Q & A: Donald Fagen

Donald Fagen on Our Secret Society

By Devon Wendell

Recently I had the opportunity for an exclusive interview with my great friend, mentor, and former employer, Donald Fagen of Steely Dan on the influence of jazz on his life and music. Here’s the result. And don’f forget that Donald, Walter and the gang will begin their summer tour of the U.S. and Europe in June.

Devon Wendell: Do you think jazz aficionados have inborn obsessive compulsive tendencies, like if I don’t go out and find every recording that Fats Navarro ever played on, I’ll go insane?

Donald Fagen: I still have a little of that OCD donald-fagen-2jazz fan thing. Luckily, I had much better taste when I was in high school. My rigid aesthetic eliminated all but the very best composers and improvisers – Rollins, Miles, Ellington, Bird and a few others – that was it. I refused to buy Blue Note albums on the grounds that Alfred Lion forced the players on the label to write all those tunes with the funk cliches in them. Moreover, my allowance limited me to only the very best albums , so I couldn’t obsess too much. Now I have horrible taste like everybody else.

DW: The fusing of rock with different genres of jazz is part of what’s made the Steely Dan sound unique. When was the first time you felt you accomplished that distinct ‘fusion” successfully in a recording?

DF: Because Walter and I were jazz fans, we were comfortable with the harmonic language of modern jazz. On the other hand, we also liked r&b, soul music, Dylan, Laura Nyro and so on. Aside from the fact that we knew there was something amusing about overdriving a delicately balanced 13th chord through a Fender amp, I don’t think we were consciously “fusing” anything.

DW: Didn’t you get the memo sent out in 1963 that no flatted 5ths or 7ths are allowed in rock n’ roll?

DF: No. but I remember that we had to inform certain guitarists that hanging on a flat 5th – as opposed to using it as an ornament in the way that blues players do – was mega-dorky, unless, of course, your intention was a surferesque farcical effect to begin with.

DW: What was the very first jazz recording you heard?

DF: Wow. Well, my mom had a few Benny Goodman sides from 30s.

DW: I notice that when you play piano at times, you attack the keys in a very percussive manner that is visually reminiscent of Monk’s. Is that an intentional or just a physical reaction to the music?

DF: Monk sounded totally natural to me the first time I heard him. And I remember thinking, hey, he plays like a gorilla, like me, it must be okay. Later I got to watch great studio players like Artie Butler and Paul Griffin. Like Monk, they basically played at Gospel level, like Aretha Franklin – tough and loud.

DW: Did you get to see Monk perform at The Five Spot?

DF: No, but I saw him later, at the Village Gate with Charlie Rouse – fantastic.

DW: Discovering jazz at a young age, did you feel that it isolated you from other people your age, like you were part of some swinging nerdy secret society?

DF: Yes, but I used to read a lot and I was skinny and Jewish so I was already isolated.

DW: Growing up, what were some of the most memorable jazz performances you witnessed, good and bad?

DF: Charles Mingus and his demonic drummer Danny Richmond were the most exciting. I saw them a number of times, usually at the Vanguard (Max Gordon used to give me a coke and sit me near the bandstand). Maynard Ferguson’s 1961 band was monstrous. I saw Monk, Coltrane, Basie, Coleman Hawkins with Roy Eldridge, Bill Evans – all bigger than life. And one country bluesman who killed me: Mississippi John Hurt.

DW: Jazz radio certainly isn’t what it was in the 50’s. Were you a fan of The Symphony Sid show out of NYC?

DF: My favorite was Mort Fega on WEVD. By the time I was listening, Sid was going heavy on the Afro-Cuban and Latin jazz thing.

DW: Did you get to hear his final broadcast?

DF: No, but someone sent me a tape of a 1961 Christmas show where he’s totally blotto.

DW: I remember being in the studio with you during the “Two Against Nature” sessions and I was playing a Coltrane recording from his early Riverside years and you remarked; “That’s when he was playing out of tune.” Has your amazing sense of pitch made it hard to enjoy some of Coltrane’s, or say Eric Dolphy’s, music when the intonation often seemed intentionally off for thematic purposes?

