Michael Brecker

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Michael Brecker
Brecker performing in July 2004
Brecker performing in July 2004
Background information
Birth nameMichael Leonard Brecker
Born(1949-03-29)March 29, 1949
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, U.S.
DiedJanuary 13, 2007(2007-01-13) (aged 57)
New York City, U.S
GenresJazz, post-bop,[1][2] jazz fusion, funk, R&B, rock
Occupation(s)Musician, composer
Instrument(s)Tenor saxophone, drums, EWI
Years active1969–2006

Michael Leonard Brecker (March 29, 1949 – January 13, 2007) was an American jazz saxophonist and composer. He was awarded 15 Grammy Awards as a performer and composer, received an honorary doctorate from Berklee College of Music in 2004,[3] and was inducted into the DownBeat Jazz Hall of Fame in 2007.

Early life and education[edit]

Brecker was born in Philadelphia and raised in the local suburb of Cheltenham Township, Pennsylvania. He was raised in a Jewish—and artistic—family: his father, Bob (Bobby), was a lawyer who played jazz piano and his mother, Sylvia, was a portrait artist.[4] Michael was exposed to jazz at an early age by his father. He began studying clarinet at age 6, then moved to the alto saxophone in the eighth grade, settling on the tenor saxophone as his primary instrument in his sophomore year of high school.

He graduated from Cheltenham High School in 1967 and spent that summer at the Berklee College of Music in Boston. In Fall 1967, he followed his older brother, Randy, to Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana, where he formed a jazz rock group with trumpet player Randy Sandke and others called Mrs. Seamon's Sound Band, named after a dormitory official who disliked longhaired students.[5]


Mrs. Seamon's Sound Band were finalists in the competition at the Spring 1968 Notre Dame Collegiate Jazz Festival, but were disqualified for their interpretation of The Doors song "Light My Fire".[6] The band also performed outdoors on campus in a benefit for presidential candidate Eugene McCarthy in that year’s presidential election.[7] Following that semester, the band accepted a management offer and moved to Chicago, where drugs and a love triangle led to a suicide, which brought Chicago police to the manager's apartment, where all of the band except Sandke and Brecker, neither of whom were at the scene, were arrested. More trauma followed, and according to Randy Sandke, these events had an adverse psychological impact on Brecker which led to later substance abuse.

During the fall 1968 semester at Indiana University, Brecker formed a trio, which included the drummer from Mrs. Seamon's Sound Band, and played gigs at a church basement club called The Owl. Some of that was recorded.[8] He dropped out before the end of the semester, spent a month in Mexico City, then returned to Philadelphia, where he played with Eric Gravatt, Billy Paul, and others.[9]

Brecker moved to New York City in 1969, where he carved out a niche for himself as a dynamic and exciting jazz soloist. He first made his mark at age 20 as a member of the jazz-rock band Dreams, a band that included his older brother, trumpeter Randy Brecker, trombonist Barry Rogers, drummer Billy Cobham, keyboardist Jeff Kent and bassist Doug Lubahn. Dreams was short-lived, lasting only from 1969 through 1972, but Miles Davis was seen at some gigs prior to his recording Jack Johnson.[10]

Most of Brecker's early work is marked by an approach informed as much by rock guitar as by R&B saxophone.[citation needed] After Dreams, he worked with Horace Silver and then Billy Cobham before once again teaming up with his brother Randy to form the Brecker Brothers. The band followed jazz-funk trends of the time, but with more attention to structured arrangements, a heavier backbeat, and a stronger rock influence.[citation needed] The band stayed together from 1975 to 1982, with consistent success and musicality. In 1977 he founded the Seventh Avenue South jazz club with his brother Randy.[11]

Sideman and leader[edit]

Brecker was in great demand as a soloist, sideman and session musician. He performed with bands whose styles ranged from mainstream jazz to mainstream rock. Altogether, he appeared on nearly 900 albums, either as a band member or a guest soloist. He put his stamp on numerous pop and rock recordings as a soloist, including notable work with James Taylor and Paul Simon. Other sessions included albums with Steely Dan, Lou Reed, Donald Fagen, Dire Straits, Joni Mitchell, Eric Clapton, Mark Knopfler, Billy Joel, John Lennon, Aerosmith, Dan Fogelberg, Kenny Loggins, Frank Sinatra, Frank Zappa, Bruce Springsteen, Roger Daltrey, Parliament-Funkadelic, Cameo, Yoko Ono, Todd Rundgren, Chaka Khan, Orleans, Blue Öyster Cult, The Manhattan Transfer, Average White Band, Players Association, Everything but the Girl, Patti Austin, Art Garfunkel, Carly Simon, The Brothers Johnson, Karen Carpenter, and T-Square.

