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Veteran jazz journalist and longtime JAZZIZ contributor Bill Milkowski takes a deep dive into the life and times of a beloved and influential saxophonist with the newly published Ode to a Tenor Titan: The Life and Times and Music of Michael Brecker (Backbeat Books). The following is an excerpt, edited for space, from the book’s third chapter, in which Brecker hits New York, participates in the creative hotbed of the loft scene and pioneers a trademark sound melding jazz with rock and R&B.
Two momentous events happened in 1969: Man landed on the moon and Michael Brecker landed in Manhattan. After being away at Indiana University for the better part of three semesters, Michael finally made his move to the Big Apple, initially occupying a modest one-bedroom apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side at 340 West End Avenue at 76th Street. As he told Distinguished Artists’ Lorne Frohman in a 2004 interview: “My father gave me money for a couple of months’ rent and said, ‘After that, you’re on your own.’ And I was very lucky because my brother Randy had already been living in New York for a couple of years at that point, pursuing music as a livelihood. He had already kind of made a name for himself. He did very well very quickly and he was really kind and gracious to me when I came to town. He introduced me to everybody he knew, so I started working fairly early. I immediately started making rehearsals and whatever gigs I could get, learning whatever I could. So after the two, three months’ rent that my parents gave me ran out, I didn’t really need any more money from them. I started making enough money to support myself.”
Shortly after settling into his new digs, Michael made the trip across the Hudson River to Rudy Van Gelder’s famous studio in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, on Jan. 21, 1969 to play on Randy’s debut album as a leader, Score. Van Gelder Studio had been the site of countless classic Prestige, Blue Note and Impulse! recordings, including a succession of John Coltrane albums, from 1962’s Ballads to 1963’s Impressions, 1964’s Crescent, his 1965 masterwork, A Love Supreme, and beyond. For a young Trane devotee like Michael, it was like standing on hallowed ground.
Though Michael was fairly inexperienced with professional studios at the time, Randy was confident that his younger brother would deliver the goods. “Mike sounded so great the one time I heard him at that jam we had in Chicago the previous summer, so I invited him to come in for this session,” he said. “And to be called for his first record date at age 19, his first time recording in New York, he must’ve been nervous as hell. But you can hear on that record … the Mike that we all know was there, his style was just not fully developed. He was a diamond in the rough. He wasn’t Michael Brecker yet, but all the pieces were there.”
By May of 1969, Michael left his tiny Upper West Side pad and moved to a more spacious loft downtown in Chelsea, an area bordered by 14th Street to the south, 30th Street to the north, 6th Avenue to the east and the Hudson River to the west. As Randy recalled of the place, “It was a terrible dumpy loft on 18th between 6th and 7th avenues. He had trouble with the upstairs neighbor who was a painter. The guy hated Mike’s constant practicing and would blast his radio on the floor of his loft when he was out, just to bug Mike. So Mike only lived there for a few months before he finally got out.”
The West Side neighborhood that Mike moved into contained several huge loft spaces, in some cases up to 3,000-5,000 square feet, that once housed manufacturing businesses and sweatshops. Long since abandoned, these raw spaces were taken over by painters, sculptors, jazz musicians and other bohemians of the emerging counterculture. A fertile jamming scene developed during the late ’60s among young aspiring jazz musicians who lived in those gutted industrial spaces. As Michael explained to Frohman: “A lot of the musicians had lofts simply because it was possible to play in them. They were terrible for living but great for noise because they were surrounded by other abandoned factories and you could play all night, make any amount of noise and not have to suffer complaints from the neighbors. I worked out a lot of things in these loft jam sessions, mostly just how to communicate with other musicians musically. We took those experiences and let it kind of subconsciously dictate who we became. I know that my basic musical leanings were really shaped in those early loft days.”
[Saxophonist] Dave Liebman was a pioneer of that loft scene. As the Brooklyn native recalled, “I got a degree in history in ’68 from New York University and then I went away for three or four months to practice up in Woodstock. And when I came back to town, around Thanksgiving of ’68, I knew I had to live in a loft. I had already been hanging out with Bob Moses and Jim Pepper in their lofts and I saw that this was, for me, the way to learn. Because I didn’t get any formal training, the way to learn was to play a lot, and I knew if I played a lot I’d have a chance to get good at it. And having a loft would allow me to do that.”
