Sax Giant Don Braden Talks Wynton, Music Education, and Shares Scale Exercises Plus Much More

                                  Photo By “Lindsey Victoria Photography”

Introduction

I remember seeing and hearing Don Braden play at my first Jamey Aebersold Summer Jazz Camp. Since then, I have followed Don as a player as well as teacher and this past NAMM show was fortunate enough to touch base with him at the Jody Jazz booth. For those of you who don’t already know much about Don Braden, let me get you up to speed:

  • Over 30 years, Don Braden has toured the world leading his own ensembles on saxophone and flute.
  • Don has played as a special guest as well as a sideman with such jazz greats as Betty Carter, Wynton Marsalis, Freddie Hubbard, Tony Williams, Roy Haynes, and many others.
  • Don has composed music for ensembles ranging from duo to full symphonic orchestra, as well as recordings including 22 albums as a leader or co-leader plus over 80 as a sideman. He’s also worked on music for film and the television networks, Nickelodeon and CBS.
  • Don is a well-respected educator who has spent over twenty years giving master classes at schools, universities and jazz camps which include: the Litchfield Jazz Camp, NJPAC’s Wells Fargo Jazz For Teens, the Prins Claus Conservatoire in the Netherlands, William Paterson University, and Harvard University.

Interview

ZS: What interested you in playing the saxophone?

DB: Besides being interested in just music in general and coming from a family who really appreciated music, the first person I heard playing saxophone was Isaac Hayes. He played saxophone on his classic album, “Live at the Sahara Tahoe”. Listening to Isaac was the first time I recognized the saxophone even before listening to Grover Washington Jr., The Crusaders, etc. When I attended high school in Louisville, Kentucky, I joined the school marching and jazz bands, as well as a real garage band called Stratosphere (yes, we rehearsed in a garage!) and learned about the funk guys first before eventually checking out the straight ahead guys like Sonny Rollins, Joe Henderson, and John Coltrane. I started getting into improvisation because I enjoyed practicing and use to play along with the radio. My band director noticed that I was pretty serious about improvisation and told me to talk to Jamey Aebersold, who lived right across the river in New Albany, Indiana. I reached out to Jamey, and though he was too busy to teach me himself, he connected me with one of his former students, Mike Tracy. Mike was a private teacher and player at the time but now is the Director of Jazz Studies at the University of Louisville (U of L). Through Mike, I was able to qualify for some scholarship money and in 1978 I attended the Jamey Aebersold Summer Jazz Workshop after my freshman year of high school.

ZS: Did attending the Jamey Aebersold Summer Jazz Workshop(s) increase your interest in further pursuing music?

DB: From that point, I was rolling. I practiced two to three hours every day, worked on my piano playing, listened a ton, and eventually rose to being quite a decent player, for a teenager. I went to Jamey’s Summer Workshops every summer, played gigs around town regularly, and even got selected for the McDonald’s All-American Marching and Jazz Bands in 1980, the same year my friend trumpeter Chris Botti was there.

In those days, there were not as many college jazz programs as there are today; so I was honored to attended Harvard, where I intended to study Chemistry with the goal of being pre-med. During my freshman year, I found out that I was not as good at Chemistry as I’d thought, so I ended up switching over to Engineering and studying computers. Lucky for me, Harvard had a decent jazz scene, led by trombonist Tom Everett. Tom, who retired in 2012, worked tirelessly to build the jazz scene at Harvard and has been very supportive and helpful to very many musicians, including myself. I played in the Harvard Jazz Band and also played quite a few gigs in the Boston area. To further my interest in jazz, I used to take the bus over to Berklee in Boston and walk the hallways looking to join jam sessions. At Berklee I met saxophonists Billy Pierce and Jerry Bergonzi and started taking a few lessons with both of them, which really helped me with my playing.

After some struggling with trying to find a balance between my computer studies and jazz, I decided during junior year to take time off from school, and explore the possibilities of a music career. During my time off, I moved to New York, with the help of the legendary pianist, John Lewis, who helped me find my first apartment. (His son Sasha played alto in the Harvard Jazz Band, and we had become friends.)  In 1985, I met Winard and Philip Harper of “The Harper Brothers”, and Philip and I actually became Betty Carter’s students as she was developing her own education program. We both learned a lot about swing, how to blend, how to pace ourselves playing with a singer, etc. On my first gig with Betty, at the old Fat Tuesday’s in NYC, Wynton Marsalis was in the audience, which I did not know or realize until the end of the gig. Almost a year before the gig when I moved to New York City, I reached out to Wynton Marsalis to introduce myself and stated that I was a fan and wanted to play with him. When I met Wynton after the gig, Wynton remembered me from my phone call and asked me to join him for a couple of gigs. At that time his brother Branford had left the group to play with Sting, and I was 22 when I started playing gigs with Wynton Marsalis.

That lead to an incredible run of touring and/or recording with Tony Williams (’87-’91), Roy Haynes (’88-’98), Freddie Hubbard (’89-’91), Mingus Big Band (’92-’98), Tom Harrell (’93-’97), and many more, plus all the recordings, teaching, writing and gigs as a leader.

