Danny Bacher – Serious Fun

by Marilyn Lester

Last autumn, jazz singer and soprano sax player Danny Bacher released his second CD, Still Happy. That he is. Bacher is a purveyor of happiness, born under a lucky star. He’s a Renaissance man, a polymath of talent––a saxophonist, vocalist, composer, educator, actor, writer/playwright, and comedian––who’s a master of all trades and on a mission to spread joy. Now at that mid-life point where the road behind and the road ahead are more or less equal, he’s got a solid perspective of the elements of his life that have informed his “now” and the direction he’d like to travel in.

Marking a pinnacle in his career, Bacher also becomes the latest recipient of the American Songbook Association (ASA) Margaret Whiting Award, of which Bacher says, “It’s an honor to carry on the tradition and excellence one strives for, and that this music deserves.” The Whiting Award matches Bacher’s personal mission to encourage young people into the songbook and into jazz, by making it accessible to them. Of course, happiness is a prime ingredient in that accessibility. Yet, while self-defining as an entertainer who wants to please his audience may seem like part of the standard template, Bacher’s intent is true to his core––backed up with a very serious focus, which is why he’s fond of the term, “serious fun.” Bacher is an old soul. He was a precocious child who became attuned to the American Songbook early on and began to study it while still in grammar school. By good fortune of birth he was raised in Wayne, New Jersey, a suburb within the New York City metropolitan area, and thus in close proximity to the crème de la crème of talent to observe and to be taught by. Also by good fortune, he was blessed to be born into a close-knit family of arts lovers and supporters. His formative years were influenced not only by enlightened parents but by two sets of encouraging grandparents, especially on his mother Jane’s side. “My maternal grandfather, Harvey, wanted to be a professional singer but it didn’t work out,” he relates. Harvey and wife Jean were happy to have young Danny hang out with them. In this setting he was  exposed to the Golden Age of swing, and he took to it immediately. Then, as now, he soaked in everything that came to him like the proverbial sponge. “The music spoke to me,” he says. At age 10 he was playing the alto saxophone.

A mere six years later he was playing professionally. This trajectory doesn’t come without serious drive, ambition, dedication, and work––traits that are an indelible part of his persona. He also credits his parents who, he says, “never ever suggested I have a fallback plan.” The adults in his life insisted he follow his dream.

Yet, the Renaissance man in Bacher was also interested in pursuing other areas of expression besides playing music. Even while continuing this pursuit as a professional player, he majored in and graduated from New Jersey City University with a degree in theater as well as in music. He began performing as an actor (where he met wife, Erin, on tour), and also worked as a comedy team  with his brother Josh. Comedy, in fact, has always been a strong part of who he is. One of the biggest influences on Bacher has been the comedy team of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, a pair he can
wax rhapsodic about. He was an early-adopter film buff and was even doing imitations of the two funny men at age two. “Not many people know this,” he discloses, “but I have one of the largest
collections of Laurel and Hardy memorabilia in the world.” He’s also written articles and contributed to books about the team.

Bacher is also serious about study. “I’m always eager to learn and improve,” he says emphatically. Early on he surrounded himself with mentors who could teach him what he wanted to know. “I’ve
had many great influences that helped shape who I am today as a person and artist,” he says. “There were many folks who helped along the way.”

His acknowledgement of those folks is a long list. Among his teachers he credits Roseanna Vitro, Nancy Marano, Bob Mover, Jeff Levenson, Dr. David Demsey, Ed Joffe, Anette Cardona, and Marilyn Maye. Among those he’s studied closely––listening for and picking up the qualities that gave them their greatness––are EllaFitzgerald, Duke Ellington, Frank Sinatra, Joe Williams, Johnny Hodges, Billy  Strayhorn, Johnny Mercer, Mel Tormé, Sarah Vaughan, Anita O’Day, Margaret Whiting, Peggy Lee, Zoot Sims, Stan Getz, Ben Webster, and Clark Terry. A common thread in this group, to which Bacher paid attention, was their ability to captivate an audience, a quality that he strives for and which he finds missing in so many performers today. The women on
his lists of influencers are prominent. Bacher actually didn’t set out to be a singer, but was encouraged to pursue this side of his talent by Vitro in particular.

He makes it clear that the influence of female mentors and supporters in his life has helped form his deep respect for the distaff. Bacher believes the more you can do, the better off you are, with each of his talents informing the other. Of course, by nature, a Renaissance personality can’t be limited, especially to one thing. “There’s so much to experience in life!” he enthuses.

Like Duke Ellington, who abhorred categorization, Bacher doesn’t believe in labels. “What’s most important,” he clarifies, “is authenticity. And, if I’m not your cup of tea,” he adds, “so be it.” This level of confidence is a matter of  nature and nurture, tied to an ability to process and frame his experiences in a positive way. When he embarked on a professional career as a teenager, he was aware of the amount of work it would take to participate in the field of music. He determined to become a “one-man industry.” As he pushed to get gigs he looked at the building of his repertoire as an effort that allowed him to be “paid to practice.” Fast-forward to today. Even before he decided to pursue singing, he studied singers to inform his playing. He was also taken with  instrumentalists, such as the great tenor sax players Dexter Gordon and Ben Webster, who thought it essential to learn the lyrics to the songs they played.

“It’s important to really understand and learn what the message of the songwriter is, to know it inside out,” he emphasizes. Likewise, the techniques and musicianship required on the horn inform his singing style. “The great thing about jazz is its spontaneity,” he says, explaining that this freedom also comes with the responsibility to understand all the elements of a number––the lyrics,
the notes, the silences, and more. He cites Louis Prima and Louis Armstrong as two musician-singers who embody the ability to apply crossover musicality to their performances in singing and
playing. Like them, he strives to get at the total vibe of a number, letting his own personal voice shine through.

Bacher’s choice of the oft-maligned soprano sax was born of one part wishing to be different and another part of finding it physically more suitable–– he’d developed neck problems playing curved saxes. But there was also a natural inclination toward the soprano. He’s acknowledged as one of the premier players of an instrument that’s not easy to master. It’s difficult to keep a soprano playing in tune, for instance. Characteristically, he’s worked hard at it, focusing on the proper embouchure adjustments needed playing up and down the instrument. “Adjusting becomes second nature when you play long enough,” he explains. Getting a worthy tone out of a soprano is like conquering Everest, and, of course, tone has always been of prime importance to him. Through hard work he’s developed a rich, warm tone that sets him apart from the herd.

As he continues down the long career path before him, Danny Bacher will no doubt continue to work hard to make his mark at his craft. “Being an artistic gamechanger like Miles Davis or Charlie Parker may not be me,” he says humbly, “but I’d like to make a positive difference in the world and make it a better place.” As he continues to follow his dream, there’s no doubt he’ll do it with serious fun, being true to himself all the way.

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DANNY BACHER

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