In 2002, I had the pleasure of performing with Michael Brecker as a member of the University of Houston Jazz Orchestra. I was a new member of the ensemble and was very lucky to have the opportunity to spend time in rehearsal with such a talented musician.
NEW YORK — Michael Brecker, a versatile and highly influential tenor saxophonist who won 11 Grammys over a career that spanned more than three decades, died Saturday at age 57.
Brecker died in a hospital in New York City of leukemia, according to his longtime friend and manager, Darryl Pitt.
In recent years, the saxophonist had struggled with myelodysplastic syndrome, a cancer in which the bone marrow stops producing enough healthy blood cells. The disease, known as MDS, often progresses to leukemia.
Throughout his career, Brecker recorded and performed with numerous jazz and pop music leaders, including Herbie Hancock, James Taylor, Paul Simon and Joni Mitchell, according to his Web site. His most recently released recording, Wide Angles, appeared on many top jazz lists and won two Grammys in 2004.
His technique on the saxophone was widely emulated, and his style was much-studied in music schools throughout the world. Jazziz magazine recently called him “inarguably the most influential tenor stylist of the last 25 years,” according to a press release from his family.
Though very sick, Brecker managed to record a final album, as yet untitled, that was completed just two weeks ago. Pitt said the musician was very enthusiastic about the final work.
“In addition to the love of his family and friends, his work on this project helped keep him alive and will be another jewel in his legacy,” Pitt said.
Brecker, who had a home in Westchester County’s Hastings-on-Hudson, was born in 1949 in Philadelphia to a musically inclined family. His father would take his sons to performances of jazz legends such as Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk and Duke Ellington.
Brecker, who first studied clarinet and alto saxophone, decided to pursue the tenor saxophone in high school after being inspired by the work of John Coltrane, according to his Web site. He followed his brother, Randy, a trumpet player, to Indiana University, but he left after a year for New York.
In 1970, he helped found the jazz-rock group Dreams. He later joined his brother in pianist and composer Horace Silver’s quintet. Michael and Randy also started the successful jazz-rock fusion group the Brecker Brothers. The two also owned the now-defunct downtown jazz club Seventh Avenue South.
His solo career began in 1987, when his self-titled debut was voted “Jazz Album of the Year” in both Down Beat and Jazziz magazines.
His struggle with the blood disease led him and his family to publicly encourage people to enroll in bone marrow donor programs. His own search for a donor led to an experimental blood stem cell transplant that “did not work as hoped,” according to a May 2006 entry on his Web site.
His illness silenced his music at times, but raising awareness of bone marrow drives gave him a new focus.
“It’s something that doesn’t come naturally. … I obviously miss playing and writing music,” Brecker told The Associated Press in 2005. “On the other hand, this whole experience has allowed me to be a conduit to attract attention for a cause that’s much larger than me … for people to go get tested (for the marrow donor program) because I know a lot of lives will be saved.”
Brecker’s survivors include his wife, Susan; his children, Jessica and Sam; his brother, Randy; and his sister, Emily Brecker Greenberg. Memorial services are being planned.