From Jazzman to Bread Man
Dan Greenspan '77 discusses how he has bridged his passions as a jazz bassist and bread baker.
Finding career success and, more important, deep satisfaction in one creative field is hard enough—finding it in two is downright rare. For Dan Greenspan, though, the drive to pursue successive careers as a jazz musician and a bread baker stems from a belief that life’s biggest returns can’t be measured on a bank statement.
Greenspan, a former Haverford music major, is the founder, owner, and head (and only) baker at Dan’s Brick Oven Bread, which he launched in 2010. He works in a small room in the home he built in Richmond, N.H., and at the height of his production, he baked 200 loaves weekly in 11 varieties.
He has since scaled back to about 100 loaves weekly in six or seven varieties. His breads are available at several food co-ops and gourmet stores in New Hampshire and Massachusetts, and he offers home delivery for a few select clients as well.
Greenspan is also a professional bassist who, with Mili Bermejo (his wife of more than 35 years), performs as part of the musical partnership Arte del Dúo. While his wife’s piano playing sounded in the background, Greenspan spoke to us about musicianship, bread baking, and moving to the mountains to pursue a life of making things with his hands.
How far back do your musical roots go?
My dad was a professor of radiology at Yale, but he was also an amateur musician. He played violin. Classical music was the great love of his life. I started playing the piano when I was six and picked up cello when I was seven. When I came to Haverford I joined the orchestra, and I’d go into Philly every week to study with [cellist] Orlando Cole, who taught at the Curtis Institute of Music. But I gave up cello after that year and developed a deeper interest in jazz.
Was it a no-brainer to make music your career?
I took a year off after my freshman year at Haverford because I wanted to work. I returned to Berkeley [Calif., where he had attended high school] to manage a sports store and sell tennis shoes. When I came back to Haverford after that year away, I bought an electric bass, and that’s what I played through the rest of college. I started playing with my friend Bert Seager ’77, psychology professor Tom D’Andrea, and guitarist Brian Pardo ’78. We had a quartet. When I graduated, I moved to Vermont to run a diner in Springfield. A year later Bert called me and said he needed an acoustic bass player, so I went to New York, bought a bass for 2,000 bucks, and learned how to play it in a week. Bert and I played together for the next 25 to 30 years.
At some point you met Mili, who comes from a family of Mexican musicians …
Bert, Mili, and I all moved to Boston around the same time for separate reasons. We formed a band, and that band was together for quite a few years in different formats. The way things work in the jazz world is that everyone’s in more than one group, especially if you’re making your living as a musician. My standard hotel gig was with Bert or other piano players like him. [Greenspan played brunch service at Boston’s Four Seasons Hotel for 20 years.] My thing with Mili became quite a bit different. It was more of an art project at first. She’s a composer, singer, she’s everything, really. She’s taught at Berklee College of Music for more than 30 years and has a book just coming out now on jazz improvisation for vocalists.
So how did bread baking and the move to New Hampshire enter the picture?
I started building a house in New Hampshire in 2000. It was supposed to be a little getaway and it just developed into a major project. Mili and I grow a substantial amount of our own food. We have fruit trees. We have a greenhouse, a root cellar, a huge garden. I think we both became completely disillusioned with the consumerist aspect of American culture and took a lot more pleasure in making things and doing things rather than buying things. I know a lot of people value making a lot of money, and then their enjoyment is in how they spend it. That just didn’t quite float the boat for us.
When I first moved to Boston there was a bread made by a company called Baldwin Hill supposedly based on an ancient Belgian recipe called desem. It’s naturally fermented and uses the yeast and bacteria present on wheat berries to create the leaven. The woman who made desem popular was Laurel Robertson, who wrote a famous cookbook called Laurel’s Kitchen and another called The Laurel’s Kitchen Bread Book. So when Baldwin Hill went out of business and I couldn’t buy their bread anymore—this was also when I was between jobs after moving to New Hampshire—I decided to use this technique to start making bread.
Did you immediately go all-in?
For the first time, we went to see a financial planner. He said, “If you think you’re actually going to do this to produce some income, the money in your retirement account will serve you a lot better as an investment in your new business.” So I hired a couple of masons from Burlington, Vt., to live here for a few weeks and build us a 4-by-6-foot wood-fired brick oven. We converted the screen porch that was attached to the kitchen into the bake room.
Let’s talk philosophically about bread as a real, living food.
What can I say? Wheat is a grass seed. To think that you can take a grass seed and turn it into something healthy and delicious using nothing more than time and temperature is just amazing. The leaven— the stuff that makes it rise—is two parts flour, one part water. You mix it together, bury it in a bag of freshly milled flour, and tend to it over a three-week period. When you’re done, what was just a ball of flour and water is now this really alive thing. You add salt, and you could live on this bread. I mean, in the old days, bread and water… you could literally live on it.
Is this true of all bread?
Once modern mechanized farming took over, you can’t live on most commercial bread and water anymore, no. There’s no nutrition left in it. But this little operation I have here is different. I personally know the people who grow the grain I use. I know they don’t use pesticides or petroleum-derived fertilizers. I mill the grain myself. I have a wonderful stone mill that was built by a guy and his son from North Carolina out of four-inch-thick pink granite. It spins slowly so the flour doesn’t heat up. It takes me two to three hours to mill 150 pounds.
Do you see any connections between the discipline needed to be a serious musician and a devoted baker?
There’s clearly creativity involved in both endeavors. And discipline, yes. When you practice music, there’s a methodology that can make your practice much more successful than just adding up the hours behind your instrument. The same can be said of baking. If you work efficiently, you can get maximum benefit from the time you spend. I don’t get moved in the same way by making bread as I do by playing music. My head goes into a different space when I play music. The connections are more spiritual. But the miracle of turning grass seed into food … that’s good enough for me.