My Day with Michael Brecker – His Tips and Wisdom
Michael Brecker’s Visit to the USN’s Atlantic Fleet Band
Michael’s one day workshop came about through the hard work of MU2 (Musician 2nd Class) Jeremy Bustillos and the permission of LCDR (Lieutenant Commander) Mel Kessler, our band officer.
On or about September 2, 2003 we had a surprise visitor at the Atlantic Fleet Band in Norfolk, VA. Michael Brecker was in the boss’s office. We were asked to go to the Concert Band Room and be seated. First Michael talked to us for about an hour. We then broke for about 15 minutes. He listened to the Jazz Ensemble perform first. Then he spoke to the group. After lunch he listened to and made comments to the Rock Band and Show Band Combo. Finally he came into my office where I showed him the Runyon Pad Dope and my reed soaking solution that he expressed interest in earlier in the day.
It is 0900 and the band is on edge waiting for our special guest to enter the room. Michael enters the room carrying his tenor sax case. He is introduced to us by LCDR Kessler. The band members applaud.
Michael took the deck and started talking about his background. His family lived in Philly where he grew up. His father was a lawyer who played piano well. At night he would invite whoever was playing in town to come by for a jam session. It was the 1950’s to mid 1960’s and Philly was still a hotbed of jazz activity. Michael said his Dad sued by day and swung by night. He was in awe of both his Dad and his brother Randy. He talked about them a lot.
His first instrument was the clarinet. He said when he was a kid he liked the way it looked. Michael said his first musical hero was Jimmy Giuffre of Four Brother’s fame. He said he used to practice by playing into a metal trash can to try to get the reverb that he heard on Giuffre’s recordings. I researched this and indeed on his record entitled The Jimmy Giuffre Clarinet (1956; Atlantic 1238) there is indeed some reverb present. Not as much as Elvis, but the reverb is there.
The clarinet lasted only until Michael started to play basketball. This was from around the age of 12 until maybe 16 years old. Then he started to play alto sax. Around the age of 17 his teacher suggested he switch over to tenor sax. Michael didn’t give a reason but I assume it was because he was already quite tall.
First off Michael encouraged the free exchange of ideas and questions. While some people did make a comment or asked a question most of the comments and questions came from three sax players. This was MU2 Trae Cummings, MU2 Gresh Laing and myself MU2 Larry Weintraub. I felt that a lot of people just did not know what to say. For some, especially the people who knew who he was it was like either Elvis or Sinatra came back to life and was in the room. For the others who had no idea who he was they just did not know what to say.
So of course you always have the gear question. Michael said his gear wasn’t anything special. He played a Selmer Mk VI tenor, a Dave Guardala mouthpiece made especially for him and LaVoz medium reeds. He said that prior to playing the Guardala mouthpiece he was playing a more resistant mouthpiece with a harder reed. However he had throat problems and a lung collapsed. He had throat surgery to correct the problem. Michael showed us the scar that ran from one side of his throat to the other side of his throat. So he asked Guardala to make him a mouthpiece that was less resistant than his previous mouthpiece but with a sound that was close to his previous mouthpiece, a metal Otto Link. So after much trial and error they finally came up with a mouthpiece that was comfortable for him to play. This point is important, he really wasn’t a gear geek. His advice was to use what worked for you. He felt that a lot of musical advertising was just a bunch of hype.
So the question was asked, “how does he practice improvisation?” Michael said the following, “that he would take any melodic idea, phrase or lick and play it through the keys. He starts the idea at the bottom of the horn and works it all the way to the top of the horn going into the altissimo if possible.” He then said, “I have compiled tons of notebooks full of ideas that I have played through the keys.” He further stated “that an idea may not sound good in every key or in both the upper and lower registers but play them there anyway. It’s good practice.” Michael stressed, “do not write the idea out in every key, only in one key. Learn it by ear or by relating the scale or chord degrees. If you write it out in every key you’ll never learn the idea completely.”
