And the Making of UNI
by Melissa LaScaleia
Dan O’Reilly is a musician with the jazz band UNI. He’s been living in Myrtle Beach and playing music here for over twenty years; and he has a wonderful story to tell about how he started and what he offers the Market Common crowd.
“I’ve always been interested in music as far back as I can remember,” Dan says. “I had a toy saxophone before I had a real one. Music has never not been part of my life.”
Saxophone is one of a few different instruments he plays, but it’s the one he plays the best.
“It’s sort of like my first love,” he explains. “I always loved the sound of it. When I was in middle school, I was in my bedroom and a song came through on the radio— it was about 1978. I heard Clarence Clemons, he was the saxophone player in Bruce Springsteen’s band. That sound just grabbed me and touched something inside of me. And I knew: that’s what I need to do, that thing.”
Dan began listening to as many saxophone players as he could. The more he learned about Clarence Clemons, the more musicians he found that influenced Clarence’s style. So he started listening to them. He worked his way backwards, and started listening to musicians from the ’60s, ’50s and ’40s. In his quest to find “who influenced who,” he started to find wonderful, amazing musicians.
As a young adult, Dan attended college for music, where he received a primarily classical education.
“It was the early ’80s, and they didn’t teach jazz and rock and roll in school at that time,” he says. “There were some schools that had jazz programs, but not mine. So I didn’t explore it at that time.”
Dan organically found his way into playing in a professional capacity.
“A friend of mine at school played classical in the classroom and rock and roll in the clubs,” he says. “He mentioned he had a friend who had a band that needed a saxophone player, and I connected with them, and that was the beginning of it all. I started playing in bars, and I still play in bars now.”
“My entire life, I’ve either made my full income or a significant portion of it from playing music,” he adds. “I just followed what I was passionate about and kept finding opportunities to do it. One door leads to another door— one band leads to another.”
Dan grew up on Long Island, New York, and played blues and rock and roll in New York City and in the Hamptons in the early ’80s and ’90s.
But after some years, he got tired of New York and the snow and cold. He moved to Myrtle Beach in September of 1994, and met several musicians right away. He joined their blues band and was having a great time playing at the House of Blues, Broadway at the Beach, and pretty much every other venue there was in town. Then the band he was in dissolved. Dan was looking for a new challenge musically, so used the opportunity of the band’s break-up to teach himself jazz music.
“It was an entirely new language and vocabulary I had to learn,” he says in speaking of his experience stepping into the genre. “The thing about music, is that if you want to be able to play something well, you have to listen to a lot of it before you’re really going to be comfortable in it.”
He began listening to a lot of great players and copied what he heard.
“The best way to figure out how to do it is to listen a lot and then try,” he says.
One day, Dan found a piano player and suggested they play songs together at a local restaurant. And that’s what they did. After awhile, Dan found a bass player and then, a drummer. Shortly after he married his wife, she joined their ranks as vocalist. His wife’s parents were from an earlier generation, so the music she listened to growing up was a lot of Frank Sinatra. Her natural affinity to sing that type of music was a perfect fit with the band.
His group was born.
Dan attributes the successful flow and cohesiveness of his band to several factors.
“Musically we listen to each other, we give each other space,” Dan says. “Jazz is a very improvised music. If you hear it once, you’ll hear it differently the next time. Very spontaneous creation is happening. But I like to think we do it in a way that serves the song rather than serves the person’s ego. A lot of times, you see a musician and think, that guy’s doing it all about himself. And other times you hear someone and you think, ‘Wow, they’re really playing the song.’ I want it to be about the song, not about me.”
Other aspects Dan attributes to their success are that they genuinely like each other; and they all share a common goal when playing together.
“We’re not an experimental band, a band that’s pushing boundaries or anything like that,” he says. “We’re more traditional. I try to play songs with strong melodies and pretty harmonies, and a good beat you can dance to if you want, that people can connect with easily.
“We’re not in a place like New Orleans or New York, where people know a lot about jazz— so we want to make it accessible to people. For some people who don’t listen to a lot of jazz, the music can be really off-putting. It’s an incredible genre of music, you can go deep when you listen to it. But some people aren’t willing to go so deep to find the beauty there. I look at what we do as opening the door— as a first step to getting people to explore this genre further.”
Dan performs a number of original songs, but he makes sure they are accessible to the audience as well as a wide range of ages. So much so, that many people aren’t aware they are playing original music.
“We see the same faces week after week,” he continues. “We’ve made some dear friends because of what we do. We have a lot of fun and look forward to it every week. And of course there’s the new people I keep meeting too. We also have quite a number of other local musicians who join us and come up and play a number or sing a number.
“Chris Connolly has been a good friend of mine for 20 years— he’s a trombone player and audiences can hear him with us just about every week. I’ve learned a lot about jazz from listening to him. And Don Zimbardo and Nancy LaPorta are two of the regulars there every week who come up and sing with us. They are very talented.”
UNI plays at Travinia’s in the Market Common every Friday night from 7-10pm, where they’ve been for the past six years.
“I think the Market Common is a great community,” says Dan. “We would love it if there were more opportunities for musicians here. I imagine that people could almost bar-hop that way. It would be great to develop a real scene here for live music. This isn’t a huge town for jazz, and we’ve had a successful run here.”
“But,” he adds, “I couldn’t do any of this without my wife Lisa. She’s truly the best thing that ever happened to me.”
UNI Jazz Band
At Travinia’s Italian Kitchen and Wine Bar, 4011 DeVille Street, Myrtle Beach, SC 29577
Fridays from 7-10pm
Also available for private parties and functions. Learn more at UNIjazzmusic.com.