Sunday, September 19, 2004

Jazz sax man was reflection of our spirit

Click here to e-mail Peter Bronson
In my dreams, I can play that muted Miles Davis trumpet from Kind of Blue. It billows and swirls like blue layers of cigarette smoke in a dark bar on some gritty big-city street in the '60s.

Or maybe it's the intimate bedroom sax of John Coltrane, shooting wild sparks of electricity like a lover's kiss.

Gordon Brisker didn't dream it. He lived it.

The obits say Brisker, 66, was a graduate of Walnut Hills High School, who died Sept. 12 of pancreatic cancer. He was a nationally known jazz sax player, composer and teacher who toured with Woody Herman and Anita O'Day. He wrote music and played for the Tonight Show when Johnny Carson was at the helm and Doc Severinsen's big band stoked the boilers.

Brisker's story jumps around like a Mel Torme bebop scat, from New York to Los Angeles and Australia. But it all comes back to Cincinnati. So did Brisker. The friends he played with over the years are a who's who of the Cincinnati jazz scene that has nearly vanished like those smoky jazz bars.

"We all started out together when he was 17, and extraordinarily talented,'' said Judy James, who still sings jazz with the Dee Felice Big Band. "Everyone knows who Gordon Brisker was if they had any jazz chops at all.''

Jerry Conrad met Brisker at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music, when Brisker was still in high school. "He was actually a more complete player than the rest of us,'' he said.

Conrad, who plays with the Blue Wisp Big Band, hired Brisker to play on the Nick Clooney Show, and both played on the Bob Braun Show, back when local TV Tonight Shows were hitting the high notes.

"His ability to improvise was light years ahead of mine. He really was a genius,'' he said. "He was also the most honest friend I ever had.''

"I've gotten hundreds and hundreds of e-mails from all over the world from people he touched,'' said his wife, Cindy. She quoted a favorite that described him as "gentle, humble, sometimes dark, and yet strong with conviction.''

She mentioned his spiritual side, a medley of Buddhism, Judaism and Christianity. A review of his CD My Son John says, "His ability to allow the music to flow is an inspiration, and the obvious spiritual nature of his music flows out of all the musicians taking part in this recording. When Gordon Brisker puts his tenor saxophone to his lips to play, it is living history.''

Joe Gaudio, Blue Wisp Big Band trumpet player and friend of Brisker's, tried to describe what that feels like. "Part of jazz is recovering from mistakes,'' he said. "There's just a joy in playing. I can't describe it, but it's as good as anything that ever happens to you. I'm 70, I'm not a youngster, but I still enjoy it.''

Jazz is the theme music of America. The same things that describe a jazzman like Brisker describe our strengths: improvisation, heart, spirituality, honesty, taking risks, "sometimes dark, strong and full of conviction.''

The things that describe great jazz can also describe a great city.

In my dreams, Brisker sits in for one more session to write a new song for the city he came back to. We hear the serendipitous harmonies, leaps of faith and soaring solos. Maybe it sounds like the background music for Queen City Fusion - all those players improvising on a theme that makes the city get up and dance again.

The final note is a jazzman's tribute from Alice Lytle, who graduated with Brisker in the Walnut Hills Class of 1955:

"This was one cool guy.''


E-mail or call 768-8301.

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