Reeds and Warm-Ups
He then proceeded to put his tenor sax together, complained about his reed and demonstrated what he just talked about. He played an idea starting on low Bb and took it through all the keys over the whole horn. He started on low Bb, then low B etc until he was way past high F. All this on a reed that he said was starting to go. Not only did he do this flawlessly he also did it at a fairly brisk tempo. This got a nice round of applause from the band.
Someone asked him how he prepares for his day. He said, “I call my service before hand to see what gigs I have, where they are and the type of gig. Is it a studio session for a record, commercial or a jazz, funk or rock band gig? Then I never leave the house without testing out my equipment. I make sure I have at least two really good reeds and that my horn is working right.” This was important for me to hear. I cannot tell you how many times on a gig I have seen a reed player going through a box of reeds before the downbeat hoping to find that magic reed. That should be done before you leave for the gig.
He directed some questions to the sax players. He wanted to know if anyone had a good solution to the sticking pad problem. No one piped in, so I suggested that he look into Santy Runyon’s Pad Dope. I mentioned that Chris Vadala endorses it. By the way, this was before the so called non-stick pads were being made.
Next Michael said “he liked his reeds moist and kept them in a plastic lunch baggie. However his reeds got this black mold on them.” No one spoke up so I again offered a solution. I learned this solution from a Master Class I attended given by MUCS ( Senior Chief Musician) Scott Silbert at the Saxophone Symposium at George Mason University. MUCS Silbert was a former member of the Navy Jazz Commodores and then a Staff Arranger for the Navy Band in Washington DC.
MUCS Silbert said the following, “take an old leak proof pill bottle, fill it halfway with water then fill the rest with mouthwash. Close the lid and shake it up. Then soak your reeds in the solution for under a minute. When you are finished playing take the reed off, soak it again for a second, wipe it off and then put the reed in your reed guard. Next and this is the important part – put the reed guard with your reeds in a ziplock baggie but do not close it all the way, leave it open about a quarter of an inch to let air in. This prevents mold, keeps your reeds slightly moist and it will give your reed that fresh minty taste.” Michael said that he would try it and that he was learning things from being with us. Again he really liked the exchange of ideas. He said “that he was interested in both the Pad Dope and the reed soaking solution.” I told him I would show it to him at the end of the day.
The Jazz Ensemble
It was now 1000 hours and we were the first group up. Every group played two tunes. The first tune we played was “Deedles Blues” written for Diane Shur and the Basie Band. It is a nice medium up blues in Db with a vocal by MU2 Kim Haynes and solos from various band members. If you think that some of us weren’t nervous think again. There was Michael Brecker sitting not 15 feet away from us ready to listen to us and critic us. Okay “Deedles Blues” was up and I had the first solo on alto sax after Kim sang a chorus or two. I said to myself, “alright Larry, don’t even look at him. You know what you can do, just stand up, do not face him and play when the time comes.” I will also say that halfway through the chorus there was a turn around in my part that went Dm7, G7 for 2 beats a piece. Then the next bar was Cm7, F7. Then back to Bb. So I stood up and played using some of the stuff I learned from my current teacher Marty Nau, a retired Navy Jazz Commodore alto player. Over the turn around section I played a pattern and it’s sequence. After my two choruses I sat down not looking at Michael. Someone from the trumpet section shouted out, “look, Brecker is giving Larry the thumbs up.” I looked over at him and he was giving me the thumbs up with a big smile. Talk about a rush, wow I felt great.
So we played the next tune, an instrumental blues that feature different soloist. The band was really grooving and guys were yelling out encouragement to each other during both tunes. Okay we were finished. Michael brings his chair in closer to talk to us. We waited with bated breath to hear what this very humble giant of jazz and NYC studio playing was going to say.
Michaels Comments to the Jazz Ensemble
- “You guys play in tune better than what I hear in most studio sessions in New York.”
- “However, as far as solos go, most of you need to go back and really Listen to the music.”
- “Most of you are not speaking the Jazz Language.”
- “The band was swinging, nice job by the drummer (MU2 Ricky Micou). Saxes really nice blend, really nice ensemble playing all around. I can tell that you guys play together a lot. You encourage each other, that’s good.”
