Don Menza is a triple-threat fellow. He's a jazzman specializing in tenor saxophone, a studio musician who has been spotlighted on several film sound tracks and a composer whose big-band charts are highly regarded.
But if you ask the red-headed hornman which of these endeavors is closest to his heart, he doesn't have to think before he replies. "Playing jazz, because if I'm not playing, then I'm not happy," he said during a conversation in the North Hollywood home he shares with his wife, Rose, and their two children.
Fortunately for the 51-year-old Menza--who plays Monday at Alfonse's and next Saturday at the Blue Note Cafe--jazz work has been consistent, though he often has to travel to make a decent living. "You can't stay and make your career here, if you want to be a player," said Menza, who moved here in 1968.
"You can't demand any money here because you're a hometown boy," he continued. "At home, you make $50, if you're lucky. Sometimes you work for the door. If you want to play, that's the way it's going to be."
Because of a solid reputation he established while living in Munich, West Germany, from 1964 to 1968, Menza's played abroad about a dozen times, and twice this year.
"On the first trip, in March, I took a quintet and played in Hamburg on a TV show, did club dates in Klosters, Switzerland; Nuremberg, Germany, and Bisano, Italy," he said. "Then in Spain, (pianist) Frank Strazzeri and I recorded both a quartet and duo LP for Fresh Sound Records. The duo, cut on our last night there, was all ballads."
Don Menza, the man renowned, and, conversely, chided, for his zillion-notes-a-minute solo style, records an all-ballad LP? "Yes, I know how to play hot tenor and everybody has used me for that," he acknowledged. "But maybe I'm mellowing, maybe that's why I've developed my ballad side. I'm not pushing the horn so hard, where I used to chew it up."
It's not that Menza never recognized he had a warm side: He's shown it over the years, though in limited amounts. One compelling solo that reveals both his fervor and his passion was recorded while he was touring with Buddy Rich in 1968. "Channel One Suite," which is still heard regularly on jazz radio stations, made the tenorman a household word in jazz circles. "Yeah, that put me on the map here," he said.
Menza decided a year with Rich was enough, and, in 1969, entered studio work. "Playing with him was great, but I had a wife and two kids and I wasn't making enough with Buddy," he said. "Besides, I came here (from Munich) to get into studio work. It was supposed to be the land of milk and honey, but you know, I could never figure the scene out. Even though I've been very successful in my 19 years here, I've always felt like I was on the fringe."
"Having a jazz reputation doesn't help you (in the studios) at all," continued Menza, who plays flutes and clarinets as well as all the saxes. "The contractors wonder, 'Can he play that orchestra sound, can he really read, will he blend with the section?' "
Choosing between jazz and studio work has been a dilemma for Menza. "You have to make up your mind which direction you're going in, and I wasn't sure," he said. "I wanted to work (in the studios) but I never stopped playing (jazz). I can't give that up."
Menza also has had his share of good fortune as a composer of jazz charts, which have been written for and recorded by the bands of Rich--"playing with that cat was one of the rare treats of my life"--Louie Bellson, Maynard Ferguson and, most recently, Freeflight's Jim Walker. But he'd like to branch out. "It's hard for me to consider myself as a composer because it's always been in the same idiom, the jazz big-band thing," he said. "It's not that I'm bored, but maybe impatient. I want to hear other sounds, and breaking into film writing" would further that aim.