When Tony Williams joined the Miles Davis Quintet in 1963, the 17-year-old drummer caused a bit of a stir -- on the bandstand and with nightclub owners. From behind the kit, the innovative wunderkind quickly redefined modern jazz drumming. At the bar, though, he attracted the attention of only nightclub owners, wondering how the underager affected liquor policies. It was then illegal in New York State for a nightclub to serve alcohol if a minor was onstage or in the audience. So clubs served liquor only before and after Davis's sets, while the future Hall of Fame drummer safely sat backstage away from the firewater and liquor authority. Few complained about the modified alcohol policy -- the talented young musician who would influence the next generation of percussionists was that good.
This weekend in Houston another 17-year-old will grace a club stage with an act that, while not as esteemed Davis's, is certainly equally as pleasing. Trumpeter Brandon Lee will join Malcolm Pinson's Jazz Warriors for the first time at the city's most intimate venue, Cezanne. Alcohol will be served, but the downside is that none of Lee's friends and peers will be in the audience.
"They won't let anyone under 21 go in there without a parent, and most parents don't want to listen to [jazz]," says Lee. "There's a lot of people that miss out on an opportunity like that."
No one is saying Lee is at the same level as a 17-year-old Tony Williams -- at least not yet -- but most everyone seems to agree he has a promising future. His style is most often compared to that of Lee Morgan, the legendary hard-bop trumpeter who was murdered in 1969 by his estranged girlfriend. Curiously, Brandon Lee doesn't listen to Morgan much. The only "cats from back in the day" he really studies are Freddie Hubbard and Woody Shaw. Lee spends most of his time listening to younger trumpet players such as Nicholas Payton, Terence Blanchard and his favorite, Wynton Marsalis.
"[Lee is] a very modern player," says trumpeter Dennis Dotson. "He appreciates the whole spectrum. He's just a little sponge. He absorbs everything around him. He's just sort of a synthesis of everything that's been going on right now. I don't really think he's identifiable yet."
Dotson, who played for several years with Woody Herman and is a regular with Pinson's Jazz Warriors, gave private lessons to Lee during the younger trumpeter's freshman and sophomore years at the High School for the Performing and Visual Arts. "He had a little student horn that was so beat up it would hardly even play," Dotson says. "Then he bought a new horn, and he bloomed overnight. He was already playing, and when he got [the] problems [of an inferior instrument] out of the way and had a new toy, it was gas. It wasn't long before I virtually ran out of things to show him."
Lee's musical talents may be genetic. His father is a pianist and educator and has led several high school jazz ensembles in Houston. His brother, Daleton, just a couple years older than Lee, already has a reputation as one of the hottest young drummers in town and is studying at San Jacinto College. Brandon Lee grew up with jazz around him, always stealing away to listen to his father's Marsalis records, and in seventh grade he attended a jazz camp. Lee says that experience is "probably what got me interested in playing jazz."
That year Lee landed his first professional gig, when his father put him in his band. His memories of that show are a bit foggy. "I didn't know how to approach playing to an audience when I first started playing," he says. "I can't remember exactly how I felt, but I just know I was really nervous. Now, I don't even think that the audience is there."
Lee is a junior at HSPVA, the same school that has produced Eric Harland and Jason Moran, two highly developed players who have been showcasing their Houston-honed chops to national audiences, mostly through Moran's Blue Note debut, Soundtrack to Human Motion. HSPVA encourages horn players to study both jazz and classical and requires them to take theory, jazz fundamentals and improvisation classes.
As far as regular performances, Lee doesn't have any yet. He plays mostly weddings and occasionally gets the call to do a nightclub date; he hopes to land a regular gig this summer. Last year Lee played his first nightclub show at Fitzgerald's with the University of Houston Big Band and made his Cezanne debut in January as a member of Rick Porter's Music Unlimited Ensemble. Porter has played with some of the biggest names in jazz history, including Horace Silver and Thelonious Monk, and Lee was quick to absorb what he could from the drummer.
"He has a lot to say about everybody he plays with," says Lee. "He just gave me the music, and a couple of times I went to his house. I really got more experience playing with him at Cezanne than playing at the rehearsals. I enjoy playing his tunes."
Likewise, Porter is impressed with Lee's talents: "He seems pretty grounded. His family is pretty supportive, and they're guiding him in the right way. I expect if nothing gets in his way, that when he's in his early twenties, mid-twenties, he'll be at the kind of level that Roy Hargrove is."
Says Dotson: "He's a quiet kid. He may never gain the notoriety of a Roy Hargrove, even though to me he's every bit of a prodigy. In my opinion, if he keeps on the way he's going, he will be an even better player [than Hargrove]."
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The comparison to Hargrove isn't surprising. Hargrove signed a record contract with RCA/Novus when he was 19; even before then, while he was still in high school, the trumpeter had a buzz around him in Dallas that was deafening. Hargrove, now 29, came along when jazz was being overrun by young lions with record deals; every player under 25 with a baby face and some chops seemed to get a contract and promotional tour. Some, such as Hargrove, Joey DeFrancesco and Christian McBride, had the talent, substance and maturity to warrant the attention -- and handle the pressures of leadership. Others, like Christopher Hollyday, the Harper Brothers and Marlon Jordan, clearly were not ready to be leaders.
The "young lion" is still a powerful marketing concept in jazz, and record labels, like vultures, will circle around the latest fresh face with talent. For his part, Lee, who plans to attend college in New York City next year, has his head and his ego in check. "My goal is to be able to make some money doing what I like to do, and I like performing," Lee says. "I would really like to when I get out of college, get picked up by a group and start off and start trying to make it. If that doesn't happen, I really want to teach younger people what I know. I want to give out the knowledge that I have about jazz."
Some, like Dotson, believe Lee will make it in the Big Apple. "There's no lacking in his talent or his intelligence," says Dotson. "All he needs is the desire to play. He's got the tools to be a success in whatever he wants as a player. There are so many different directions he can go."
Brandon Lee performs with Malcolm Pinson's Jazz Warriors on Friday, April 28, and Saturday, April 29, at Cezanne, 4100 Montrose, from 9 p.m. to 1 a.m. For more information, call (713)522-9621.