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An All-Star Town Hall Tribute to the Great Michael Brecker

Updated: Jun 16

In advance of the gala concert happening at Town Hall in New York City on June 19, read an except from my book, Ode to a Tenor Titan: The Life and Times and Music of Michael Brecker

Chapter 1 — Becoming Michael Brecker

When it came time for Michael to begin playing an instrument at the age of six, he chose clarinet. “I didn’t want to play the same instrument that my brother was playing, and I liked the way the clarinet looked,” he recalled. His brother Randy, three years and four months older, had already been playing trumpet from age five. “Randy kind of set the tone and the rest of us followed suit,” Mike told KCRW’s Tom Schnabel, KCRW in a 1997 interview.

Early in his development on clarinet, Mike began taking lessons with Leon Lester, principal clarinetist with the Philadelphia Orchestra. “I started on clarinet at a very young age and played it not too well,” he told students in a 1984 clinic at North Texas State. “I was more interested in sports, really.” Randy confirmed that his younger brother didn’t seem to embrace music with the same passion that he did, at first. “Music was everything for me,” said Randy. “I tried to get interested in other things. I liked to write and, like my mother, I was a pretty good artist. But I let all that go at some point. It was only music for me.”

Aside from music, Michael had varied interests, the main one being basketball. “He was tall, thin and he really liked to play, and he was good,” recalled Randy. “He was on the basketball team at school as a junior. So basketball was really first for him. Science was second for him. He was serious about his chemistry set and he was downstairs all the time working with that [young Michael also had a subscription to Scientific American]. Music, I think, was third for Mike. And interestingly, he approached music like a scientist, in a way.”

“I had a lab at home and I was interested in chemistry and biology,” Mike told Canadian tv talk show host Lorne Frohman in a 2004 segment from Toronto’s Distinguished Artists. “But I was also bitten by the music bug when I was a kid. And that was also a good way, I think, to really get my father’s attention.”

Michael’s studies with Leon Lester would go on for five years, and as he developed some technique on the instrument he began copying clarinet solos off of Jimmy Giuffre records. As Randy recalled, “The record we both played along with at home was Shorty Rogers’ Martians Come Back! (1956, Atlantic Records) because Jimmy Giuffre’s clarinet was on that record. Mike couldn’t find clarinet players that he could really identify with until he found that record in Dad’s collection.”

“I didn’t really gravitate towards players like Benny Goodman,” Michael told John Robert Brown in a 1973 Downbeat interview. “But I loved Jimmy Giuffre’s approach to the instrument. I loved his dark sound, the fact that he played in the low register, and he had a kind of soulful approach. I remember taking Jimmy Guiffre solos off of records when I was ten years old, and I can still remember some of those solos today. I used to play them into a garbage can for reverb. I had a little gold waste basket and that’s where I practiced. And to this day I still love reverb.”

Recalling those youthful days in Cheltenham Township, Randy added, “We eventually started playing some duets, just improvising together. We had a kind of a suite connected by a bathroom and we liked to play in the bathroom because of the echo and the resonance. We were playing tunes like ‘Pop Goes the Weasel’ and stuff and it was kind of a cute thing because we were just little kids. But we were actually really good at playing together, even from an early age. We always had some kind of musical connection playing duets in the bathroom like that. And we did a little tribute to that time on my first record, Score (Solid State, 1969), where we did a duo piece called ‘The Weasel Goes Out To Lunch.’ It’s a two-minute completely improvised duet but there’s really a close connection between the two of us. You can easily tell because the parts fit great. I re-listened to it a few months ago and said, ‘Man! That was pretty damn good!’”

Bobby Brecker took fatherly pride in bringing both his sons to see live jazz in Philly nightclubs. “Instead of taking us to the baseball game or football game, my dad took us to hear live jazz concerts,” Michael recalled in a 1998 backstage interview at the Newport Jazz Festival. “So by the time I was 13, I had already heard Miles Davis a couple of times, I heard Thelonious Monk, Dave Brubeck, Duke Ellington, Woody Herman's band, Count Basie’s band…on and on and on. I have a lot of fond memories of these concerts. And those are really kind of my roots as far as music.”