ZS: If you could do it all over again, would you still have chosen the saxophone as your primary instrument?

DB: Yes! But I would have spent more time studying classical flute as well as playing piano earlier on.

ZS: What material or exercises have you found yourself practicing today and has your practice routine developed over time or stayed relatively the same?

DB: These days I’m focused on refining my articulation and getting better control of my phrasing in general. I’ve also really upped my practice on rhythms, like varied 8th note/triplet groupings, and of course stronger 4/4. I’m working slowly (at first) through fairly standard diatonic patterns, in 12 keys of course, with significant extra work in the harder keys. I’m currently working in modes of the Ionian, Ascending Melodic Minor and full Diminished scales. Over the years, I’ve spent 75% of my practice time working on improvisation and learning tunes, 20% on tone and 5% on patterns. Now it’s more like 50% on improv and tunes, 20% on tone and 30% on patterns/phrasing/articulation. I did a lot of scale work during high school and college, and that helped me become skilled at improv without practicing a ton of patterns (my basic scale exercise is included here). Nowadays though, I’m really enjoying my phrasing, articulation and rhythm work via patterns.

Click here for a more readable and printable PDF version of the exercise below.

Video: Practical Scale Practice By Don Braden

ZS: As you have taught many masterclasses at schools, universities, and jazz camps over your career, what questions do you find students typically ask you and have these questions changed over the years?

DB: In general the questions are pretty similar but nowadays I see and hear more questions around the business of music, internet (social media)-related questions, personal fitness, and managing your personal finances. These are topics I think should be discussed more today. I am a big fan of the fundamentals so I always like to discuss sound, rhythm, developing your ears and the basics of harmony because I think these are imperative fundamentals for any musician, any style. How to memorize tunes is also a question that comes up quite a bit, and my thoughts are unless you have a photographic memory, it comes down to listening and repetition to learn and retain pretty much any song. But, the more you memorize, and the better your ears and grasp of musical fundamentals are, the easier it becomes.

ZS: What do you see as some challenges as well as opportunities being a musician in today’s society?

DB:  One of the biggest challenges I see today is that most of the jazz masters are now passed on, so the direct connection to the source is getting very rarified. Growing up during my time, I learned a lot from Roy Haynes, Betty Carter, Freddie Hubbard etc. which has helped me become the musician I am today. Unfortunately, young players do not have the same access as I did. The free music environment today has also made it a challenge for musicians to make a consistent cash flow, but at the same time, the internet has given musicians an opportunity to directly connect their music with their fans. Another great opportunity for musicians studying today is the education and resources available are far more abundant then when I began playing.

ZS: Having recorded, composed, arranged, and taught throughout the world, what are some upcoming projects you are working on?

DB:

These days, I have quite a few projects:

1) I now run the Jazz Combo initiative program at Harvard (Harvard Jazz Combo Initiative)

2) I have a new live CD out in June entitled In the Spirit of Herbie Hancock. It is co-led with bassist Joris Teepe, and was recorded with a Europe based quartet in the Netherlands. (www.oaprecords.com/)

3) With the COVID-19 crisis, I’m prepping to do online (instead of in-person) versions of the Litchfield Jazz Camp (LitchfieldJazzCamp) and the Texas Jazz and Blues Camp (5th Annual Texas Jazz & Blues Camp). Those are happening in July and August, respectively.

4) I’m in the early stages of a CD project Earth Wind and Wonder, Volume 2. The first volume has been doing very well!

5) I’m almost done with a CD project Chemistry, featuring bassist Joris Teepe and myself along with guest drummers Jeff “Tain” Watts and the legendary Louis Hayes. Our previous CD, Conversations, featured drummers Gene Jackson and Matt Wilson.

6) I’m currently mixing the second CD of my funk band, Big Fun(k), called Big Fun(k) Journey. Our previous CD was Big Fun(k) Live.

7) I’ve been working with Antigua Winds (www.AntiguaWinds.com) to help them improve their saxophone line-up and their profile on the sax scene. Their ProOne and 5200 model tenors are wonderful. I’ll also soon be doing some performance and educational video clips for them.

8) With the COVID-19 crisis, I’ve been developing a series of performance videos to hopefully inspire people to donate money to such worthy charities as Feeding America (https://www.feedingamerica.org), The Jazz Foundation of America (https://jazzfoundation.org), Robin Hood (https://www.robinhood.org) and MusicCares Coronavirus Relief Fund (https://www.grammy.com/musicares/get-help/musicares-coronavirus-relief-fund). They’ll start coming out on the standard social media channels very soon.

ZS: What’s your current Setup?

DB:

Saxophones:

  • Soprano: Keilwerth SX90II
  • Alto: Keilwerth SX90
  • Tenor: now playing the Antigua ProOne tenor, designed by Peter Ponzol (it has some quite unique features), but I also enjoy my Keilwerth SX90R (Shadow) & Keilwerth SX90R (Nickel & Gold), and my R.S. Berkeley Gold Plated

Mouthpieces:

Reeds:

Ligatures:

Website: http://www.donbraden.com/