Notes from High Up North

Niels Lan Doky’s Improvisations on Life and Music

20 JULY 2017,
Niels Lan Doky © Rune Lundøe
Niels Lan Doky © Rune Lundøe

Music to me is a language, one used to tell stories. And jazz is improvised storytelling.

(Niels Lan Doky)

Rewinding the clock to the sixties when Copenhagen flourished as Europe’s jazz capital, echoing names such as Alex Riel, Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen and Palle Mikkelborg, a heap of known American jazz musicians started to flock to the Denmark capital as well: Louis Armstrong, Ben Webster, Kenny Drew, and Ernie Wilkins, to name a few. Stan Getz lived in Kungens Lyngby for three years. Saxophonist Dexter Gordon chose Copenhagen as his resting haven from 1962 to 1976, so much so he fondly called the city “Copenhaven.” As Gordon remarked, “Since I’ve been over here in Denmark, I’ve felt that I could breathe and just be more or less a human being, without being white or black.”

During a sensitive era in America when racial issues divided opportunities in music and the arts, the other side of the globe was bubbling with openness and freedom of expression, and till today, this “free spirit” tradition especially in jazz, is very much embraced in Denmark, which makes it one of the most exciting music ports in the world.

Pianist Niels Lan Doky is one such notable artist who has witnessed the bloom of jazz in Denmark from the 60s till the present. Having played among the cream of the crop, such as Oscar Peterson, Billy Hart, John Scofield, David Sanborn, Bob Berg, Randy Brecker, Tom Harrell, Sonny Rollins, Ella Fitzgerald, and more, plus moving his piano wonders across boundaries from Boston, New York, Paris and Asia, Niels is the perfect epitome of the Danish “free bird” who has used his international exposure to blend various tunes to his repertoire.

Last June, Blue Note Tokyo hosted Niels Lan Doky and his wonderful Trio (Tobias Dall on bass and Niclas Bardeleben on drums) with elegant vocalists Debbie Sledge of the Sister Sledge and Amanda Thomsen. The evening swayed with familiar favorites, such as “Fly Me To The Moon”, “How Deep Is Your Love”, “Summertime”, “Kiss” by Prince (in a sultry rendition by Debbie Sledge), without overriding Niels’ own compositions “Forever Frank”, “Toots Waltz” and the very sweet “The Miracle Of You”. Some musicians are pinned down to the perimeters of their chosen genre, but Niels reassured a wide audience range that could enjoy his interpretations of classics, swing, pop, jazz and blues. Perhaps, the flexibility and diversity in his music selection are a result of his long years playing with music artists all over the world from a very young age, not to mention having lived in more than three abodes across America and Europe, and growing up with a Danish mother and a Vietnamese father, both themselves prime advocates of music during their time.

The Early Years

Niels: The very first time I was exposed to music was when I was five years old. I listened to “Alhambra” played by my father on the guitar. That made me study guitar at seven years old. However, I switched to piano at 11, and started to play professionally in a jazz club in Copenhagen at 13. I went to jam sessions every Sunday just to sit and learn tunes. Somebody heard my playing and offered to hire me with his band and gig. I thought, wow, you can have this much fun and earn money! Right there, I wanted to be a musician.

My mother was a very famous singer of popular songs in Denmark in the early 50s. She moved to Paris to sing in a night club with my father, and they lived there for many years. When she settled down and had a family she stopped singing unfortunately. She really never liked the music business. In the old days it was a very chauvinistic male world especially in the music business, and being a woman just didn’t make her comfortable, but she loved the music a lot. My father is Vietnamese and moved to France when he was nine years old. He studied guitar and medicine at the same time, working part time in a medical hospital and part time as a classic guitar teacher. When they were young in Paris they performed as a duo in night clubs, playing for celebrities like Marlene Dietrich, Sidney Poitier, Sophia Loren—you can say it was quite a glamorous hot nightclub act and striking as well in the 1950s to see a blonde Scandinavian singer and an Asian guitarist on stage. They had a music career indeed, and that’s how my brother, (bass player) Chris Minh and I grew up in music.

In fact, my parents were worried about us because they knew music was very unstable. Yet, they tried to support us and understood it was our passion. My father didn’t get much support from his family. They didn’t like him playing music and he always regretted that so he made sure to support us.

Niels’ juvenile exposure to African American jazz artists in his teens was quite phenomenal during a very protective period when jazz primarily was dominated by “non-whites”. Yet, Niels dug his way out of the stereotypical web and used his Danish roots to his advantage.

Stepping Out Into the World

Niels: When I was 15, I had this amazing opportunity to play with American trumpeter and band leader Thad Jones who was living in Denmark then. He was my biggest source of inspiration and encouragement. I never forget him telling me, “Niels, you must move to the U.S.; there is not much opportunity here in Copenhagen.” In the 60s and 70s, many American jazz legends moved to Denmark, such as Stan Getz, Ben Webster. There was a big jazz boom in Copenhagen. Thad wrote me a letter of recommendation to study at Berklee College of Music in Boston. He really taught me important things in music. On our first gig, I told him, “I know I’m new in this field. Teach me something.” He said during our break, “Niels, try this in the next set. Listen to the other members, don’t just listen to your own ears.” Since then, I realized my music level rose and that is the essential part of jazz—to listen to others. When you’re on your own, such as in piano playing, you listen too much to yourself, but you have to listen to others and react to what they play, then I realized what jazz was about.

