Dayna Stephens Fundraiser, November 3 @ Blue Whale

The Los Angeles Jazz Collective is teaming up with pianist Josh Nelson, the Thelonious Monk Institute, and the Blue Whale to help with something that really is a matter of life and death.

His name might not be one of the first mentioned if a casual jazz fan were asked to name a great young saxophonist, but Dayna Stephens is one of the most well known and well liked players on both the East and West coasts.  His exquisite, imaginative playing and his gregarious personality have garnered him plenty of accolades and friendships in New York, Boston, and his hometown of San Francisco, with very strong ties to our very own Los Angeles.  Dayna was here as a member of the prestigious Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz, in the graduating class of 2003, which also featured drummer Ferenc Nemeth, guitarist Lionel Loueke, and vocalist Gretchen Parlato.

He was featured as a “Rising Protégé” in Downbeat Magazine, a well deserved moniker, evidenced by how quickly he was embraced by the jazz scene in New York, playing gigs with Terence Blanchard, Geoffrey Keezer, Albert “Tootie” Heath, Matt Wilson, Roy Hargrove, Stephon Harris, Tom Harrell, and countless others, including shows with stars like Carlos Santana, Stevie Wonder, and Freddie Hubbard.  His latest album is aptly and personally titled “Today Is Tomorrow” (Criss Cross 2012), and features among others guitarist Julian Lage, bassist Kiyoshi Kitagawa, and pianist Aaron Parks.

Click here to hear a sampling of “Today Is Tomorrow” by Dayna Stephens.

It’s safe to say the career Dayna has had up to this point would be coveted by many aspiring jazz musicians, and could lead many to conclude that he must lead a charmed life.  However, Dayna at age 19 was diagnosed with Focal Segmental Glomerulosclerosis, a rare kidney condition which afflicts only 20 people out of a million.  There is no known cause for this vicious disease, which attacks the kidney’s filtering system, leaving scarring and ultimately resulting in renal kidney failure.

Needless to say, Dayna needs a kidney transplant, one of 90,000 people in this country desperately awaiting one.  In the meantime, he is able to combat the autoimmune symptoms that are destroying his kidneys with anti-rejection medication, which cost upwards of $4000 every month.  Dayna must also undergo daily dialysis treatments, which he administers himself.

The jazz community has rallied around Dayna.  Last year, an event was held at Yoshi’s in San Francisco, featuring Bay Area jazz luminares such as bassist Marcus Shelby, percussionist John Santos, and guitarist Ray Obedio.  One of Dayna’s good friends, pianist and fellow Bay Area native Taylor Eigsti, released a poignant YouTube video:

By all accounts the event was a success, raising much needed funds for Dayna and also helping the general public to learn about the disease that he has been fighting for many years now.

A year later, Joon Lee, the owner of Blue Whale, the much-heralded jazz club in the Little Tokyo district of downtown Los Angeles, decided that it was time for another benefit for Dayna.  Joon is regarded as somewhat of a patron saint for jazz in L.A., and he admits that his main motivation is to continue to find a way to keep creative jazz music alive.  Joon contacted pianist Josh Nelson, who first met Dayna in 2000, really getting to know him when they were both at the 2002 Monterey Jazz Festival, eventually becoming close friends when Dayna moved to L.A. for the Monk Institute.  They even formed a band, dubbed ’78 Leos’, a reference to the fact they were both born on the same day in 1978, a coincidence that has only reinforced the bond they share.

When asked for a few words regarding their relationship, Josh notes, “I can’t say enough about Dayna.  He’s a truly an amazing human being, and I feel incredibly lucky to have him in my life.  He’s one of the most deep-thinking people I know.  He’s always searching, never settling…His mind never stops working, and he’s always challenging my ears!”  Josh, a tremendous jazz musician who has spent the last few years as Natalie Cole’s personal pianist, relishes his opportunities to play behind Dayna.  “Driven, passionate, creative, adventuresome are all words that come to mind when I think of him.  When I accompany him, every note he produces seems to possess profound meaning and weight.  I try to anticipate him, but he always surprises me.”

When Joon approached Josh about organizing the fundraiser, he jumped at the chance.  “Joon wanted to present a whole day of music at his great club, with the idea of maximizing monetary contributions.”  Josh contacted the Thelonious Monk Institute, and they agreed to a performance by their excellent graduate ensemble, just having returned to Los Angeles this fall after leaving L.A. for New Orleans the past two years, the very same program of which Dayna was once a member.

Josh also reached out to the Los Angeles Jazz Collective, and we are contributing two groups, The Vulgar Mas, a group co-led by LAJC director Gary Fukushima, and a band by Hitomi Oba, the brilliant saxophonist and composer who grew up in the Bay Area, with very close personal ties to Dayna.  Hitomi is in the middle of a production for ‘Strange Fellowe’, a ‘jazz opera’ for which she and trombonist Nick DePinna composed the score, but fortunately the dates of the shows won’t conflict with Dayna’s fundraiser.

Joon Lee has volunteered to perform, and while most know him as a club owner and jazz fanatic, he is also a fantastic singer and creative improviser.  Joining him will be pianist Vardan Ovsepian, and they will be playing music from their recent duo album, entitled ‘Now’.

The final act features Dayna Stephens himself, who thankfully was able to come down for the event.  Dayna will be joined by Josh Nelson on piano, guitarist Larry Koonse, bassist Dave Robaire, and Aaron McLendon on drums.  This incredible band will be the highlight of the evening and a fitting conclusion to the show, where everyone in attendance can applaud Dayna for his music, and for his courageous and inspirational struggle.

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