A Star Was Grown: Aptos High Grad Donny McCaslin Returns to Jazz Festival

A Star Was Grown: Aptos High Grad Donny McCaslin Returns to Jazz Festival

Donny McCaslin graduated from Aptos High in 1984 and the young jazz musician left home to make his name in the world. On Sept. 18, he returns a superstar, one of the most anticipated artists to play in this year’s Monterey Jazz Festival.


McCaslin and his band were chosen by the late David Bowie to be the musical force behind his final album “Blackstar,” released early this year. It put him in the international spotlight and he has followed that up with his new album, “A Small Plot of Land.” He will appear on the final day of the festival, Sept. 18, from 6:30-7:30 in Dizzy’s Den playing tracks from both albums and more.


“I’m getting used to it, but it’s a little overwhelming,” McCaslin said of his new fame.


McCaslin grew up in Santa Cruz County, first living on Cathedral Drive in Aptos before his parents divorced. He then lived in Happy Valley, attending elementary school there, and went to Branciforte Junior High School before transferring to Aptos High.


“I wanted to go to Aptos High because of Don Keller and his tremendous jazz band program,” Burton said.


He got his first taste of the Monterey Jazz Festival in high school, playing in the Next Generation Orchestra, the festival’s high school all-star band, three times. After graduation, he moved to Boston to attend the Berklee College of Music on a full scholarship. During his senior year, he was invited to tour with one of his instructors, Gary Burton. Burton is a jazz pioneer who developed the four-mallet technique of playing the vibraphone.


After touring the world with Burton, McCaslin moved to New York and his career began to take off. He played in several groups, including the Gil Evans Orchestra, and began to make a name for himself as both a soloist and band leader. His early stuff is mostly acoustic, but as he as delved further into using electronic instruments, he has created his own distinct sound, which he describes as “an exploration of the intersection of electronica and improvisation.” Through it all, he’s produced 11 albums and been nominated for three Grammys.


His notoriety drew interest from David Bowie, who was looking for a band like McCaslin’s quartet for his final album. The public didn’t know it, but Bowie was dying of liver cancer. Bowie released “Blackstar,” his swan song, on Jan. 8, two days before his death. McCaslin said he treasures the time he had with the rock legend.


“Right away, when I walked in the room and first met him, he was very warm, a very cordial person, just wonderful to be around,” McCaslin said. “It was great hearing him talk about his history; he talked about literature, politics. He was always generous and a treat to be around. An inspiring person.”


McCaslin said his latest album, “A Small Plot of Land,” due out in October, is influenced by his time with Bowie doing “Blackstar” and an eclectic mix of other artists: hip-hop artist Kendrick Lamar and electronica composers Aphex Twin and Dead Mau5.


“Those are some of the major influences. The rhythmic language Lamar uses was inspiring me,” he said.

Jazz musician Donny McCaslin grew up in Santa Cruz County and graduated from Aptos High School. Photo by Jimmy King

Jazz musician Donny McCaslin grew up in Santa Cruz County and graduated from Aptos High School. Photo by Jimmy King


At Monterey Jazz, he will be playing tracks both from his new album and from “Blackstar.” He will also play a few other Bowie tunes, including “Warszawa.”


“It’s a tribute to him and helps to process all the feeling around what happened,” McCaslin said of “Warszawa.”


A lot happened during his short time with Bowie, and even more since. He’s been on television and had interviews with dozens of newspapers and magazines, including “The Rolling Stone,” and “Entertainment Weekly.”


“It’s been intense,” McCaslin said. “On one side of it, you know, the emotions that went with everything that happened, his passing. The deluge of media when he passed was super intense. All that has died down now and I’m just dealing with the uptick in my career. I’ve been really focused on making my own record and now that that’s done, handling logistics, handling details. Adapting to this new level of responsibility has taken some getting used to. I’m so glad for David giving me the opportunity to talk to Rolling Stone. He put me out there. That was a real gift from him.”


McCaslin, who married his wife Sarah 12 years ago, has a 7-year-old girl and a 5-year-old boy. He comes back to Santa Cruz County at least once a year to visit family. His dad lives in Capitola, his mother and stepfather live in Aptos, and he has other siblings and many nieces and nephews that still all live in Santa Cruz County.


“We were just out in June and everybody had a great time,” he said. “I think my kids would like to move there.”


His children could be heard trying to get his attention during the short interview. It was 5 p.m. and he’d just gotten home from a performance in Portland, Maine. After driving back, dropping his drummer off his Harlem and his bass player in Brooklyn, he said he’d just stepped in the door and was pretty exhausted.


Because he is often rushing around, he said he hadn’t had much time to reflect on all that has happened this year.


“I guess my initial goal as a teenager was wanting to be as good as John Coltrane. I was young enough to think anybody could be as good as Coltrane,” he said. “Of course, I got older and my dream evolved to wanting to be able to pursue my artistic goals through music, make a living, play in a group, play as a side person. I just wanted to be able to have a chance to work with some of the masters in music. I guess I haven’t really paused to look back on it, but those things have happened.”



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