Brent Birckhead : Raffles Hotel, “The Long Bar” : Singapore
“I’ve always thought that if I’m not doing well enough, there’s something else I need to be doing to rectify that situation. Because I know I have to be good enough; there’s no choice, I have to be. And if I’m not there yet, I’m gonna get there”
Brent Birckhead is somewhat of a Gen-Y outlier. Having chosen long ago to work in the perpetually turbulent music industry, he isn’t about excuses, finger pointing, or waiting for the arrival of success, but instead enjoys an honest perspective on responsibility and hard work. Sure, there are dark days, but his core values insist on an understanding that he is wholly responsible for his outcomes, and although circumstance and personalities obviously provide a cameo along the way, in the end his success is determined by only one thing: his attitude.
Of course, it doesn’t hurt that he’s a beast of a saxophonist, lovely guy, and an accomplished student of jazz with a refreshing old-school approach. He’s dedicated to developing his craft and constantly pushing himself to improve; indeed, to be the best. This choice started relatively early for him when he picked up the saxophone as 10 year old Baltimore (Maryland, USA) native. It wasn’t a poetic narrative, by any means, but simply a decision his father made – as he did for all of his four children – that each child would play an instrument. His first choice was the trumpet, but as his brother had already claimed that instrument (before later changing to bass and eventually finding himself touring with acts like Hanson and J. Lo), it was the woodwind family for Brent. And it didn’t take long for him to discover a true engagement with the instrument that would set the course for his life to now.
“Once I found out that I could really create I thought, “You know what…this seems like something I would love to do”. And as I progressed and got better and better I just grew more firm in my stance on that…and I wanted to be the best. My father will always say, “When you were 14 you said: “I don’t want to be good, I want to be the best””, and that’s pretty much what I’m going for – I want to be the best that I can actually be”
With the decision made to make music his career, Brent opted to formalise his jazz education and went on to gain a Bachelors in music from Howard University in Washington DC. This study proved to be an eye-opening and profound experience for him studying under the tutelage of Charlie Young (who has played with The Count Basie Orchestra and the 21st century incarnation of the Duke Ellington Orchestra) who would challenge him in countless ways, shaping the thinking and approach to his understanding of jazz.
“I was studying with Charlie Young who pretty much tore everything down that I had done before and rebuilt it. I was studying Classical Saxophone for five years and I did two years of Jazz, but I was always playing Jazz through that anyway. He really set the tone; I saw him playing and thought, whatever he tells me to do is what I’m gonna do because he’s where I wanna be”
Despite the already demanding schedule of university and playing gigs on the side, Brent was also passing down his knowledge to a younger generation in a teaching role. And in addition to helping to pay the bills, it provided him with an unexpected personal education that would deepen his own knowledge of jazz.
“I was teaching middle school woodwinds at Hardy Middle School in Washington DC as well, a neighbourhood called Georgetown, and I learned a lot from the kids. I learned a lot about breaking things down to the bare minimum so anyone could understand. And for me, that process actually helped me to retain information as well; whether it was very complex chords or rhythms or whatever it was…dealing with jazz it can get very complex, but breaking it down to the simplest form so that you can understand it simply, quickly, and apply it to anything else that you need”
Like any musician wanting to take it to the next level, Brent had made the decision to take on the ultimate challenge as a jazz saxophonist and head to New York to be part of the scene while completing his Masters. Instead, he was offered an assistantship at Howard while finalising his studies that opened up countless opportunities to him, from playing in flute ensembles to traveling to locations including Cameroon, Japan and Poland to further his education and experience. But most importantly, it facilitated his personal development by allowing him time to mature and shape the personality he would need to really make an impact when he eventually took his horn to the jazz centre of the globe.
“New York is the greatest city in the world for jazz. If you think you’re the best, everyone goes to New York…it’s kind of a rite of passage. Especially for a saxophone because every great saxophone player is there, period; or has been there throughout history. And it can either be a discouraging experience or an inspiring one, it’s your choice, and I chose to be inspired and chose to rise to the top of that. I was 26 when I moved up and at that point I know what I’m there for. If I’d moved there when I was 21 it may have been a different story, I was at a different point in my life, but at 26 you know what you’re there for and the focus that you have at that later stage is different than I would have had at 21”
Brent made the move to New York in 2012, and immediately came up against the expected realities of the city both in terms of its daily challenges and unparalleled competitiveness. But with an inherent understanding of his responsibility to create his own experiences and a learned ability to remain positive in the face of the challenging realities thrown up by the city that kicks so many to the curb, he humbled himself to the New York scene and respected its established process in order to live his dream.
