Dan Balmer ’80, Jazz Guitarist
Dan Balmer has been infatuated with the guitar for as long as he can remember. At the age of 7, he would grab a tennis racket and pretend to play along to the music of Paul Revere and the Raiders. Graduating to the real thing, he says, was like his redemption. “I was 11 years old when I got my first guitar,” says Balmer. “That’s the day my life took on new meaning.”
Balmer took classical guitar lessons for about three years, and went through high school playing the music of Credence Clearwater Revival and the Byrds. When he graduated at 16, Lewis & Clark College was the natural choice for him.
“I grew up on that campus,” says Balmer, whose father, Don Balmer, U.G. Dubach Professor Emeritus of Political Science, taught at the College for 50 years. “Portland had a good music scene and I wanted to stay close to home, so Lewis & Clark was a good place to be.”
Rather than majoring in music, however, Balmer explored another interest: economics. “Reality is determined by economics,” says Balmer. “My econ professors opened my eyes to a lot of things, which is what college is supposed to do. I learned about how the world works, and that’s what informs your music.”
Balmer’s interest in music continued to blossom in college as he met new musicians on campus and played in several ensembles. By the time he was a senior, he was playing regularly with such well-known jazz performers as Jim Pepper and David Friesen. He also began teaching guitar at the school in his senior year, something he continues to do today.
At 23, Balmer teamed up with jazz pianist Tom Grant, a collaboration that lasted a decade and took him on several nationwide tours. Balmer wrote many of the band’s most popular songs, and in 1989, he released his first solo recording, Becoming Became. The record met with high praise, and he followed it with two more records in 1990 and 1991. By the time the Portland Music Association named him “Portland’s best guitarist” in 1993, Balmer was ready to strike out on his own full time.
“Reality is determined by economics,” says Balmer. “My econ professors opened my eyes to a lot of things, which is what college is supposed to do. I learned about how the world works, and that’s what informs your music.”
Today, in addition to six CDs, Balmer has licensed original music for movies, television shows, and commercials. He teaches master classes up and down the West Coast, from Alaska to California, and recently taught one in Barcelona, Spain. Although he loves all styles of music, he has focused the bulk of his work on jazz. “That’s where instrumental music really gets to achieve the most expression and excellence,” he says.
For the last five or six years, Balmer has cut back on performing with his own band to make time to play with other ensembles. As a committed “playing” musician, he performs as many as 250 times a year with some of the best ensembles in the Northwest. “I love to play,” he says. “I love the fact that every time you play, you might be getting better. We’re on a constant growth path as humans, and with each performance, we go down that path a little bit farther. You can always grow and get better.”