The Don of Harvard Jazz

by Andrew Chow '14

Things were a little tense at the beginning of sound check for the Harvard Monday Jazz Band last week in Sanders Theatre. I play piano for the band, and we were two hours away from performing. But half the band was missing, sound technicians were scurrying around left and right, and we hadn’t even played one song all the way through yet.

But right as we were beginning a listless version of the standard On Green Dolphin Street, Don Braden showed up and made everything right. Braden is our conductor, and he had just gotten off a plane from Holland, where he teaches at the Prince Claus Conservatoire. He was probably exhausted, but he didn’t show it at all: He enthusiastically guided us through the set, making shrewd last-minute tweaks. The performance went flawlessly, and after the show, Braden stood beaming backstage, ready to shake everyone’s hand.

Don Braden is a conductor, a world class saxophonist and a Harvard institution. He attended Harvard from 1981 to 1984 and has since played with jazz legends such as Wynton Marsalis, Freddie Hubbard and Roy Haynes. It’s been a busy year for Braden so far: taking over as the interim conductor for the Harvard Monday Jazz Band following Tom Everett’s retirement, teaching all over the globe and recording his 18th album, which will come out soon.

Braden came to Harvard from Louisville, Ky., and immediately set out to make a name for himself as a musician. In addition to playing with both the Sunday and Monday jazz bands at Harvard, he started playing regularly at the 1369 Jazz Club and was one of the first acts to play at the Regattabar, now one of the leading jazz venues in Boston. He soon realized that it would be increasingly tough to balance his steady gigging with his rigorous engineering course load. "It was a challenge. I really wanted to play, but I also wanted to pursue computers," he says. "I took time off to see if the music thing really made sense, which it did."

He moved to New York City like many aspiring jazz musicians do, hung out at the Blue Note and bounced from gig to gig. He soon teamed up with one of his idols, Wynton Marsalis, by cold calling him and asking for a job. "I used to put on Wynton recordings over the big speakers in Science Center lecture halls and practice along with it," Braden recalls. "That inspired me to go to New York."

Braden went on the road with Marsalis for seven months and shot up the ladder, soon landing gigs with the likes of trumpeter Freddie Hubbard and drummer Tony Williams. "Their sound was unbelievable, powerful and controlled, and the swing was crazy," Braden says about working with Hubbard and Williams. The two greats, who had gone toe to toe with John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Wayne Shorter and countless others, instilled a sense of deep swing within the young Braden. "There’s a big difference from playing with younger guys," he says. "Even guys that are really good don’t really compare to the guys who have been playing 30 years more."

Harvard remained a special place for Braden, though, and he has returned many times to perform, including at the 2011 Jazz Band 40th Anniversary Concert. Like Marsalis, he’s leading the way for a younger generation of musicians and is excited about the growth of jazz in the university. "Each era has different things, but more is probably happening in the Harvard jazz scene now than when I was there," Braden says.

[Caption: Don Braden '85 PHOTO: R Andrew Lepley]