If you wanted to design the perfect incubator for a jazz musician, it might look a lot like the Santa Cruz scene Donny McCaslin grew up in, circa 1980s.
There was a percolating, local jazz marketplace in those days, with steady gigs for musicians, a renowned jazz program at Cabrillo College and in 1975, the opening of the Kuumbwa Jazz Center, provided an unshakeable stage for both local players and traveling icons.
McCaslin returned to familiar turf last week. He and his quartet played the West End stage at the Monterey Jazz Festival, where he played several times while still in high school.
He started learning the saxophone at age 12.
The quartet will play music from his new album “I Want More,”out on Edition Records.
McCaslin’s late father, Don McCaslin, was at the epicenter of the scene as a steadily gigging, dedicated pianist and vibraphonist who sometimes played as many as 13 gigs in a week.
In those days, jazz people were known to hold down long-running, standing gigs and Don had a lot of them. He played 17 years outdoors at the Cooper House before it was wrecked by the Loma Prieta earthquake.
Don also played almost 20 years at the Wharf House in Capitola and nearly 25 at Severino’s in Aptos. He had long runs at the 2525 Club in Soquel, the old Bayview Hotel in Aptos, and the New Riverside in Capitola, along with steady bookings at places like the Crow’s Nest, the Balzac Bistro, and many other clubs that live in memory.
His son Donny McCaslin, now based in Brooklyn, has early memories of going to his dad’s Cooper House gigs to help him set up and watch the show.
Thinking back, McCaslin thinks his interest in the tenor sax might have been sparked by his father’s tenorman, Jesse Braxton, “a very charismatic player.” Once he decided on the sax, McCaslin started taking lessons from the still-active sax player Brad Hecht and later Paul Contos, who has a prominent position in the education department at SF Jazz in the Bay Area.
“My dad gave me so much info that was brand new to me, about players like John Coltrane and Michael Brecker and I started exploring the jazz language,” McCaslin says.
The younger McCaslin didn’t take long to achieve fluency. Living with his mother in Happy Valley after his parents divorced, McCaslin attended Aptos High School and got an early start with its renowned jazz program.
McCaslin auditioned with the jazz band at Cabrillo College and found he wasn’t ready, but soon after started participating in Cabrillo band rehearsals several days a week.
He started sitting in with his dad’s bands several days a week at the recently-opened Kuumbwa Jazz, a place where he once saw jazz titans like Elvin Jones and McCoy Tyner play.
“All those elements gave me a real immersion in the music,” he says. “I had the opportunity to make some mistakes and learn from the best.
His father “really worked hard at music, but for him it wasn’t just a job. He knew a million songs and the whole word of music was a huge part of his identity.”
McCaslin’s adolescence as a developing musical prodigy wasn’t always smooth sailing, with the emotional turmoil of his parents’ split weighing on him.
But “Musically, it was an ideal environment,” he says. Thanks in part to scholarships he won in soloist competitions, McCaslin was able to attend the prestigious Berklee College of Music in 1984. In his sophomore year, he turned down an offer from drum icon Buddy Rich to go on tour, deciding he wasn’t ready for the big leagues.
In 1990, he moved to the center of the jazz world, NYC, where he freelanced with a long list of top players, among them Cuban pianist Danilo Perez and bassist Eddie Gomez.
Along the way McCaslin started composing original music and became a bandleader.
“The composing happened organically because of the instrument I play,” he notes. “Sax is a lead instrument.”
McCaslin’s career took a major leap around 2015 when the late David Bowie heard him solo with the Maria Schneider Orchestra. Bowie’s people came to hear McCaslin’s combo. “The next day [Bowie] emailed me asking to record some music,” he says.
Bowie’s epic final album, 2016’s “Blackstar”, was the result. The record won multiple Grammy awards and McCaslin shared the spotlight. The experience influenced his own first album, which blended elements of alt-rock with jazz.
Dipping further into the pop music waters, McCaslin spent part of this summer touring with Elvis Costello and the Imposters, as part of a three-piece horn section. Since the Bowie project, McCaslin says his phone has been ringing more often with frontman opportunities. He’s been touring in Europe and Japan with a new album, which he will perform in Monterey with his quartet. Playing alongside him will be pianist Jason Lindner, bassist Tim Lefebre and drummer Nate Woods.
Using the music he helped Bowie create as “a jumping off point,” McCaslin has also developed a Blackstar symphony that includes his band, a 75-piece orchestra and three vocalists. It debuted last year in Tel Aviv. A Pacific Northwest tour starts in November and the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. is slated for early next year.
Despite his success, McCaslin always came back to jam on familiar grounds. Unfortunately, in January, 2020, he played his last gig with his father, who was struggling with health problems. Two months later he died of congestive heart failure at the age of 93.
He hasn’t forgotten what he considers the most important lesson his dad passed on to him. It wasn’t about riffs and chords, but rather the personal finance tightrope-walk of the jazz life.
“He often said to me, ‘if you’re going to go into something, do it because you really love it, not to become affluent,’” McCaslin says.