To secure his loft space at 138 W. 19th Street, between 6th and 7th avenues, Liebman paid $1,200 in ‘key money’ to the landlord. Thereafter, his monthly rent was $125, an unbelievable steal by today’s standards. “But the thing about the lofts, it was illegal to live there,” he explained. “The landlord never gave me any problem but if the fire department came up to inspect, which they did, they had to get either payoffs or the landlord would get a citation. It was, you know … chancy living.”
Liebman was the first musician to move into the abandoned warehouse building on 19th Street, occupying the top floor loft that would eventually become a focal point for freewheeling marathon jam sessions. “My place was formerly a shirt tie-dye factory,” he explained. “The room was 1,200 square feet. Nobody had been living there previously, it was a pretty raw industrial space. I don’t think they left me any appliances. It had plumbing, but just barely. We all lived very bare bones, no question about it. You bought a refrigerator, a hot plate, you had bare light bulbs. Not too much furniture — a table and a bed, that’s it. So it wasn’t the most comfortable place to live, but the point was to be able to play all the time.”
He added that many of his personal relationships that continue to this day began in those early loft days. “Randy Brecker came by my loft quite a bit to jam, and we became good friends. And I can’t remember the day Mike finally showed up but I do remember Randy telling me, ‘My brother’s coming to town, and he’s very good.’”
“I met Mike at Steve Paul’s The Scene, that club on 46th Street,” recalled Liebman’s musical partner, pianist Richie Beirach. “I was there with Dave and Randy, we were hanging out and Michael had just come to town. Randy said, ‘This is my brother Michael.’ He was 19 and he looked about 16. Gangly motherfucker. Tall, good looking kid. And I said to him, ‘Hey, man. So you’re a Brecker?’ And Randy jumps in, like an older brother, and says, ‘Yeah, he’s great, but he’s got a lot to learn.’ You know, the typical big brother shit.”
Randy recalled Michael’s first visit to Liebman’s loft on 19th Street. “He had just moved to town so I took him by Lieb’s to play. We jammed and it sounded great and Liebman was impressed, but I remember how nervous Mike was. His hands were shaking. I had never seen that before. Mike didn’t sound as good as he could sound because he was really tense playing. It shows you how sometimes it takes a while to get acclimated to New York.”
Michael soon became a fixture at many of those marathon jams at Liebman’s loft. John Coltrane was the guiding light at that point for both Liebman and Brecker as well as for other Trane disciples on the scene like Steve Grossman and Bob Berg. “All those guys were convinced that Trane was God,” said drummer Lenny White, who had played on Miles Davis’ seminal Bitches Brew sessions in 1969 and was a ubiquitous figure on the loft scene. “Every young saxophone player was channeling that. But for me, of all those guys, Michael played the least like Trane. From my perspective, when I heard Michael, his influences to me were more Stanley Turrentine and Joe Henderson than John Coltrane.”
But as Beirach saw it: “Trane was central to Michael’s gestalt, his makeup. So much so that it was almost painful for him to talk about. He loved Trane so much but he also loved King Curtis … not making comparisons. How do you compare King Curtis to Trane? It’s impossible. Trane is like Bach and Beethoven, on that level. Trane was a mountain. It was a revolution. It was something that only happens maybe every hundred years. And Michael was very aware of that at the time.”
In their freewheeling loft jams, the saxophonists tended to home in on latter day Coltrane. “That was the period of Trane that we were most affected by and were emulating,” said Liebman, “And us being young guys, as is always the case, you want to emulate what you hear around your environment. And Ascension is the record that stands out as ‘Let’s do that!’ Meaning, play group improv with as many horns as possible at the same time, even with a couple drummers … no basic heads, no melodies, no chords, just completely free association and a lot of energy, which of course is a big component of it. And Michael was very much a part of that.”
