Don Braden: Harvard Hipster

Jason Crane By

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The Cosby Connection

AAJ: In addition to your performing career, you also have a rich life as an educator and as a TV composer. Let's start on the TV side and talk about some of your experiences there.

DB: I've been really blessed as a composer with really interesting, fun projects. The TV thing came because I was playing with [trumpeter] Art Farmer at the Village Vanguard and [saxophonist and composer] Benny Golson walked in. We started talking and we became friends, and he recommended me to Bill Cosby. Bill Cosby had asked him [Golson] to do the music for his new show, Cosby, when that first went into production in about 1995 or so. Benny Golson took me to Bill Cosby and basically said, "Hey man, check this guy out." So I ending up producing a session for Dr. Cosby, which worked out well, and then I produced another session, which worked out well, and they hired me. Happily for me, I'd done a lot of writing already. I was able to write fairly quickly. It's not like film scoring, which is a whole other kind of thing. I got into that later.

It was fun. All the aesthetics that I'd been dealing with applied to the music that Bill Cosby needed—it was upbeat, kind of comical. That worked out pretty well. I did four years of that, and then I got songs on other TV shows like [Cosby's] Little Bill. Then I got hired by Nickelodeon to work on Fatherhood, a cartoon that needed wall-to-wall music. That was a serious situation there. In 2003, 2004 and 2005, we did that music. That was serious film scoring—20 minutes of music per show and all like Mickey Mouse. Very detailed film scoring with a classical aesthetic. It wasn't like Little Bill or Charlie Brown where you could swing out, this was detailed stuff.

AAJ: And you were writing for what kind of ensemble?

DB: That was for an expanded jazz ensemble with horns, and also a classical string and woodwinds group—like a little orchestra. We did most of it with MIDI, and added things like live horns over the top. Some shows use real orchestras, but they have lots of money. Ninety percent of the shows are done with MIDI. We used as many side guys as we could.

I'm working on a composition project for a conservatory in Holland. I'm going to teach for a week there. This is my second symphonic jazz session there. Myself and Joris Teepe were commissioned to write a piece. I've been tweaking things every day. I just completed the full orchestral score for that, and now I'm trying to finish up another piece for that same gig. The gig is in about 10 days. The thing Joris and I co-composed is this large, world-beat kind of thing.

Now I'm working on a jazz ballad. I told them I'd try to do it, but I didn't think I'd get it done, but now I think I've almost got it done. If we can't play it for the Queen [of the Netherlands], I'll get it played in some other situation. I'm learning the craft of writing for orchestra, which is a huge craft. Huge. Everything that I do, every day that I work on this, I'm learning how to deal with orchestration details.

Giving Back As An Educator

AAJ: You segued right into this, so let's talk about your education projects, starting with the Litchfield Summer Jazz Camp.

DB: I just finished my eighth or ninth year doing the Litchfield jazz camp. It's been growing every year, and I'm very proud of it because I've been running into my students everywhere I go. I was just in Colorado a couple of days ago, and I ran into one of my students there. It's really hip to see the impact the summer music camp has.

It's a full-circle thing for me, because as I said before, some of my most important early information came from the Jamey Aebersold Summer Jazz Camp. So I bring that thought process to the Litchfield jazz camp and try to provide these kids with as much info as I can because I know how important it can be. When you go study engineering in college, you might not get a jazz theory course, but went I went to Jamey's camp I got a college-level theory course. And now we bring the same thing, except that it's [pianist] David Berkman. We had Dave Liebman this past year. Litchfield can get pretty intense. It's a real serious undertaking.

AAJ: What ages are the students?

DB: We have them as young as 11 or 12, and as old as 70. The bulk are high school, but we usually have a number of adults. I also run a "jazz for teens" program here at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center. We've got seven or eight combos, and we're doing a CD in a couple of weeks. It's our fourth CD, and we have a concert every year. That's for 12- to 17-year-olds.

I took a year off this year so I could write. I'll probably go back next year. Like so many artists, I can get trapped in just working and not creating, so I took a year off to create and it's paid off. I'm just finishing the commissioned pieces, and I'm going to write the next record in the next two months. I have a lot more writing to do.

Selected Discography

Don Braden, Workin (HighNote, 2006)
Don Braden, The New Hang (HighNote, 2004)
Dave Liebman, Latin Genesis (Whaling City Sound, 2002)
Don Braden, Brighter Days (HighNote, 2001)
Don Braden, Contemporary Standards Ensemble (Double-Time, 2000)
Don Braden, The Fire Within (RCA, 1999)
Don Braden, The Voice Of The Saxophone (RCA, 1997)
Don Braden, The Open Road (Double-Time, 1996)
Don Braden, Organic (Columbia, 1995)
Don Braden, Landing Zone (Landmark, 1994)
Winard Harper, Be Yourself (Epicure, 1994)
Don Braden, After Dark (Criss Cross, 1993)
Don Braden, Wish List (Criss Cross, 1991)
Don Braden, The Time Is Now (Criss Cross, 1991)
Betty Carter, Look What I Got (Verve, 1988)
About Don Braden
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