- The lead alto player asked Michael what he thought of his sound on his solo. Michael said, ‘it was nice.”
- Finally Michael walked over to Kim and told her nice job on the vocal.
We were finished. It was close to 1130 and the band broke for lunch but not before Michael agreed to have a picture taken of him and I. Our Public Affairs Petty Officer (PAPO) was taking photos all day.
The Rock Band and the Show Band Combo
The Rock Band convened at 1300, in their room. The Rock Band is small, basically a rhythm section led by a sax player. They played a rock version of “The Nearness of You” and “Take The ‘A’ Train.” Afterward Michael made his comments, again coming in close with his chair. He was critical but he said everything in a nice way.
To the group as a whole, “nice rock version of “The Nearness of You. Nice sound alto player.”
To the alto player he said, “I can tell that you are a lot more comfortable playing and soloing in the rock idiom than in the jazz idiom. You need to work more on your jazz playing if you are going to play jazz too.”
To the drummer he said, ” you’re not grooving, do you mind if I sit behind your set and show you what I mean?” Of course the drummer let him. So Michael starts to lay down a groove and asks the rhythm section to join him and to listen to what he is doing.
To the rhythm section in both the Rock Band and Show Band Combo he said, “you guys need to listen to each other. You are all playing like each of you is in your own world and not part of a cohesive group. When you are each in your own world the group doesn’t swing or groove. You guys need to listen to and play off each other.”
The Show Band Combo played a standard and a blues. I do not remember which ones.
- To the Show Band Combo he said the following besides the above statement.
- “You guys need to listen to your bass player (MU2 Carl Jackson) he’s really laying down the feel, time and groove . Guitar player, lay out some, leave some space. Let the piano player fill more. Okay, let’s try it again.” The combo restarts, Michael says, “that was much better, way to go guitar player.”
- To the tenor sax player he said, “I know you are using plastic reeds because you told me so. However if I was you, I’d rethink the use of plastic reeds and go back to cane reeds.”
Michael’s final words to us in the Show Band Room
Unfortunately not everyone was in the room at this time. Present were some of us diehards from the Jazz Ensemble, some of the Rock Band, the Show Band, the LCDR and the Master Chief.
Hear is what Michael said:
To everyone, “first off, you guys are to hard on each other. I’ve heard people making comments about this guy or that guy. Help each other out. If one guy is weak in one area , help him. Maybe he can help you with something else.” He said, “this is music man, not corporate take overs. There is no reason to be hard on each other.”
- He continued “man, guys in New York would kill to have the situation that you have. Look at all your gear, the rooms, the fact that you get paid to play everyday. ( He didn’t mention the medical benefits for us and our families and the pension). Guys in New York are sweating it out from gig to gig.” With those statements he was alluding to some of the unprofessional behavior that some people exhibited during the day. People leaving early and not coming back. One guy saying, “why did they get him, why not Grover?” Actually by this time Grover had already passed away. However I think Michael may have heard that guy make that comment. To me he was an inspiration, however I cannot speak for everyone.
- To sax players in general he said “he liked a little resistance in his setup.”
- To everyone he reiterated, “be prepared before you play.”
- Finally he said, “Keep doing the music and be nice to each other.”
With that I approached him and asked him if he was still interested in seeing the Pad Dope and my reed solution. He said he was so Michael, myself, the LCDR and the Master Chief all went to my office where I had my stuff in my tenor case.
I placed a drop of the Pad Dope on his finger so he could feel it. Then I shook up my reed solution and let him smell it. I had my tenor sax on it’s sax stand. I told him I wasn’t really an alto player. Then the boss chimes in, “no your really a clarinet player.” I said, “no I’m really a tenor sax major who happens to play clarinet too.” Anyway he agreed to listen to me. So I picked up my tenor and started playing “Body and Soul.” I had just finished the “A” section and started to go into the 1st bridge in E minor on the tenor. He stopped me and as G-d as my witness said, “that’s it, thats the sound, you sound great”. Wow what a rush. It showed me that all the hard work I put into playing tenor sax and jazz playing was paying off. He asked me, little old nobody me what my setup was. I showed him my metal FL Otto Link 8with a Selmer Silver Ligature and a Rico # 2.5 reed. He told me, you know what, forget the hype, just use what works for you. He held my Link in his hand and said that he was thinking of going back to a Link. He asked me where he could try some. Well he lives in NYC so I said Roberto’s on West 46th Street. He always has a bunch of Links to try.