One revelation came from a memorable Thelonious Monk performance he attended early on. As Michael told students at the 1984 NTS clinic: “I must’ve been 11 or 12 years old and this was a concert featuring a bunch of different pianists. And as Thelonious was about to come on stage my Dad leaned over to me and he said that Thelonious could somehow create sounds on the piano that nobody else could. I thought that he meant that he could make a piano sound like a chicken or something. I had no idea what he was talking about. But when I sat and then listened to Monk from that perspective, I could hear it. And that was an important lesson for me.”

Though Michael initially chose clarinet because he liked the way it looked, he never really fell in love with the instrument. “There was just something about the clarinet that he didn’t like,” said Randy. “Maybe it was the sound. Years later when we were playing at the Buddy DeFranco Jazz Festival in Missoula, Montana, there was this moment when Buddy was playing so great and Mike leaned over on the bandstand and whispered in my ear, ‘I don’t care how good he is, I still hate the clarinet.’”

Michael eventually began gravitating toward the alto saxophone. “I was playing clarinet and feeling frustrated with the instrument because I liked saxophone and trumpet and I couldn’t quite get the same freedom on the clarinet,” he told Frohman. “And I remember falling in love with a Dave Brubeck record in my father’s collection called ‘Look for the Silver Lining’   [10” 78 rpm single b/w “This Can’t Be Love,” released in 1952 on the Fantasy label] with Paul

Desmond. I just loved the sound of Desmond’s alto. But then when my brother gave me a Cannonball Adderley record for my birthday, Jazz Workshop Revisited, that was it! I wanted to be able to play like Cannonball, with that kind of freedom. So I asked my parents for an alto and I started trying to learn his solos from records. Those were some hard solos to learn but it was a good way for me to begin to really learn the language of jazz. So I began to take it seriously then, while still playing basketball, which was my major pastime. Music and basketball were the only things I was interested in at that point. But when I switched to alto sax in ninth grade, music really started to grab me.”

Shortly after obtaining his first alto saxophone, Michael had a brief encounter with another young budding alto sax player in the Cheltenham Township area named Mark Cohen (who later became the renowned jazz pianist Marc Copland). “This was around 1963,” recalled Copland, “and I was playing alto sax in a Top 40 band with two guitars, electric bass and drums. We did all the popular tunes of the day, like ‘Louie, Louie,’ ‘Gloria,’ ‘Secret Agent Man,’ ‘Walk, Don't Run,’ all that stuff. And at some point we were looking to add a piece, so I said to the guys in the group, ‘Well, Mike Brecker’s really supposed to be good.’ I had heard about him in school. So Mike comes to a rehearsal with his alto and he’s all over the horn. I mean, he’s playing great stuff but it wasn’t what the band was looking for. They just wanted somebody to play simple parts behind the singers. And so I had to be the one to call Mike later and tell him, ‘I don't think it’s gonna work out.’ So I’m going to go down in history as the only guy ever to give Michael Brecker a pink slip!”

Copland would eventually become close friends with Michael and the entire Brecker family, participating in jam sessions in their living room and even rehearsing his own pieces there. “Bobby treated me like his third son and he was like my musical dad, in a way,” he recalled. “We’d talk about music and so forth, and if I needed to have a rehearsal, he’d say, ’You can come rehearse your bands here anytime.’ I had a couple of things where their sister Emmy played piano. I sat next to Emily in French class at school, so I was close to all three of the Brecker kids.”

To Copland, who lived a five-minute drive way, the Brecker’s musical household was “a cultural island in a suburban wasteland.” As he explained, “In my house there was nothing -- a couple of Frank Sinatra LPs, that was about it. And you walk into Mike’s house and it’s like a history of jazz right there in Bobby’s record collection. And they had drums and vibes and a bass in the living room. So Mike had a lot to draw on. It was kind of ingrained in him early on.”

Copland recalled a particularly eventful summer afternoon in ’63 when Michael came over to check out his new sound system and ended up getting more than an earful. “I had just gotten a KLH model 11 portable stereo turntable and I said to Mike, ‘You’ve got to check this out.’ So he came over and I put on John Coltrane’s Impressions, which had just come out. And Mike is listening to this and running from one speaker to the other, because I had them in different corners of the room. He’s standing right in front of one speaker and then he runs to the other speaker. And at some point he looks at me and says very excitedly, ‘Marky, I don't know whether to listen to Elvin or to Trane!’ I had just bought that record and he hadn’t heard it yet. And he flipped out.”

