Multi-Faceted Saxophonist Braxton Cook’s Unique Journey, Plus Overtones and 12-Hour Practice Sessions
From touring with Christian Scott to working on and producing his own music, Braxton Cook is not your average saxophone player. His high level of execution on the saxophone as well as business-savviness is something many young and experienced musicians should strive for. For those of you who are not already checking out Braxton, here are some key details to get you up to speed:
- Upon moving to NYC, as a freshman at The Juilliard School, Braxton had the opportunity to meet Christian Scott and ended up becoming a long-term member in Christian’s band.
- In addition to touring with Christian Scott, Braxton can be seen playing with Christian McBride Big Band as well as Marquis Hill, among many others.
- Braxton was selected as a semi-finalist in the 2013 Thelonious Monk International Jazz Saxophone Competition.
- In 2014, Braxton released his debut EP Sketch and upon graduating from Juilliard he released Braxton Cook Meets Butcher Brown (2015) garnering attention from Fresh Selects label which launched his solo career.
- In April of 2017, Braxton released his debut album Somewhere In Between (Fresh Selects), which allowed Braxton to tour both nationally and internationally.
- Braxton’s album Somewhere in Between/Somewhere in Between Remixes & Outtakes have amassed millions of streams and downloads on Spotify and Apple Music, and has been praised by peers, musicians, and critics alike.
- Most recently, Braxton was listed as Top Five Jazz Artist To Watch (alongside Robert Glasper, Kamasi Washington, Butcher Brown, and Kris Bowers) in the 2018 June Issue of Ebony Magazine.
- Outside of the jazz realm, Braxton has been scene working alongside Rihanna at the 2016 VMAs and Solange Knowles.
- Braxton toured with Tom Misch and performed at Coachella in 2018.
- In 2018, Braxton released his sophomore album entitled No Doubt (Independent) which debuted at #2 on iTunes Jazz Charts.
- Most recently, Braxton released his third project on March 27th, 2020 called Fire Sign.
ZS: How Did You Become Interested In Playing The Saxophone?
BC: I grew up in a musical family. My mom played classical piano and my dad sang a good bit (especially extra loud in church). Piano was my first instrument around 4 or 5, just learning classical pieces by Beethoven such as Für Elise and Moonlight Sonata. I started playing the saxophone around the age of 6 or 7 when my mom first rented my dad a saxophone for his birthday. My dad was down in the basement practicing and I heard the saxophone and wanted to try it. Me and my two brothers (my baby brother wasn’t born at that time) all had a chance to try the saxophone but I was the only one who got a pretty good sound on it. In 4th or 5th grade I was playing sports but had the opportunity to choose band or orchestra. I chose band and the three instruments I was interested in playing were saxophone, trumpet, and one other. I ended up picking the alto saxophone because of my size (I was really short).
That was the very beginning of the saxophone for me. In addition to playing the saxophone, I was interested in drama and was singing and doing theater. I was a part of productions such as Les Misérables and Willy Wonka. I remember I wasn’t really into jazz and my dad would put on John Coltrane, but more of his avant garde stuff and I wasn’t really interested in that sound at the time. I really gravitated towards R&B and funk with Grover Washington being one of my early influences.
In 8th grade, I remember there was an assembly where some high school students came to my middle school and it was the first time I saw young players playing bebop and that is when it all really clicked for me.
In 2006, we ended up moving back to Maryland (lived in Atlanta from 2000 to 2005) where I was originally from, and during that summer, before starting 9th grade, my dad enrolled me into this jazz camp at Spring Brook High School in Montgomery County. The jazz camp was called “Everybody Can Play Jazz” and it was a 2 week intensive with a few instructors that really got me improvising pretty early. While at this camp, I met a saxophonist named Morgan Russell. Morgan Russell was a saxophonist who worked at Dale’s Music and also taught at that jazz camp at my high school, so I ended up taking private lessons with Morgan.
