Don Braden performing with the Big Fun’k in New Jersey in 2011. By Courtesy of Adam Zyto
Don Braden ’85, a composer, world-class saxophonist, and jazz performer, supervised The Harvard Jazz Combo Initiative’s Jazz & Java Cafe concert in Leverett House in early December last year. Many in the audience were unaware that the performance that night was the culmination of over 40 years of “the universe at work,” as Braden put it.
During a chat with The Crimson, many of Braden’s key experiences lead him right back to where he started at Harvard: jazz. It all began in his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky, in the 1970s.
“I remember how hot it was, it was July, and my feet were scorching through my shoes; I can still feel it.” “I was 15 at the time, and my feet were so hot that I couldn’t stand on the platform,” Braden recalled.
Braden was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, but reared in Louisville, Kentucky, where he was surrounded by his parents’ and Black neighborhood’s 1960s and 1970s music. Being immersed in music since an early age, as well as having the opportunity to play in a variety of ensembles, all contributed to his decision to pursue a career in jazz for the rest of his life.
Braden was encouraged to go to Harvard University by a school friend, Drew Chuppe, after performing on sunny stages at The Belvedere in Louisville and developing a propensity for tenor saxophone in his school band. So he did — and he was admitted.
“Leon Gruenbaum, my freshman roommate, was an exceptional jazz pianist. So we started performing together right away and used to do all kinds of things as a pair around Harvard. Don and Leon are a couple. “The cosmos brought us together, and we have a happy relationship to this day,” Braden added.
“Leon and I were playing somewhere my sophomore year when this kid, Jill Suttenberg, came in,” Braden added.
Jill Suttenberg ’87 was planning to attend Yale but decided to stop by Harvard to make sure she had considered all of her alternatives. She watched the Don & Leon tag-team perform on campus during this tour, as well as being introduced to Harvard’s jazz culture and, most crucially, band director Thomas G. Everett.
“Getting into Harvard was absolutely ideal for my music, and the reason for that is — well, there are two reasons. Harvard University in Boston had a thriving jazz scene at the time, and it still does today. Tom Everett, the director of bands at the time while I was there, was a major jazz fan. “On a regular basis, he brought all kinds of jazz superstars to Harvard,” Brady recalled.
Suttenberg’s attitudes toward music at Harvard were equally cordial, as the Crimson soon discovered. Instead of Yale, she decided to enroll at Harvard. Braden’s stars aligned in his sophomore year, allowing him to form a new connection that would assist drive his music career and possibilities.
“In my sophomore year, a guy named Sasha Lewis, an alto player, came in. As it turns out, Sasha Lewis was the son of the legendary pianist John Lewis of the Modern Jazz Quartet. His son enrolled at Harvard. As a result, we became close friends. [Sasha] was the one who transported me to New York on my first trip, and I stayed at John Lewis’ place. We used to spend all of our time talking about jazz, music, and life, and it was fantastic. “When I took a year off from Harvard, which evolved into 40,” Braden remarked, “John Lewis actually found me my first apartment in New York.”
Braden now performs at a few locations in New York City on a regular basis, but he also travels frequently for music performances. He’s been to Japan and the Netherlands to perform and teach music with other New York City musicians. Braden has created two primary bands after leaving Harvard to pursue a music career: Big Fun’k and the Don Braden Quartet.
“So all of the amazing performances and things that have transpired since then have all been because to John Lewis giving me a suitable place to live and assisting me.” That was a Harvard connection between Sasha and me. “He’s from the class of ’86, I’m from the class of ’85, and Jill is from the class of ’87,” Braden explained.
“So fast forward to about five years ago, [Suttenberg] gets married, she gets her master’s degree, and she marries [David Matthew Altshuler], who gets his doctorate, and they’re a power couple, and they build a lot of money, and they give a chunk of money to Harvard because she was so inspired by her time at Harvard, particularly by Tom Everett.” She donated money and established the [Thomas] G. Everett Jazz Innovation Fund, which was established 30 years ago, just 5 years ago,” Braden added.
Meanwhile, band director Tom Everett called Braden to tell him he was retiring and asked if Braden could take over as band director in the interim. Of course, Braden agreed and led the Harvard Jazz Band for three years before Yosvany Terry, the current director, was hired. Terry was the one who eventually called Braden with the idea that would bring his Harvard jazz experience full circle. “Yosvany called me and said, ‘Connect with Jill for the combo program,'” Braden explained.
After that phone call, Braden sat down for dinner with Suttenberg, who presented Braden with the idea of launching a combined program utilizing the Innovation Fund about three years ago.
“We had a huge band at Harvard,” Braden explained, “but because of the configuration, a lot of people can’t fit in the big band.” It can’t hold a large number of people. However, if you run a combo program, you can just take everyone and find out how to bring them together. ‘If you do this, this fund will pay for it,’ [Suttenberg] stated. So that’s what we did. So what I did three nights ago was the last concert for the Jazz Combo Initiative, which was funded by a fund she put together after hearing me and the students.”
Braden stressed the combo initiative’s inclusiveness and openness, which has as its main purpose the development of the abilities of Harvard undergraduate students interested in jazz at all levels. Students are provided opportunities to demonstrate their honed talents in a setting that would otherwise not have been available to them due to the inflexibility of other musical groups on campus during both the autumn and spring semester concerts.
“Coming full circle now to this, or coming — whatever the path is, it’s not circular — kind of this crazy path to last night where the kids get to present their concert,” Braden said, referring to the Harvard Jazz Combo Initiative’s routine fall semester performance and preparation for their spring performance on April 19. That has a lot of interconnecting stories, and it’s really cool. I’m thrilled to be at Harvard, first and foremost, and I’m ecstatic to see all of the connections that have sprouted from those seeds during my undergraduate years, and to be able to share them with the kids in a productive and inspiring way.”
So, if Drew hadn’t told Don to apply to Harvard, Don and Leon would never have persuaded Jill to come to Harvard, play in Tom Everett’s band, and establish the Thomas C. Everett Innovation Fund, which now funds the Jazz Combo Initiative, for which Braden recently completed directing a performance at Harvard 40 years later. “Here is the universe at work,” Braden added.