Well that was it. In my opinion it was a great day. Yes he said some corrective things to some people but he always said it in a positive way. He was trying to help us out in his own way. The Navy Music Program is very small. At the time we were allowed 806 people Navy wide. People tend to be very critical of each other and move in cliques. The bands should just be one family of music people who are doing a great job presenting the Navy and America in a positive light.
I hope you enjoyed this article and hopefully gained some insight into our day with Michael Brecker. Many of the comments he made to us could apply to any group of musicians, especially college bands. When you get out into the professional music world you need to show up on time, be prepared, have a # 2 pencil with you, keep your mouth shut and play your part really great.
Fast forward to the Spring of 2004. Michael and his group played at Christopher Newport College in Newport News. He played great. I especially liked his take on the ballad “My Ship.” I hung around after the concert to say hello and to give him a disc of photos taken during September, 2003. He remembered me asking how I was etc. I gave him the disc of photos and he signed the photo of him and I taken together in the band room. A few years later we learned that he passed away. What a sad day for everyone, especially for those of us who got to know him some.
Until next time play well and keep your reeds slightly moist. See ya around!
January 1, 2018 @ 7:22 am
Hi Larry, Thank you for sharing your recollections of a day with Michael and your own history and sax wisdom.
January 1, 2018 @ 11:21 am
Mark: Hi, I’m glad you liked the article. Michael was very humble and inspiring. My own music history is not typical in that I did not learn how to play in the public schools. I took private lessons from a local Union Pro.
When Sinatra came to town he was in the band, the same when Ella, Tony Bennett or others came my teacher Al Sigismondi was always in the band.
January 1, 2018 @ 9:07 am
That is a very enjoyable and inspirational article all band players should read. The comments about listening and being prepared hit close to home.
January 1, 2018 @ 11:23 am
Aga: Thank you I really appreciate your comments. I agree, listening to the music and being prepared are very important.
January 1, 2018 @ 9:53 am
Nice article, Larry! Thanks for sharing your experience with everyone.
January 1, 2018 @ 11:25 am
Donna: Thank you very much. I’m glad you enjoyed the article.
January 1, 2018 @ 11:16 am
Thanks so very much for taking the time to relate this great bit of military music history AND a bit of Michael Brecker history as well !!
It is also nice to have your personal Bio included as I am always interested in how people come to their music lives ….. and how they handle the reality of the economics involved……. Best wishes for a great year to you and yours !
January 1, 2018 @ 11:28 am
Steve: Thank you. Michael Brecker’s history and his path was very interesting. As I mentioned before was really inspired by him and how humble he was. I hope you have a Happy New Year as well.
January 1, 2018 @ 12:51 pm
Thanks for sharing Larry. Astonished at your personal bio/journey too…wow.
January 1, 2018 @ 9:07 pm
Mark: Thanks for liking my article. Me, I’m no one special, not like Michael that is for sure. Don’t get me wrong I enjoyed many aspects of being a military musician, especially the travel. I met some very interesting and nice people. However none of us in military music are of the caliber of player that Michael was. If we were we wouldn’t be in a military band. We’d be in NYC or L.A. setting the world on fire.
Me I’m a local player now plus I teach as mentioned in my bio. There are a few guys from the Navy Jazz Commodores and the Army Jazz Ambassadors who are really, really great players. Check out Jim Hayward on tenor sax, Luis Hernandez also on tenor. Then there is Marty Nau on alto and Scott Silbert on tenor. From the Army check out Tom Williams on trpt. All of these guys except Luis are out of the service. They are all in the Greater Wash DC area except Jim who is in Michigan.