Through studying with Morgan, I ended up meeting a bunch of other players that Morgan was teaching, one of those being Elijah Balbed who was a good friend and person that really pushed me early on in my career. Elijah was working at Dale’s Music at 15 or 16 and told me that I should also take lessons with his teacher Paul Carr. Paul Carr is a great tenor saxophonist and also mentor who taught so many great players. I don’t end up getting into jazz band in 9th grade since I was told Jazz Band was for 10th-12th grade but I started taking private lessons with Paul Carr as well as doing his Jazz Academy to get ahead. Paul had the Jazz Academy going on throughout the year which gave me more experience playing and performing early on. Come 10th grade, I am finally able to join the jazz band and at that point, I had grown so much as a player studying with Paul which just pushed me to another level. In 10th grade, I ended up making all county as well as all state but why 10th grade was another pivotal point for me was because Wynton Marsalis visited my high school to conduct a masterclass. I happened to be playing lead alto in our big band and we were playing a bunch of Duke Ellington charts. I remember soloing on “It Don’t Mean a Thing” and Wynton was comping on piano and telling me to keep playing and complementing me. After the masterclass he talked to me one on one and told me I was really swinging and to keep practicing which really lit the fire under me with that positive affirmation to keep going in that direction. At that point, everything went into high gear.
I started putting in 12 hour days during the summer and life for me was basically school and practice. I also auditioned and made the Grammy band, which really opened me up to all those schools in New York such as Juilliard, The New School, and Manhattan School of Music which made me seriously consider pursuing music after high school.
I was always focused on academics and my grades as well, so I applied to and was accepted to NCCU, Howard, University of Maryland, Georgetown, New School, and Manhattan School of Music but I didn’t receive enough scholarship money to the music schools out of high school. My dad was fine with me pursuing music but didn’t want me to take out a bunch of loans to pursue it which was hard to hear at the time. He recommended that I attend Georgetown because as professor of law at Georgetown, my tuition would be covered if I was accepted (which I was).
I decided to go to Georgetown University and remained an undecided major for a while because I was still trying to figure out what I wanted to do. I ended up settling on a major in English with an African American studies minor which actually was very helpful with understanding the historical context of jazz/post-bop/avant garde from the 50’s and 60’s and what was going on during that time.
All during this time, I am still playing in D.C. and meeting a lot of incredible musicians who I ended up touring with later. While playing in D.C. a lot of my friends from the Grammy band and other groups I played with were telling me I needed to get to New York and check out the scene.
My sophomore year at Georgetown, I decided that I wanted to transfer at the end of the year to Juilliard. I end up going through the audition process and getting accepted to Juilliard with a similar scholarship that I had at Georgetown which made the transition easy for me as well as my parents.
My freshman year at Juilliard, I end up meeting Christian Scott through my friend Tyler Ginsberg who was a trombone player from New Orleans that studied at Berklee College of Music. Tyler was a great friend of Christian’s and asked me if I wanted to check out Donald Harrison’s show at Symphony Space. I ended up taking the train to go see the show and after, Tyler asks if I want to meet Donald and Christian after the show. I remember going back stage and hanging out with a bunch of people and end up meeting Christian which we hit it off. We ended up exchanging information and Christian says I might have some work for you. It turns out, that I wouldn’t hear from Christian for about 3 months but then all of a sudden the summer going into my sophomore year at Juilliard, Christian hits me up that there is this TV show he wants to do called The Eddy; which funny enough just came out on Netflix. Christian ends up flying me to L.A. to record a bunch of demos for this pilot and all of us (myself, Christian Scott, Luques Curtis, Joe Dyson, Lawrence Fields, and Matt Stevens) end up hitting it off, and Christian then sends me a bunch of tour dates.
Touring with Christian started my sophomore year at Juilliard and that’s when the juggling act began. I used to have to meet with the Dean and all my teachers to find out how much class I could miss because I wanted to do the tour, but also not fall behind in school. I had to get tutors, redo classes, and make up some work, but it was all worth it in the end to go on tour.
In 2015, I graduated from Juilliard and can now do all the tour dates and focus on releasing my own music. I had already released my first EP Sketch but then not too long after that, I decided to do an album with Butcher Brown. Through that Butcher Brown project, I end up getting a connection with this label Fresh Selects, where I send them early demos of Somewhere in Between, and they wanted to sign that project. We end up setting a date for early spring 2017. As soon as Somewhere in Between came out, my Spotify started to really grow organically separate from what I was doing with Christian. During this time I started to write more and create my own music that I envisioned my 12 year old self wanting to listen too because as much as like bebop, I really gravitated toward players like Grover Washington and combining elements of bebop, post-bop, R&B, soul. etc.
ZS: Who were your influences growing up and has your interest in players changed over time?
