Trumpeter Randy Sandke knew Michael Brecker for nearly forty years, since both were college freshmen. Thought by many to be the most influential saxophonist since John Coltrane, Brecker died on Saturday, January 13, of leukemia brought on by myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS), a rare cancer of the blood marrow. After saying his final goodbye to Brecker, Sandke wrote the following remembrance of his friend. We are honored that he chose Rifftides to publish it.
Michael Brecker as I Knew Him
By Randy Sandke
I’ve already been to too many memorial services for jazz musicians (and I know I’ll be at many more), but of all of them, the one for Michael Brecker was the saddest and most emotional, at least for me. Maybe it was because he had two beautiful school-aged children: a daughter age seventeen named Jessica and a son, Sam, thirteen. Then there were the circumstances of his death–a grueling two-and-a-half year struggle with an ailment for which there is no cure, and for which the therapy (massive chemotherapy) was often as devastating as the disease. But lastly, there was Mike. Aside from his prodigious and unique talents, he was one of the sweetest, most gentle, and kindest souls I’ve ever met. His loss is incalculable in many ways.
I’ve know Mike since we were both eighteen, students at Indiana University. He entered as a Spanish major and took music courses only as electives. Even then he was a stupendous player. He idolized his older brother, Randy, who had graduated from Indiana two years before. Mike thought he could only catch up with Randy (who was and is a well-schooled but very natural trumpet player) by working as hard as he could. He was obsessed with practicing. He and Steve Grossman (whom I think Mike had met at Phil Woods’ camp, Ramblerni) used to compete by seeing how fast they could transcribe the latest Coltrane recording. Mike once told me he wanted to be Coltrane, though he listened to many other tenor players, from Joe Henderson and Joe Farrell to Junior Walker and King Curtis. (We used to assemble at a campus pizza parlor and listen to “Memphis Soul Stew” on a nearly nightly basis).
But Mike had a musical Achilles’ heel: he found reading music boring and at that time was barely able to do it at all. He auditioned for the IU jazz band but because of his reading difficulties only made the second band. I remember hearing a concert they performed in which Mike sat patiently in the section as they ran through their not too inspiring charts. Suddenly Mike stood up and blew the roof off the place. He then sat back down as if nothing unusual had happened and finished the concert. Even then he was hypercritical of his own playing.
We formed a jazz-rock band with the rather uncouth name of “Mrs. Seamon’s Sound Band.” Mrs. Seamon was the head dietician at Wilkie Quad where Mike and I lived, and she hated the longhaired and unkempt students who were invading her cafeteria. Mike himself was always something of a natty dresser but we were all letting our hair grow long; after all, this was 1967-8.
Our band played at the Notre Dame collegiate jazz festival that spring and our mÃ©lange of straight-ahead cum avant-garde cum fusion totally baffled the judges. Ray Brown refused to give us the first prize, so for the first time in the history of the festival they didn’t award one. We all considered this a major victory; the hippie side of us looked askance at competitions anyway.
Young Michael Brecker
But out of this came an offer to take the band to Chicago (my hometown–Mike was from Philly) to be managed by the wife of a Chicago jazz writer. This whole episode was a disaster from the start as it turned out that she was more interested in maintaining a stable of young studs than taking care of business. When two of the band members quit, we were stuck in a semi-hopeless situation. She’d already put us up in an apartment and invested money and we felt obligated to her but couldn’t work until we replaced the guys who left. We tried auditioning various musicians but none jelled with what we were doing.
After two months of this stalemate I couldn’t take it anymore. I went home to my parents’ place to enjoy a warm meal and clean sheets. I told everybody I’d be back in a day or two. That night all hell broke loose. Two sisters, friends of the keyboard player, were “crashing” with us. One was selling LSD and she handed it out that night. Everyone in the band had some experience with it (and I’m pretty sure some declined), but the younger sister, Bridget, had never taken it before. She was very attracted to our drummer, Eric, as was another woman who was staying with the band. Between the acid and this bizarre love triangle Bridget got so upset that she flung herself out of a third story window and killed herself.
An ambulance took Bridget away but the others were rounded up by the police as the apartment was searched. They found the LSD and everybody was carted off to Cook County Jail. Michael and I were the only two not arrested. Earlier that evening Mike had sensed that something might go terribly wrong and he went out for a walk. He returned to find the place surrounded by police cars and paddy wagons. I never found out where Mike stayed that night. He may have just paced around until dawn.
For the other band members, the nightmare only deepened. They were separated and put into cells with vicious criminals. Eric, who had witnessed Bridget’s jump and also taken acid, was brutally gang raped in his cell. Meanwhile, the notoriously corrupt Chicago police sent a van to our apartment and proceeded to steal all the band’s equipment and possessions. I lost my record collection, my trumpet and the flugelhorn I’d won at Notre Dame. Once again Mike was spared the worst because he had taken his tenor into a shop for repairs.