“We were basically listening to records a lot and learning saxophone together,” Copland continued. “I was a year older but he was definitely some notches above me in terms of playing. Michael was really sounding like a saxophone player at the time and I was still trying to figure it out. He certainly had a facility, that’s for damn sure. He was playing these long lines and he was always lightning fast, even from the get-go. Mike could play lines all over the place, but he needed me to explain the chord changes to him, which I just kind of knew from sitting at the piano, even though I was a saxophone player. So I’d listen to him and say, ‘OK, that’s nice. Now, how are you playing those lines?’ And he’d giggle and shrug his shoulders and say, ‘I don't know, Marky!’ He was just playing what he heard. He was a natural.”

After his initial encounter with John Coltrane’s Impressions on Copland’s turntable, Michael’s appreciation of the saxophone master only deepened. As he recalled in a 2004 interview at the Newport Jazz Festival: “The first Coltrane album that I bought was Live at Birdland, which was a pretty bizarre record for a fledgling listener because the music was so intense and absolutely riveting. A lot of it was modal music with long solos. And I’d never heard drums play with that kind of intensity and crashing. And Coltrane was playing in a style and with a sound that I was not accustomed to. I didn’t like the record at first but I began listening to it every day until finally, after listening to it over a period of probably months, I began to understand what was going on. From there, I started buying other Coltrane records and became really interested in his music, to the degree that it became an enormous influence in the direction that I chose for a life’s endeavor. Coltrane’s music was both spiritual and certainly intellectual, technically highly developed, emotional and immensely creative and courageous. Put all those things together, plus the phenomenon quartet, which was one of those groups where the sum is greater than the whole, and the power of that group literally kind of propelled me into choosing music as a livelihood.”

By late 1964, Michael began taking lessons with a local saxophonist named Vince Trombetta. A veteran on the Philadelphia scene, Trombetta had once shared a billing with a young John Coltrane at the Rave Bar on Columbia Avenue (aka ‘The Golden Strip’) when they were both playing in R&B/jump blues bands. As Vince recalled, “I was in a band called the Three Sharps and a Flat. I was 16 years old. We were low band on the billing and the headliner was Daisy Mae & Her Hep Cats, and Trane was in that band. It was a good rhythm and blues band. They copped a lot of stuff from the Earl Bostic band. Trane only did a couple of weeks with them, but I got to know him a little bit then.”

At the time Trombetta took on young Michael Brecker as a sax student, he had also begun working in the house band for the Philadelphia-based daytime television talk show, The Mike Douglas Show. Michael, still in ninth grade at the time, had to take two buses from his home in Melrose Park to get to Trombetta’s place in Port Richmond for lessons every Saturday afternoon. It was an hour schlep each way but Mike never missed a lesson, showing a newfound dedication toward getting serious about his instrument. Vince, who kept meticulous records about all of his private lessons, and still has the ledgers to prove it, confirmed that Michael’s first saxophone lesson was on December 12, 1964, just three and a half months shy of his 16th birthday.

After four months, Trombetta suggested that his new student consider switching instruments once again. “I said, ‘Michael, you should be playing a tenor. Not because you’re 6 foot 3 at your age, but because everything you do doesn’t sound like Phil Woods or Gene Quill or Bird or any of the great alto players. It sounds more like you’re playing Trane.”

Michael soon became Trombetta’s prized pupil. “I wrote a piece when he was studying with me called ‘Four Ives,’ which was based on a lot of fourths and the traditional New England kind of folk songs that Charles Ives frequently used, like ‘Columbia, The Gem of the Ocean’ and the like. And he just took to it so quickly. He was just very advanced for a 16-year-old. In fact, I had another saxophone student at the same time who was a very gifted player himself. His name was Bill Zaccagni and he happened to be my first cousin and my godchild. He took his lessons right after Michael on Saturday, and one day he said to me, ‘Could we switch my lesson to another time?’ And said, ‘Oh, you can’t make it at noon?’ And he said, ‘No, I just don’t want to go after him.’ That’s how good Michael was. They were the same age but Michael just had acrobatic skills on the saxophone that were beyond anybody.”

