The Indiana Jones of the Jazz Department

By Drew Dixon

To view Danielle Moore's audio slide show on Steve Dancz, click the image.

To view Danielle Moore's audio slide show on Steve Dancz, click the image.

When Steve Dancz used to walk to different churches around his hometown of Athens, Ga., trying to find new music to listen to and play along with, he had no idea that this boyhood passion would ultimately take him to destinations far beyond the reach of an afternoon’s stroll.  

Dancz, an only child, grew up in a musical household; his father taught brass at the University of Georgia and his mother was a choreographer.  Graduating from high school a year early, he enrolled at UGA at the age of 17.  He stayed for one quarter before he played an audition and was offered the position of musical director on the road for an entertainer out of Houston, Texas.  

Once he left school, Dancz started his two year stateside tour with four months in the Virgin Islands.  He had the opportunity to play with Jimmy Cliff, a renowned musical innovator and songwriter, allowing the young musician to begin expanding his own musical and social talents.  Most kids his age were worried about taking the SAT.

“Basically that first four months out of school was just… wonderful,” Dancz laughs.

He learned early that influences were important to any musician.  Dancz’s father introduced him to major jazz figures like William “Count” Basie and Billie Holiday, explaining what inspiration can do for an artist’s music.  

After two years, Dancz began touring with an international group out of Houston, keeping him busy for the next 24 months.  This group helped to shape him, he believes.  The drummer of the band was a yogi—a yoga instructor—who aided Dancz in his developing a passion for Buddhism; the bassist was the son of a well known Serbian political leader who had to flee the country at night, hanging onto the bottom of a train; and the guitarist was a theosophist with a deep understanding of Rosicrucian philosophy.  And then there was Steve, an Episcopalian from Athens, Ga.  Not only was he traveling the world, seeing different countries and listening to different music, he had the opportunity to hang out with four “phenomenal people” in very close quarters for a very long time.  Playing as much as seven nights a week, Dancz was perpetually building his playing style. 

During this time, he says, “my ears were blown wide open by being in Istanbul, South America, or Africa for months.”  Dancz would buy records and record radio broadcasts.  Trusting his radio cassette recorder, he would prop it on hotel balconies, allowing it to absorb the native area’s sounds as they soaked through the cassette recorder’s speakers like books on tape for Steve’s tutoring.   

Steve also began his interest in and study of eastern religion during these international tours.  Having traveled extensively with his own family as a child, this new group gave him the opportunity to see new parts of the world and begin to entertain ideas not presented to him during his southern upbringing.  Buddhism interested Steve the most.  Once he got back to Athens after the tours, he began to expand his network of people within the world of Buddhism.  He met yogis, as well as interesting and charismatic people who helped him to develop his own comfort levels with the religion.  He began practicing Vipashyana, a type of analytical meditation closely related to Shamatha, in which the goal is to teach oneself to settle into the moment; to be purely in the moment and not in the past or the future.

“Learning to play jazz, becoming an improviser, will almost lead you down the same path,” says Dancz.  “It’s a simultaneous process between intake and outgo… you’ve got to respond.  Half of the miracle of this music is that not only are you creating stuff on the fly, but you’re also processing what’s coming at you on the fly.”

Dancz remembers that his international experiences also helped him while he worked on musical projects for National Geographic.  From his initial assignment, working on the score for an African Bush pilot, to working on films such as Inside Mecca, Africa’s Dinosaur Giants, and Great White: Deep Trouble, Dancz was amazed at how much material he still had inside of him to refer back to as he worked.  

Nine years ago, Dancz received a request to play in the World Festival of Sacred Music in India from His Holiness, the XIV Dalai Lama.  Playing with a group made up of mostly his own former students, he began to think about what he wanted to perform half-way around the world.  Ultimately, he decided to bring a part of his home to India; the quartet played a combination of spirituals, jazz classics, and Dancz originals.  “We focused on what we wanted to do over there; what is our connection to sacred music?  So we basically did our take on southern gospel.”  The quartet also had the privilege of meeting and speaking to His Holiness, an excellent experience that has prompted multiple return trips for Dancz.  

Today, Dancz maintains the idea that he can learn just as much from his students as they can from him, wishing to grow from what he learns inside of the classroom and out.  This mindset, he says, stems from a realization he had about his parents during a visit to Athens while living out in Los Angeles as an adult.  “I come back and they just seem like they’re really youthful and plugged in,” says Dancz.  “I look at some of my friends’ parents and they seem kind of aged, and I realize now after all these years what that came from: they were with you guys—they were with a constant stream of 18 to 24 year olds for 35 years.” In essence, being in a youthful environment, being a part of the local art and culture, and always taking in what’s new helped his parents to stay young at heart, a trait he hopes to continue.  Even now as his once dark hair gradually fades to the all-knowing shade of gray, he continues to keep a positive, young outlook on life.

Steve has done an excellent job of staying connected to the generation now coming through his classroom.  “Steve has been a huge part in my decision to pursue a career in music,” says Patrick Atwater, a Senior at UGA. “He doesn’t sugar coat or make false promises that it will be easy, but he also conveys his belief that every part is worth it, both good and bad. I have become more confident when playing and creating music in part to Steve’s enthusiasm towards music in general. I only hope that I can continue to share Steve’s enthusiasm as I head out into the world after graduation.”  Steven Taylor, another student of Dancz’s, feels that, “[Dancz] loves to speak with students about their goals in music and business and is eager to offer advice. He’s a great motivator because he’s able to convey how important something is without seeming like he is lecturing you.”

Steve’s experience behind-the-scenes allows him to listen to music on many different levels.  He cites the Black Eyes Peas, as well as some of the best of hip-hop, as having unbelievable production quality.  Using the same technique to listen to Turkish music or African music from the bush, Steve opens his ears, and many times is pleasantly surprised.  “If I’m going to listen to it, I’m going to get something out of it… learn something from it… you know, it may influence some production I do down the line.”  The one thing he says he hopes for in pop music is that when people have the platform to have their music heard on national radio, he wishes that the subject matter was more uplifting; that it had, somewhere inside of it, the ability to lift someone up out of wherever they are. 

Last year, he had the honor of witnessing legendary jazz-recording artist Dave Brubeck’s residency at the University of Georgia.  He was able to spend a lot of quality time with Brubeck, learning from him and “watching him do his thing.”  “He was a huge influence on me,” says Dancz. “His piece Blue Rondo a La Turk that was one of the first pieces of music that I ever learned right off the record.”  Dancz also had the experience of playing with legendary jazz trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, whom he recalls as being “so full of life and joy and love.”  

Today Steve continues to teach at the University of Georgia’s School of Music in Athens, Ga.  His daughter and wife take priority over his musical career, something he decided when his daughter was born in 1993.  In a few years, once she goes to college, he says, he’ll start thinking about playing out again.  But until then, she’s his main concern.  For now, he’s content with studio work and working on the sound score and eventual soundtrack release for a movie based on his pilgrimage to Tibet in 2004, Sacred Sights of the Dalai Lama.  

“Everything from my family values to my spiritual path to my musical tastes… I want everything to be connected… What I leave behind is not just the work itself, but the intention behind the work and that’s what I’m more aware of than I’ve ever been.  I’m just kind of putting that out into the universe; everything feeds into everything else, and as I said before, hopefully, it may have some kind of uplifting quality to people.”

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