Talkin’ Sax at Litchfield Jazz Fest
Posted 9/4/2012

Outside of that, I played a lot of basketball, and that’s something I’ll think about and relate that to music. The obvious example is Michael Jordan. There are stories about how he never let up at practice. That was very inspiring to me. You know, like the way Coltrane would practice endlessly. And using that as an ideal to strive for has been very helpful to me.

My wife is a Presbyterian minister, and the whole relationship between spirituality and everything in my life is also a big part of the deal, and literature as well. I grew up in a small town and never traveled as a kid. But when I started traveling with [vibraphonist] Gary Burton, all of a sudden I was going all over the world and eating amazing food and meeting all these people and going to Argentina and these places with warm, loving cultures, but really strong folkloric music of their own. And that was really exciting to me. I’m not an expert, but studying and participating in Afro-Cuban music and Afro-Panamanian music has borne out in my life experiences as a musician.

Bourne: The interesting thing about basketball and jazz is that in jazz there are a lot of assists and rebounds involved when you’re playing with a group. Don, what are your musical and extra-musical inspirations?

Braden: I’m very active as an educator. I get a lot of energy and inspiration from the levels of teaching activity—both from the students themselves and from various things that happen as an educator.

For example, I was in Siberia. We were doing a clinic. And they brought us to a school. It was May, thank goodness. And these students had prepared a presentation. I was knocked out. There must have been about 30 of them, playing all kinds of tunes—everything from challenging jazz tunes like “Stablemates” to “Chameleon.”

Bourne: Gary, you matriculated through one of the traditional, old-fashioned jazz schools. You went on the road. If you were lucky enough, you went on the road and you learned from Betty Carter, Art Blakey, Horace Silver. And you learned from the Roadfather, Woody Herman. You played with Woody Herman.

Smulyan: I did, from 1978 to 1980. That was my first experience in playing baritone. That was an “aha” moment for me. I never thought I’d ever play the baritone in my life. I was 22 years old, a die-hard alto player. I didn’t listen to baritone players very much, except for Harry Carney, because like Donny, I was deep into Duke Ellington.

The phone rang, and it was Woody Herman wanting to know if I wanted to go on the road. It was May of 1978. I was four credits away from graduating from college. I had to make a choice. Do I finish school or do I go on the road with Woody Herman? I decided to go on the road. So, I went out and bought a baritone and two weeks later, May 25, 1978, joined the band in Bridgeport, Conn., and sat down next to Joe Lovano. That was the beginning of a whole other education.

That was an amazing band because John Riley was playing drums. Marc Johnson was playing bass. He was getting prepared to audition for the Bill Evans Trio, and he actually got the gig. Dave Lalama, who was Ralph Lalama’s brother, played piano. He was a fine pianist and arranger. [Multi-instrumentalist] Frank Tiberi. It was an amazing experience. I stayed in that band for two years and that was my transformation to becoming a baritone player. It was a total accident.

Bourne: The question must follow: Woody said, “I need a baritone player,” and somebody said, “Hey, I know this alto player, who might do,” and he calls you?

Smulyan: I don’t know what that conversation was, but Woody Herman’s pet peeve was alto players who play baritone. So, I hope that’s not what they said [laughs]! Of course, every night, I thought I was going to be fired. I had no sound, no concept, no baritone nothing. I had a student Yamaha baritone with a stock mouthpiece and I’m playing “Four Brothers,” “Early Autumn,” “Caledonia,” “Apple Honey” and all this incredible music. Woody Herman was incredible. But he heard something there, I guess, that he liked.

Anyway, can we get back to Siberia for a minute? Benny Goodman went to Russia in 1962. The band was great: Phil Woods, Zoot Sims, Jerry Dodgion, Mel Lewis. It was great. And they played in Siberia. So, they asked Zoot Sims, “What was it like to be in Siberia with Benny Goodman?” And he says, “Every gig with Benny Goodman is like being in Siberia” [audience laughs].

Frank Alkyer

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From left: Gary Smulyan, Miguel Zenón, Donny McCaslin, Don Braden and WBGO's Michael Bourne (Photo: Fran Kaufman)

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