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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.


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