someday. If you are young and a good player, don’t be so cocky. There will always be someone better. Start networking young. Get to know as many musicians as you can. If you like the way someone plays, say it. If you don’t, keep it to your self. What you say and do may come back and bite you in the butt someday. If you are making a living playing music you have to be grateful you are playing music and your instrument and not swinging a hammer somewhere. Be generous with your knowledge. If you happen to be lucky enough to get lots of great press, great! Just don’t start to believe everything you read about yourself. And if you happen to make it, don’t stop growing as a musician/player. The path is called the path because it goes on and on and never ends.
JGL: Thank you Dom for participating on Jazz Guitar Life. It is most appreciated.
DM: Thank you for your insightful questions.
To find out more about Dom Minasi, check out his website at www.domminasi.com/