Dan Wilensky, who attended Berkeley High, is back in town for a series of gigs. Photo: courtesy Dan Wilensky

Fresh out of Berkeley High in the summer of 1979, Dan Wilensky had to make a fateful decision. The prestigious Eastman School of Music was offering a full scholarship at the same time that the Ray Charles Orchestra came calling for the young saxophonist. Wilensky chose Charles, and the gig turned into a six-month bandstand education that launched a gloriously diverse and insistently creative career. He returns to town next week for a series of gigs, making his first Berkeley appearances as a leader since heading to New York in 1980. Appropriately, he kicks off the run at 8 p.m. Wednesday at Freight & Salvage, performing as a special guest with the Berkeley High Jazz Ensemble and Berkeley High Combo A (which just earned top honors at the Monterey Jazz Festival’s 2015 Next Generation Jazz Festival).

“I’ve played in the East Bay as sideman over the years with artists like Stevie Winwood and Joan Baez, but this is the first time I’m coming back under my own name,” says Wilensky, who relocated to Portland, Oregon in 2012 after three breathless decades on the New York scene. “I’m really excited to go back to Berkeley High to play and work with the students and tell them some stories about the life of a working musician.”

Wilensky also performs in a stripped down trio with veteran bassist Doug Miller and drummer Alex Aspinall at Birdland Jazzista Social Club on April 17, and Jupiter on April 18. He’ll be at the California Jazz Conservatory at 2 p.m. Sunday conducting a masterclass, reading from his book, and offering tales of life as a musician who’s toured with David Bowie, played in Broadway pit bands, contributed to more than 250 albums across an array of genres and played on hundreds jingles and film and television soundtracks.

“I loved being a sideman in all styles,” Wilensky says. “I’ve liked that since I was a little kid. Playing and listening to all kinds of music prepared me to do music of any stripe. I get a call to do Joan Baez’s tour on piano, or Stevie Winwood on saxophone and keyboards and I’m game. But I was a composer as a little kid too, and I’ve contributed tunes and arrangements for just about every situation I’ve played in.”

The son of the late Harold L. Wilensky, the longtime UC Berkeley sociology professor who did pioneering work on organizational intelligence, Dan grew up surrounded by jazz, as his father was an accomplished self-taught trumpeter and avid fan of the music. In grade school he was part of the first generation of BPS students to come through the innovative music-steeped curriculum introduced by Dr. Herb Wong in the late 1960s. Drawing on relationships with musicians he forged as a concert producer, journalist and KJAZ disc jockey, Wong pulled off the ultimate booking coup in 1969 when he brought the Duke Ellington Orchestra to Berkeley High (and paid for the engagement out of his own pocket).

“I was sitting close to the front row and saw nothing but saxophones,” Wilensky says. “The next day they handed out a sign-up form asking what instruments we wanted to play, and I checked saxophone, saxophone and saxophone. They next day they me a saxophone and I started lessons at school.”

By the time Wilensky reached the seventh grade the great jazz educator Phil Hardymon was running the band program at King Middle School, where he mentored a brilliant generation of improvisers. “By the 9th grade we were little professionals,” Wilensky says, “and in the 10th we started doing gigs, playing at all the festivals. Benny Green and I had a quartet together.”

While Wilensky accepted the offer from Ray Charles after graduating, he hedged his bets, deferring the Eastman scholarship for six months. He did end up enrolling at Eastman, but before the end of his first semester in Rochester he lit out for the big city, arriving in New York in 1980 with the invaluable experience of sitting in a sax section with longtime Ray Charles players like Clifford Solomon, Rudy Johnson and Don Wilkerson (Charles’ primary tenor soloist before David “Fathead” Newman).

Starting on the bottom rung again in New York, he used his Berkeley-honed busking skills and made decent money playing on the streets. He was good enough that he caught the ear of a studio contractor who told him to be at A&R Studios the following Monday morning for a Sugar Frosted Flakes jingle.

“I said, what’s a jingle? And she said, just be there,” Wilensky recalls. “I had a gig late Sunday, so I got there 20 minutes late and when I arrived my mouth dropped. There’s Michael Brecker, Dave Sanborn, Steve Gadd, Lew Soloff and all of these cats I recognized from album covers. They called me for soprano sax, a difficult horn to play in tune, and we’re sight reading it live. Randy Brecker put his arm around me and said, take it easy kid, you’ll get through this. That was my first jingle, and I didn’t get called again for a year and a half. But I ended up doing thousands of them.”

After his stint with the well-oiled and relatively plush Ray Charles Orchestra, he got his next taste of the road with the great Hammond B-3 organist Brother Jack McDuff, “an extraordinary contrast to Ray’s Band, where you’re traveling in a plane or a bus, and there’s a book of 500 tunes, and you’re on salary. McDuff had a hard-driving quintet traveling in a windowless truck around the US, and I was making $60 a night when we played. I did my first record with McDuff and George Benson was a special guest. It was bare bones, but I loved it.”

He got his first major taste of the rock ‘n’ roll road life through a chance encounter in the pit band of Bob Fosse’s last show, Big Deal. A sub in the band happened to be music director for Stevie Winwood, who had just released his hit 1986 album Back In the High Life Again, and Wilensky toured the world with Winwood, backing him on keyboards and saxophones.

All the sideman work left him little time or inclination to record his own projects, though Wilensky finally got around to releasing an album under his own name with 1997’s stylistically diverse And Them Some. Since 2010 he’s put his music on the front burner, recording three quartet sessions focusing on his original tunes. He’s getting set to release a new album featuring top Portland players and singers in June.

For his Bay Area dates, he’s jumping into the fray with two excellent players he’s never worked with before. Bassist Doug Miller, a mainstay on the Seattle scene before moving to the Bay Area, has toured with Ernestine Anderson and Count Basie. And drummer Alex Aspinall is a highly sought after accompanist (he also plays the California Jazz Conservatory with saxophonist Dave LeFebvre on May 1). 

“It’ll be a mixture of some originals and reworked standards,” Wilensky says. “With no chordal instrument there’s a lot of freedom, but it won’t be too out. We’ll play a lot of textures and it’ll be very listenable.”

Rusty Zinn plays Ashkenaz Friday. Photo: courtesy Rusty Zinn

Rusty Zinn is best known as a scorching blues guitarist, but over the past decade he’s increasingly devoted himself to reggae. He celebrates the release of The Reggae Soul of Rusty Zinn at Ashkenaz on Friday.

Los Angeles jazz singer Judy Wexler has released a series of enchanting albums over the past decade, establishing herself as a gracefully swinging singer who brings rare insight to material often overlooked by her colleagues. “I think the most important thing is what story does the lyric tell,” says Wexler, who performs at the California Jazz Conservatory on Saturday (and teaches a workshop there on Sunday). “I like to find songs that aren’t done as much, music from more contemporary places, pop and folk music, and try to reimagine them as jazz tunes.”

Andrew Gilbert writes for Berkeleyside, the San Jose Mercury News, San Francisco Chronicle, and KQED’s California Report. Read his previous Berkeleyside music reviews.

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Freelancer Andrew Gilbert writes a weekly music column for Berkeleyside. Andy, who was born and raised in Los Angeles, covers a wide range of musical cultures, from Brazil and Mali to India and Ireland....