Brecker also recorded (or performed) with many leading jazz musicians of his era, including Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, Hal Galper, Chet Baker, Jan Akkerman, George Benson, Quincy Jones, Charles Mingus, Jaco Pastorius, McCoy Tyner, Pat Metheny, Elvin Jones, Claus Ogerman, Billy Cobham, Horace Silver, Mike Stern, Mike Mainieri, Max Roach, Steps Ahead, Dave Holland, Joey Calderazzo, Kenny Kirkland, Bob James, Grant Green, Don Cherry, Hubert Laws, Don Alias, Larry Goldings, Bob Mintzer, Gary Burton, Yusef Lateef, Steve Gadd, Richard Tee, Dave Brubeck, Charlie Haden, John Abercrombie, Vince Mendoza, Roy Hargrove, and Spyro Gyra.

Brecker played tenor saxophone on two Billy Joel albums. In 1983, Brecker played on three tracks on the album An Innocent Man ("Careless Talk", "Tell Her About It" and "Keeping The Faith"). In 1986, he played on "Big Man on Mulberry Street" on the album The Bridge.

During the early 1980s, he was also a member of NBC's Saturday Night Live Band. Brecker can be seen in the background sporting sunglasses during Eddie Murphy's James Brown parody. After a stint co-leading the all-star group Steps Ahead with Mike Mainieri, Brecker recorded a solo album in 1987. That eponymously titled debut album marked his return to a more traditional jazz setting, highlighting his compositional talents and featuring the EWI (Electronic Wind Instrument), which Brecker had previously played with Steps Ahead. In 1987 he featured his new solo album at the JVC Newport Jazz Festival, incorporating the EWI. Brecker continued to record albums as a leader throughout the 1990s and 2000s, winning multiple Grammy Awards.

He went on tour in 2001 with a collaborative group, Hancock-Brecker-Hargrove. This tour was dedicated to jazz pioneers John Coltrane and Miles Davis. Brecker paid homage to Coltrane by performing Coltrane's signature piece, "Naima". The concert CD from the tour, Directions in Music: Live At Massey Hall (2002), won a Grammy in 2003.

Illness and death[edit]

While performing at the Mount Fuji Jazz Festival in 2004, Brecker experienced a sharp pain in his back. Shortly thereafter in 2005, he was diagnosed with the blood disorder myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS). Despite a widely publicized worldwide search, Brecker was unable to find a matching stem cell donor. In late 2005, he was the recipient of an experimental partial matching stem cell transplant. By late 2006, he appeared to be recovering, but the treatment proved not to be a cure. He made his final public performance on June 23, 2006, playing with Hancock at Carnegie Hall. Brecker died from complications of leukemia in a Manhattan hospital. His funeral was held on January 15, 2007, in Hastings-on-Hudson, New York.


Early in his career, Brecker played a Selmer Super Balanced Action saxophone, later moving to a lacquer-finished Selmer Mark VI tenor saxophone[12] with silver-plated neck, fitted with a Dave Guardala MB1 mouthpiece and LaVoz medium reeds.[13][14] His earlier mouthpieces included a metal Otto Link 'New York' STM (during the mid-1970s) and a metal Dukoff in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Brecker also played the drums as he often talked about time, or rhythm, being musically the most important. He displayed his drum prowess during shows with his own ensembles or accompanying students during masterclasses.


Brecker in Munich, July 2001

On February 11, 2007, Brecker was awarded two posthumous Grammy awards for his involvement on his brother Randy's 2005 album Some Skunk Funk.

On May 22, 2007, his final recording, Pilgrimage, was released and received a good critical response. It was recorded in August 2006 with Pat Metheny on guitar, John Patitucci on bass, Jack DeJohnette on drums and Herbie Hancock and Brad Mehldau on piano. Brecker was critically ill when it was recorded, but the other musicians involved praised the standard of his musicianship.[15] Brecker was again posthumously awarded two additional Grammy Awards for this album in the categories of Best Jazz Instrumental Solo and Best Jazz Instrumental Album, Individual or Group, bringing his Grammy total to 15.

Brecker's search in the International Bone Marrow Registry for a match prompted his wife and manager to organize a series of bone marrow drives throughout the world, including the Red Sea, Monterey, and Newport Jazz Festivals. Brecker was subsequently featured in a film directed by Noah Hutton (son of Debra Winger and Timothy Hutton), named More to Live For. It documents Brecker's battle with leukemia, and the production of his final recording. By going public with his illness, Brecker raised tens of thousands of dollars for testing, and signed up many thousands of donors, but was unable to find a match for himself.

Herbie Hancock said that around nine months before his death, Brecker had started practicing Buddhism and three months later joined Soka Gakkai International, a group associated with Nichiren Buddhism. At Brecker's memorial service, Hancock, Wayne Shorter and Buster Williams (who all practice the same form of Buddhism) as well as Brecker's son, Sam, sat in a line with their backs to the audience while facing an inscribed scroll (Gohonzon) hanging in a wooden shrine (Butsudan) and chanted, "Nam myoho renge kyo" for five minutes.[16]

