Musical Mentor – an in-depth interview with Jason Domnarski

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Photograph by Andrei Cherascu

About the article: 

This article was written and published in December 2012. It was the cover story for that month’s issue of The Boulevardier Magazine (www.theblvdier.com), a funny and clever magazine I was writing for at the time. In the meantime The Boulevardier is on an indefinite hiatus but this piece remains one of my favorites so I’d like to make it available online again. Since it’s a story about music (and myth) and since I still consider it a very relevant and interesting read I decided it would be perfect for this website. If the Boulevardier ever gets back online I suggest you check out the magazine for many articles such as this.

On my visit to Jason’s hometown of Paris I also made a music video of him playing “Streamline”, my favorite track from his latest record Here and There. Check it out:

 

Now, on to the story:

Au Passage is a charming, petite Parisian restaurant, situated on a back-alley called Passage Saint-Sébastien, the kind of place a tourist would never stumble upon unless, like myself, he would be lucky enough to be taken there by someone who lives in the area. To my right there is a timeworn mirror in which you can barely see the reflection of the room and that adds to the mystique. The place as far as I can tell is typically Parisian, small and crowded buzzing with French vitality and that beautiful language I’ve come to love. The kitchen barely fits two people and, in spite of that, or perhaps because of it the meal is amongst the best I’ve ever had. As we dine on Cote de Boeuf, delicious Ceviche, tasty quail and Escabeche de Pule and wash it down with a wonderful bottle of La Souterrone vintage 2009 by Herve Souhaut the scene is almost surreal, as if we had somehow managed to condense the entire city of Paris into one single place in one single point in time. We’re waiting for Jason, who had to teach a late class but should arrive shortly. Ever since I got acquainted with the concept of the Boulevardier magazine he was the one man I always envisioned as the quintessential boulevardier and I’ve been planning to tell his story from day one. When the opportunity for a trip to Paris presented itself my wife and I jumped at it immediately, anxious to see the city, as well as our friends again. Jason and his lovely wife Rebecca, also a Jazz musician, have been kind enough to put us up for a few days and this gave me the chance to get to talk to Jason.

As he makes his way into the restaurant carrying his electric guitar, I can see by the look on his face that he is tired after a day’s work but, by the time he crosses the small room and joins us at the table his expression denotes nothing but his characteristically composed demeanor, his charm and a sharp intellect. “Ah, he’s being a tourist” he says smiling as he catches me recording him with my video camera. Within seconds his fatigue has evaporated and he gets into the flow of the evening reaching for a glass of wine and giving his wife a quick kiss. Even at the end of a day’s work he answers my question with the lighthearted ease and charisma of a man of culture.

“I never wanted to go to conservatory” he explains when I ask how he got his start in music. “I always wanted to be involved in [it] but I didn’t want to have the whole 10 hours practicing a day and only devoting myself to perfecting my skills on this one instrument.” Jason, already an accomplished pianist who has released four records, most recently Here and There, started taking piano lessons at the age of six and went on to study classical piano for the next seven years. Then, in high school, he switched to Jazz. “When I was 13 or 14 someone introduced me to ragtime and Scott Joplin so I started studying ragtime which is sort of the bridge between classical and jazz. I think Dave Brubeck was the first Jazz pianist that I liked a lot.” As his tastes started to swing towards Jazz, the “classical” classroom felt inappropriate. “My classical teacher said ‘I can’t teach you this. You need to either stop liking this or change teachers and go to Jazz’, which I did” he remembers. “In high school it’s always good to have a talent, everyone’s trying to do something cool. For me music is something that came naturally.” Theses first experiences not just with discovering music but also with being taught music would end up shaping the path of his career. If I had to think of two words to best describe Jason Domnarski those would be “Not Only…”

Not only does Jason play the piano but also guitar and bass. He not only plays but also writes his own music. Not only is he an immensely talented Jazz musician, he is also a businessman who runs the Park Slope Rock School and not only does he run the school in Brooklyn but also Paris, a city that has been his home for the last two years. While many strive for success in one field of activity, Jason effortlessly excels in two; making music and teaching it. While some try to run a business in one city Jason has made a name for himself in two of the most iconic cities in the world.

The concept of the Park Slope Rock School sprouted in 2004. “A friend was teaching an after-school program in Manhattan and left the program. He suggested me as a replacement and I got on board. They wanted a rock-like after-school class and that’s how I got into teaching popular music and rock. I thought it’s an incredible way to teach music so, after a while, I developed my own program and posted it on a blog somewhere. At first there were like five students, then there were ten and after a couple of years there were thirty. It was the first time I saw I enjoyed teaching.”

It’s not hard to picture Jason as a teacher. His calm, friendly demeanor and his natural way with words are essential for this profession. And when he talks about his program he’s got a glimmer in his eyes and you can feel how attached he is to this project he has built from scratch. When I inquire about the challenge of running the Brooklyn School now that he lives in Paris, he smiles. “It’s been difficult. The program is so much a part of me and I feel very attached to it and to the students, so leaving it for Paris two years ago and putting myself purely in the role of owner and chief administrative officer and payroll department all in one wasn’t an easy step. My role changed, I wasn’t in the classroom anymore which is what I love doing and the reason I started it in the first place.” He reflects upon this for a few seconds and adds “That’s probably the problem of many small business owners that you need to wear all the hats, because you can’t really afford to hire anyone else. It’s great to see your business flourish but you also have a lot more administrative tasks and you start to see that it’s not just a side-gig anymore but a developing business that involves a lot of self-education in domains like accounting business practices and so on. Luckily, I’ve left the Brooklyn School in good hands, some very talented teachers teach the courses and I do all the enrollment, marketing promotion and the likes”.