During the summer of 1966, between Michael’s junior and senior years at Cheltenham High, Trombetta recommended that his star pupil attend the Ramblerny Music Camp in New Hope, Pennsylvania, which was directed by his good friend, alto sax great Phil Woods. Michael did indeed attend that summer and was part of the Ramblerny Big Band horn section alongside fellow campers Richie Cole on alto sax and Roger Rosenberg on baritone sax. Together they studied with Woods, rehearsed challenging big band arrangements and played concerts for the fellow campers. That group ended up documenting their progress on the album Ramblerny ’66: New Hope for Jazz, on which Michael appears as featured soloist on Woods’ composition, “Summer ’66,” as well as on Don Sebesky’s “The Swinger.”

Following his summer at Phil Woods’ Ramblerny music camp, Michael returned to Cheltenham High for the Fall semester of 1966. He resumed his lessons with Trombetta and also joined the Cheltenham High jazz band on tenor, in the sax section alongside his close friend Mark Cohen (Marc Copland) on alto sax. A couple of months into the new semester came a life-changing event on November 11, 1966, when Michael attended a John Coltrane concert at Temple University. Hearing Trane in full flight, with his wife Alice Coltrane on piano, Pharaoh Sanders on tenor saxophone, Sonny Johnson on bass and Rashied Ali on drums, was an overwhelming experience for the young Brecker. “His playing was highly emotional; it had a large spiritual, mystical quality to it and a gorgeous sound,” he told author Michael Segell for his 2005 book, The Devil’s Horn: The Story of the Saxophone, From Noisy Novelty to King of Cool. “His tone was unique — mysterious, dark, hard, yet lushly beautiful. It took some getting used to. Every note of a Coltrane tune had weight and meaning. From a technical viewpoint it was outrageous; from an intellectual view it was deep full of exciting, innovative ideas that hadn’t been done before…For me, as a high school musician, it was just outrageous and compelling. Through the music of John Coltrane I had found a calling. And I remember feeling so grateful that I was playing the tenor saxophone.”

After the galvanizing experience of seeing John Coltrane in concert, Michael returned to his lessons with Trombetta. And at some point, the student reached out to the teacher for some career advice. “He said, ‘I don’t know what to do as far as my music career’ and I told him, ‘Well Michael, there’s nothing in Philadelphia other than the Philadelphia Orchestra and The Mike Douglas Show, and I don’t intend to die soon. And we only augment the band about four times a year. That’s no way to make a living. You don’t want to be like these guys that live in Philly that bebop around for $25 a gig. That’s not what you deserve.’ So the next thing I knew, he went off to college at Indiana University and then on to New York, and the rest is history.”

Regarding his contribution to Michael’s musical development, Trombetta said, “People say, ‘A good root helps the plant grow properly.’ I think if I had to say anything about my contribution, I rooted him deeply in studies that required practicing. If you didn’t practice, you weren’t going to be playing some of these things. And if that excited you to listen carefully to recordings and transcriptions and stuff, then hallelujah. Then the mission was accomplished.”

Michael’s last lesson with Trombetta was on May 4, 1967. He graduated from Cheltenham High in June then enrolled in a five-week summer course at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, where he studied with saxophone guru Joe Viola, whose groundbreaking, three-volume method book from that period, The Technique of the Saxophone, remains part of Berklee’s curriculum. Shortly after enrolling in that summer program at Berklee, Michael’s musical North Star, John Coltrane, passed away on July 17, 1967. It was the fabled Summer of Love in Haight-Ashbury and Michael Brecker, now charged with a even deeper commitment to the saxophone, was poised on the brink of bigger and better things.

Randy, meanwhile, missed out on his younger brother’s rapid development. As he recalled, “Unfortunately, because of the age difference, I wasn’t around when he made that transition to alto sax and really started to get serious about music. I was away at Indiana University and I also had a steady gig during the summer in the Catskills or the Poconos, so I wasn’t home much.”

In fact, by the time Michael had entered IU as a freshman in the Fall of ’67, the older Brecker brother had yet to hear his younger brother play the saxophone. “I don’t have a memory, really, of even hearing him play alto, let alone tenor,” said Randy. “But by the time I finally saw Mike play the saxophone, he was flying.”

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