George Braith: The Man Who Also Cried Fire
Jazz fans are all too accustomed to shelling out megabucks for fancy CD box sets. So when I came across the George Braith set The Complete Blue Note Sessions at my local record store priced only slightly higher than a regular CD, I was inclined to buy it, even though at the time I had only a vague knowledge of who Braith was. After all, it's not often you can buy one of those complete works extravaganzas for less than the cost of a night in a New York jazz club. As it happens, my purchase proved once again that you don't always get what you pay for. Sometimes you get more.
George Braith is a New York-born and bred saxophonist who made three albums for Blue Note from 1963 to 1964. He also recorded as a sideman with organist Big John Patton and led dates for Prestige later in the decade. The type of fame accorded many of his Blue Note labelmates eluded Braith, however. Look him up in the jazz record guides and you won't find much. Braith is a victim of the genre's primary limitation, in which a musician's career is defined solely in terms of his recorded output, and his recording career peaked 40 years ago. You do the math.
Except that Braith's career didn't end.
He may have stopped making records for a while, but he never stopped making music. While he never hit anything like the jackpot in terms of fame and fortune, he's continued to grow and evolve out of the spotlight. Braith went at it through thick and thin, at the same time raising a family and doing the mundane day-to-day stuff necessary to live a productive life.
Listen to his old Blue Notes and you'll be struck by the originality of his approach, even as you understand why he never had much commercial success. Braith was too "out" for the masses. Not necessarily in terms of musical content-his preferred format in those days was the organ trio plus sax, and his repertoire was a rather typical blend of standards, blues and originals-but rather in his choice of instrument. Or should I say instruments, for Braith's primary quirk was playing two horns-a soprano and a straight alto-at once in the manner of Rahsaan Roland Kirk. While he was adept at playing a single horn with a lyrical, bluesy and personal voice, it was his double-barreled technique that stood out. His abrupt, staccato attack is jarring at first, but ears adapt. One soon comes to admire Braith's skill, to say nothing of his music.
A little goofy on its face, there's no denying the freshness and unpretentiousness of Braith's double-horn concept. More than anything, although intense and slightly weird, his music is good-natured fun. It's clear that, for Braith, the two-horn thing wasn't a gimmick. It was, instead, an obsession that led him to invent first a new musical vocabulary, then finally a new instrument: the Braithophone, a kind of two-headed sax that allowed him to more fully realize his ideas.
As we sit and talk in the basement workshop of his Staten Island home, Braith shows me his personal archive of photographs. (Despite his low profile, tracking Braith down was no problem. He has a Web site, georgebraith.com, through which he runs his own label, Excellence.)
It's quite a collection of pix: There's young Braith playing his two horns alongside Ben Webster at Count Basie's Bar in Harlem and with Sonny Stitt at the It Club in Los Angeles. Pictures of him hobnobbing with Grant Green and J.C. Moses and Sonny Rollins and Roy Ayers and Dizzy Gillespie and Tommy Turrentine and Roy Haynes and Larry Young Jr.-Braith has known and played with all of them, and many more. The photos are unbound. Smudged and rough around the edges, they give the impression of someone who has fond memories but is probably too busy to dwell on them.
Dwell we will, however, because George Braith is an interesting guy. Some facts of the saxophonist's life, drawn partly from Nat Hentoff's liner notes written in 1963 for Braith's first Blue Note album, Two Souls in One, confirmed and expounded upon by George himself in 2003: He was born George Braithwaite in New York City on June 27, 1939. His father was a Pentecostal minister as well as a musician-he played piano and organ-and his mother sang in church. Braith was the youngest of nine musically inclined kids. Consequently, says Braith, "There were always instruments lying around for me to play." He played piano at home and baritone sax in his school band. "After they gave out all the other horns, it was the last one left, so I took it," he says.
As a child, young George played baritone sax in his father's church and flutophone in his own calypso group. He was introduced to jazz in the late '40s through the back window of his family's Bronx apartment. A trumpet player named Tiny Noles lived in the building behind Braith's. Noles held daily jam sessions that included the likes of Fats Navarro, Tadd Dameron and other great bop-era musicians. The music wafted across the backyard into the Braith residence. "I didn't know who I was listening to, but I knew I liked it," Braith says. His dad didn't care much for jazz. "My father would hear me play jazz, and he'd say, 'You play that and you can leave,' but when he was out my mother would say, 'You go on and play.'"
In junior high Braith took up clarinet and alto sax. He attended New York's Music and Art High School, during which time he led a band of fellow-students that included the drummer Pete La Roca and pianist John Maher. At 15, Braith spent a summer gigging with the band in the Catskills. "Pete Sims [La Roca's given name] was a little older than me," remembers Braith. "I think he was a senior when I was a freshman. Pete had never played a drum set before that summer. He played Latin percussion. I got hold of a set for him, and he picked it right up."
At Music and Art, Braith studied his instruments (by then he had added bassoon and flute) and theory, while listening to and learning from the great modern jazz players. He was already playing New York clubs. After graduating from high school in 1957, Braith toured Europe with another of his groups, the American Jazz Quintet. An encounter with Lucky Thompson while on tour inspired Braith to take up the tenor. That fall he began attending the Manhattan School of Music. He studied theory and arranging by day and gigged at night. His performing career gained steam and he left school after a year and a half.
