Dayna Stephens’ Lessons Learned on a Winding Road to Acclaimed Jazz Artist


I have been fortunate enough to speak with many great saxophonists over the years, and recently had the chance to sit down (virtually) and speak with Dayna Stephens. While many saxophonists focus on one or two members of the saxophone family, Dayna’s instrumental arsenal includes soprano, alto, tenor, and his favorite of all the horns, baritone. For those of you who have not had a chance to check out Dayna, please see a quick bio below to get you up to speed.


  • Dayna Stephens is globally recognized as a saxophonist, composer and arranger.
  • He has played at internationally renowned venues such as: The Village Vanguard, Blue Note Jazz Club, Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola, Birdland, Yoshi’s, The Blue Whale, Marians Jazzroom in Switzerland, Blue Note Milano, Philharmonie de Paris, Le Duc des Lombards, Red Rocks, and San Francisco Jazz Center.
  • Dayna has traveled and recorded with many artists such as: Kenny Barron, Fred Hersch, Geoffrey Keezer, Herbie Hancock, Brad Mehldau, Roy Hargrove, Tom Harrell, Sean Jones, Terell Stafford, Philip Dizack, Ambrose Akinmusire, Wayne Shorter, Walter Smith III, Mark Turner, Jaleel Shaw, Ben Wendel, Chris Potter, John Ellis, Rufus Reid, Linda Oh, Doug Weiss, Larry Grenadier, Alicia Olatuja, Gretchen Parlato, Julian Lage, Mike Moreno, Lage Lund, John Scofield, and Carlos Santana among many others.
  • In addition to the four major members of the saxophone family, he also plays double bass as well as EWI (electronic wind instrument).
  • Through the years, he has created and interpreted pieces for San Francisco’s Peninsula Symphony Orchestra, Berklee College of Music, and the Oakland East Bay Symphony—for the latter of which he wrote a wide-screen arrangement of Dave Brubeck’s “The Duke” and his own piece “Haden’s Largo” (for Charlie Haden) that premiered at Oakland’s Paramount Theatre for its 2013 Celebration of the Music of Dave Brubeck Concert.
  • As a graduate of the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz, Dayna studied under artistic icons Terence Blanchard, Wayne Shorter, and Herbie Hancock.
  • He currently teaches at Manhattan School of Music and William Paterson University in Wayne, New Jersey.
  • As an undergraduate, he was diagnosed with disease focal segmental glomerulosclerosis (FSGS), a rare kidney disease which resulted in a six year course of dialysis that began in 2009. This grounded him in the New York area and prevented him from touring internationally until he received a kidney transplant in October 2015 from a donation chain facilitated by his aunt.
  • Dayna landed in first place as the recipient of the 2019 DownBeat Critics Poll in the category of “Rising Star—Tenor Saxophone”.
  • Earlier in 2020 he released his 9th album, Liberty, to critical acclaim. It was his first trio recording that features Ben Street and Eric Harland.


ZS: How did you become interested in playing music? How did you decided on the saxophone?

DS: Music has always been around the house. Some of my earliest memories are seeing my grandfather’s saxophone when I was the age of two or three. My grandfather didn’t play very much at that time, but he did play in college and always attended every Monterey Jazz Festival as well as many blues festivals. My father, was also really into music (very eclectic taste) but wasn’t a player besides playing a little bit of guitar.

I think it was third grade when I first started playing. I started on clarinet which only lasted a week because I accidentally forgot it at school one day and someone stole it; that was the end of my clarinet career. After clarinet, my mom put me on piano lessons.

When I was 12, I went to move in with my dad and ended up having an extra class to fill at school. I decided to pick up the saxophone since I’d been interested in playing the saxophone for quite some time. I remember bringing the tenor sax home from school and started learning songs by ear such as Christmas tunes. As I started playing more and more, my dad bought me a tenor sax and my grandfather took out his horn and started playing again; it was great to hear how a saxophone should sound.

At this time, I was listening to Grover Washington Jr and John Coltrane, but when my dad bought me the Sonny Rollins album The Bridge, that was it for me.

My dad gave me one or two lessons to start, but Pete Cornell was my first teacher at ACME music. I remember he taught me “Harlem Nocturne” and “I Thought About You”. Then it was just band for the next few years until I went to a program called YMP or Young Musicians Program, which was at U.C. Berkley at the time. This program set you up with private lessons and harmony.  It was a program during the summer, but they also gave you access to private lessons during the school year.

During this time, I had the opportunity to study with Dann Zinn (studied with Dann for a year and a half) and I would not be talking to you today if it wasn’t for that guy. I remember before meeting Dann my junior year of high school. My band director quit the beginning of October that year and we didn’t have a band director till March of next year. Me and my friend Charles Gurke (saxophonist) decided we were going to lead the band ourselves and we ended up putting on the winter concert and the homecoming parade, and made the front page of the Alameda Times. My last year of high school, I realized I needed to be somewhere where people were more serious and decided to attend Berkley High for my senior year of high school. I remember that year traveling to Europe for the first time with the Berkley High Big Band. I also made the Monterey All State Band and went to Japan. I remember the band director Charles Hamilton told me about a scholarship through the Monterey Jazz Festival for Berklee College of Music.

When I was looking at schools, my first choice was New England Conservatory (NEC) because my senior year of high school I drove a van for Yoshi’s to pick up artists at the airport and drive them to the hotel and remember meeting Mike Stern who told me about Jerry Bergonzi. I remember while in Japan, I bought Jerry Bergonzi CD’s and one in particular was called Jerry On Red. I remember that this record was the reason I really wanted to attend NEC. For Manhattan School of Music, I believe Bob Mintzer may have taught there and I was a huge Yellowjackets fan.

