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Portrait Gallery: Brad Leali, professor of jazz saxophone

December 3, 2012

Via “UNT InHouse”

Brad Leali

Brad Leali, Jazz StudiesAlumnus Brad Leali is associate professor of jazz studies, teaches jazz fundamentals and directs the Three O’Clock Lab Band. The Denver, Colorado native performed with the world renowned One O’Clock Lab Band when he was a student at UNT, earning his degree in music education in 1989.

Leali was musical director and lead alto player for Harry Connick Jr. and played with the Clark Terry Big Band. He was soloist with the Count Basie Orchestra and won acclaim for the album Count Plays Duke. The band won a Grammy for that album, and Leali was nominated for a Grammy for his solo performance on the song “Star Crossed Lovers” on the same album.

He earned a master’s degree from Rutgers University, and was appointed head of the jazz program at Texas Tech, which offers Brad Leali Endowed Jazz Scholarships. Leali joined UNT in 2008.

What got you interested in playing the saxophone?

I first heard my dad play the saxophone when I was about four years old, and I was fascinated. I was also captivated when I saw the jazz band photos from his high school yearbook. He always looked so sharp and well dressed. My dad played jazz as a teenager at Manuel High School in the Five Points neighborhood in downtown Denver.  Five Points is historically significant in that it brought together the elements necessary for a total community through the uniting of entertainment, economic, political, social and educational systems for the Black Community in Denver. I didn’t realize it at the time when I was growing up, visiting my grandparents in this neighborhood, and going to church there, but this was a unique area and I’m very proud of the fact that I’m a product of such an influential cultural dynamic.

I remember, at a very young age I was always going into our basement to look at my dad’s alto saxophone, and then he gave it to me when I started playing in the Denver Junior Police Band when I was eight years old. In our home my father was always listening to John Coltrane, Miles Davis and Cannonball Adderley, and my mom was always listening to Sarah Vaughan, Billie Holiday, Nat King Cole and Nancy Wilson. Needless to say, I was affected by jazz pretty early.  I played at church for recitals and special occasions and the funny thing is, now that I look back on that time, none of the music was written down; we just played improvisationally, and that helped to develop my ear without me even being conscious of it. I was very blessed to have had such opportunities so early on.

How has music and how have students changed since your undergraduate days.

Fundamentally they are the same. The students are still hungry.  They love jazz and they want to play.

There are some differences however.  I feel like I grew up and learned about jazz in an intimate community. In Denver I listened to the jazz station KADX (now KUVO) and learned a lot from the local DJs because they were very aware of the music as well as being extremely active and visible in our jazz community. As a result of listening to their programs I would go to the local clubs as a continuation of this learning process. In Denver we had small clubs where musicians like Eddie Harris, Clark Terry, James Moody, David “Fathead” Newman, Eddie “Clean Head” Vinson and others would come and play. My friends and I would go see them while still in high school, and would have the opportunity to sit in with them and have them mentor us.  In Dallas we would have genius musicians such as James Clay, Red Garland, Marchel Ivery and Cedar Walton play in several clubs around town and we could just show up and have direct access to them. They would also encourage us to sit in and they would spend hours talking to us about music. Today, most students don’t have those opportunities. Many of the top jazz artists are usually performing at larger venues where sitting in is not encouraged or even practical.

However, students now are able to immediately access music with YouTube, iTunes, live streams and various other music entities. This is helpful in that they can access the information so quickly, but the downside is that there is so much information at their fingertips they can become overwhelmed and not know where to begin or what to focus on. I also feel that when things are easily accessible it can sometimes take away from the beauty and challenge of exploration and discovery. For me it is always important to have that personal connection and community feeling in learning this art form.

You’ve performed with great artists, at President Obama’s 2008 inauguration and at the Kennedy Center Honors. What has been the highlight of your career?

What I enjoy most about performing on stage is communicating with people; connecting with the audience.  I love seeing people affected by the awesome power of music. It’s truly amazing to share in this type of contact that’s based on feelings, experiences and other non-definable qualities and how all of these factors can affect everyone so differently.

To name a single highlight is a difficult question to answer because I have had so many great, unforgettable moments. If I were to name one highlight, I would say that I was very fortunate, right out of college, to be the musical director for Harry Connick Jr.’s Big Band. We were all part of a jazz renaissance, spurred on by Wynton Marsalis, which was recognized worldwide.   It was an amazing time to be a young jazz musician.  I feel blessed to have the good and rare fortune of a wonderful career, to make a living out of doing what I love and to hopefully positively affect the future of this unique art form.

What do you like best about your job at UNT?

First of all, I really appreciate and admire my colleagues and the staff here at the College of Music, but I would have to say that my all-time favorite thing about my job is the students.  I love seeing their hunger. I love to see them working at their craft, improving and achieving their goals. It’s a nice feeling to share in that journey. This also applies for students who may decide that a career in music is not in their heart. Being a part of their self-discovery is self-growth for me as well.

What do you do in your free time?

Whatever my four-year old son wants to do. I feel that I’m basically a simple person, so when I’m not touring, I try to spend as much time with my family as possible. I enjoy movies, good food, being healthy, laughing and being silly but my greatest joy comes from being with my family.

Tell us about your family.

My wife, Megumi Leali, is the Admissions Advisor for the Intensive English Language Institute (IELI) on campus. I have three children – Jomei, 4 years; Isabella Rose, 10 years; and Njumea Gabrielle, 21 years. My father and stepmother, my mother and my sister all live in Denver. My mother grew up in Dallas, so I’m very fortunate to have a large extended family here, including my lovely 98-year-old grandmother.

I love my family and they keep me grounded. They also inspire me constantly. I have written several compositions inspired by my children, and I’ve written tunes for my grandparents, my dad, my mom, and my wife as well as for several friends. I feel that my compositions and my musical voice are direct reflections of my life, including the people that I surround myself with, the music I encounter, my everyday environment, my past, my upbringing and every event that has shaped me into who I am today and who I continue to strive to be.

(It’s not possible to know everyone on a big, busy campus. So InHouse periodically publishes Portrait Gallery features to help us learn about our colleagues and their contributions to the university’s success. Send suggestions for Portrait Gallery subjects by email to InHouse with “Portrait Gallery” in the subject line.)

(Interview by Jessica DeLeón, University Relations, Communications and Marketing)

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