Wednesday, April 4, 2007



In a small feature a few weeks ago I wrote about the funeral for Mike which took place a few days after his passing in mid January. Since that time I have been asked to write and comment for magazines, radio, etc., and have directed such inquiries to that statement which at the time was all I wanted to say on the matter. I refer interested readers to check it out in the previous newsletter, as well a little composition for violin and piano that I wrote for Mike when he first got ill (available on my web site under Mike Brecker). It has been a very long month between the funeral and memorial service which took place at Town Hall in New York on February 20th. I was depressed in general and quite apprehensive concerning the memorial after Susan Brecker asked me to speak. The article below from Ben Ratliff is a very accurate description of the service which was a wonderful and true representation of Mike’s spirit. I have been thinking about why Mike’s passing personally affected me so much. Everyone will understand the following comments as they are universal emotions representing an attempt to make sense of this tragedy.

In the course of a human life, a person can consider themselves fortunate if he or she can honestly say there was at least one person who truly understood who they were. As an artist who spends their entire life trying to create, it is even rarer to encounter another person who truly understands the creative process that YOU are engaged in. By that I meaning what motivates and inspires oneself as well as the kinds of doubts that go along with the territory. Mike was one of the only people I have known who saw things the way I do. On the surface, these “things” would seem to be concerned with the obvious pursuit of musical excellence, in our case using Coltrane as the model. But it goes deeper than that having to do with how you perceive yourself in relation to the past, present and future.

Beyond interpersonal relationships and the immediate demands of life, there exists another parallel reality which one feels and in rare moments, can recognize. Yet, this vision stands apart and is seemingly far off in the distance. When that personal scenario, is recognized by another person, there is a mutual understanding beyond words. Though this common understanding may be traceable to a common background, shared events, etc., it is still mysterious and as we know, quite rare. I miss Mike as a brother who saw the same things that I did. With his passing, the world is a bit lonelier than it was before. This is something that age brings upon all of us, representing one of those universal passages of life. Therefore, I am just taking note of the obvious. As sad as his passing is to family, friends and fans, I know he was alright with it and at peace. The title tune which he wrote for the Sax Summit recording a few years ago (which I played on wooden flute at the memorial service) has an appropriate title. Michael is now part of a “Gathering of Spirits” in the heavens ---(and can finally ask Trane all the questions we have).

As mentioned on my site, in the Jewish faith we mourn for one year. The pages for Mike will stay up and all my performances will be dedicated to Mike’s memory for this period.

Moving on, I am gratified that Ravi Coltrane has agreed to join the “Saxophone Summit II” (working name for now as “Sax Summit” has been retired). We will perform at the Red Sea Festival in Eilat, Israel in August; Symphony Space in New York on Coltrane’s birthday (Sept 23) and record for Telarc in October. The plan is to explore the late Coltrane ballad repertoire and of course the recording will be dedicated to Michael. Guesting with us for some of the recording and Symphony Space will be brother Randy Brecker.

With all that has been written about Mike in the past weeks, I recommend for anyone interested to go to saxophonist Mike Zilber’s blog and click on the section for Brecker:

February 22, 2007
Celebrating a Saxophonist’s Art and Heart

The memorial program for the saxophonist Michael Brecker that filled Town Hall on Tuesday night kept landing on the theme of generosity. Mr. Brecker died of leukemia on Jan. 13 at 57. During his illness he enlisted family members and friends in sending out a call for bone-marrow donors — not just for himself — that resulted in tens of thousands of donor registrations. His friends in jazz and pop music all implied that this wasn’t just an isolated case of conscientiousness. Mr.Brecker,a virtuosic musician, was soft-spoken and didn’t look to score points on his magnanimity. James Taylor, who sent a testimonial on film from San Francisco, said that Mr. Brecker had saved his life when Mr. Taylor was quitting drugs. (Mr. Brecker had been a drug user in the 1970s and helped treat substance abusers after he went clean in the early 1980s.) “I identified so closely with Michael,” Mr. Taylor said, looking shaken. “The fact that he managed to turn his life around and go forward made it possible for me to do it too.” The saxophonist Dave Liebman talked about
a Samaritan impulse as something he and Mr. Brecker shared, which he said came in part from their urban Jewish upbringing — he in Brooklyn, Mr. Brecker in Philadelphia. “There was also an unspoken agreement that we should do something good for humanity,” he said. Mr. Brecker’s wife, Susan, had asked that there be no saxophone playing in the performances. So Mr. Liebman played a piece, composed by Mr. Brecker, on a small wooden flute.

Pat Metheny played his “Every Day (I Thank You)” on acoustic guitar, full of open ringing notes. Mr. Brecker’s brother, the trumpeter Randy Brecker, played “Midnight Voyage,” a piece from a recent Michael Brecker album, with a quartet including the pianist Joey Calderazzo, the bassist James Genus and the drummer Jeff Watts. And the pianist Herbie Hancock performed one of his own pieces, “Chan’s Song,” with John Patitucci on bass and Jack DeJohnette on drums.

