James Danderfer didn’t intend to be a clarinet player. In Grade 6 he selected the drums as his preferred musical vehicle, but the band director overruled him.
“He looked at my choice, then he asked to look at my hands, and then he asked to look at my teeth,” the Vancouver musician says.
The verdict: young James would be best suited to the clarinet.
“I was disappointed, because I didn’t even know what a clarinet was. I found out years later that that’s a bunch of garbage. It had nothing to do with my ability to play an instrument, he just couldn’t have a band full of drummers.”
After adapting to the strange black instrument, Danderfer also took up the saxophone, so he could play in the jazz band.
“But, through the years of playing both instruments, when I played the clarinet, it felt like me, like my voice. It was happenstance how I got into it, but I kept playing it because it resonated with me.”
Even as a 12-year-old, combination of dance music and creativity drew him to the idiom of jazz.
“There was something romantic about it, and exciting. It was really thrilling to go from playing concert band music to playing essentially dance music in jazz band, and getting to improvise solos.”
A clarinetist and composer, Danderfer began improvising early, “singing melodies and just coming up with stuff” before learning any instrument.
“When I went to my grandparents’ place in the Okanagan they had an old beat-up piano in the basement, and I just started picking out notes. I was kind of interested in the images that certain keys would draw out,” he says. “When I started taking piano lessons, I just continued doing that. I’d come up with stupid little tunes and record them on my tape deck. It was always lots of fun. It felt like a game of some sort.”
Danderfer’s first public outing as a composer came in Grade 12, after he had learned more about harmony.
“I brought in a lead sheet (melody and chord changes), and it was really exciting to hear a group playing my music and bringing it to life. Then I was really hooked, so I just kept writing more and more charts, and learned with each one.”
Years later, he would acquire a Masters degree in jazz composition at McGill University, but not before his musical career had taken a few interesting turns.
“I thought of myself as being on track to take the normal steps of practising for several years, then going to New York and making a name and touring. And then I went to New York, and I felt like my world view was just a little narrow.”
His response was to pack up his clarinet and head to Shanghai.
“Moving to Shanghai was such a left turn that I felt like anything was possible at that point. I could just kind of let go of a concept of what should happen in my career, and start thinking about life a little bit more.”
His 2008 CD, called Accelerated Development, chronicled his Shanghai experience. While he loved the music of this “modern” album, Danderfer felt his music was missing some jazz foundation.
“I realized that if you made me do a blindfold test, I don’t know how many of the legendary original jazz clarinetists I could have picked out. And I just thought, that’s pretty weak for someone who claims to be a jazz clarinetist.”
He began to immerse himself in the music that giants such as Jelly Roll Morton and Benny Goodman brought to New Orleans and Chicago in the 1930s. The New Orleans influence in particular will feature prominently in the repertoire the James Danderfer Trio (with Miles Black on piano and Joe Poole on drums) will bring to two concerts in the Yukon this weekend.
On Saturday, November 21, they will be at the St. Elias Convention Centre in Haines Junction. The next night, they will play on the wing at the Yukon Arts Centre. Both performances start at 7:30 p.m.
Danderfer says the cabaret-style intimacy of both venues suits the “social music” he loves to write and perform.
“You want to know that people are close enough to you to really feel the music, to feel the vibrations of it,” he says. “No matter what the room is, as the artist, you just have to keep thinking about that imagery and the music will take shape. Once it does, it brings people in and they feel connected to it.”