Braith began developing his two horns technique around 1961. When asked who or what inspired him, Braith makes no bones about it. "Roland!" he says with a half-chuckle, as if to say, "Who else?" Braith started his own organ trio. He couldn't afford a guitarist, so he began using the two horns to comp as well as solo. Alto saxophonist and Blue Note artist Lou Donaldson became one of Braith's mentors. Donaldson and vocalist Babs Gonzales sang Braith's praises to the execs at the label, who liked what they heard and signed him.
Guitarist Grant Green came in from Detroit to record with Braith's trio, which also included the organist Billy Gardner and drummer Donald Bailey. They went into the studio in the fall of 1963 to record Two Souls in One. In a span of several months Braith recorded twice more for the label as a leader, resulting in Soul Stream and Extension. On the latter, Braith featured several of his original compositions. He also played more tenor, on which he displayed a melodic and distinctive take on the jazz mainstream. Unfortunately, Blue Note dropped Braith after just three albums.
That didn't stop Braith, however. He moved to the West Coast. While playing a gig in San Francisco in the mid-'60s, he met John Coltrane. Coltrane was impressed with Braith and expressed a desire to play with him. "Coltrane said, 'You need to be in New York,' so I decided to go back," Braith says.
Trane gave him the money to drive back to New York. Braith opened his own performance space, Musart, in 1966. "I started it as a place where I could play with Trane," Braith says. "I found a place on Spring Street for 95 dollars a month." Connecting with the very busy Coltrane proved to be difficult-Braith ended up going out to Trane's house in Queens to play-but Musart soon began attracting many of New York's finest jazz players, including Wilbur Ware, Roy Haynes, Kenny Dorham, Albert Dailey and Beaver Harris, among others.
Braith's relationship with Coltrane was unfortunately brief. The great saxophonist died within a year after the two met, but the connection didn't end. "You're gonna think I'm a little crazy," Braith laughs, "but right after Trane died, Alice [Coltrane] told me that John had come to her in a dream and said that he'd visit me every day at 3 p.m. So I told all the musicians I knew never to come to Musart at that time. Everybody knew not to bother me at three o'clock, because that was the time I would be with Trane. And I did feel his spirit. This went on for a while, until one day I hear a knock at the door. I didn't answer, but then I heard someone on the other side of the door say, 'Hey George, open up.' It was Sonny Rollins. So I let him in." Begrudgingly, perhaps. The encounter ended Braith's daily communion with Coltrane, but began a yearlong collaboration with Rollins.
After making a pair of albums in 1966 for Prestige-Laughing Soul and Musart-Braith didn't release another album for more than 20 years. He closed Musart in 1972 and moved to Europe for a time. He came back to New York and played where he could, such as Sam Rivers' Studio Rivbea. Occasionally he worked as a carpenter and in construction to support his family, but he never stopped being involved in jazz, playing sessions and performing when the occasion arose. In 1984 he had a bit part playing the Braithophone in the Robin Williams film Moscow on the Hudson. In 1992 he recorded Double Your Pleasure (with bassist Tarik Shah, pianist Ronnie Mathews and drummers Mark Johnson and Jimmy Lovelace) for the King label. Braith had a regular gig at Pumpkin's in New York City during the late '90s, but engagements were (and still are) sporadic. Much of the '80s and '90s were spent building and refining the Braithophone.
The Braithophone Braith shows me in his basement is what he calls a "sopralto": half soprano, half straight alto. Each cone has its own mouthpiece. They're held together by a brace and connected at the bottom by a brass tube that extends across from where each horn's bell used to be. In the center of the tube is an alto sax bell. Peeking out from underneath the connecting tube is what looks like an alto clarinet bell. The body of the horn is an ingenious Rube Goldberg-like contraption of welded-on levers and keys, rubber bands, knobs and tape. Braith has designed it so he can essentially get around the full range of each horn one-handed. Although, as he points out, you can't talk about the horn in terms of range like you would a conventional sax, because it's not really a sax. It's a Braithophone-a distinct and altogether unique animal.
Which, as it happens, is a perfect description of George Braith. He's a mad scientist with a quixotic bent-always thinking, inventing, creating and tilting at the occasional windmill. His vitality is palpable. Besides the Braithophone, current projects include a technique of multitrack recording called "Boptronics" in which he plays all or most of the instruments. He gigs occasionally. "I've got a thing in Barcelona coming up," he says, "and I make it up to St. Nick's Pub [an uptown night spot that hosts jam sessions featuring some of New York's top players] a couple of times a week." He's released several albums on Excellence, including two volumes of performances recorded in the '60s and '70s at Musart featuring Sonny Rollins, Gil Coggins, Reggie Workman and many others.
George's latest working band is the Braith Family Singers, a jazz quartet augmented by the vocals of his children. Their debut CD is Turn of the Century. "I think there's a need for something like the [Dave] Lambert thing today," Braith says of the pioneering jazz-group vocalist.
At a recent performance at New York's Lenox Lounge, Braith tore it up. His Braithophone chops have developed tenfold since his Blue Note days. The lines are longer and the phrasing less blunt. He's more graceful, yet just as guileless and charming. His tenor work is lithe, melodic and unpredictable in the best sense. In contrast to some contemporary saxophonists who seem to speak a language they don't fully understand, Braith's playing is a study in wisdom and authenticity.
And his greatest invention has captured the imagination of at least one Young Lion. "James Carter wants me to build him a Braithophone," George says. "I'd like to do it, but I'm not sure how much to charge."
Some things you just can't put a price tag on.