“New York is a rough and tough city because nobody cares what you did before. You could have toured the world with the biggest names ever, but once you get to New York, it’s like…”Okay, who cares?! Play this tune for free”. You have to be on the scene a lot, there’s a lot of hanging til five o’clock in the morning getting to know the guys on the scene and cutting your teeth. I didn’t come up with a group of people, I came up by myself because it was my only option. It’s very lonely, I’ll tell you that. It’s cold at first…the weather too, but people are very cold. People have the group of people they hang out with and it’s hard to get in which is why a lot of people leave. There’s such a high turnover rate – people come and leave all the time”
Determined not to be one of the countless that come off second best to New York’s realities, he persevered through the difficult times and continued to develop networks, show up to the gigs, and turn heads with his playing. And despite the isolation in a city that seems to test newcomers at every turn by ensuring they earn their place, he stuck it out and has since since carved himself a reputation as one of the finest musicians on the island.
“New York is a beast, I’ll say that; especially in the arts. There’s so much competition. But I knew I wasn’t leaving, there was no way I was leaving. I was gonna go there, I was gonna be among the best ‘cause I wanted to be the best…I wanted to be inspired by those around me so that I could take my music to different levels I couldn’t really imagine. And the relationships that I’ve created are ones that I’ll have for years to come, because everyone goes through that process; it’s like a fraternity. So when you make it through, you stick it out; people are more kind to you after that point.”
Although he now spends much of his time on tour, Brent still lives in the city, fulfilling his own teenaged prophecy of the silent New York nod by now sharing the stage with some of the greatest performers on the planet. And when he’s not on the road making up the horn section for Grammy Award Winner, Lauryn Hill, or touring with acclaimed soul singer-songwriter Eric Benet, he’s writing and touring his own music; a blend of influences filtering countless styles of music from folk to hip-hop all within his own jazz compositions, appealing to aficionados and mainstream fans alike.
“The way of thinking has been simplified and we’ve gotten lazy in the way we think about music, we want that instant gratification. And jazz can give you that instant gratification as well, but sometimes you may have to reach. What I think is great about what we call jazz, it’s both a folk music and it’s an intellectual music at the same time, which is amazing. Usually it’s either one or the other; it’s either intellectual music that you have to sit and listen to, or it’s folk music which is almost always synonymous with dance. Jazz is one that can go both ways which makes it one of the most advanced musics that you can play and listen to. Which is why I love to play it, because it’s still challenging to me, and I’m learning different things about harmonies and everything that comes along in a composition that change daily for me. And it takes all the influences of everything you’ve experienced – your life experience comes out when you play”
When he talks of his music, a distant focus clouds his eyes as he disappears into his own friendly perspective which reminds you of the passion he has for his chosen existence. The holistic approach to his craft is also weighted nicely with a healthy balance of responsibility, creativity and positivity. His ability with his instrument is clear, but it seems the magic is in his attitude and his choice to keep discovering and live in a perpetually restless state, recognising that when you’re a creatively driven person that comfort is your enemy. It’s also clear that he respects the legacy of the greats that have come before him and recognises this in his approach to playing and composing, ensuring that each time he picks up his horn he’s presented with another opportunity to push himself further, create something new, and inevitably grow himself as both a musician and artist. All of this is wrapped snugly in a broader understanding of what it takes to be noticed as a musician out of NYC in 2015 with an ever-reaching method that appears to be exactly the reason why the winds are pushing lightly at his back, due to nobody’s design but his own.
“I’m living my dream; I’m very pleased. I spent my 30th birthday reflecting on what I’ve done up to this point. I was remembering back in High School, I was 14 years old, and we had to do a project in gym class – of all classes – about what we wanted to do with our careers. I said I wanted to go to school, major in jazz studies, I wanted to tour the world and I wanted to eventually become a College professor – and I’ve accomplished all those things right now so it’s time to set new goals. And I already have, I’m recording an album (November 2015) and a live album is also on the way. It’s just onward and ever-upward – right now, I’m at a very good point…very positive. And looking forward to getting better. I’m always looking forward to getting better at what I do, because every day we have that chance”
Bookmark his site for up to date information at www.brentbirckhead.com
This interview and images were captured while Brent was in Singapore on a gig recently.