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Michael Brecker Competition Continues Legacy of Generous Musician

Accomplished young alto saxophonist Alex Hahn is this year's winner

Alex Hahn - Winner of the 2019 Michael Brecker International Saxophone Competition.
Alex Hahn – Winner of the 2019 Michael Brecker International Saxophone Competition. (photo: Odasan Macovich)

Michael Brecker used to receive one or two unsolicited cassettes in the mail, every week, from young and aspiring musicians seeking his advice and guidance. Brecker, one of the most influential saxophonists to emerge in the wake of John Coltrane’s death in 1967, was a busy man—he played on close to 1,000 albums in his lifetime, garnering 15 Grammy Awards—but he always made time for those tapes.

“He listened to every single one of them,” his widow, Susan Brecker, recalled in a recent telephone conversation. “He was really excited that there were a lot of up-and-coming young players.”

Brecker died of leukemia in 2007, at the age of 57, but his spirit lives on in a new competition. The Michael Brecker International Saxophone Competition, which had its inaugural run in late August at the Red Sea Jazz Festival in Eilat, Israel, seeks to further Brecker’s legacy and pay tribute to his “kind and generous soul,” as saxophonist Eli Degibri, the festival’s artistic director, put it in a statement when the competition was announced.

“We just wanted to encourage young players and to give very, very deserving young players a chance to be heard on an international stage,” said Susan Brecker, who helped found the competition.

This year’s winner is Alex Hahn, an accomplished young alto saxophonist who has already performed with such stalwarts as Herbie Hancock, Esperanza Spalding, and Marcus Miller, but who hasn’t put out a record on a commercial label. The $12,500 prize will help him do that, and perhaps more. (Alex Weitz, who came in second, took home $7,500, and Artem Badenko, in third place, won $2,500.) The final round was judged by Degibri, Ron Carter, Kenny Garrett, and Donny McCaslin.

In order to qualify for the competition, which had an open call for applicants, saxophonists between the ages of 16 and 30 had to submit four tracks—one performance of a Brecker solo and three different tunes including a standard ballad, a medium-tempo blues, and an uptempo standard. In total, there were 108 applicants, according to Susan Brecker, only eight of whom were chosen to move on to the semi-finals by a panel including Melissa Aldana, Marcus Strickland, and Ben Wendel, all listening blind.

It makes sense that a competition should exist in Brecker’s name, given his seemingly limitless capacity for mentorship. “He had so much patience for the people who would come to his gigs because he felt like they had something to say that he could learn from,” Susan said. “He wanted to know what they were thinking and what they were playing and what mouthpieces they used.”

But although the idea had been gestating for some time, it took a while for it to become a reality. A few months after Brecker died, Susan got a call from Herb Alpert, whose philanthropic foundation recently celebrated its 25th anniversary. Alpert said he wanted to do something to honor Brecker and brought up a competition, Susan recalled. But she was busy raising two children and nothing came of it. 

Still, Susan said that she had always hoped to do something to memorialize her late husband, and so, not too long ago, she went back to Alpert and suggested that they revisit the idea. He was game, and signed on as a sponsor, as did the city of Eilat. 

Brecker performed at the first iteration of the Red Sea Jazz Festival in 1987 and became something of an “unofficial ambassador” for the yearly event, said Darryl Pitt, Brecker’s former manager, so it seemed appropriate to hold the competition there. 

Pitt added that Brecker’s legacy would, of course, live on irrespective of the competition. “That much is clear,” he said. “It just seemed to be a good idea to further burnish that legacy and his spirit of creativity and desire to be successful in the musical arts.”

Brecker, who grew up just outside Philadelphia, began his career in earnest when he moved to New York in 1969. He began playing with his brother, trumpeter Randy Brecker, and quickly became an in-demand sideman. He moved seamlessly between pop and jazz, performing with Joni Mitchell, Paul Simon, Pat Metheny, and countless others. 

Brecker was an overwhelmingly humble man. When he was sick, he sought out bone marrow donors, but had to be convinced that he would be helping more people than just himself, Pitt recalled. “He’d probably be rolling over in his grave if he knew he had a competition in his honor,” said Pitt, who added that, ideally, the competition will take place every two years. 

Susan Brecker sees it differently. She imagined her late husband would nevertheless approve of the competition, but that he would find it difficult to deal with the fact that there would be only one winner. 

“The 100 people who didn’t make it? That would be heartbreaking for him,” she said. “I’m sure if he were alive he’d have sent them all a personal note saying, ‘I’m so sorry, let’s hang out.’”

Matthew Kassel

Matthew Kassel is a freelance writer whose work has been published by The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Slate, and The Columbia Journalism Review, among other publications.