So, at 17 I left Denmark and flew to Boston; that was my first trip to the U.S. I was in Berklee for three years, and decided to stay on, moved to New York, which I knew was the mecca for jazz. Then, I moved to Paris but kept an apartment in New York, commuting 5-7 times a year to Paris. In total, I lived around 12 years in Paris, 3 years in Boston, 5 years in New York, mostly commuting back and forth between New York and Paris. I believe I spent about a total of 23 years in Paris, so I had been away from Copenhagen since 1981, then 1991, 2001, 2011—for almost 32 years!

After moving to New York in 1984, I soon realized that whenever I had the chance to meet a famous or established musician and I told him that I was from Denmark, it would often ease the conversation to a remarkable extent and help open up doors and facilitate my entry into the inner circles of the New York elite of jazz musicians. So that was my stroke of luck, and in this way my Danish side helped me survive and open many doors during my initial efforts to establish myself on the New York jazz scene. For this reason, I started to become very conscious of my Danish roots and began taking them very seriously.

In the beginning I was very uncertain about my “displaced” nature. My first album “Here and There” showed I was very tormented. But, I realized eventually, Home is not physical; it’s a state of mind—how you feel and the people around you. Nowadays with social media, Skype, e-mail, people stay in touch like never before wherever, independent of location and can take charge. When I started in the U.S., I knew New York was the place. You cannot not go to New York for jazz. You have to be there. People thought moving away from New York was scary. Would they dare do it, they would lose their career. When I moved to Paris, in fact I lost my record contract Milestone label, a very prominent U.S. jazz record label. When they knew I was leaving New York they said they wouldn’t continue my contract. That’s how it was then. You can’t be in the map unless you were in New York. But now that mentality is gone. You can train anywhere; many pockets in the world do that including Copenhagen.

People might suspect I have lost my Danish character because of my locomotive life. On the contrary, it has affected me the opposite way. A lot of Danish people who move out of Denmark become more aware of their Danish identity and focus on it more and enhance it more. So, while I was in New York, I decided to compose music with incorporation of Danish music, Danish folk songs kept with a Danish flavor. My music sounded unique with a different quality compared to other hundreds of jazz pianists at that time. I do feel I’m more aware of my Danish roots more than if I had stayed in Denmark the whole time. I see that phenomenon with other popular Danish musicians I have met. Worth knowing, Danish people travel a lot. Usually when they finish high school they travel for one to two years maybe. The country is very small, climate not very exotic. Danish people love to travel then many come back or stay in London, Paris, or New York.

In Japan, Niels first sparked a romance around 1988, joining the Alvin Queen trio tour around the country. He has been returning to Japan since for the last 30 years.

The Japan Romance

Niels: I was living in New York and everyone in the jazz environment were going to Japan and talking about it—Miles Davis, for example. Japan is a country that greatly appreciates jazz. I asked a friend, the American drummer Billy Hart how I can come to Japan. He gave me the address of Miles’ presenter in Japan. It was 1986 and I just released my first album “Here and There”. I went to the post office and sent a copy of the record to Japan. Sometime later, I got a call. They liked my album and said why don’t I come to Japan. For two weeks I was touring Nagoya, Osaka, Yokohama, Lake Yamanakako…There was a club by the lake called 3361 Black. It was a resort hotel shaped like a whale. Every room had a musician theme like a musician name in it. We performed there and I became friends with the club owner who had a record label and he hired me as producer. It was a great chance and learning experience for me to develop regular contact and work with a Japanese recording company. Most Japanese record labels are conceptual. They evolve around specific theme whereas in Europe and the U.S. they are more random. For example, one album would be all French songs, or all Italian songs, Spanish songs, jazz standards, Russian classical, often repertoire concepts. When I worked with 3361 Black we also developed a concept of impressions of “Schindler’s List”. Musicians had to go to the movie to watch “Schindler’s List” and go back to the studio and record our feelings about the movie. It was very very interesting, and helped me work in my own way, coming up with musical ideas for recording, concert projects, and trained me to perceive more possibilities in music than you normally would. Most musicians say “No, no, I don’t do that” if you present them something so outstanding, like Russian classical theme. But, if you open your mind you can do it. It has opened my mind to different enriching repertoires, so I’m very grateful for this experience.

The Future

Niels: I’ll be directing a TV series filmed in Hanoi, Paris, Copenhagen, and New York. It’s about my family actually, and I’m writing the music and the script. I will also be reopening my Copenhagen jazz club "The Standard Jazz Club" at a new location on September 12 and I hope that many of the readers will stop by. See our website for more info: www.thestandardjazzclub.com

I think everything that I do at this point in my life is a dream project, because I only do things that I want to do. For most musicians, that must be the ultimate.

(Niels-Henning Ørsted Pederson)