Altoist Danny Janklow’s Road to Success, “Three Pillars” of Improv, and Much More


The first time I heard Danny Janklow play was some years ago at one of Vandoren’s “Vandojam” concerts, which take place as part of the NAMM show in Anaheim, California each year. I was blown away by his level of skill given his age.

I recently got to see Danny play at the Black Cat in SF with his Elevation Band, and I  knew I needed to get in contact with him so I could learn more about his musical journey. After reaching out to Danny, he was nice enough to take the time to sit down with me and share his story. If you have not heard of Danny Janklow before, here is a short bio to get you up to speed.

Quick Bio

  • Danny Janklow is an internationally recognized musician who is known as a  touring and recording artist
  • Downbeat Magazine described Danny’s music as “beautifully articulated with lyrical sensibility.”
  • Janklow incorporates multi-media focusing on in-studio producing, composing, and arranging recorded content, hosting podcasts, live-streams, performing festivals & concert tours
  • When he is not composing or touring, Danny’s stays committed to his mission of propelling youth education both online and in universities and conservatories
  • Danny has played with artists as Terrace Martin, Larry Goldings, Gregory Porter, Wallace Roney, Stevie Wonder, Johnny Mandel, Herbie Hancock, and Harvey Mason Sr to name a few
  • In early 2021, Danny celebrated a Grammy win for his integral part on MONK’estra plays John Beasley.
  • As a bandleader, Janklow has released three critically acclaimed recording projects with his Elevation Band. His first album Elevation (LP 2017), Worlds Collide (2019), Love Day Live (2022), and the single “Rising Tide” (2021)


ZS: How did you become interested in playing music (especially jazz)? And how did you decide on the saxophone of all instruments?

DJ: I got interested in music kind of on my own. My parents were listening to smooth jazz radio and I was hearing players like Dave Koz and Boney James in their office. My parents ran a marketing and licensing company and I was helping them as an assistant as a kid. Listening to Dave Koz was captivating to me and I thought this saxophone thing was kinda cool.

At this time I wasn’t introduced to the concept of “hey do you want to play an instrument?” because I was still young at the time. It wasn’t really until going into middle school that I made the decision that I wanted to play saxophone, trumpet, or drums, but really my top choice funny enough was trumpet for no reason other than there was this book called The Trumpet and the Swan and I thought it was a beautiful and poetic book. But, what ended up happening is my music director in middle school said we have enough trumpets and we don’t have enough saxophones, so here is an alto saxophone.

I remember during this time my grandparents were really supportive of my whole music career and they took me to get my first saxophone which was a Bundy and remember going to a local music store in Woodland Hills and honking out my first notes and the feeling of “woah this is not just loud but powerful” and I was immediately hooked. That moment began a curiosity and practicing a lot on my own with maybe not the best technique but really developing my ears from the very beginning.

Funny enough, my ears were developing faster than my reading ability and I remember when I started getting formal lessons at age 11 that it was much more challenging for me to read versus hearing the music and being accurate. Reading was a challenge I had to face throughout my student career and the only way to overcome it was to do a lot of it.

I was more connected to my ear when playing versus reading but I enjoyed the process of overcoming these challenges. Also, there was some historical connection to the saxophone from my father who did not play professionally but did manage some rock bands in the 70’s and he played a few notes in the rock context on tenor sax so I actually have his horn still which ended up being my first tenor, a 1927 Conn.

When I was taking lessons I studied with a few different teachers which was interesting because everyone had a different approach. One teacher was trying to change my embouchure to one that is more classical and these teachers were more “legit” or studio guys, with one being Dan Higgins and also Vince Trombetta Sr.

What I enjoyed was that these musicians had a deep well of information which was one of the benefits of growing up in the Los Angeles area because the caliber of these musicians was so high. When it came to how I decided to go to Temple, I remember my band director John Mosley in high school was really passionate about Duke Ellington’s music and we would compete every year in the essentially Ellington competition. On his way out, he really wanted to be recognized with how he approached and interpreted Ellington’s music. I was really serious about Ellington so I was studying Ben Webster on saxophone, Jimmy Hamilton on clarinet, Johnny Hodges on alto saxophone, and Paul Gonsalves on tenor, to name a few.

It was a very transformative experience for me because going that deep to the source and listening these obscure Ellington tunes and memorizing the parts and solos and writing solos in the style was quite fascinating to me. That competition from 2005-2007 was how I really got to experience the east coast music scene.