Liebman added, “If you were a young musician in New York at that time, you had to deal with Trane, you couldn’t avoid it. Why would you? You had to deal with Coltrane’s oeuvre, his work and his language. So we were all enamored by that and really affected by it. Trane was everywhere and the immensity of what he did was on everybody’s mind. And when you hear tapes of some of our jams from back then, you really hear the personalities coming out between me and Michael and Steve Grossman and Bob Berg. It was the beginnings of what would become our way of being stylistic; playing a vernacular that’s known and putting it together in your own way.”
As drummer Bob Moses told Robert Mike Mahaffay for his audio documentary, Free Life Loft Jazz, Snapshot of a Movement: “For me, those sessions were almost like, you could say … prayer meeting. And if we’re going to be honest about it too we have to recognize that many times there was a sacrament being taken, like perhaps mescaline or LSD or mind-altering agents. And I think it was in a sense like a prayer circle — get out of the mind, get out of the self. You put away all the form and all the pre-composed and everything that you’ve learned and practiced and just meet in the zero. It’s like getting to see your true soul in the mirror, and the beauty and the ugly and all of it is right there. I think it’s a very valuable process for artists, for visionaries. And in those years there were a lot of musicians experimenting in that direction.”
Randy confirmed that the sessions at Liebman’s and other lofts around New York at that time were indeed happening around-the-clock. “There were sometimes three sessions going on at once in that building on 19th Street on each floor, as well as other lofts around town where cats would go to play at any hour. Liebman’s loft became a main focal point mostly for free jazz jams. The bebop and Miles-infused fusion jams were over at Gene Perla’s loft, who shared a space with Jan Hammer and Don Alias in Lower Manhattan on Jefferson Street near the Fulton Street Fish Market just off the East River. I had gone to Berklee with Gene one summer and met Jan at the Vienna Jazz Competition in 1966, so I was over there jamming quite a bit too, along with a lot of people who were under the electric Miles wing.
“And then you had the big band rehearsal spaces like Lynn Oliver’s Uptown on 89th and Broadway and Downtown at Tom DiPietro’s place Upsurge on 19th between 5th and 6th avenues, where the Chuck Israels Orchestra and Joe Henderson Big Band used to rehearse. I went to those places, as well. There were so many places to play then.”
Meanwhile, Randy had moved from his West Village apartment at 21 Jones Street, where he was paying all of $90 a month rent, into his own 1600 square foot loft on the Bowery, where his rent was a whopping $175. “It was easier living in New York back then because rates for musicians really haven’t gone up that much and yet the rent’s have gone up twenty-fold,” he said. “So now it’s nearly impossible to live in the city.”
Following Liebman into the building at 138 W. 19th Street was bassist Dave Holland, who moved into the second floor loft vacated by drummer-pianist Howie Wyeth (grandson of the famed illustrator N.C. Wyeth and nephew of the great painter Andrew Wyeth and who would later tour in 1975 as a member of Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue).
Holland, who had arrived in the States in August of ’68 to play with Miles Davis, was eager to move into the spacious second floor loft at 138 W. 19th St. And when another loft space later opened up on the first floor of that same building, he encouraged pianist Chick Corea to move in. [Corea and Holland were bandmates in Miles Davis’ exploratory electric ensemble at the time, both later appearing on such fusion landmarks as 1969’s In A Silent Way and 1970’s Bitches Brew and subsequently forming the free jazz group Circle with drummer Barry Altschul and alto saxophonist Anthony Braxton.]
“So there were three of us in that building— me, Dave Holland, Chick Corea — baking bread every night, being very strictly macrobiotic for a year or year and a half,” Liebman recalled. “And there was also LSD and mescaline and stand-on-your-head and Swami Vivekananda and Hare Krishna. I mean, we went through everything. It was a laboratory for living.”
