Don Braden: Harvard Hipster

Jason Crane By

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I tell my students that the most important thing that helps you get work is general professionalism.
Don Braden went to Harvard in 1981 to become a computer programmer and emerged as a new voice on the saxophone. For two decades he's been making a name for himself in the modern jazz world, and he's compiled an impressive resume, working with established masters like [trumpeter] Freddie Hubbard, [vocalist] Betty Carter, [drummers] Roy Haynes and Tony Williams; then-emerging-talents like [trumpeter] Wynton Marsalis and the Harper Brothers; and as a leader and composer in his own right.

Braden's new album, Workin' (HighNote, 2006) is a showcase not only for his playing skills, but also for his talents as an audio engineer.

Chapter Index

Early Days
The Next Steps: Aebersold and McDonald's
From Harvard To New York City
Working With Wynton
The Time Is Now
The Octet Is Born
The Cosby Connection
Giving Back As An Educator

Early Days

All About Jazz: Your bio has the same opening that so many jazz bios have. It says, "At age 13 he started playing tenor sax in middle-school band class, and two years later joined his first professional band." Which is like saying, "At age 13 he built a sand castle, and two years later climbed Mt. Everest." So how did you get from middle school to that first professional gig?

Don Braden: It was a professional band, but still a young professional band. Not super advanced, not doing piles of gigs, but a band of players that did a couple of gigs. We were all young, and I was the youngest guy in the band. So I joined it and it was cool, but I was still a baby. The good news is that I progressed quickly because I was a pretty serious practicer, and I was able to make good progress, especially for the time I'd been playing. I had help from the Jamey Aebersold Summer Jazz Camp that I attended the next summer, and I had a teacher in Louisville [KY]. So with all that I made good progress and was able to hold my own, but it was challenging to be sure.

AAJ: Talk about being a diligent practicer, because I think a lot of people who pick up a horn put it down again when they realize how much time it's going to take to be really good. What was your inspiration to practice?

DB: It was very easy. I made it fun for myself by using the radio. Ninety percent of my practicing was done to the radio—I just turned it on and started jamming. Because of that, I enjoyed it so much that the saxophone was in my hands regularly, and I was practicing my sound without really knowing what I was doing. I was practicing my expressive qualities, and also dealing with pretty hard keys, because most of the stuff was rock and funk and they were in hard keys. It was good for my ears, too.

AAJ: Give me a few examples of what was coming out of your radio.

DB: This was the '70s. It was the Rolling Stones, Earth Wind and Fire, the Brothers Johnson, Aretha Franklin, Isaac Hayes, this kind of stuff. I was just finding the notes and playing along and having fun.

AAJ: How did you get awakened to jazz?

DB: After I went to jazz camp, I had a pretty good idea of what jazz was. Before that, my discovery of jazz was through the radio. Mostly through a show called Jazz Live—an NPR show back in the '70s hosted by [pianist] Dr. Billy Taylor. That stuff was harder for me to play along with. I was listening to it, but I couldn't play it. After I went to jazz camp, the classical band director said, "We have a little stage band, and we play some jazz stuff." That band played for basketball games and stuff like that. My real introduction into jazz was playing with that group. I was already improvising at a basic level. So the combination of stage band, the radio and the Jamey Aebersold Summer Jazz Camp created the environment for me to learn jazz, practice it, and have fun. It was all fun for me. I would walk in the door from school, get my horn out and practice.

The Next Steps: Aebersold and McDonald's

AAJ: Talk some more about your Aebersold experience.

DB: Jamey Aebersold is one of the great jazz educators. He's from New Albany, Indiana, right across the river from Louisville. In those days, he ran five jazz camps, including one on the West Coast, one in Colorado, one in Louisville, one in Elmhurst Illinois. He helped me by providing the bedrock for my jazz education. He showed me what the scales were and what cords meant.

AAJ: Thousands of people have played along with an Aebersold record, but you're talking about actually studying with the man himself?

DB: I didn't actually study with him much, but he ran the camp. I studied with people like [saxophonist] Dave Liebman, [pianist] Hal Galper, and people like that. I never got to actually settle down and study with Jamey, other than asking him questions over the years that I've known him. I worked in his office for a while stuffing envelopes, and I would pick his brain, too.

AAJ: After the camp, were you hooked on jazz?

DB: Absolutely. In those days, I bought all these records with [drummer] Elvin Jones, [saxophonist] John Coltrane, all these guys. I'd already been into Freddie Hubbard's CTI records and [saxophonist] Grover Washington and a bunch of cats from the funk-jazz of the day. I learned from Spyro Gyra and [saxophonist] Dave Sanborn as well as the straight-ahead guys.

AAJ: And then you got a chance to be part of another prestigious national institution—the McDonald's All-American High School Jazz Band and Marching Band. How did you get into those?

DB: That's a good question. How did I get into those? [laughs] There was an application and I sent a tape in. I made a tape with a Jamey Aebersold record. Being a techno-geek guy all my life, I owned decent rudimentary recording equipment, even in those days. I made a pretty decent sounding demo, which was pretty funny, because the director called me up and said, "We lost your tape, why don't you play for us over the phone?" So I played for them, and they accepted me. They told me later, "We didn't lose your tape; we wanted to make sure it was you." They thought I'd gotten a ringer, some professional—not that it was that great, but they thought it was a higher level than a high school kid could do, which I thought was pretty cool.

AAJ: How did that band work? Where did you go?

DB: We went to New York [City] for a week for rehearsals. We did a gig at Carnegie Hall with [trumpeter] Maynard Ferguson as the special guest. Then we did the Macy's Parade. It was really hip—a bunch of kids, everybody serious. We did a little jazz band recording, which I think I still have somewhere on cassette tape. We did three or four tunes. It worked out great for me, because I won a saxophone on that trip. My first saxophone that I owned, I won from being, I guess, an all-around decent guy. Being helpful, having a good attitude. So that worked out great.

AAJ: What model was that first horn?

DB: It was a Yamaha. An intermediate horn that Yamaha had provided because they were a sponsor of the band.

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.
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