That is how I met Terrell Stafford and he told me my junior year to apply next year to Temple and that he had someone really special to teach saxophone at Temple but he couldn’t share just yet who. I applied the following year to Temple and remember doing auditions at other various colleges but when I met Dick Oatts during my auditions he took a liking to me and said he would really take me under his wing. Oatts absolutely fulfilled that promise and gave me so much information and a lot of incredible experiences that turned into a great friendship after graduating school that I hold dear today.

Something many don’t know is I really wanted to be a tenor player more than an alto player. I actually went to school at Temple on a full scholarship on tenor (moved from the Conn to a Mark VI at that time) and was really interested in being a tenor player but it wasn’t till studying with Terrell Stafford and Dick Oatts and the faculty that they helped me realize the full circle to go back to alto.

I really didn’t touch the alto the majority of high school and even first few years of college but when I was around 19 the faculty felt from hearing me in a few recitals that I was an alto player, from which I felt joy but also it felt that it was part of my past that I never followed through with.

Having been more informed how to use my air from playing clarinet and tenor helped me develop a really solid air column and sweet sound on alto. What actually prepared me for learning how to prepare for making records which was totally off the clock is Oatts was working on tunes for a recording session. We would play tunes from 10PM till 1AM in the morning and this helped me learn alot about intentional voicings and voice leading with that education being invaluable.

ZS: Was there an event or musician which led you down the path of pursuing music as a full-time career?

DJ: I think it was really transformative to hear Cannonball Adderley on records. My early listening pursuit was turned on by the sound of the instrument through Cannonball but not only was his sound so beautiful but the way he phrased and sang through the instrument that was a big turning point of me wanting to pursue a life’s journey of pursuing this instrument and music.

Likewise, listening to John Coltrane was another major influence. When my first teacher, Chad Bloom, gifted me Giant Steps on CD, I remember not being totally able to wrap my head around most of it but “Naima”. The last four bars of “Naima” was just an Ab concert major scale and the way Trane plays that major scale made me realize “do I know how to play a scale?”.

ZS: What are some key lessons you’ve learned growing up playing the saxophone that you have passed on to your students? What do you find yourself practicing these days?

DJ: The lesson of being open to possibilities but also be confident in yourself to explore more than you think that you can explore. Knowing that if you keep your ears open and committed to the moment, that’s when your best playing can really be heard. We all often get in our heads a little bit and my advice is go play with your peers more. I taught a few classes at Cal Arts last week, and we all sound better when we are committed to using our abilities in compatible ways with other musicians, but not overshadowing or over-shining, and this way we can elevate the entire moment.

I remember learning so much on the bandstand. I would go to these incredible jam sessions and concerts in Philadelphia and began leading bands at age 19 and 20 and was playing on the scene in different types of music contexts such as R&B, funk, and jazz.

Oftentimes being challenged to not just be the best I could be but be, better than what I was being expected to be. Being the young kid in a room full of older musicians put a different spin on my role in the room and what I had to become in order to be accepted within a community which I wanted to be accepted.

I realized early on that this music was rooted with black musicians in Philly and why it evolved was this specific town. I did not realize the magnitude of my decision to be here and that Philly is a historically under-appreciated town for the lineage of music. I was out all the time every single night after practicing and classes and being a part of wherever the best music was and that was transformative. I try to encourage my students to understand the cultural importance of this music and be contributing to the evolution or forward motion of the music.

I practice a lot of piano these days since I am trying to get better at fluidity within my voice leading and harmonic voicings. To me, there are three pillars that we must navigate in the music.

First, there’s melodic voice leading – the ability to improvise with great flow on the top note melodies we choose, thinking horizontally

Second, there’s harmonic voicings – the ability to improvise lines that support our main melodic notes, for example with arpeggios, thinking vertically

Third, we have rhythmic dialogue, being able to be freely interchange rhythmic phrases with same attention to detail as melodic voice leading and harmonic voicings

Getting deeper into chord changes helps to simplify harmonic language to shapes that have multiple contexts. I have to encourage everyone to be composing outside of your comfort zone which is a great way to get better on your instrument and improve your ears. Understanding basic voicings, singing through the voicings, and not being a “finger technician” has made me a better musician. The goal should be to be playing melodically and stay connected to the melody of the song.