Holland remembered 20-year-old Michael Brecker as being a fresh-faced figure on the loft scene: “He was just out of college and he moved into a place which was backed onto mine. In other words, he was on 18th Street and there was a roof connecting the two buildings — mine on 19th, his on 18th. So you could climb out of his kitchen window and then walk across the roof and climb into my kitchen window. And Mike, who was a young man living pretty much on his own at the time, would make that walk and climb into our kitchen window to visit me and my wife Clare. Soon after moving into his place on 18th Street he discovered her cooking was wonderful, and the company wasn’t too bad either. So he used to come over and climb through our window and hang out, eat dinner, jam a little bit, listen to records, not just jazz but often contemporary classical music.”
In one of their late-night listening sessions together, Holland turned Michael onto the music of the Canadian-born, London-based trumpeter-composer Kenny Wheeler. As he recalled, “I had done a record with Kenny just a short while before I came to New York called Windmill Tilter. It’s an extraordinary piece of writing that Kenny did, commissioned by John Dankworth, the big band leader and composer in England that Kenny worked with for quite some time. I brought this recording with me to New York and I was so taken by the recording and by Kenny’s writing that I played it for many people. I played it for Dave Liebman, I took it to Miles’ house on one of my visits and played it to him, and I played it to Mike. And as everybody else was, Mike was amazed by the beauty of this music.” [Holland and Brecker would later play together on Wheeler’s 1983 ECM album, Double, Double You, alongside pianist John Taylor and drummer Jack DeJohnette.]
“Mike was always very interested in all of these things,” Holland continued. “So I took him to be somebody that was really serious about his work and was letting the music speak for him rather than talking up his abilities. He wasn’t the sort of brash ‘Here I am, check this out’ kind of person. He was always looking to learn and he was always aware that there was more to learn. This is what made him a great musician. I think this is a quality you see in musicians that continue to grow throughout their career and throughout their life. They’re open to new things and learning and they always realize that there’s more to know and more to learn. And I felt that about Mike. He was always curious.”
Holland reacted the same way that most musicians did after jamming with Michael for the first time up at Liebman’s loft. “He was an extraordinary saxophone player even at that point in his life,” the bassist recalled. “He had worked very, very hard and absorbed a lot of information and a lot of understanding of the history of the music. But he grew up at a time when the boundaries between different musics were being ignored quite a bit and there was a crossover happening between rhythm and blues and rock and roll and jazz. We didn’t see these different musics as being in opposition to each other. Some of the more traditional jazz players that were perhaps less open-minded felt like jazz should be a more isolated form of music and it shouldn’t dip into these other forms. But we saw them as all being related. I think our generation was just drawing on different sources for putting our music together. And there was a lot of really interesting mixtures that came up from that, which, of course, Miles was aware of as well and worked with in his direction that he was taking. So Mike was checking out all these different things that were going on — free improvisation, the traditions of Coltrane, Joe Henderson, as far as the tenor was concerned. And this was all coming together in his playing and synthesized eventually into his own personal style of playing.”
“It was a special time to be in New York,” Michael told Frohman. “That’s when the so-called boundaries between what was then pop music and jazz were becoming very blurry. And those of us who experimented with combining R&B rhythms with jazz harmony began to develop a music that was a fusion, if you’ll excuse the word, of various elements. The music was fresh, exciting, powerful and exhilarating. We really had no word for it; at the time it was loosely referred to as jazz-rock.”
By 1970, more and more players began committing to full-time gigs and branching out from the unruly loft jam scene. As Mike and Randy began formulating plans for [their band] Dreams, Liebman hooked up with the innovative horn-driven rock band Ten Wheel Drive, which featured the charismatic, Janis Joplin-esque singer Genya Ravan. “That was the year that jazz-rock was ascendant,” said Liebman. “Straightahead jazz was at its lowest ebb in its history. A lot of the black guys went to Europe because of personal and musical reasons, because they had gigs and they were treated like human beings there. Meanwhile, in the States, the jazz-rock thing was coming in strong. Nobody called it fusion then. But suddenly a bunch of horn players who really couldn’t find work started playing in these rock bands with horn sections, like Dreams, Ten Wheel Drive, Blood, Sweat & Tears, Chicago, Chase and others. It was new music, it was popular and we were all happy about it. Of course, by the ’80s it had gotten watered down. But during the ’70s, it was definitely happening.”