But his colleagues also joked that Mr. Brecker could be unintentionally cruel. “The most treacherous position in jazz,” Mr. Metheny said, “was being the guy on the bandstand who has to take a solo right after Mike Brecker.” Randy Brecker told a similar story, about one of the hundreds of recording sessions at which he had been hired to work alongside his brother. Michael, he said, came to work straight from the airport after a long flight, not having had time to read the music. He was asked by the producer to build a solo through a long two-chord vamp. One could see where this was going: Michael’s solo was of disturbingly high quality, and Randy was asked to take it from there.

Mr. Liebman also brought up a less technical, more philosophical point about Mr. Brecker’s career: his willingness — unusual, for someone so highly accomplished in jazz — to work regularly in pop. He did so, Mr. Liebman said, “without any shame or guilt.”

A short film about Mr. Brecker’s career brought this point home as well. He was seen with recent bands, playing dense, complex jazz in the post-Coltrane tradition; then, in the 1970s, playing fusion and funk; then as a sideman with Joni Mitchell and Paul Simon. Mr. Simon himself emerged to sing “Still Crazy After All These Years,” one of the pop hits that bore a famous Michael Brecker solo, with Mr. Hancock on electric piano. Then the memorial closed with chanting. Mr. Hancock explained that Mr. Brecker had started practicing Buddhism nine months before his death, and joined Soka Gakkai International, the American-based group associated with Nichiren Buddhism, three months later. Mr. Hancock, the saxophonist Wayne Shorter and the bassist Buster Williams, who all practice the same form of Buddhism, as well as Mr. Brecker’s son, Sam, went onstage, sat in a line with their backs to the audience while facing a painted scroll in a wooden shrine, and chanted, “Nam-myoho-renge-kyo” for five minutes. For the next hour and a half, after the hall cleared, musicians hung out by the doors of the theater, trading stories.

Every once in awhile you play with a guy that you have been hearing about for years but never had a chance to hit with. Such was the case with drummer Tom Rainey and myself, which finally occurred during the IAJE Convention at the 55 Bar in New York along with bassist Ronan Guilfoyle. Though we had played once on a big band project, on this gig we were completely improvising which by the way is when you really know what someone has to offer-no agenda-no talking beforehand about the music-completely conversational and spontaneous. You bring your whole musical life to the table in such situations. Ronan and I have been doing this for awhile now with some wonderful drummers (Jim Black, Nasheet Waites, Chander Sardjoe). This gig with Tom was fantastic. He is really special and most of all, he hits the drums like he means it-taking no prisoners, confident and strong-qualities that I love in drummers. I look forward to more along the same line in the future. I might mention also at the IAJE Convention, my band did a great set to a really appreciative audience.

I have been waiting for a down period of activity to highlight some of the material that the great writer Gene Lees (who publishes the indispensable and highly recommended “Jazzletter”) wrote in his biography of songwriter Johnny Mercer. Being one of the premier composers/lyricists of the 20th century, he epitomized this period when what we know as the “standards” were written by the likes of Gershwin, Porter, Arlen, Rodgers, etc. From the jazz point of view, a large part of our basic repertoire derives from the American song tradition represented by these composers, manifested to a great degree through the opportunities presented by the flowering of the Broadway musical and Hollywood movie scores. Taken as a whole, the entire body of work stands as one of America’s greatest contributions to the history of music. Though there was still activity of sorts in this genre after 1950, it was in the first fifty years of this century that this music developed. This intense period of songwriting was the result of historic and cultural trends that are fascinating and of course underlie the notion that art and culture are a two way street, each affecting the other in big and small ways. With Gene’s permission, I quote some passages from the book.

On songwriting:”It is the ability to walk to the edge of the pit and step back from it with a good story that makes the great writer. In the case of lyric writing, this surefootedness is even more necessary, for the lament is one of the main forms of art, and the ability to walk that wire of pathos without falling into the pit of bathos is an indispensable element of the craft. You cannot write tragedy without a sense of humor; the lack of it produces something turgid and dull. Wit must be the underpinning of all dark writing.”

On the importance of radio: “Network radio made the career of Johnny Mercer. It is generally overlooked, and it is no coincidence, that the golden era of American song and the golden age of big bands were exactly coeval with the great period of network radio. Radio could make a star, or a song, overnight. The song pluggers of the 1930s were seeking radio performances. Records were of secondary, even minor interest to them. Records didn’t make stars; stars made records.”

On the symbiosis of events during these years: “Irving Berlin’s 1911 song “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” was a catalyst in a craze for dancing that would last for more than three decades in the United States. To cater to this new pastime, hundreds of ballrooms and dance pavilions sprang up across the country, many of them in amusement parks and at lakesides, with countless dance bands formed to provide the music. The quality of songs in Broadway musicals was rising steadily, and radio made many of their best songs into hits. A three way symbiosis emerged: movies and theater as a source of popular music; dance bands and their singers to perform it and radio as a medium to present it nationally. The level of public taste throughout North American was lifted. For example, broadcasts from the Cotton Club in New York established Duke Ellington as a major American musical figure before the 1930s began. The same for Guy Lomabardo, Cab Calloway and of course Benny Goodman.”