Brecker's widow Susan organized two benefit concerts, the first in 2015 and the latter in 2017. The events were dubbed "The Nearness of You" concert and were held at Jazz at Lincoln Center's Appel Room. The concerts aimed to support cancer research at Columbia University Medical Center (CUMC) and the work of doctors Azra Raza and Siddhartha Mukherjee. Guest performers included James Taylor, Paul Simon, Chaka Khan, Randy Brecker, Dianne Reeves, Bobby McFerrin, Diana Krall, Wynton Marsalis, Will Lee, Gil Goldstein, Antonio Sanchez, John Patitucci, Adam Rogers, Mike Mainieri, Andy Snitzer, Jack DeJohnette, Chase Baird, Jeff "Tain" Watts, Robert Glasper, Dave Liebman, Joe Lovano, Ravi Coltrane, Nir Felder, Eli Degibri and others.[17][18] [19]

The Michael Brecker Archive was established in 2013 at William Paterson University in Wayne, New Jersey, in collaboration with Susan Brecker, and Randy Brecker acting as advisor. The archive contains: original pencil and ink tune manuscripts covering Brecker's solo career and collaborations with Elvin Jones, Pat Metheny, Paul Simon, Horace Silver, Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea and others; three EWIs; mouthpieces, reeds and other equipment; over 250 commercially released LPs and CDs; over 1200 hours of unreleased live recordings and studio mixes on cassettes, DATs and other digital media; nine practice journals spanning from Brecker's time at Indiana University to the late 1990s; music books from his personal collection; an extensive clippings file; business materials; tour itineraries and record company/tour promotional materials; and over 1500 unreleased photo images.

Selected discography[edit]

Michael Brecker in Hamburg (1981)

As leader or co-leader[edit]

As sideman[edit]


  1. ^ "Michael Brecker 3/29/49 – 1/13/07 | Dusty Wright's Culture Catch". Culturecatch.com. January 16, 2007. Archived from the original on April 1, 2012. Retrieved June 25, 2012.
  2. ^ "Directions In Music – Michael Brecker/ Herbie Hancock/ Roy Hargrove | Jazzbo Notes". jazzbonotes.com. June 9, 2012. Archived from the original on November 20, 2012. Retrieved June 25, 2012.
  3. ^ Small, Mark. "Saxophonist Michael Brecker—11-Time Grammy Winner, Session Player with Jazz and Pop Legends—to Welcome Entering Class, Accept Honorary Doctorate at Berklee College of Music Fall Convocation". Archived from the original on September 10, 2006. Retrieved August 22, 2012.
  4. ^ "Interview: Randy Brecker - JazzWax". September 23, 2015. Archived from the original on September 23, 2015. Retrieved October 16, 2019.
  5. ^ "Michael Brecker Remembered". artsjournal.com. Retrieved November 21, 2021.
  6. ^ David Schroeder (1965). From the Minds of Jazz Musicians: Conversations with the Creative and Inspired. Taylor & Francis. p. 167. ISBN 978-0-329-12661-2.
  7. ^ "Archives Photograph Collection". dlib.indiana.edu. Retrieved November 21, 2021.
  8. ^ "Michael Brecker In Late-1960s Bloomington, Indiana". indianapublicmedia.org. Retrieved November 21, 2021.
  9. ^ Bill Milkowski (2021). Ode to a Tenor Titan: The Life and Times and Music of Michael Brecker. RowmanLittlefield. p. 41. ISBN 9781493053766.
  10. ^ "In Memorium – MICHAEL BRECKER – Jazz-Rock Artists". Jazz-rock.com. Retrieved June 25, 2012.
  11. ^ "Seventh Avenue South- Der Jazzclub der Brecker Brothers von 1977-1987". jazzband-live.de. Retrieved February 6, 2020.
  12. ^ "John Robert Brown". John-robert-brown.com. Archived from the original on March 29, 2006. Retrieved July 12, 2017.
  13. ^ "Michael Brecker's Selmer Mark VI Tenor Saxophone | an archive of Clark Terry, Michael Brecker, Thad Jones, James Williams and Mulgrew Miller".
  14. ^ "Will the Real Michael Brecker's Sax Mouthpiece Please Stand Up". Neffmusic.com. Retrieved July 12, 2017.
  15. ^ Kilgannon, Corey (June 2, 2007). ""A Jazzman's Farewell Album, All Heart and Soul"". The New York Times. Retrieved June 25, 2012.
  16. ^ Ratliff, Ben (February 22, 2007). "Celebrating a Saxophonist's Art and Heart". The New York Times.
  17. ^ Panken, Ted (January 27, 2017). "Colleagues, Collaborators Remember Michael Brecker in NYC Concert" (HMTL). Downbeat Magazine. Retrieved March 13, 2018.
  18. ^ "James Taylor & Paul Simon Play Benefit for Late Jazz Great Michael Brecker" (HMTL). Billboard. Retrieved March 13, 2018.
  19. ^ Farberman, Brad. "Concert Review: "The Nearness of You" at Jazz at Lincoln Center" (HMTL). Jazztimes. Retrieved March 13, 2018.
  20. ^ "VIEW DVD Listing". View.com. Retrieved June 25, 2012.
  21. ^ "VIEW DVD Listing". View.com. Retrieved June 25, 2012.

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