Interview with jazz trumpeter Daniel Sky Szczepański

Edited with Afterlight

“I’m just here for the music”

Interview with jazz trumpeter Daniel Sky Szczepański

You are a trained musician, a trumpet graduate of Berklee College of Music. How did the musical adventure begin in your life?
I kind of had no choice, as both my parents are musicians. My father played and still plays the French horn in Sinfonia Varsovia, and my mother was an opera singer. So my connections with music were very early. I had my first piano lessons when I was just a few years old. I remember that when I was 5 years old, I decided that I wanted to play a wind instrument in the future, but I did not intend to play the French horn like my father. I preferred the trumpet. Music school was also a natural choice for me. I graduated from the State Music School Complex No. 4. Karol Szymanowski in Warsaw’s Żoliborz district. First primary school, then junior high school and finally high school. In the first years of primary school, my main instrument was still the piano. I took up trumpet seriously in 5th grade and since then it has become my main instrument. I think that the breakthrough moment for me was joining the school big band conducted by Piotr Kostrzewa at the end of junior high school. There I learned many songs by composers such as Sammy Nestico and Neal Hefti, as well as arrangements of songs sung by Frank Sinatra.

So your musical education was very thorough. But they probably didn’t teach jazz there?
That’s true. The school prepared me mainly for playing classical music, I could perform solo or in orchestras, or in some smaller groups. However, when I was 16, I discovered jazz and everything changed. I came to the conclusion that classical music is about playing the same music, and that everyone has to interpret it in a similar way, just like the notes say. And I’ve always had the need to create. And often when I played classical music, I added something or changed something. I wanted to have more involvement in the music than just playing the notes correctly. Of course, I don’t think that classical music doesn’t also require commitment and emotion, but improvisation is about something completely different. I started listening to more and more jazz and at one point I decided to completely abandon classical music and focus entirely on jazz music.

Did you have a breakthrough musical discovery that allowed you to make such a drastic change in style? Many jazz musicians have such a moment at the beginning of their career.
Yes. There was a trumpeter who was the most important to me. His name was Roy Hargrove. My friend, Jakub Waszczeniak, trumpeter from Sinfonia Varsovia, showed me his album Hard Groove. After listening to it, I was speechless and that finally convinced me to delve into jazz, listen to more and more of this music and finally devote myself completely to it. Even earlier, I also had the opportunity to discover Miles Davis, and his Blue in Green was the first song that I dared to play in public at a jam session during jazz workshops in Chodzież.

How did you end up in the United States, specifically in New York?
In 2012, after graduating from high school, I went to the jazz department at the Bednarska music school to study a bit, and in 2016 I came to the United States, where I started studying at the renowned Berklee School of Music in Boston, because they offered me the best scholarship there. I’ve always wanted to come to the United States, since I was a child, just because of the music. Almost all the artists I listened to and admired during my musical development came from the United States. This is where jazz was born, and I wanted to develop and be at the center of it all. My parents also encouraged me to go and I had their full support. In Boston, I studied for several years with the best young musicians in the world, actually completing two degrees, one at the Berklee College of Music and the other at the Berklee Global Jazz Institute. I trained my skills there under the supervision of such renowned trumpeters as Sean Jones and Tiger Okoshi. After graduation, I had a few options to choose from and the opportunity to return to Poland. However, I didn’t come to the United States to return to Europe. New York was the place where I ultimately wanted to be and in January 2022 I made this dream come true.