BC: Grover Washington was one of my first influences (R&B records) but then I looked at Grover Washington’s influences, and I started checking out Cannonball Adderley, Hank Crawford, etc. At 14, Cannonball was my guy; I started learning as many of his solos as I could find by transcribing them and then learning them in all 12 keys. I listened to Charlie Parker and studied the Omnibook, but I really gravitated more towards Cannonball and still do today.
From Cannonball around 17 or 18 I started checking out Kenny Garrett (same process as learning Cannonball) and also Sonny Rollins. I am still putting my students onto Saxophone Colossus because everything about that album is so perfect. I did enjoy early Trane quite a bit, especially his prestige recordings.
Outside of the jazz realm, I definitely listened to D’Angelo and really got into neo-soul and Motown records. I always loved listening to singers like Sam Cooke, Marvin Gaye, etc.
While I was in New York for my particular era, I would say it was the Mark Turner era (2011-2015). So many players (including myself) were emulating Mark’s approach to the saxophone as well such great musicians such as Lee Konitz, Warne Marsh, and Lennie Tristano.
ZS: As you have worked to develop your own sound and technique, who did you try to emulate the most and what was your process?
BC: During my first couple of years in New York, I was influenced by some of the more modern players so I remember trying to emulate Mark Turner (more so his altissimo), Alex Lore, and Ben Van Gelder when it comes to technique and sound because these were the artists that my peers were listening to. When I think of my sound, I would say some players that have influenced my sound today are Kenny Garrett, late Cannonball Adderley, Lee Konitz, and maybe someone contemporary players like Gerald Albright or someone in that field. My process to develop this sound and technique was playing more into the altissimo, playing harder reeds, and I started to play with a more airy sound.
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Last night was such a surreal experience!! ✨The kinship and love in the room was something you just had to witness. I got to share the stage with so many incredible black artists of our generation and got to speak with THE 🐐@quincydjones!! I’m so very grateful. 🙏🏾🙏🏾Thank you so much @theshedny for having me be apart of this night and s/o to @controlisamirage @tankandthebangas @iamkelseylu @duckwrth @jadenovah for being the incredible artists you are // 📸 by @dmanuel09 👔 Styled by. @mikeystyles #theshed
ZS: How have you adjusted to COVID thus far?
BC: I had to shift my focus for sure, but there were a few things I always wanted to do. For my 2020 goals list, I am glad I finally finished my e-book: Braxton Cook’s Favorite II V I’s because if I was touring like normal like last summer, I don’t know if I would have ever gotten to finishing this e-book. I am starting to create my catalog of students and lessons and creating more e-books and templates which I realized takes time but isn’t that hard once you set it up. I hope to and will come out with some additional e-books in the future for players as well as my fans to check out.
ZS: Is there something you would like to share that you believe many people don’t know about you?
BC: I have never driven a car and am getting my license this week (just got my permit). I grew up taking trains and buses in D.C. and New York so I am finally getting my license since moving to L.A. Been focusing a lot on some life stuff at the moment.
ZS: When it comes to practicing, what is your process for honing your skills, and do you have any tips you recommend for all players from beginner to advanced?
BC: I think overtones aren’t looked at enough. I have been focused on singing every solo and learning more off of the instrument so when I get to practicing long tones and overtones, it is easier for me. For overtones, I like to play them at a very soft volume which I think has helped me extend my range and further improve my altissimo. Working on bridges that I find hard is what I like to work on and really pinpoint the areas were the transition is not smooth. I work quite a bit on the chromatic scale and tonal matching to make sure, for example, that the C# and D tonal colors aren’t too different (avoiding having one be too bright or the other too dark).
ZS: What are your thoughts on the importance of the equipment? Do you find yourself changing much or sticking with the same gear?
BC: I change my equipment way too much. My goal is to be able to get my sound on anything. I think equipment is important in terms of being comfortable.
ZS: What current projects are you working on?
BC: Right now I have been working on some music for a new Netflix movie coming out. I am also looking to work more on my writing and scoring as well as a few more e-books. One book I am working on in particular is on being an independent artist and teaching musicians how to get your music out to the world all by yourself. In addition to the saxophone, I have also been learning the bass and guitar via YouTube videos.
Saxophone: Selmer Mark VII (1975) and just bought another Conn New Wonder
Ligature: Ishimori (Brushed Satin finish)
Reed: Boston Sax Shop (3.5) or Hemke (3)
Mouthpiece: Meyer 6 (refaced by Matt Marantz)
NeckStrap: Boston Sax Shop