Former East Bay resident Dayna Stephens is, at age 34, one of the most gifted jazz tenor saxophonists of his generation.
Now living in Patterson, New Jersey, he says he “caught the bug” two decades ago from seeing a local performance by tenor titan Joshua Redman. Because Redman and other jazz greats were alumni of Berkeley High School’s celebrated jazz program, Stephens decided to transfer there from Alameda High for his senior year.
“I wanted to be in an environment my last year where there were kids as dedicated to the music as I was,” he explains. He went on to graduate from the Berklee College of Music in Boston and study at the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz at the University of Southern California with Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter and others.
Stephens, who has performed in New York City with such jazz heavyweights as Kenny Barron, Tom Harrell and John Scofield, returns to Northern California at least twice a year. He’s taught at the Stanford Jazz Workshop every summer for the past nine years, as well as at the University of the Pacific’s Brubeck Institute in Stockton for three.
“His sound is beautiful,” says Brubeck Institute Jazz Quintet tenor saxophonist Tom Kelley, who studied with Stephens two years ago. “He’s an amazing player because he knows exactly what to play and what not to play at any given moment. He never traps his own playing within himself. He always plays what’s best for the music and for the group.”
Stephens was diagnosed two and a half years ago with Focal Segmental Glomerulosclerosis, a rare kidney disease that affects 20 out of every million people. He currently undergoes dialysis four and a half hours a day three times a week.
“If I’m not watching a TV, I’m on my computer doing e-mails and trying to get some business work done,” he says of his time spent hooked up to a dialysis machine..
The saxophonist is in need of a kidney transplant. “Luckily,” he says, “the waiting list in New Jersey is one of the shortest. It’ll be about three to seven years.”
Stephens will take part in a benefit to help cover his medical expenses on Sunday, Feb. 17, beginning at 6:30 p.m., at the Piedmont Piano Company, 1728 San Pablo Ave. in Oakland.
He will be playing with a world-class trio comprising pianist Taylor Eigsti, bassist Harish Raghavan, and drummer Eric Harland. Known for his work with Charles Lloyd, the SFJazz Collective and others, Harland is considered by many to be one of the most creative drummers performing today.
Also on the bill is the Brubeck Institute Jazz Quintet, which helped organize the benefit. More information can be found at www.helpdaynastephens.org.
The saxophonist will be back in the area less than two weeks later to perform with bassist Jeff Denson and pianist Joshua White at 8:30 p.m. on Friday, March 1, at the Jazzschool, 2087 Addison St. in Berkeley.