It can be said that since moving to the city, your career has gained considerable momentum. You now have your own band, Daniel Sky’s Modern Bop Quintet, with which you perform regularly.
Yes. Over the course of two years, I met many great musicians here. Moreover, some of my friends from college also moved here. So there was no major problem with the selection of musicians. As the name suggests, there are five of us on the team. I chose a quintet because it is my favorite formation. In addition to the trumpet, the band includes a saxophone, piano, double bass and, of course, drums. We have already played in many clubs in the city. We regularly appear at the newly established Laisses Faire, located at the Beekman Hotel in Lower Manhattan, and I also perform both as a guest and with my band at places such as Smalls Jazz Club, Ornithology Jazz club and Django. I think that for two years of my stay in the metropolis, I managed to achieve quite a lot, but of course I have no intention of stopping there. This is just the beginning. I’m only here for the music. I decided a long time ago to devote my whole life to gaming and I devoted myself to it completely. I play and breathe music. This is the most important thing to me.

What does jazz mean to you?
It is simply life. It’s like writing an autobiography, only with sounds. In jazz there is a strong bond and closeness between the music itself and the emotions and knowledge that a person has inside. That’s why I moved away from the classics, because I didn’t feel such a strong bond there. For me, music is a different kind of language. A unique way of communicating with the outside world, with other people. Music is also an invisible mirror of our soul.

What are your greatest musical inspirations when it comes to trumpet virtuosos?
There are several of them. The sadly deceased Roy Hargrove mentioned. Certainly also Miles Davis, whom I discovered even earlier. Also Lee Morgan, Booker Little and Nat Adderley. These are my so-called Top 5. Although, of course, I listen to many other artists, and not only trumpeters.

How would you describe your musical style?
I have been thinking about this with my colleagues for a long time and I think that the term modern bop will be the most appropriate here. Not everyone likes the term jazz itself, which can actually mean anything and everyone has their own ideas about it. Modern bop, on the other hand, is something groundbreaking. In short, I define modern bop as “melody, rhythm and community”. The word bop is known to have roots in bebop. It’s the past marked by swing and the best of jazz, and modern is something new and individual, something added from myself, my own interpretation of music. So modern bop is a certain fusion of the past and the future. And that’s exactly what I play.

During the Greenpoint Jazz Festival, you will appear on stage with a slightly smaller lineup than usual.
We will play in a quartet as the Daniel Sky Quartet. We have a special guest: Benito Gonzalez, a phenomenal pianist from Colombia who has collaborated with such giants of jazz music as Kenny Garret and Pharoah Sanders. We met relatively recently, but we liked each other so much that we started playing together. My good friend Stefano Battaglia will be playing double bass and he was one of the first people I met when I came to Berklee, and we’ve been together ever since. In turn, the drums will be played by the very young, but extremely talented Miguel Russell, whom I met during a jam session at Smalls Jazz Club in Manhattan, when he played with Stacy Dillard.

What repertoire do you expect this evening?
It won’t be a long performance, because there will be a few bands playing, so I think we will perform some compositions by Benito, our special guest, as well as some standards that everyone present would know. There will definitely also be some of my compositions, which I usually perform with Daniel Sky’s Modern Bop Quintet. I have a lot of my songs, so there’s plenty to choose from.

Two months ago, your first debut album, Introduction to the Sky, was released, so the opportunity to promote your work is also great.
That’s true. Introduction to the Sky is a two-part album containing only my compositions. The first disc contains more electronic sounds and some other sounds, while the second part is more standard and you can clearly hear my quintet there. Sometimes with alto saxophone, sometimes with tenor saxophone. The album is already available for purchase on the Center’s website and will also be available during the festival. It is also available on all streaming platforms.

You already had the opportunity to perform at Centrum at the beginning of this year, although with a completely different line-up. What do you think about this place?
Yes. It’s a great place to play. Large and spacious. I really liked the sound in the hall. It was also the first opportunity to perform for Polonia in Greenpoint. Now I will have a second opportunity. I’m looking forward to performing during the Festival. Especially since I will play with great musicians, my friends too. What could be better?

We wish you good luck at the festival and thank you for the interview.

Interviewed by Marcin Żurawicz.

Daniel Sky – Album

CD Available for purchase: $15

Daniel Sky

trumpeter / composer / educator

P: (646) 283-9891