Donald and Me

I’ve been a Steely Dan/Donald Fagen fan for more than 30 years, but I never was the sort of fan who gets into biographical stuff. I never cared where Fagen grew up or who his girlfriends were. I just knew I liked the music without wondering much about why that might be so.

This morning, however, my e-mail included one of those you-might-also-enjoy… messages from The suggestion that interested me was a book called Steely Dan: Reelin’ in the Years—part biography of Fagen and Walter Becker, part discography and part band history. As I sometimes do on, I clicked on LOOK INSIDE!™ and read some of the book.

The selected passage was the story of Fagen’s high school (class of ’65) and college years (class of ’69). It was like looking into a mirror. In high school, Fagen was this alienated kid, more interested in jazz than Top 40 fluff, who hurried home after school every day to play the piano by ear for hours on end.

I did the same thing (high school class of ’64, college class of ’68).

Fagen could read music, I guess, because he played a horn in the high school marching band.


Fagen settled on majoring in English in college because he just didn’t want to be the kind of professional musician the music department was determined to produce.


There were some important differences, of course. Taken together they explain why, 40 years later, Fagen is an internationally known star who has sold millions of records, while I am an amateur musician who sings barbershop in nursing homes. Here’s a partial list of those differences:

  • In high school, I played a couple hours a day; Fagen probably played six or eight. It makes a difference.
  • My father hated my music, and I couldn’t play it while he was around. Fagen probably wasn’t constrained in quite that way.
  • In those days, the radio station choices in Portland, Maine were Top 40, country and “easy listening.” Fagen lived in New Jersey, just south of New York City where jazz broadcasts were all over the radio dial.
  • My alto sax teacher had been on the road with a well known big band and was a hell of a jazz player, but he was my only direct contact with jazz. Fagen had all the jazz clubs in NYC in which to soak up the music, the personalities and the life.
  • In college, I found the dope smokers to be self-important and boring. Fagen apparently joined in the fun and found fellow musicians and an audience in the process.
  • I was damn good, but Fagen in my opinion was and is a genius. That also makes a difference.
  • But I’m still better looking. I’ll give you six out of seven, Donald.

While still in high school, I learned to play many of the chord voicings Bud Powell had pioneered. I’d love to write about what made those harmonies so unexpected and new. You’d have to know some jazz theory to stay with me, however, and if you know some jazz theory you already know about Bud’s harmonies. Bud was the guy who figured out, for example, how to play a C7 chord that sounds like a C7—except there’s no C in it anywhere!

You still hear Bud’s chords, now at least 60 years old, any time you listen to piano jazz. My father, however, considered these harmonies to be particularly egregious, and he sort of had a point. Bud Powell, according to many accounts, was crazy, and his harmonies were crazy for their time.

Bud Powell also wasn’t the whole story, of course. I knew about Dave Brubeck, but no one told me about Red Garland; and I didn’t discover him on my own until many, many years later. Fagen, however, was a huge Red Garland fan from the beginning and apparently spent long hours trying to learn Garland’s rhythmic sense, his particular style of using his right hand to hang languidly behind the beat that his left hand maintained scrupulously.

Fagen’s cover of Ruby Baby on The Nightfly turns Dion’s silly puppy love ditty into a jazz-infused R&B classic and shows that Fagen did his homework. Listen to Fagen’s piano solo, starting about 1:45 into the track, and see if you don’t hear Red Garland inspiring Fagen’s wonderful melodic line. I certainly do.

No wonder I’m a fan.

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