DF: Not at all. Coltrane rarely played out of tune, but, in any case, it’s only on some of those Prestige records with Miles – my favorite period for Coltrane anyway. I like him best as a wild, off-center hard bop player. Eric Dolphy plays out of tune, out of time and just plain out – and it’s always perfect. I couldn’t play Eric when my mom was home, though. Or the Stones, either.

DW: So many jazz artists that I’ve encountered of all ages are die hard Steely Dan fans, a lot of whom don’t particularly like rock music. How does it feel to have had such a huge impact on the music that has influenced your life so much?

DF: Actually, I know for a fact that some jazz people still hate us. And that’s okay. My jazz purist self still hates us. As I mentioned on the phone, I met Gary Giddins the other day and I said I really liked his work.. Gary said, “You know Robert Christgau’s a really big fan of yours!”

DW: What younger jazz artists have gotten your attention over the past decade?

DF: To tell you the truth, I’m pretty out of touch. I like Chris Potter. And the guys in our horn section.

DW: Do you feel any major innovations have been made in jazz in recent years?

DF: Search me. I’m pretty lost after about 1966 or so.

DW: I remember you commenting that the musicians you and Walter hire must know bebop changes. Has finding those kinds of players become an easier process over the years?

DF: Yes. Schooled jazz players can play just about any sort of music these days. Which doesn’t necessarily mean they’re all great soloists. That’s as rare as ever.

DW: Are there certain jazz recordings that you must always have with you on the road?

DF: I have most of the records I listened to in high school on an itunes playlist.

DW: For jazz and most truly innovative music, it’s the packaging that’s added to the gestalt; art work, liner notes, photography, etc. With the digital age and downloading music, do feel this that this has been lost forever?

DF: Yes.

DW: Do you find that jazz lovers take the music too seriously and miss that sense of humor that people like Duke, Monk, Sonny Rollins, Mingus, Dizzy, and even Bird incorporated so naturally into the music?

DF: Yes.

DW: For many of the “purists”, “Smooth Jazz” is considered the nail in the coffin or something out of Revelations. How do you feel about the genre?

DF: I agree. Sirius Radio recently changed the name of their jazz station from “Pure Jazz”, which played great stuff, to “Real Jazz” which is a gagger.

DW: What’s your all time favorite Steely Dan cover by a jazz artist?

DF: I still like one of the first – “Do It Again” by Herbie Mann. Also, Joe Roccisano did some nice charts where he just used the tune as a jump off point. That’s the best way to go.

DW: Honestly, whose version of “The Goodbye Look” do you prefer, yours or Mel Torme’s?

DF: I’ve always been afraid to listen to vocal covers of my tunes. I’m scared of that “Sammy Davis Jr. sings the Bob Dylan Songbook” effect. Or, “Bob Denver reads “Howl'”. You know what I mean?

DW: I sure do. Thanks for taking the time to talk. It’s always fun to hear what you have to say.

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19 thoughts on “Q & A: Donald Fagen

  1. For those of you who rank Donald Fagan & Walter as the ultimate in Jazz/Fusion, you must catch him live. In November 2008, I had the privlege of seeing him in a small venue in a refurbished theatre in downtown Montclair. It was by far a cold wintry night, but when Donald & Orchestra stepped onto the stage it warmed up to body temperature and beyond.
    Great interview, Devon, I’m sure it helps that you are a close friend of the artist. I love the questions you pose to shake out what is important rather than a cliche. Keep rockin and keep writing.

    Tommy

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  2. via the Dandom Digest, where I get all my Dan info
    When I was 10 in 1959 I listened to jazz radio without really knowing why except I ‘d listen to it and fell it and love it-Satin Doll was my favorite. NowI don’t feel so weird knowing other kids loved jazz at a precocious age as well.

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  3. Great interview Devon.
    Fagen is totally relaxed here it felt kind of like I was in the room
    with you guys. I look forward to the days when I am actually in the room. I’m sure we all be making each other think and laugh a lot!

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    1. It was ironic, but he’s an ironic kind of cat. The really ironic part is that they obviously grew to dig Blue Note (with or without what he calls “cliches”) or else we wouldn’t have had “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number” and numerous other tunes. Of course all that late 60s – early 70s Blue Note stuff is freakin’ epic IMHO… Donald Byrd, Bobby Hutcherson et al.

