In The Beginning

MP: When does the piano start for you? And when did you begin to improvise?

DV: I began my piano journey when I was six. In Serbia, public music education is free.

After ten years of music in elementary and high school I went to The Faculty of Music Art School in Belgrade. It’s a conservatory that’s part of the University of Arts. I got a BA and an MA in Music Theory and Pedagogy.

But I had a problem at the same time. I was picking up popular tunes and folk music by ear because I felt limited by the written notes of classical music. So that’s how I eventually came to jazz – which was much harder to figure out on the piano than pop music.

MP: What were you listening to in those days?

DV: I remember a compilation of Bud Powell’s music. There was Michel Camilo’s One More Once, Masterplan by the Dave Weckl Band, and some Oscar Peterson’s albums. I listened to Wynton Kelly and Red Garland

I heard Lee Ritenour, Bob James, Fourplay, and Spyro Gyra. Chick Corea’s Acoustic and Electrik bands. Gonzalo Rubalcaba and Michel Camilo in the Latin jazz world.

Also the GRP Big Band with Dave Grusin and Larry Rosen. The Pat Metheny Group. McCoy Tyner.

MP: What about videos? DVDs? Books?

DV: Videos were rare and books were even rarer.  I borrowed DVDs from friends. We had some handwritten transcriptions from people who at some point studied with foreign jazz musicians.

So all of us – young aspiring jazz beginners – shared every precious pearl of knowledge. We absorbed everything we could.


MP: You’ve re-worked and synthesised your earlier influences into a recognisable and very individual style. Who else influenced you?

DV: After coming to America I discovered Joey Calderazzo, Kenny Kirkland, Branford Marsalis, and Terence Blanchard, among others. And then after that I began to build my own style from three different branches.

First, there’s a younger-generation New York City jazz sound from musicians like Brad Mehldau, Chris Potter Joshua Redman, Taylor Eigsti, Eric Harland and Aaron Parks.

Second, there’s the European ECM jazz sound. such as Tomasz Stanko, Esbjorn Svensson, Marcin Wasilewski. And there’s the French jazz scene with with Jean-Michel Pilc, Yaron Herman and Laurent de Wilde for example – they’ve influenced me a lot

Third, there are so-called ethnic jazz artists. Tigran Hamasyan and Vardan Ovsepian for example.


MP: You have undergraduate and graduate degrees from the conservatory in Belgrade. Why did you decide to continue at the Berklee College of Music?

DV: I felt I couldn’t improve any more in Serbia as a jazz pianist. And I wanted to become an extremely adept jazz pianist. 

At Berklee I began serious and professional jazz studies – really for the first time. I absorbed about 200 books on jazz and music during the three years I was there.
MP: What helped you the most?
DV: Hard practicing. What jazz musicians call woodshedding. I had to make the most of my time. All of my energy went to my one goal of becoming a jazz piano player.

On weekdays I had classes from 9am to 5. I’d go home to my apartment and practice after that for 6 hours – even on long days when there were 2 or three rehearsals and a gig or a recital .

I remember waiting, eagerly, for the weekend. Not to rest. It was free time to practice.

MP: Were there teachers at Berklee who really helped you?

DV: Hall Crook, a great player and teacher. But I didn’t have direct contact with him – I read three of his books: Ready, Aim, Improvise, and How to Improvise, and How to Comp. He talked about practicing jazz and „getting there“ and „the process is the thing and the thing is the process.“ That became my motto for those woodshedding days.

Ed Tomassi was the great classroom teacher I studied with. He’s an extraordinary musician and person. He explained jazz improvisation through his very specific, direct, honest, and unique sense of humour. He has a colossal amount of information on jazz history, recording, theory and great musical trivia

He used to say:

When you manage to swing me out of this room, you gotta swing me out Berklee, then you gotta swing me out of Boston and if you manage to swing me out of New York – that means you know how to swing!!

He wrote the first 16 tones of the overtone series on the board to show how all the notes in a G melodic minor bebop scale are between the 6th and 16th steps. In his heavy southern accent with a dead serious face he said:

So cats, you see now how the entire universe resounds of G melodic minor bebop scale. Ya dig? 