ZS: When it comes to leading your own group or being a sideman, which one do you prefer, and why?

DJ:  I really love being a leader and bringing people together, but it’s challenging because it falls down on your shoulders – is the music good? Did everyone show up on time? Were there people in the audience? Is the band going to get paid properly?

Ultimately, musically, it has really helped me become the type of musician I want to be in order to release records, have an online presence, and stay reaching people in an authentic way. I find it really important as a leader that the goal is to entertain people but for the musicians to have a great time by writing music that showcases the band.

As a sideman, I do enjoy it but it can be a little boring for me unless I am really challenged. The most excited I get with projects I’m a part of is this Grammy winning album, MONK’estra plays John Beasley. When there is a challenge as a sideman, I really enjoy doing it. When there is not enough of a challenge it can be a flat experience. I like to make things happen on the producing end of things to see it evolve which, you don’t get as a sideman.

ZS: How have you seen the music business change since you started playing the saxophone and where do you see the music business moving in the near future? Do you see music school teaching and setting up young players for success or teaching from an old book?

DJ: Since I started playing the saxophone almost over 20-plus years ago, I didn’t have a real grasp of what the professional music scene was like except for seeing some of my mentor’s recording on Catch Me If You Can and thought “woah, you can grow up and be a saxophone player and have success and be on movie scores” but that ability for musicians to be on more commercial projects goes in cycles.

The popularity of what music has become outside the jazz industry transforms quite often. I am optimistic that we are coming around to appreciating a more acoustic experience when it comes to music but it still has to catch on to the more popular music realm. Ultimately, jazz, I’ve always seen as a rebellion against what is most popular and to win that battle you need to accept what’s popular but at the same time not adopt it but be informed by it.

Jazz musicians need to be more than just in the box society has put us in and this will hopefully inspire more people to experience an acoustic jazz experience. I think that often we become close-minded in music school to the possibilities of working outside the parameters that are acceptable, and if you want to be a working musician you need to bring your voice and skillset to every type of scenario which you can hopefully enhance.

One thing I am grateful for is I have been able to play and tour with some great non-jazz musicians, one being Sheléa who is more on the soul music side and have been able to bring a different sensibility to that project over the last few years I have been with her.

ZS: What projects are you currently working on?

DJ: Im developing some new music for my own group, The Elevation Band. I am preparing to get back into the studio very soon. I also have a few other projects and just started this organ trio and another album which I can’t talk too much about but it’s a tribute album to one of my favorite composers. I really envision this new album sounding really good on vinyl and it’s complete when you listen to the first and second side which is how they used to approach making records in the past.

Also, I just released which is a super awesome educational platform.

In a nutshell, for everyone who wants to join I will listen to your video submissions and reply with instruction and guidance specifically tailored to your individual musical journey. It’s an ongoing conversation and you have access to all of my video replies.

The replies could be video or audio, PDFs with exercises and tunes, or other media, in an easy-to-use, powerfully effective two-way, asynchronous social learning environment, the most effective online learning experience in existence.

I will ask you to post clips of yourself playing specific tunes, patterns, exercises, or techniques, and as I hear your playing develop and improve, I will continue to guide you on your journey to saxophone awesomeness.

ZS: What are your thoughts on the importance of the equipment? Do you find yourself changing much or sticking with the same gear?

DJ: I think as your concept of sound evolves in your ear you do want to try different things, but I have stayed with pretty much the same mouthpiece. I started on a Meyer 5 and then went to a Vandoren V16 A5 S+ on alto and Otto Link 7* on tenor to a Vandoren V16 T9 Medium Chamber Metal.

For reeds I never deviated too much and played strength 3 Vandoren Java green box and played that until 2015 and then went to Vandoren blue box at a 2.5 strength.

Saxophone-wise I have not deviated much from my Mark VI except for the last 4 or 5 years I was interested more in getting into a modern horn setup and what I have learned is your sound will be present on every horn you’re playing if you have a strong enough concept. The modern horns mechanically respond much better than the vintage horns unless you really fix one up in a profound way.

The Mark VI had some limitations on the lower register and altissimo register but as I’ve grown I have been able to navigate those limitations better than when I was growing up with the limitations. The downside of modern horns is that the sound can be less dimensional than some of the vintage horns, which is why you have so many cats playing the vintage horns, but I’m confident there are modern horns out there that will hopefully withstand the test of time.

Current Equipment

Where to Find Danny Online