Well thanks again and have a Happy New Year Mark.
January 2, 2018 @ 8:00 am
Thanks very much for sharing. It was great to hear your story. Have a great year.
January 2, 2018 @ 10:34 am
Joe: Thank you. You have a Great Year as well. Are you the same Joe Sullivan I knew in the Baltimore area back in the 70’s – 80’s? If so you played alto?
January 22, 2018 @ 8:27 pm
Late reply…. but yes, I am the same guy but mostly play tenor. I am still teaching school and playing.
Thanks again for your article.
January 23, 2018 @ 11:20 am
Joe: Where are you teaching, what school? What kind of gigs are you playing? I will be relocating to the Baltimore area in the next few years and I am already networking. Are you in the Union, do you play shows, have your own band? I played NYE w/a Wash DC based big band at the Bethesda Blues and Jazz Club. Take care.
July 11, 2020 @ 7:01 am
I’m in Brunei teaching now. My Japan days are a long time behind me, just one year 2002/03 in fact and sadly I have no digital records of the event, pre smart phone era. The military Jazz band were excellent, mixing vocal and instrumental numbers. I remember they had a killer tenor saxophonist at the time. They performed a concert and adjudicated the school jazz band competition we had organized.
I am really taking my saxophone playing very seriously these days partly because Brunei is a very quiet place and right now we are not allowed to travel out of the country
January 2, 2018 @ 11:24 am
One thing that Michael did say about Improv that I left out by accident. He said “that it may take 6 months to year for a pattern or idea that he is practicing to show up in performance.” So do not feel bad folks if you think that you are moving to slowly. It takes time to really internalize musical ideas through the keys and have them come out in your solos, especially the harder stuff.
January 2, 2018 @ 7:52 pm
Last paragraph under Michaels “Final Words To US.” Yes I did play the A section of “Body and Soul” for him. The correction is he stopped me before the 1st bridge which is in E Major on the tenor not E minor. Also my tenor sax mpc is a metal Otto Link 8* (star) not a plain 8.
I’ve got to get better at proof reading. Oh well just 2 slight errors in 3,142 words.
January 4, 2018 @ 3:41 pm
Thanks for sharing this amazing experience with your and Michael B’s insights. Particularly the points about service musician culture which I can relate to my own army music experience here in Australia. Best wishes!
January 4, 2018 @ 7:32 pm
Nicolas You’re an Aussie eh. Your welcome for the article, I’m glad you liked it. I guess military bands and music are the same all over mate. When I 1st joined the USN there were some Aussie guys going through the School of Music at Little Creek, VA in Va Bch. They were nice guys.
Are you still; in an Aussie Army Band? Are you doing the full career? How is promotion for you guys? For us it wasn’t that good at all.
Now I know that you don’t have a pet kangaroo but if you happen to see one in the Outback give it a pat for me. I like kangaroo’s or as you lads say the bloody Roo’s.
Please check out my other article about Touring Overseas and some SHORT Navy Band Stories. Do you guys do any touring overseas at all? Does your band play in any military Tattoos? I’ve been in 14 bloody Tattoos and as far as I’m concerned that is 13 to many. We did do the Big International Tattoo in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada. The Tattoo was way to long and overblown. However I did meet some very nice people from Canada and Estonia. Well ya got to take the good w/the bad. Best Wishes to you and have a Happy New Year Down Under Mate. I assume you play saxophone too.
January 21, 2018 @ 12:35 pm
Really great article about Michael. I’m a semi-pro/pro tenor player here in Vancouver, Wa / Portland, Or. I met Michael in college (WSU) around ’87, when he was playing a gig in Spokane, Wa. We hung out and talked at a party he attended after the gig. There was hardly anybody talking to him at the party. It was so stupid. I think people were too afraid or didn’t know what to say. So, the second I got the opportunity I was right there with him, just shootin’ the musical breeze. Truly the nicest guy ever. Was, and probably still is, the greatest inspiration to my playing. The world continues to be undoubtedly robbed by his passing. I miss his continuing contribution deeply. Your article touched my heart.