MP: Who was your piano teacher at Berklee? 
My first jazz piano professor was Ray Santisi. He’s legendary. Keith Jarrett, Joe Zawinul, Chick Corea and Makoto Ozone studied with him. So did Diana Krall. Back in the day he played with Charlie Parker and Stan Getz.

My second teacher at Berklee was Laszlo Gardony, the great Hungarian jazz pianist. Laszlo showed me modern stuff – how to use synthetic scales, how to play outside, how to broaden my rhythmic vocabulary, how to apply things from Coltrane.

I studied briefly with JoAnne Brackeen and Danilo Perez – they’re jazz greats. They gave me a lot of helpful information.

But – about lessons. The biggest lesson is no one can show you how to play jazz. No matter how great your teachers are – and mine were amazing – you have to put it all together on your own in a practice room. That’s the only way.

On Moving From Serbia To America

MP: Living outside of the country from which you’re from can be unbelievably rewarding and challenging – sometimes both at the same time. What was it like for you when you arrived in the US?

DV: Culture shock. What you have to understand is while Serbia is part of Europe I would say we belong more to eastern than western culture and thought. We’re more oriented towards each other, family values, hospitality and spirituality. We cherish interpersonal relations more than anything else. We put private lives above professional ones.

Another thing was in Serbia we suffered through two extremely difficult decades. Those of us who survived two wars, poverty, economic, political and cultural disaster by our 20’s have baggage. But from those things came early maturity and resilience.

Americans at first seemed to me to be much more practical, with careers, jobs and income among their most important goals. Everything seemed instant, fast, replaceable and attractive – efficient and profitable.

I had to adjust to a new way of life. I’ve benefited by acquiring American-style practical thinking and professionalism. 

The Miracle of New York City

MP: You made another huge move from Boston to New York City. How did that come about?

DV: New York is a must for jazz musicians who want to really sharpen their skills. Everything in jazz is in New York – people, life, opportunities, scenes, employment, adventure!

Also I wanted to pursue a jazz master’s degree in jazz at the Steinhardt School of Music at New York University. Jean-Michel Pilc, the marvellous French music philosopher and jazz piano player, teaches there and he’s become my mentor. And NYU’s in Greenwich Village which is the middle of everything.

MP: What does New York feel like to you?

New York is very different from Belgrade but both cities have much in common. They feel like capital cities. There’s hype and happenings everywhere. Secret gardens where you can find inspiration and peace. If I were to I leave New York – for doctoral studies, employment, or some other reason – it’ll be the city I’ll come back to – it feels like home.

MP: Bill Evans wrote and recorded New York City’s No Lark – referring to the challenge of living and working as a jazz musician in New York. Could you talk about the challenges? And the rewards?

The economic crisis definitely effected jazz and its venues. I’d also say jazz is an art that gives its rewards when mind and heart listen to it. But audiences now have less time for jazz than they used to. And mass media degrades whatever it doesn’t promote.

Playing jazz in New York is full of self-sacrifice and competition – with yourself and others. But, end of day, getting onstage at any New York jazz venue and playing in front of people is a miracle.

It’s a blessing to live and work in the jazz centre of the world.

Teaching And Learning

MP: Do you have advice for aspiring jazz pianists?

Charlie Parker said: „Learn the rules, then forget them.“ This is the ultimate truth for learning how to play jazz.

MP: How did you learn the rules? How do you forget them?

There are two schools of thought. With both of them listening to jazz is absolutely completely 100% essential.

One school says learn jazz by ear. Transcribe great solos – dozens of them – by jazz masters. Figure out on your own what’s happening. 

So definitely when an aspiring jazz musician reaches an intermediate level, he or she should become experienced with real jazz sources. Transcribe solos, listen to as much music as possible. Play music with people.

But the other school says the basics can be learned in a classroom from method books. It’s about attending an an official jazz institution where knowledge has been gathered, analysed and organised into small comprehensible pieces.

In this school you you don’t have to figure it out by yourself. You get pre-analyzed handouts from teachers. Recordings are references to get the right sound to your ears.

Either way everything has to be learned.

MP: Are there big-picture basics you’d recommend to a jazz beginner?

It’s important to understand chromaticism and then glue that together with scales. Learning all the scales and their application, as well as different voicing and comping techniques, one and two handed, that’s essential

Technique comes from from studying classical repertoire. It’s helpful to have a strong classical background because if you already have technique then you can focus directly on jazz. 

