Saxophonist Brad Leali on the art of learning—and teaching—jazz 

Brad Leali started taking saxophone lessons at the age of 10 when his mother took him to the mall to see a teacher named Willie Hill. Leali was interested in music, and jazz in particular, but the lessons didn't go well. After two years, Hill refused to teach Leali because he wasn't putting in the effort to practice.

It was only a few years later, when he was 13, that Leali's mom started taking him to local Denver music venues instead of the mall. There, he found a learning environment that worked for him. During informal lessons, local jazz legends like Billy Tolles would allow Leali to listen to them play their music and also to occasionally "sit in," playing along with the group and learning as he went.

"The way Billy Tolles would teach me was if I didn't know the tune, he would just give me this dirty look," Leali says. "I would know to stop playing and go home and learn the melody. That was how you learned on the bandstand."

Decades later, Leali is one of the leading jazz saxophonists in the country, lauded by the likes of The New York Times and the London Review. He's already had a long, storied career and even won a couple of Grammys to boot. He's played with the Harry Connick, Jr. Orchestra, the Count Basie Orchestra and the One O'Clock Lab Band. His gospel/blues sound has filled some of the most famous jazz haunts in the country, including the Village Vanguard, Blue Note, Jazz Standard, Iridium and Birdland.

This week, he visits Missoula for the 37th annual Buddy DeFranco Festival where he'll play Thursday, March 16, and Friday, March 17, at the Dennison Theatre along with five other guest musicians. He'll also be teaching a master class at the University of Montana.

Leali says he could easily lead a comfortable life just performing, but his passion for jazz sax requires more than touring. In 2005, he earned his master's degree in music from Rutgers University and then he began to teach. Currently, he balances a professorship at the University of North Texas with performing on Lyle Lovett's Large Band tours.

"I love to play, to teach, to share, to learn," Leali says. "I was making my living playing in New York, but after a certain point, I thought, 'I could just continue to play for the rest of my life, but is it enough for me? Would it be satisfying to me?' No. I still play and travel and tour, but I have to teach, too."

Leali isn't married to a teaching philosophy—even though he himself withered during his traditional mall lessons and thrived "sitting in" on the bandstand. In fact, his experiences learning jazz are exactly what make him the kind of jazz teacher he is today. He says it's about finding your own voice.

Leali knew what his voice should be from a young age. He grew up with a grandfather who was a Baptist preacher, and his style reflects a life that revolves around church: gospel, blues and soul. But holding onto and developing his voice was difficult in New York, when the urge to copy popular styles was overwhelming. At first, Leali tried to sound like Kenny Garrett, a famed jazz saxophonist at the height of his career.

click to enlarge Brad Leali, one of the leading jazz saxophonists in the country, plays Missoula’s Buddy DeFranco Jazz Festival. - PHOTO COURTESY BRAD LEALI
  • photo courtesy Brad Leali
  • Brad Leali, one of the leading jazz saxophonists in the country, plays Missoula’s Buddy DeFranco Jazz Festival.

"I was at a jam session and wrote a tune, and the trumpet player, said, Ah, man, another ugly alto player. He was talking about the way I was playing my tune. It hurt my feelings, but it was an a-ha moment. Garrett is a beautiful player, but me trying to be like him sounded ugly. I needed to be myself and play from my heart. From that day on, I wrote the music that I liked to write, that represented me. If people dig it, cool. But I have to be true to myself."

As a teacher, Leali knows that he can pass on everything he's learned about finding one's voice—and in a way that is a bit less painful than hearing it from a gruff trumpet player. While theory and technique are critical, voice is what creates the art.

"I had a senior who had wonderful talent, but he just didn't have a sound that connected," he says. "I kept working with him and it finally happened. This year, he won every contest that he entered, and one thing that the judges commented on was the beauty of his tone. It made me feel so good that it finally clicked. I loved to see him discover his voice after a lot of practice."

Voice, of course, isn't static. If Leali has learned anything, it's that the simple act of living life can change your voice, and that's not a bad thing. He says that while you start with your own sound—the foundational sound of your jazz personality—it will fine-tune itself over the years and decades, affected by everything from the people you play with, to the music you listen to, to the people you love. The key to forming your voice in the best way possible? Being vulnerable and not being afraid to make mistakes, Leali says.

Even Leali's voice is still forming, and much of it is because of the time that he spends teaching and playing with his students.

"I don't see it as teaching," he says. "It's sharing information every day. The more information I share, the more they share with me, and the better musicians we are. I have some extremely gifted students that inspire me. We play together, I go see their gigs, we sit in. I didn't realize that until I started teaching: The students are very smart. They spark love and curiosity."

For Leali, jazz is all about sitting in: playing together, learning together, even making mistakes together. It's about learning history and technique, and learning about yourself. In the end, playing jazz—and teaching jazz—is a continuous cycle.

"Teaching jazz lets me give something back," he says. "I want to take the music places, inspire people, and teach others about it. Teaching lets me keep the circle going and keep the passion going. I can give to others so that they can continue to give."

Brad Leali performs Thu., March 16, and Fri., March 17, in Dennison Theatre at 7:30 PM nightly along with five other guests musicians. $25/$10 for students/$15 for seniors.

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