Humility, Honor & Hope

Let’s make one thing clear. Michael Brecker didn’t want to be honored, saluted or celebrated. Nonetheless, since being diagnosed with the potentially deadly disease myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS) in 2004, Brecker has been the recipient of innumerable honors, benefits and well wishes. More so than for any jazz artist I’ve ever seen.

I believe there are at least three reasons for this unsolicited attention. First, Brecker made public his condition, something many musicians don’t care to do. Second, people felt empowered by the knowledge that there was something they could do—specifically, sign up for the National Marrow Donor Program—even though the direct benefit to Brecker could be largely negligible, as no suitable donor for him has been found. Third, despite being a major figure on the jazz scene for more than 30 years, Brecker is almost preternaturally humble and unpretentious. It’s as if the less attention he wanted, the more he got.

I made the decision to assign this story while attending IAJE in January in New York City and being one of many people getting screened for that donor program. Seeing folks lined up down the hall to get tested, I realized right there that the jazz community was coming together to pay tribute to Michael Brecker and that we should do the same.

A few of Brecker’s colleagues didn’t feel comfortable speaking to us for this tribute, apparently because they felt that we were giving him a premature eulogy. The interview requests came coincidentally just as Brecker was hospitalized in an ICU, suffering from a life-threatening infection. Given that timing, we can appreciate these musicians’ reluctance to provide salutary remarks. Thankfully, Brecker recovered from that infection. But plenty of his colleagues were more than happy to share their thoughts and feelings about him and writer Bill Milkowski culled the material from interviews that could have filled this entire magazine. (You can read the complete transcript at jazztimes.com.) Call it a “Get Well” card or call it a “Thank You” note, this tribute comes straight from the heart of the jazz community.

Brecker is not unaware of the power of all this well-wishing. He sent me the following statement via e-mail: “Having not seen the article, I will be as surprised by the content as any other reader—except that what is being expressed is about me—which is, as usual, somewhat embarrassing. This has been a rough two years and the support and love I’ve received from so many both within and outside the music community has been overwhelming...and humbling. Today, my focus is on getting well. In the meantime, there are no words to express the extent of my gratitude.”

Brecker may be spending a lot of time at home in order to get well, but he’s trying to keep up with his musical work. He’s been practicing with his EWI—a wind-controlled synthesizer. He has a “Best of” collection coming out in the fall on Verve and he hopes to finish a new CD for Heads Up for release in early 2007. As you will read from the testimony of his peers in these pages, there’s plenty of reason to believe that there’s more great music coming from Michael Brecker. We’re all looking forward to hearing him again.

Originally published in June 2006

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