MP: What do you say to a student who’s gone past the beginning stages?

This is where Charlie Parker’s „forget the rules“ comes in. On a more advanced level, you don’t worry about the individual elements of improvisation. You use them but you don’t think about them because they’ve been internalised and they’re second nature.  Your subconscious takes over. Your own voice starts to emerge.

I see this all the time with Jean-Michel Pilc. He plays super advanced stuff. But he doesn’t think about scales, chords, or rules. He talks about it in terms of feelings, sound, colours, or shapes.


MP: What advice would you give to aspiring pianists about acquiring technique?

Chopin is good for dynamics, lyricism, and phrasing in general. Liszt, Rachmaninov and Scriabin for developing technique. Debussy and Bartok for advanced harmonic language. Mozart and Beethoven for pretty much everything!

Nowadays, polyphonic piano playing is popular because of Fred Hersch and Brad Mehldau. Checking out Bach and the Well Tempered Clavier can open new perspectives.

I’ve also worked with Jean-Michel Pilc on Schubert’s Six Moments Musical. Jean-Michel made the wonderful point that a pianist should play them without hearing a piano. It’s a technique that also works for jazz.


MP: What does it mean to be an artist?

There’s an artistic being inside everyone. It awaits the right conditions to be born. My advise to students is listen to Kenny Werner in his Effortless Mastery meditation:

I am a master.

Skill is learnable. Practicing and mastering techniques and rules is just a matter of time and dedication. But after skills are learned the goal changes. Instead of trying to play „the right thing“ it becomes „make your own, unique interpretation.“

With that a student become an artist.

Odd Meters

MP: Playing in meters other than four and three is mainstream now. But it hasn’t been for all that long. How did you first come to odd meters.

DV: I come from a region of Eastern Europe where odd meters are common in traditional folk songs so I grew up listening to 7/8, 9/8, and 11/8/. Songs like this were on TV and radio every day.

Much later, when I started composing jazz I was influenced by Balkan traditional music which has compound odd meters such as 17/8, 27/8, and 29/8.

MP: How do you introduce beginners to odd meters?

DV: The way to improvise with odd meters is to feel them. Let them flow through your body and soul. but don’t count through them.

The goal  is to get a natural sound – an impression of regularity. My way is to go out of time. I flow over the meter for a while. I return to it at some later point.

MP: Odd meters can be a bit terrifying for beginners. Are there systems that might be helpful? Or specific exercises? 

There are lot of approaches to odd meter systems. Takadimi is one. Steve Coleman has a system that breaks everything into groups of 2 and 3.

I have a „spoken word“ approach. Zrnov, a song from my album The Path of Silvan has a 17/8 meter in the first section. The structure is 9 + 8 and that resolves to 2+2+2+3 + 4/4.

I use a sentence  – „I have got freedom and I love it.“ When musicians play phrases and rhythms while repeating that sentence, it turns out to be much easier than counting out the meter.

I also recommend practicing – way from an instrument – in simple odd meters like 5/4, 7/4, 9/4, 11/4. It’s visualisation. It makes things much easier when we go to an instrument.

Once you get an idea of odd meters they become natural like 4/4 or 3/4. Then they cease to to be scary.

The Piano

MP: What does a really fabulous piano help you to do? Is there a specific piano you’ve played on that’s particularly memorable?

A great piano can inspire you so much that you suddenly become at least fifty percent – I’m not exaggerating – better than you normally are.

I remember several fantastic pianos. One was a marvelous 97-key Bosendorfer Imperial I played in 2008 in Montreux Jazz Solo. Another great piano was a Steinway B at the Tenri Cultural Institute of New York. It felt miraculous.

But the truth is a pianist needs to know how to tame the beast – to handle all kinds of pianos, real bad and real amazing ones and everything in between.

When you can make the piano into a pet, it guides you through the performance and gives a hand as needed. If you don’t control it, it will control you. Then you are doomed!

Final Thoughts

MP: What’s Dimitrije Vasiljevic’s signature? As a jazz pianist and as a teacher?

I’m trying to be an artist who expresses thought, ideas and feelings through music. I have a great respect for masters, but also know how to respect myself.