January 21, 2018 @ 8:20 pm
I’m glad you liked my article.Michael was truly a Great guy not just a Great player. He was easy to talk to and very humble. I am so glad that you got a chance to hang w/him and talk to him. I hope you got a photo of you two together. Take care.
January 21, 2018 @ 9:58 pm
Unfortunately I didn’t get any shots. Didn’t have cell phones with cameras back then. For that matter, they didn’t have cell phones. lol But, I’ll never forget it! Got to hang with Victor Lewis (Stan Getz drummer) for 3 weeks at the Sandpoint Jazz Festival, that was awesome… and got to play on stage in a combo format (2 horns w/full rhythm section) with Wynton Marsalis during that same festival. He was the one who asked if I wanted to play with him… how cool is that?! Those are my memories of fame. lol Still I’ll never forget them and I learned a ton.
January 22, 2018 @ 12:10 pm
Scott: It sounds like you’ve had some good experiences.
February 12, 2018 @ 10:39 am
Nicely written Larry, Good job. All my best.
February 12, 2018 @ 10:57 am
Mike: Thank you. To bad you were out by then, you would have enjoyed thus day Mike. Hope your well amigo!!
February 19, 2018 @ 8:50 pm
Thank you Larry, I enjoyed your interview with M. Brecker a lot.
February 20, 2018 @ 5:54 pm
Jeremy: Your welcome, I’m glad you enjoyed it. Take care.
July 10, 2020 @ 4:26 am
Hi Larry, thanks for the giving us the details of the amazing day you must have had. I teach music and had a great experience having a US jazz band visit my school in early 2003 in Yokohama, Japan as part of a school jazz event I helped organize.
July 10, 2020 @ 7:36 am
Paul: I’m glad you liked the article. Yes it was a Great Day. Probably one of the best days I had in my whole Navy Band career.
What US Jazz Band came to your school win Japan? You know that both there Navy and USAF have bands in Japan that you could contact and get them to come to your school. Just Google them for contact information.
The Definitive Guide to Saxophone Section Playing » Best. Saxophone. Website. Ever.
September 16, 2020 @ 8:37 am
[…] Brecker said to use what works and do not fall for the hype. In 2003 when he visited my Navy Band, he was using a LaVoz medium reed which is a Rico/D’Addario product. I, myself have always been […]
The Definitive Guide to Saxophone Section Playing » Best. Saxophone. Website. Ever. – Saxophonist.org
November 24, 2020 @ 7:57 pm
[…] Brecker said to use what works and do not fall for the hype. In 2003 when he visited my Navy Band, he was using a LaVoz medium reed which is a Rico/D’Addario product. I, myself have always been […]
February 6, 2022 @ 2:56 pm
Hey Larry. Great article. I met Michael in ’96 at the New Orleans Jazz Festival. What a fantastic player. He was my absolute favorite player. Glad to see you’re still playing. Hope you are doing well.
February 6, 2022 @ 3:20 pm
Thank you. How are you doing and what are you up to? Michael was very humble.
January 8, 2023 @ 10:33 pm
Hi Larry, great article and thanks for sharing. I too started on clarinet and am a Mark VI tenor player. My dad bought my horn brand new back in 1975. I also learned how to really play back in the early 70s with 60 and 70 year old union players back in New Orleans. These guys played with Louis Armstrong, etc. Great musical upbringing I had. Love me some Brecker though! Truly miss him. Thanks!
▷Michael Brecker: el Titán del Saxofón que jamás perdió la humildad | clasesdejazz.com
February 24, 2023 @ 6:50 am
[…] Bueno, no quiero extenderme más porque valoro mucho tu tiempo, pero si quieres saber todo lo relacionado con esta martesclass te recomiendo que sigas leyendo el artículo original (en inglés) aquí: https://www.bestsaxophonewebsiteever.com/musical-tips-wisdom-day-spent-michael-brecker/ […]