Finally, Berklee was my last choice and when I initially visited Berklee, I remember thinking this is not the place for me. With that being said, I ended up winning the scholarship and decided to attend Berklee for four years. I remember while studying at Berklee, my thing was to study with everyone possible. I wanted as many perspectives on these twelve notes we have to work with.

I remember studying with Shannon LeClaire, Dino Govoni, George Garzone, Frank Tiberi, Billy Pierce, and Andy McGhee which were the saxophone teachers, but for me probably the most influential teacher overall is Hal Crook who I still take lessons with today. Hal taught me how to improvise and how to find your own voice, really getting into all the possibilities of what you can do as an improviser. When I was at Berklee, some other students in my class at that time were: Kendrick Scott, Walter Smith III, Warren Wolf, Bob Reynolds (Got me into Chris Potter), John Mayer, Antonio Sanchez, and Jaleel Shaw, who is actually my neighbor.

After graduating from Berklee, I ended up attending the Monk Institute for two years. I found out about the Monk Institute because when I visited Boston to apply for NEC, I stayed with a trumpet player named Mike Mckenna, who was at the Monk Institute at that time. I remember applying one or two times to the Monk Institute and once I got accepted, I decided to go because I would have the opportunity to study with Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Terence Blanchard, and Mark Turner to name a few.

I headed back to the Bay Area after graduating from the Monk Institute and was mainly playing gigs and teaching privately. While back in the Bay, I actually started playing bass a lot and was probably playing bass quite actively for a good five years in addition to saxophone.

After a year and half, I got out to New York and started gigging and teaching. I started teaching a couple lessons at the New School from time to time but then also started teaching at Manhattan School of Music in 2017, and have also been teaching at William Paterson regularly for the past year and a half.

ZS: As you progressed as a student to where you are today, who were your main influences growing up, andwho have you been checking out lately?

DS: Sonny Rollins’ The Bridge is still my “desert island record”, plus there’s Charlie Rouse, Lester Young, Stanley Turrentine, Dexter Gordon, Coltrane (I wasn’t enamored at first but what finally got me interested was when I heard Giant Steps and Kind Of Blue), Gerry Mulligan, Stan Getz, Sonny Stitt (Autumn in New York).

I have continued to check out Brecker after Dann Zinn introduced me to him. Others include Joe Henderson, Wayne Shorter, Ralph Moore, Seamus Blake, Mark Turner, Chris Cheek (one of the most original saxophone players on the books today), Charles Davis, Walter Smith III, Marcus Strickland, Ben Van Gelder, Immanuel Wilkins, Kenny Garrett, Joshua Redman, Jan Garbarek, Art Pepper, Lee Konitz, Benny Golson, Ben Wendel, Bob Mintzer, Harold Land, and Branford Marsalis.

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

DS: When I teach, I am always trying to get people to take the “express lane” to their own voice. How and what I teach is an amalgamation of everything I learned from Dan Zinn, Ralph Moore, Hal Crook, Frank Tiberi via George Garzone, and Billy Pierce. Dan Zinn really helped me understand jazz is finding one’s own unique voice of playing and not being a clone. I don’t necessarily transcribe very much at all, but I have found my own voice listening to a wide range of different players.

I always split teaching into how vs what or rhythm versus harmony. The most important thing is the “how” over the “what”. That is what I find my role to be when teaching students.

I remember Carl Allen was our first teacher at the Monk Institute and he said something that has always stayed with me: “Everything complicated is made up of smaller, simpler parts just put together.”

Some topics I discuss with my students are spontaneous vs predictability, high volume vs low volume, breath vs tongue attack, etc.

For myself, I practice long tones, bebop scales with something I like to call the “sonic trinity” where they are all based on different chord tones, triads, pentatonics, etc. I am always practicing the foundational stuff but I don’t practice patterns very much. What I am more focused on is trying to play melodies when I improvise.

ZS: How have you adjusted to COVID? What have you found to be most challenging?

DS: It’s been mentally challenging. It’s tough not having a gig or event to look forward to on the horizon but I have had some gigs here and there.

Recently, I have been thinking about the movie Paterson and the main character’s relationship with art being similar to mine lately – which is a very personal one. During Covid, music has become more of a personal focus for me. I have gotten into mixing more as well as have written more tunes this year than I have ever done before. Teaching has been more of a focus because I am doing it more than normal, but teaching is something that I have never wanted to focus on full time. The act of playing and composing has always been the medicine for me although I really appreciate teaching because it helps me codify my own thoughts, and calling my students for my own gigs is amazing.

ZS: What was something you wished you were taught in College to prepare you better upon graduation?

DS: You don’t understand how important the business side is until you leave school. From my point of view, I can relate to the mindset of disregard for business side, and an attitude of “let’s just focus on playing”.

I really don’t enjoy the logistical and business side, but it’s something that’s needed, as inspiring people is the goal. One thing that would have been nice is if there was a class that taught you the process of making a record.

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

DS: When it comes to equipment, I think it’s important to be able to pick up any reed, mouthpiece, or horn and play a gig, or “be you” on a gig. I have a separate relationship with each piece of gear. I like to change things every so often and feel different equipment will have a slightly different vibe to it.



  • Soprano: Allora Paris Model with a High G (Black & Silver)
  • Alto: Allora Paris Model (Black & Silver)
  • Tenor: Yamaha 23, Selmer Reference 36, Selmer Super Action 80 Series 1, Keilwerth SX90R (matte-nickel-silver), Conn 10M (grandfather’s horn)
  • Baritone: Keilwerth “Armstrong”







  • Mike Manning– For Soprano & Tenor
  • Gard-Double Alto Case
  • SKB– For Baritone
  • Fusion– Alto Case can fit both soprano and alto


To learn more about Dayna, head over to his website at