Dan Zanes on collaborations and America’s Musical Neighborhood

In part two of our chat, Dan and I talked about his new project with the Brooklyn Conservatory of Music, The Dan Zanes House Party, and his experiences collaborating with musicians of every genre.

AC: I noticed on your website that you are working on a new education program, Dan Zanes House Party. You’ve been a musician most of your life, not a teacher. What made you decide to pursue that new direction?

DZ: The Brooklyn Conservatory of Music asked me if I would be interested in designing a program…You know my original interest was in all ages audiences. But over the years i’ve become more interested in young people so it seemed like a nice opportunity and they’re good people. We wanted to make something that would work anywhere in the country. [Something] that people could take and bring into their own classrooms or their music education spaces. But really to try and move away from the European American Model. You know the sort of Anglo, White-American model, which I think doesn’t really reflect the country that we live in anymore. We were trying to make something that is more of a multicultural experience.

AC: So did you collect folk songs and curate? Did you write originals for this?

DZ: Well, in a way, I’ve already done so much collaborating with people, I’ve already done a record of songs from Latin America (Nueva York). I’ve spent  a lot of time with Latino musicians here in New York and I had a sense of where to go to find things. So based on music that already exists on my CD’s and then folk music, traditional music and stories as well from other parts of the world. It’s going to be songs and stories from America’s neighborhoods. The idea is this is American music now. It’s changing because America is changing [and] we wanted a program that would reflect that. Music and stories are a way that we can build bridges…..[but] We also didn’t want to have a “this week we’re going to do Africa, this week we’re going to do South Asia, next week we’re gonna do South America” you know, I didn’t want it to feel like a survey or academic. It’s not school, it’s a place to hang out and have fun and be a part of something that helps us all sort of grow and understand each other. So it’s really exciting. I’m also not doing all the curriculum development on my own, there’s a woman named Dr. Patrice Turner that’s doing incredible work with the stories, and Joy Marilie and Lanti Tom are doing a lot of the stuff. I’m not doing the heavy lifting; I’m there to kind of guide it along.

AC: Based on what I know of your career, you’re uniquely qualified for collaboration. You’ve worked with everyone I’ve ever heard of basically!

DZ: I’ve never worked with Mary J Blige and I want to!

AC: But so far you’ve worked with such a wide range of artists, from Carol Channing to Sheryl Crow to Suzanne Vega to Matthew Broderick , what is about that kind of collaboration that is important to you, why do you find that so valuable?

DZ: Well, I’m so far into it now that it’s a natural part of making records but in the beginning it was by accident. I did my first CD, Rocket Ship, which I really made as a cassette tape to give out to kids in the neighborhood. I never envisioned turning it into a CD, it was just a one-off that I did because I wanted to see if I could make all ages music and do an updated version of the Folk Ways music that I had grown up with…..It was just to give out at Christmas time. Sheryl Crow lived around the corner, Suzanne Vega was a friend; these were just people that I interacted with and I wanted to see if they’d come up and spend an hour with me and be a part of it. Everybody was super cool about it. I ended up putting it out as a CD and then when it came time to put out the next one, people were saying “Oh, well who are the special guests gonna be?” and I realized I was kinda stuck with this concept. But it got easier over time. Roseanne Cash was someone I would run into in the neighborhood and she offered immediately to be a part of the next one. I just started drawing on contacts that I had and it’s been amazing. These are all people who’s music I love, to me it’s just….I wrote a tribute, if you’re at all curious about my experience with Lou Reed, it’s up on my Facebook Page because that was on of the craziest of all, probably the most memorable of all experiences that I’ve had. So thinking about that made me super grateful for these collaborations that I’ve been able to have.

On Dan’s website, his wish is that people would tell more jokes. Not one to disappoint, I came up with two and so did Dan, use them at your own risk!

When does a Banjo have perfect pitch? Right after you toss it and before it hits the fire.

How do you make a band stand?   You take their chairs away.

How many lead singers does it take to screw in a light bulb?  One! They just hold onto the lightbulb and the world revolves around them.

How many Bluegrass Musicians does it take to screw in a lightbulb? Six, one to screw it in and five to complain that it’s electric.

It was such a pleasure to talk with Dan, I hope you have enjoyed reading this conversation as much as I enjoyed having it! I’m already collecting jokes for the next one!