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  4. Interesting interview. Well done for steeing clear of the usual clichéd questions.

    Looking forward to seeing SD here in London, UK, at the Hammersmith Apollo on 1 July.

    Ian

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  5. I totally enjoyed this interview,as a fan of Steely Dan it was really enjoyable to hear Donald talk about his musical tastes and opinions.Also well done to to my friend Devon as there really is an art to enable a person to open up and be honest and truthful with the interviewer and also with himself,which Devon has acheived easily.Lots of love to Devon from Lay and Jose :)) xxx

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  6. You leave me with the great question hanging, “What, exactly, is on Donald Fagen’s iPod?” I would reconstruct it right here at home if I had a few hints beyond what we already know or surmise. I don’t think that’s too personal. Otherwise, good job, thanks.

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  7. Devon! awesome writing and a great interview with your good friend. You are such a inspiration keep up the good work. i am hoping you can interview me someday about being homeless on the streets on downtown and still loving music.

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  8. I was there at the will call window, Donald left Devon a few house tickets, only some how they were filed as “Wendell Devon”. The son of Passaic, NJ, hasn’t lost that super funk, fusion jazz, edgy, lyrical magic. Very, very effect “live” performer. Assembles some of the best in the bidness. LA, don’t miss this concert when they’re town. Their sound is timeless! Great job! as usual, Devon.

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  9. I hate this Dan association with jazz. Maybey 25% of the chords were jazz but only tune, had a jazz beat in the first five albums. That tune is your gold teeth number 2. reelin, midnight cruizer, kings, bohizatva, show bus kids, my old school, ricki, night by night, black friday, bad sneakers, caves, green earings, and don’t take me alive are all rock beats. time out of mind is a disco/rock hybrid. kid is disco and josie are disco, black cow funk. Maybe some modest percentage of the dan’s harmonics are jazz but that doesn’t make their music jazz. I think there’s a unspoken disrespect for rock. As if wasn’t a sophisticated genra. The truth is, every genre goes better with it. it is the most poweful genre ever made by the hands of man.

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    1. I didn’t detect any dissing of rock. Fagen specifically mentions cranking up Aretha, Bob Dylan and the Stones at home and rocking out in the studio too. It’s not like there’s a war between genres. Duane Allman worshipped Coltrane’s work especially “A Love Supreme” and the Stones hired drummer Charlie Watts because he had the jazz chops they wanted.

      Contrary to your assertion, the entire music world and especially those who play music get that Becker and Fagen’s tunes reflect a jazz vibe. How can you hate the Dan’s association with jazz when this is what Becker and Fagen both repeatedly say was their primary inspiration. Not their ONLY inspiration but primary. They’re chock full of the changes heard in classic hard bop and post-bop songs, along with echoes of the show tunes, blues and standards which underpin jazz music. The Steely Dan sound combined all of that with rock beats, pure pop melodies, joyful sixties soul music and some kick ass guitar too.

      To dismiss “Josie” is disco is just silly. It’s built on the blues with some cool changes thrown in and a funky rock beat. News flash: So was “Brown Sugar.” Underneath the disco groove of “Good Times” by Chic or “Love Hangover” by Diana Ross is some swingin’ jazz with a rocking beat. Just appreciate it for what it is. I do agree that rock is an awesome genre and as much as I really love the Fagen solo records and a few of the more recent Dan efforts I would like to hear a little more rock energy that infused their earlier work.

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    1. Good interview Doc!! I smiled when he mentioned Hank Mobley. For the last few years I’ve tried to collect everything Mobley has done! It seemd never ending!! Blue Note never released them until the last 10yrs., shame! Too late for Hank, but not for me and others, (I guess Donald too.) I remember my father introduced me to this kid he found who was about 18. It was Chris Potter, who he said could be a genius! He played with my dad at Catalina’s and the pianist, Strazz, didn’t make it, and my dad said, “no worry, Chris can do it” So along with Alto and mainly Tenor, he also doubled on piano, playing the whole bebop book!!

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