Don Braden will never forget an exchange he had with a surgeon a few years ago, because it was the most devastating news he’d ever received. In 2014 Braden noticed a lump in his throat. He went from one specialist to another, but none of them could figure out what it was. Then, finally, one did: It was a cyst, on the inside of his jaw. “If it’s cancerous, we’re going to have to take out your whole jaw,” he was told.
“But I’m a saxophone player,” replied Braden, who had only recently turned 50. “If the biopsy proves positive, you’d better take up the piano,” he recalls the doctor saying. “You’re gonna be done.”
Fortunately, the cyst was benign. Braden was forbidden from playing for some time while in recovery from surgery, but he was able to stay involved with music by leading the Harvard Jazz Band, a gig he’d been offered a couple years earlier on an interim basis and which ultimately lasted three years.
There was some irony to that. When Braden was 20 years old, he found himself at a crossroads. He’d been a student at Harvard for two years and had played in that same ensemble while studying computers and working toward an engineering degree. He’d also been practicing nonstop on the tenor saxophone since high school—in bands that covered everything from soul standards to Grover Washington Jr. and Ronnie Laws to the Stones—and could feel his skills expanding rapidly. “I got to the point where I said, ‘I’m going to have to choose between the computer thing and music,’” he remembers. “So in my junior year I said, ‘I’ll take the next semester off and go to New York and check it out.’” He pauses and laughs. “My dad said later, ‘I tried to talk you out of it, but you wouldn’t let me. You wanted it that bad.’”
Once in New York, he got a small, cheap apartment and a part-time computer job to pay the bills. He started to hit the clubs at night, searching for gigs. Being young and brash, he didn’t let the steep odds of making it as a musician daunt him. “I got Wynton Marsalis’ phone number from somebody and I just called him,” he remembers. “I said, ‘Mr. Marsalis, my name is Don Braden and I want to play with you.’ This was 1986 and Wynton was the most famous man in jazz. We talked for about half an hour. He came to see me at my first gig with Betty Carter, but I didn’t even know he was there that night. That October, when Branford [Marsalis] left [Wynton’s] band to join Sting, Wynton called me and said, ‘Come make some music with me.’ It’s a blessing that Wynton was so patient with me and was supportive of me. I look back on that today and I see that the universe was telling me that I was obviously on the right path.”
Today, Braden has released 20 albums as a leader and has performed with Tony Williams, Freddie Hubbard, J.J. Johnson, Tom Harrell and Roy Haynes in addition to that two-year stint with Marsalis. He is a respected, in-demand educator who has given master classes, seminars and residencies at more than a dozen colleges as well as at high, middle and elementary schools and music camps. He has served as music director at the Litchfield Jazz Camp in Connecticut for more than 18 years, and for 15 years he ran the New Jersey Performing Arts Center’s Wells Fargo Jazz for Teens program. He’s taught at the Jamey Aebersold workshops in Louisville, Ky., where he grew up, and is involved with the New York Comes to Groningen program at the Prince Claus Conservatoire in Groningen, Netherlands.
Now, Braden is celebrating the release of Conversations, his first post-surgery album. He’s a changed man since the health scare, and following a regimen of good nutrition, exercise and positive attitude. The music on Conversations, he says, also reflects his personal philosophy, that of “being a good, strong person every single day.” It features Braden on tenor saxophone and flute with a longtime collaborator, Dutch bassist and composer Joris Teepe, in duets and in trios anchored by drummers Gene Jackson and Matt Wilson. “The name Conversations came up because we listened to the music and said, ‘This is all conversational. We’re just bouncing off each other.’”
The album is due for release this spring and will be followed, later in the year, by a wholly different project: Earth, Wind and Wonder, as its title suggests a tribute to Earth, Wind and Fire and Stevie Wonder, two of Braden’s earliest influences. “I grew up in the ’70s and all my early music exposure was to R&B and local bands with horns, stuff with sophisticated chord changes,” he says. “As a teenager we played some of those tunes in the bands I was in—the ones that we could pull off. My own early compositional efforts were inspired by them as well, particularly by Stevie, just how he put a melody together. That was from the early part of my life, when it goes deep into your body and your brain.”
Moving between disparate projects has been a way of life for Braden since he started playing. A musical omnivore with a sound that is both contemporary and evocative of classic midcentury tenormen, he’s worked in small groups, organ trios and big bands and accompanied vocalists—other recent recordings find him teamed with singers Vanessa Rubin and Julie Michels. He’s played funk and Brazilian music and paid album-length homage to Billy Strayhorn. Luminosity, released in 2015 and featuring guitarist Dave Stryker, organist Kyle Koehler and drummer Cecil Brooks III, falls into a soul-jazz groove. Braden has always strived for consistency in quality, even while mixing it up stylistically. “My musical attitude is like Duke Ellington’s,” he says. “There’s good music and bad music.”
Asked to single out a few personal highlights from his own catalog, Braden will, if pressed, focus on a trio of albums he released in the late ’90s to 2000: The Voice of the Saxophone, a tribute to the influence of Coltrane, Benny Golson, Hank Mobley and others; The Fire Within, produced by Kenny Garrett and featuring three different killer rhythm sections; and Don Braden Presents the Contemporary Standards Ensemble, with interpretations of songs by artists such as Steely Dan, Chaka Khan and Pat Metheny.
But he’s equally enthusiastic about the film and television scoring he’s done, including music for CBS and Nickelodeon. “I’m interested in being stretched compositionally,” he says. “This brings out the mathematician in me, the computer guy, the algorithmic guy. In jazz improvisation there’s always some amount of calculation that goes on with harmony and rhythm, etc., but as a composer who’s saying something for a picture, that requires another kind of cleverness. And that spills over into my regular jazz writing because you think of things a little differently.”
When he was still in college, trying to decide in which direction to steer his life, “I thought musicians did it on the side and they all had jobs,” Braden says now, laughing. “Making a living at it never occurred to me. I always thought I’d get a job as an engineer somewhere. I was doing it locally and practicing and having a total blast.”
It’s still fun, and Braden continues to honor the lessons he’s picked up along the way. “It doesn’t matter what you’re going through: Bring 130 percent because that’s what the people paid for,” he says. “Bring your full A-game all the time.”
He pauses, then adds one more. “And take maximum care of yourself.”
Conversations (Creative Perspective, 2017)
Luminosity (Creative Perspective, 2015)
The Fire Within (RCA, 1999)
The Voice of the Saxophone (RCA, 1997)