Dan Wilensky’s Ongoing DIY Journey


Dan Wilensky plays tenor and soprano saxophones on his new self-released album, Good Music.

(Photo: Ruvim Karamalak)

To say that Dan Wilensky has had a diverse career is an understatement. The multi-instrumentalist has a resume that would stir up deep feelings of envy within even the most storied player.

In 1979, by the tender age of 18, Wilensky had landed a gig touring as the lead alto saxophonist in Ray Charles’ big band, before briefly attending The Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York, and later playing tenor for “Brother” Jack McDuff. Having left his Berkeley, California, childhood behind, Wilensky spent the better part of the next three decades in New York City, grabbing whatever work came his way and slowly building his reputation as a versatile and reliable player.

As word spread of his talents, Wilensky amassed an impressive array of credits, including tours with Joan Baez, David Bowie and Steve Winwood, as well as session work for Madonna, Melissa Manchester and Santana. Wilensky has contributed to more than 250 recordings and was featured on the PBS children’s TV show Between The Lions.

Wilensky also is an author. His sense of humor is reflected in the subtitle of his 2013 book Musician!, which is sold on his website and is tagged A Practical Guide for Students, Music Lovers, Amateurs, Professionals, Superstars, Wannabees and Has-Beens.

In addition to all the road work and studio sessions, Wilensky has spent thousands of hours nurturing musicians in one-on-one lessons and master classes around the country.

“I never wanted to do the same thing,” Wilensky said, enjoying a rare moment of downtime in his home in a suburb outside of Portland, Oregon, where he has been based for the past seven years. “I love wearing different hats. That’s the way I’ve been rolling since I was little.”

Having survived in the industry as long as he has—and having been in the orbit of so many different artists at various levels of fame and fortune—Wilensky has gained a lot of wisdom. He has had a front-row seat for the rise and peak of the CD era and then commercial chaos that ensued with the rise of the MP3 and streaming.

These days, he is the embodiment of the DIY approach. His wide variety of experiences have made him particularly well prepared to follow his creative pursuits without the help of a record company, booking agent or even a manager. With few exceptions, Wilensky now is handling every aspect of his career himself.

“It’s the way I’ve always done it,” he said, “because I wanted that control.”

To date, Wilensky has self-released six full-length albums as a bandleader, primarily playing saxophones and flute. His new album is titled Good Music, a reference to a famous quote attributed to Duke Ellington, and a decent summation of his mindset when it comes to writing and performing.

“It’s really about the musicians playing or servicing the song, whatever the song is,” he said. “I know I’m not unique in that. The modern musician has a pretty egalitarian view of things, especially the young cats coming up. They draw from all different kinds of influences.”

That attitude certainly is reflected by the track listing for Good Music, which was recently released on Wilensky’s label, Polyglot Music. Along with five of his original compositions, such as the bubbly bop of “Country Mouse” and the gently funky “Jazz In The Park,” Wilensky and his ensemble of Portland players—drummer Jason Palmer, bassist Dan Captein and, on a handful of tracks, guitarist Dan Balmer—interpret standards, such as “S’Wonderful,” “Sway” and The Beatles’ “And I Love Her.”

The band also interprets the oft-recorded 1960s tune “Get Together,” which was a hit for The Youngbloods in 1969. Wilensky is promoting the album with a polished, mind-blowing music video of the track.

While he is paying someone to handle radio promotion for the album, Wilensky is in charge of keeping up with the album’s distribution (through CD Baby). His expectations for the album’s success are realistic. He knows he has enough fans around the world that he can expect a baseline of album sales, and he trusts that most jazz fans are active ones, always on the hunt for new sounds and artists. Some of the fans who end up purchasing Good Music will be curious jazz consumers who find it on their own.

But the financial outcome of the Good Music project won’t make or break Wilensky’s career. And he’s well aware of how fortunate he is to be in that type of position in 2018. Having wisely invested the money he’s made from three decades of steady work, he is not forced to play undesirable live gigs just to make a mortgage payment. His family is set up comfortably. He performs regularly around Portland and teaches out of his home, and he has adapted to fitting his music around the responsibilities of being a husband and father.

As his children are growing up, he is looking ahead at the possibility of taking on bigger projects that might require him to leave town for an extended stretch.

“My wife has given me permission,” Wilensky said, with a laugh. “‘You can go on a little tour.’ It really doesn’t matter still want kind of music that is—although it would be nice to be playing my own stuff. So, I’ve got my eye on Europe. We’ll see what happens. I dig really living day to day and seeing what the day brings.” DB

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