Michael Brecker (3.29.49 – 1.13.07)
Mike was indeed an iconic figure in jazz, but it was always hard for me to see him in that light: To me he was still my kid brother in whose milk I used to spit when he wasn’t looking.
Always the scientist, he spent the better part of his life in basements, first at our parents’ house outside Philly, where he experimented with his chemistry set until the inevitable explosion. Later in life the chemistry lab morphed into his basement music studio, and music became his greatest experiment. He studied, studied and studied some more, mixing different elements of melody, harmony, rhythm and sound until he came up with a potion that was unique, and one which would be copied by thousands of saxophonists and musicians the world over. Both as a player, and later as a composer, he set the standard. He brought music and musicians from different spheres and cultures together, thus making for a better world. When he was first taken ill he was working on a project fusing Bulgarian folk music and jazz. I thought to myself, Well, he’s really taking it too far out this time! Then later down the line, I heard some of his Logic sequences in his basement, and what I heard was genius, unlike anything he had done before, unlike anything anyone had heard before. At this point he had been sick for two years and he still had the drive to walk down the stairs into his studio to compose and play. But again—that was Mike. Susan, Mike’s wife, is working very hard to try and make sure some of that music sees the light of day.
His greatest playing transcended idioms or genres. When he performed his solo improvisations on tunes like “Naima,” one conjured up visions of Paganini, Caruso, Stravinsky and Mahalia Jackson. It was an absolute marriage of incredible technique with deep feeling and soul. People came away forever transformed by those performances.
He always had a strong sense of humility. How many musicians do you know waited until they were 37 to record their first solo album because they “weren’t ready”? That alone says volumes about honesty and integrity.
I remember doing a session with him a few years ago. Turns out the artist had a 16-bar solo spot for him in a 3/4 gospel-type tune. Mike was in the studio with headphones on, and when he heard the track he started waving his arms and saying, “No, no. You got the wrong guy!” I had to go out, take him aside, talk him into doing the solo, and when he finally did a take, it was so soulful there wasn’t a dry eye in the recording booth: Not only was he the right guy—he was the only guy.
Imagine, I was there when he first blew some air into a clarinet when he was 8 years old, and watched as he literally grew into alto, tenor, EWI, composition and bandleading. As kids, we met in the bathroom adjoining our bedrooms, Mike on clarinet, me on my first trumpet, and we’d play free (pre-Ornette!) since we liked the echo in the bathroom! We played together our whole lives, so I also miss him dearly as a section mate. I recently heard both of our early ’70s Dreams records which have amazing “developing Mike” on them, as well as one of the greatest horn sections ever—Mike, Barry Rogers and me. I miss those guys a lot—we were in uncharted territory then, and Mike stayed there his whole life.
Besides music Mike loved his family, all of whom gave him reason to live, and they along with my sister Emmy and longtime manager and friend Darryl Pitt, left no stone unturned in his struggle.
A picture of Michael Brecker would not be complete if I didn’t mention all the incredible things he did for thousands of people mired in substance abuse. After becoming ill with MDS, he also helped thousands more, by going public with his illness, and raising thousands upon thousands of dollars to help with donor drives. The fact that minorities are seriously under-represented in the bone marrow donor registry at marrow.org was brought to the fore by Mike’s spearheading the movement.
To all of us in the music community he was a jazz titan, yet let us not forget that to many ordinary people in the rest of the world, who are deep in recovery from addiction, or who have been saved by a successful bone marrow transplant, Michael Brecker was … no, is a true hero.