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Don Braden: Harvard Hipster

By Published: January 22, 2007

From Harvard To New York City

AAJ: So this was in the '70s. In 1981 you got into Harvard, the typical jazz musician path. Did you go there to study engineering?

DB: I started off pre-med, but I shifted to computers when I found out that I wasn't very good at chemistry. I was better at computers. That worked out well, because it was really fun for me. It laid the groundwork for the way my professional career has gone, even though I didn't have a serious premonition about using computers. I did enjoy it a lot. I kept playing all during Harvard. In time, that developed into a conflict because I really wanted to play but I didn't know what that meant professionally. I'd done a lot of gigs, but I had no clue about how to make a living at it. I can't say I had a clue about how to make a living as a computer programmer, either, but I figured I'd just get a job and work for somebody and make a paycheck.

My time at Harvard was great, except that as I got more heavily into music, I did eventually take some time off at Harvard to figure out what my path would be. I came to New York on my year off, and I got so much work that I never made it back to Harvard. Within a year, I hooked up with the Harper Brothers, then Betty Carter, then Wynton Marsalis. I had momentum, and just never managed to get back.

AAJ: You've just done another classic abridging of your life. Let's fill in some blanks. You leave Harvard, go to New York, and then hook up with several jazz legends. How did those connections come about?

DB: The great thing about New York in those days—it's true now, but especially in those days—there was really a "scene," and by that I mean there were places that cats hung. That's true now, but less so for guys my age. In those days, I hung out at the Blue Note. Everybody used to go there for the after-hours session. I'd make a daily trek down there from my apartment in Washington Heights. I'd hit the clubs in Harlem with people like [organist] Dr. Lonnie Smith—place where I could hang that were close to my house. Then I'd take the subway down to the Blue Note. Everybody was hanging out there, so I met a pile of cats. I met the Harper Brothers there. Philip and Winard were hanging there, and Winard was working with Betty Carter at the time. So it was a matter of good proximity to the cats—sitting in enough times and having people hear that I was growing. When [saxophonist] Ralph Moore left the Harper Brothers band in 1985 or '86, they hired me.

AAJ: So how long was it from your arrival until your first steady gig in New York?

DB: There weren't any real steady gigs. The Harpers Brothers thing happened by late '85, and I got to New York in March, so it was about six months. My first gig was in May with a trombone player who was working hard like everybody else. He hired me to work with him, and then came the Blue Note and the Harper Brothers. I used to also do some gigs with Dr. Lonnie Smith in New York and New Jersey. None of it was paying any real money, but they were good gigs to do and great experience to pick up.

AAJ: How were you keeping body and soul together during this time?

DB: The apartment was cheap that I was living in, so my expenses were low. I got the apartment because while I was at Harvard, I hooked up with [pianist] John Lewis's son, who was one year younger than me, and we became friends. So his father arranged for my first apartment in New York. It was a room in a four-bedroom apartment. Then about a year later, I picked up a part-time computer gig with a Harvard guy who was introduced to me by a friend of mine. I did part-time computer work the whole time I lived in New York—from '86 to '95. I worked as a part-time computer programmer, although sometimes it was full-time or double-full-time, depending on what the project was. So between the little gigs and the computer work, I was able to keep everything going.

Working With Wynton

AAJ: When did you first get introduced to Wynton?

DB: When I was hanging out with the Harpers, Betty Carter became interested in jazz education and in expanding her band a bit. A few things happened at that time. The Harper Brothers and myself became part of Betty's band. [Drummer] Winard was already in the band, and she invited [trumpeter] Philip and I to join. We also made a record with her, Look What I Got (Verve, 1988), which was her first record on Verve. Plus she started her Jazz Ahead program at that same time. Philip Harper and I were the first students. My first gig with Betty Carter was in 1986, and it happened that Wynton Marsalis was there. I had cold-called him in late 1985 when I first got to New York City and said, "Hey man, my name is Don Braden and I'd like to play with you." The reason I did that was because I was bold, and I'd learned that boldness is a highly advantageous way to go, if you want to get somewhere.

AAJ: He's a household name now. Was calling as daunting in 1985 as it would be today?

DB: Wynton was the hottest thing around in 1985. He was super-hot. I had all his records; I knew all of that stuff. This was during college, and my playing level was getting up there. So when I called him, I was able to discuss things intelligently with him. Not that I knew the music on the level that he did, but I was able to have a discussion with him having really checked out his records. And I really thought I could do it. It was a bold thing to do. He was on the cover of Downbeat and selling out places. But it made an impression on him, because he entertained my enthusiasm, which I thought was very generous of him. And when he came to hear me with Betty, I think he could hear that I had some potential.

AAJ: Were you playing with him while you were also playing with Betty?

DB: There was some overlap, but the Betty Carter thing didn't turn into a whole lot of gigs—maybe 10 or 15 or 20. Then I had to tell Betty that I couldn't make any more gigs for a while, because I was going out with Wynton. She understood that, and I was able to rejoin her for a while after I went with Wynton. That's when we did the record. We did sessions from '86 to '88. It came out in 1988.

AAJ: And it won a Grammy. You were with Wynton for about seven months?

DB: Yeah, and that was mostly on the road. We played a few gigs in New York, but it was mostly on the road.

AAJ: Who was in that band then?

DB: It was [bassist] Bob Hurst, [drummer Jeff] "Tain" [Watts], [pianist] Marcus Roberts, and Wynton and myself.

AAJ: So you went out with Wynton for seven months, and then ended up touring the world with guys like drummers Tony Williams and Roy Haynes. Was this because by that time you'd established yourself and it became easier to get work?

DB: I'm not quite sure. I tell my students that the most important thing that helps you get work is general professionalism—competent playing; a good personality, being cool and friendly and not egotistical; showing up on time and looking good; learning the music and memorizing everything—it all goes into it. And the whole thing of networking and meeting folks and building your reputation. All that is really key. You have to bring a lot of energy to everything that you do. And luck is part of it.

It happened that I was with Wynton, and that was a high-profile situation, and I sounded pretty good most of the time. So people thought, "Braden was with Wynton, so he can probably handle Tony Williams' band." And then once I was in that band for a while people thought, "He can probably handle Freddie Hubbard." For example, Tony Williams' manager felt that I could handle Freddie Hubbard's band, and she was the one who called me in February of 1989.

AAJ: And you stayed with him until 1991?

DB: That's right.

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