While the Dreams songwriting team of Jeff Kent and Doug Lubahn tapped into the zeitgeist of the late ’60s with thoughtful, socially conscious lyrics, their memorable melodies and catchy hooks, fueled by punchy horns and [Billy] Cobham’s thunderous beats, scored big with young listeners. “We were jazz musicians that had grown up listening to rock and playing R&B,” Michael told Herb Nolan in a 1973 Downbeat interview. “And we made up the horn parts every night. They weren’t written out, we improvised them, which was quite different for that time.”
Adding Cobham’s muscular drumming to the potent mix gave the band unlimited firepower. “Billy could create this kind of pyrotechnic thing on the drum kit that people had never heard before,” said Kent. “And then when Michael soloed, it was just so far ahead, so superior to what was going on in other bands at the time.”
With Cobham’s power precision drumming and the impeccably tight, intertwining horn lines of [Barry] Rogers and the two Brecker brothers, Dreams quickly developed a cult following in 1969 through regular appearances at the Fillmore East, where they opened for Canned Heat and the Allman Brothers, and the Electric Circus, where they opened for Ike & Tina Turner. The group also enjoyed a residency at the Village Gate in the heart of Greenwich Village, where they caught the eye of Columbia Records executive Clive Davis, who eventually signed them to the label. “And the next thing you know, we went to the Columbia Record Convention in the Bahamas that year,” Randy recalled. “Chick Corea was there, Miles Davis was there, and a whole bunch of pop stars on the label were there. And everything you’ve read about the music business was happening there. On the whole second floor of the hotel there were hookers that the label had flown in. And a lot more was going on. It was a wild scene.”
Aside from Clive Davis, Randy also recalls seeing another familiar figure attending their celebrated gigs at Art D’Lugoff’s Village Gate on the corner of Thompson and Bleecker streets in the heart of Greenwich Village. “Miles would come and hear us all the time,” he said. “He’d always be sitting in the back, listening intently. I was playing my trumpet through a wah-wah pedal a lot at those Village Gate shows and Miles really took notice. [Davis used wah-wah for the first time on a June 3, 1970 studio recording of “Little High People,” though that track wasn’t released until 2003 when it was included in the sprawling five-CD boxed set, The Complete Jack Johnson Sessions. Davis’ use of wah-wah pedal was later documented on a Dec. 19, 1970 performance at the Cellar Door in Washington, D.C., portions of which appear on 1971’s Live-Evil and later appeared on the 2005 six-CD boxed set, The Cellar Door Sessions, 1970.]
Rather than being a band of jazzers checking out the visceral power of rock, or a band of rockers making a feeble attempt at improvising, Dreams was a balanced act; rock and jazz musicians bring their influence to bear, creating together, melding their disparate sensibilities into a wholly unique hybrid. “There was really no term for what we were doing back then,” said Michael in the liner notes for Columbia/Legacy’s 1992 CD reissue of Dreams. “Nobody called it fusion. We were just searching for new ways to break down barriers. It was a very fertile period. People were experimenting, trying different things. It was an exciting time to be in New York.”
And in Michael, Dreams had the ultimate secret weapon — a soloist of unparalleled skill and imagination who was well versed in the John Coltrane-Joe Henderson-Wayne Shorter tenor sax tradition but who was also intimately aware of the grittier King Curtis-Junior Walker-Maceo Parker tradition. While Chicago and BS&T and even Tower of Power may have been cultivating tight, punchy horn sections, none had a soloist to rank with the sheer incandescence and authority of Michael Brecker.
Despite its relatively short duration — they released Dreams in 1970 and Imagine My Surprise in 1971 before finally disbanding by 1972 — Dreams had made a major impact on a lot of young players coming up at the time. “This band was a game-changer,” said drummer and Dreams fan Peter Erskine. “And while both albums are favorites of mine, the first album with the Magritte-inspired cover gave us — in the form of Michael Brecker and William Cobham playing in duet — a Coltrane and Elvin for our generation.” - Bill Milkowski