An ambitious DA wanted to press murder charges against the guys and the press was hungering for a sensational LSD story. Eventually the whole thing was thrown out on a technicality, but too much damage had already been done. Eric was never the same. Within a year he committed suicide by jumping off a landing in Los Angeles.
Mike and I were both devastated, but we dealt with this horrible experience in very different ways. I was having trouble with a rupture in my larynx that was exacerbated by playing without proper amplification in our band. After an operation I considered unsuccessful I decided to quite the trumpet and music altogether. I didn’t even own a trumpet for another ten years. I sought treatment with a variety of psychiatrists, learned to live without being a musician, and gradually came to terms with all that had happened.
Mike moved to New York where his brother was already well on his way to establishing himself as a jazz and studio player. At nineteen Mike made his recording debut on his brother’s record, “Score.” From there they both proceeded to garner more and more success and fame.
The Brecker Brothers
Yet, I know that the events of the summer of ’68 were still gnawing at Mike’s soul. He was a very shy, introverted person. Like many musicians he was more comfortable in the privacy of his practice room than in the company of people, especially strangers. Suddenly, he was in the limelight, surrounded by crowds of admirers and offered vast quantities of every conceivable temptation known to man.
I think it was in an effort to retreat from our bad experiences in Chicago that Mike began a downward spiral into alcohol, cocaine and eventually heroin. Through the seventies Mike’s fame grew by leaps and bounds as his private life deteriorated. This was also the period when he and Randy invested in their nightclub, Seventh Avenue South. It was a big success with audiences but an unscrupulous manager stole money and didn’t report anything to the government. Mike was financially wiped out as his bank account was seized by the IRS three times.
Finally, he came around and sought treatment and was able to transform his life. He took himself out of circulation for at least six months. He told me he didn’t care if ever made a penny again, he was going to do what he wanted to. He met the love of his life, Susan, and they settled down in a secluded home in Hastings-On- Hudson (before, Mike had lived in spacious but dingy lofts in the West 20’s and on Grand Street near Chinatown). Mike became a family man who doted on his two kids. He said if he had it to do again he would have had more. The family pet, a seeing-eye dog who hadn’t made the grade, rounded out the picture of suburban bliss.
I was really happy for him. After his hiatus Mike’s career again resumed as if he’d never been gone. It just exploded all over again, as well it should have. If a jazz musician becomes a major success, the critics can cool off on you and take you for granted. But no one, at any time, ever played the tenor the way Mike did. In live performance, he was probably the most exciting musician (jazz or otherwise) I have ever heard.
I started playing again in late 1979. By ’85 I felt ready to make my first solo album. I asked Mike to be on it. He was his usual gracious and encouraging self, and a model of professionalism in the studio. We did another album ten years later when I was with Concord.
I felt that Mike should not give me any special breaks and negotiated his fee with his manager and good friend, Daryl Pitt. I knew it was above Concord’s budget so I made up the shortfall out of my own pocket and sent a check to Mike. He never cashed it.
The real tragedy of Mike’s final illness is that everything was working so well for him- and he’d learned to appreciate it all. He also learned how to deal with his fame in a positive way and very seriously regarded his job as being a role model for saxophonists everywhere.
He also used his fame to raise awareness for his disease. Because of publicity he generated, 10,000 people from all over the world were tested as donors for bone marrow transplants. One of the few bright spots for Mike over the last few weeks was when he received a letter from a child whose life had been saved by a donor who had responded to the call to find a match for Mike. Michael himself never found a perfect match but did receive a transplant. The donor was his own daughter, Jessica. The doctors believe that her gift enabled Mike to live for an additional year.
One of the frustrating things about Mike was that it was impossible to compliment him without his complimenting you back. He wanted to see everybody as on his level, but the truth was, he existed on his own plane. Like all great artists, he gave us all a glimpse of how limitless and invigorating the possibilities of life are. Typical of his modesty was that (and I’m sure this was according to his wishes) the only music played at his memorial service was recordings of John Coltrane. The only live music was sung by a female cantor who did some ancient sounding Jewish modal piece that sounded eerily similar to something Coltrane would have played. Even in death, Mike was trying to teach us something about the universality of human experience.
Everybody who knew Mike loved him dearly and cherished every moment spent with him. He was extremely down to earth and totally unassuming. One of his favorite words was “amazing,” which of course he never applied to himself. He was a great spirit and, I truly believe, one of the greatest musical figures of our era. I feel so blessed to have known him and been able to call him my friend.