How television broke the scene up: “If you examine the annual lists of songs written in American in the 20th century, you will note that they start to improve in the second decade, attain a higher quality in the 1920s, get still better in the ‘30s and ‘40s, and then begin to decline in the 1950s, increasingly crowded out by material like “How Much Is that Doggy in the Window?”, “Oh, My Pa-Pa,” and “Vaya Con Dios,” all from 1953. Why the decline in the quality of the American song? One of the factors was certainly television.”

“Nobody was paying much attention to television after the war, of for that matter FM. In short order, two or three thousand little radio stations went up all over the country, and many of them depended on the networks for news and drama. There were fewer remotes of the bands because there were fewer and fewer locations for them to play. These stations went right on playing hit records which were for the most part still quality stuff. And gradually it began to go downhill. The networks withdrew, turning their attention to television, until all they were giving their affiliates was five minutes of news on the hour. And that left the stations to their own devices, filling the airtime with recordings to sell their advertising. Gradually radio ceased to produce music at all; it simply appropriated the product of the record business. As the small operations were bought up by large scale operators, the new “group owners,” as they were called, felt they had too little control over the stations that were far from their headquarters. So they turned to programmers which began to dominate in the late 1950s, and by the mid 1970s, it was paramount and today it is completely dominant.”

On the end of the tradition: “…..the most powerful blow to quality popular music would come from the very label that Mercer founded, (Capitol Records) through the success of the Beatles. The industry discovered just how much money could be made from records, and from then on it was interested in little else, and today is interested in nothing else. The Top Forty format was a deliberate restriction of the music available to the public. Since bad taste is, and always has been, more common than good taste (which by definition is more selective), these stations sought a constantly lower common denominator in the music they played. There was no room in this for music by the likes of Kern and Porter and Mercer, much less Mozart and Ellington.

Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in “Democracy in America“(1835) about the tyranny of the majority (Chapter 11):
“There are in any democracy men whose fortunes are on the increase but whose desires increase much more quickly than their wealth, so that their eyes devour long before they can afford them. They are always on the lookout for shortcuts to these anticipated delights. These two elements always provide democracies with a crowd of citizens whose desires outrun their means and who will gladly agree to put up with an imperfect substitute rather than do without the object of their desire altogether.

“The craftsman easily understands this feeling, for he shares it. In aristocracies he charged very high prices to a few. He sees that he can now get rich quicker by selling cheaply to all. Now, there are two ways of making a product cheaper; the first is to find better, quicker, more skillful ways of making it, while the second is to make a great number of objects which are more or less the same but not so good. In a democracy, every workman applies his wits to these points. He seeks ways of working, not just better, but quicker and more cheaply, and if he cannot mange that, he economizes on the intrinsic quality of the thing he is making, without rendering it wholly unfit for its intended use. In this way democracy …induces workmen to make shoddy things very quickly and consumers to put up with them. And this phenomenon ultimately became evident in popular music.”

And so we have Britney Spears!!(that’s my comment!!)

MORE NAILS IN THE COFFIN: From an article in the NY Times by Robin Pogrebin which recently appeared:
Over the last decade, the portion of corporate philanthropy dedicated to the arts has dropped by more than half, according to the Giving USA Foundation, an educational and research program of the American Association of Fundraising Counsel. In 2004, the most recent year for which figures are available, support for the arts was 4 percent of total corporate philanthropy, compared with 9.5 percent in 1994 — part of a general shift in giving toward health and social services.

When companies do support culture, they are increasingly paying for it out of their marketing budgets, which means strings are attached to the funds: from how a corporation’s name will appear in promotional materials, to what parties it can give during an exhibition, to the number of free or discounted tickets available to its employees.


A GREAT DAY IN HARLEM: The famous picture taken in the late 1950s of many of the legendary musicians gathered on a street in Harlem is available for highlighting the individuals and getting the inside scoop on the photo shoot. By the way there is a wonderful DVD concerning the shooting itself.

March: I am off to the Sahara Desert in Mauritania with two friends. It has always been a wish of mine to experience the real desert. As a gift to myself for having made it to the age of sixty, I am taking this trip now, before I get older and it gets harder to do. My next newsletter will obviously include impressions of the trip. After that:
Paris, France-two nights at the Sunset Club with bassist Riccardo Del Fran and group; master class and performance of big band arrangement of “Meditations Suite” at the Paris Conservatory; master class at Paris Conservatory with students of Claude DeLangle; performances in Belgium with pianist Jean Marie Machado; with singer Kevin Mahogany commemorating Johnny Hartman with John Coltrane recording at the Berks Jazz Festival, Reading, Pennsylvania; the Dave Liebman Group at Keystone College, La Plume, PA. (Dates for all appearances available at each site).