“And how is the Paris program coming along?” I ask. You can see the excitement and enthusiasm on his face as he relates how well Parisians have responded to it, that in a little over a year since laying the foundation of the program over there it already has more students than the one in Brooklyn, which he says was the biggest surprise. I ask him why he thinks that is. “Paris has been this traditionally conservatory based system where they teach classical music – which is great – but the approach to teaching seems a bit rigid. There are so many people who would like to be involved but only so many conservatories. I think there are many kids whose introduction to music has been negatively affected by that. The whole point of it is basically to have fun. I don’t see any point in starting to do it for any other reason but just to really enjoy it because you like playing music and you want to either make music on your own or you want to play with other people and I think the best thing for an educational system is to recognize that and try to mine its potential. I think that’s one of the reasons, especially in Paris, that the rock school has taken off because we’re all about that.”

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With a clearer picture now of the history and the success of the rock school I’m curious to find out about the way it’s being run. What is the system it is based on? “Well, you have to think to yourself what teaching music to children is about. What are you trying to promote? I think it’s not just about Iron Man riffs and shreds and learning to cover your favorite bands. I like to use the band as an educational model, have the children learn to work together, to write music together. That’s what gets me most excited, when a kid starts writing his own music. Every now and then a kid will come up to me and say ‘Hey, I wrote the lyrics to this song’ and we tried to involve the rest of the band and see what we can do with it. A lot of original songwriting comes out of this, which I think is one of the most special things. Another would be when I hear reports from parents that the work we do together in rock school is helping them socialize in the classroom and come out of their shells.”

I ask about his own approach to songwriting and what drives and inspires him but the conversation quickly returns to his work in rock school: “What I’m mostly drawn to in music is honesty. It’s refreshing to hear someone who is doing something which is purely their own. That’s what I always try to do is to make music that’s really true to what I like and trying not to write things that I just think other people might like but that’s really hard to do, not referencing other artists in what you’re playing. You put a lot of walls in front of you and they only get thicker as you get older. For me working with kids in this capacity is the most fun and rewarding part of what I do. They don’t care if it’s silly to write a song about breakfast or write a song about sharks and the stuff they actually write, you’re like: ‘Man, this is incredible, I wish I could write this’. And I can’t because there are too many things telling me yes or no.” When he realizes that he started talking about his music and ended up talking about the rock school again he laughs. “Just goes to show how intertwined the two are and how much I enjoy teaching. Many things that happen in the classroom inspire and form me as a professional.”

This is immediately obvious to me from the pride with which he speaks of his students. He shows me some of their compositions on his iPad and I must admit that they are incredibly complex and well-rounded songs and it seems amazing that they have been written by children. “I’m learning a lot from them. I hope they’re learning more from me” he jokes. We talk about music and his preferences, modern and classic, and he mentions the likes of Erik Satie, Claude Debussy, Bill Evans and Brad Mehldau but also Talking Heads, Boards of Canada, St. Vincent and The XX.

Being a musician but also a businessman and most of all a teacher, which puts him in the position of being a role model for the children, a man like Jason must always display an elegant appearance and gentlemanly conduct, which he always does with the greatest of ease. In the four days I’ve spent as a guest in his home I’ve never seen him look in any way that would not have been proper in the case of an impromptu interview and photo session and that seemed involuntary, more of a natural state than a planned “look”. I ask him about his personal style and his reply did not surprise me, for I had come to expect nothing less from Jason than modesty and natural charm: “First impressions are key, especially when you run your own business and I think your appearance can communicate a lot of things. While I enjoy nice clothes, I don’t like to spend lots of money on my wardrobe. My wife will tell you I’m an awful shopper. I don’t follow men’s trends too closely, but I’ve definitely been pleased to see the return of fitted clothing. For me, it’s all about the fit. It doesn’t matter what you wear…if it’s tailored or fits you well, you’re golden. Being tall and thin, it can sometimes be tough, but I’ve had much more luck since moving to Europe.”

The conversation turns to women and I ask Jason if he has any advice for the readers especially since, as is evident from the first moment you watch him and Rebecca together, he has clearly married the love of his life. I’ve followed their interactions, their symbiosis, the way they communicate and seem to read each other’s thoughts, the way they bounce ideas off each other and how she seems to know every detail about his work and his art and vice versa.

Even as we were preparing the photo session and the video shoot Rebecca’s presence is priceless as she immediately helps him relax and get laid-back, makes him smile and suggests changes and improvements in his posture, his clothing and his expression saving me as a photographer a tremendous amount of work. “I totally believe in the old adage of behind every successful man is a woman” he confesses. “So much of my recent success is a result of being with someone who really believes in what I’m doing, understands why I’m doing it, and helps me realize my goals. I’m someone who needs to talk through ideas before making big decisions and Rebecca has always been a great sounding board. I only hope I return the favor!”

It seems to me that Jason has wisely surrounded himself in his life with everything he loves leaving little room for anything else. His marriage reflects that, and so does their home, tastefully decorated with vintage furniture bought from Parisian flea markets, the walls adorned with guitars, artwork and pictures of their family. There is love also in the work he does, both in the studio and the classroom and if there is a better recipe for success and a life of personal fulfillment I personally cannot think of it.

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