The Beaty Brothers, a duo formed by two Texas-born twins, has a story that seems right out of a TV movie - growing as part of a broken family with a troubled history of substance abuse, saxophonist John Beaty and trombonist Joe Beaty trombonist Joe Beaty struggled to get their musical education - they both won scholarships to study at Michigan's Interlochen Arts Academy, and then later at The New School in New York. As the Beatys began making their name in the New York jazz scene, Joe Beaty was diagnosed with Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome (WPW), a heart ailment that can cause tachycardia (rapid heart rhythm). People who suffer from this illness experience dizziness, chest palpitations, fainting or - as in Joe's case - cardiac arrest. Taken under the wing of pianist Jean-Michel Pilc after a French tour, Joe started undergoing treatment; Pilc footed the bill since the trombonist had no health coverage. After two failed heart surgeries, Joe flatlined at a NYC emergency room, but was fortunately revived. It was under this growing stress that the brothers recorded their self-titled debut disc in the winter of 2007-08. The obvious tension in the studio cannot be felt in the tunes, all composed by the two brothers and recorded in Brooklyn with Yayoi Ikawa (piano), Jim Robertson (bass) and Ari Hoenig (bass). The music is pretty avant-garde in its concept, with upbeat tunes that draw inspiration from the likes of John Coltrane, John Scofield and other greats who have influenced the twins over the years. More recently, a new surgery was discovered (and only recently licensed), and after going under the knife for the third time last January, Joe Beaty was finally able to begin leading a normal life, and should soon be playing music again once he recovers from this last successful procedure. Rocks Off caught up with John Beaty over a telephone conversation, when he talked about the brothers' history, the passion for music and the climate during the recording sessions. John will be in Houston Friday as part of the Dafnis Prieto Sextet - Beaty, saxophone; Prieto, drums; Ralph Alessi, trumpet; Felipe Lamoglia, tenor sax; Manuel Valera, piano; Charles Flores, bass - a Cuban-fusion jazz group that challenges listeners with a mix of traditional, modern and Latin jazz.Rocks Off: The sessions for the disc were conducted while your brother was still sick, yes?
John Beaty: We had toured Japan just before that and he had a very serious episode when we were in the south, and we weren't really sure - we knew that he had something called sudden death syndrome - but we didn't know how close it really was until he had a heart attack in January. At that time he'd had his little straining in his heart rate. You know, we were young and [thought we were] kind of invincible. But at sessions while we were recording, he would have to sit down and [his] skin color would flush really pale, but he could still walk. He could still play, so we thought, 'Oh, you are not that close to death.' But a month after recording he was feeling pretty bad, and he just started seeing a doctor because [French pianist] Jean-Michel Pilc would pay for him to see a heart doctor, and he [the doctor] said, 'If you feel like that again, you have to see a physician.' So finally he said, 'I need to go because my cardiologist wants to see what I'm doing bad.' When he got to the emergency room, his heart rate was 202 They gave him some medication to bring it down, and then his heart crashed and he flatlined and they brought him back.
RO: How was the feeling in the studio at that time?
JB: We didn't really know how serious it was. Out of pure ignorance, we were pushing forward - we knew he was seriously ill and that he needed surgery, but we always tried to think positive about it, we used to think of another scenario because at the time he didn't have health care - he had just started seeing a doctor and he was running these tests while we were recording.
I wasn't at the doctor's office and I guess my brother was holding back to get the recording done, and there was a lot of pressure because we wanted to get the music out there. We knew that once he'd had surgery, we weren't sure what the outcome would be and we wanted to wrap things up before he went to the surgery. RO: So there wasn't a feeling of gloom during the sessions? JB: Well, there was a lot of stress. Every day there was a lot of confusion. The doctor put him on medication just to keep him alive. My brother and I have a lot of sense of humor - we joke a lot and we mask a lot of our insecurities with humor. At the sessions, we were surrounded by friends - [drummer] Ari Hoenig and [bassist] Jim Robertson are big friends of ours, and the music kept us out of worrying. It's like you have a cancer patient in the room, you're not going to talk about death. It was one of those situations when we wanted to enjoy the moments that we had. We finished the record around early December and then he crashed in early January. RO: Changing the subject, how is your process of composition? JB: My brother and I wrote all the compositions together - we write as a duet. Mainly how it works is that one of us will bring chord changes or keys to a song, and the other one will write the melody, or he'll supply the trombone part, and then we'll write the arrangement together. If I bring something that is not very strong compositionally, he'll veto it or vice versa. We're pretty much like checks and balances.
RO: How did you choose your instruments?
JB: When we were young - I think we were 12 - we were living in Texas at the time, and they had a music program at school. My mother wanted us to be athletes originally, but we're not tall - he's 5'6" and I'm 5"6," so we were never destined to be athletes.
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When we were in middle school, we had options between fine arts drawing or singing or band music, and my brother was determined to play French horn. He couldn't make a sound, and there was a trombone there, he tried it and made a natural sound right away, and the rest is kind of history. I joined the band because my brother was going to do it, and in I thought - in Texas, sports is really big, and I had this idea that I couldn't play music, and that the saxophone was the least of all the evils, and I joined to be around my brother. RO: Delfeayo Marsalis once told me that he picked the trombone because he was the third youngest brother - Branford played the sax, Wynton the trumpet and the youngest (Jason) is a drummer. There was none of this with you guys then? JB: We have no musicians in our family - no history of music in our family at all. We are really competitive with each other, and we had kind of a rough childhood. Our parents were separated and things were difficult at home, we realized that if we worked hard at our instruments we could go places. We reached a pact because of each other, we began when we were 14 and both practiced six to eight hours a day, and we went away to Michigan to an arts school together on a scholarship.
It was hard living on campus - we spent two years there, and we'd practice about ten hours a day, and when we got to New York, everyone's so good, we started playing and practicing about 12 hours a day. There's something about the brother thing - we are brutally honest to each other. When we were younger, we needed to trust each other on where we stood musically. If I had lost my brother I would definitely be lost musically.
RO: How did you get interested in playing jazz?
JB: When we were in eighth grade, there had been all kinds of competitions in Texas, and we'd been doing well in the high-school and middle-school competitions - I started winning many of these local events, and had become known around the cities we played in. A local jazz guy had heard about me as some kind of kiddie virtuoso - he was in the Jazz Institute - he asked me if I'd ever played jazz, and at the time classical music was easy for me, and I thought, 'I could play jazz, whatever.' In the first class, I realized it was so much more difficult to make up the music, and I realized how the improvisation affects the tone. It was challenging and it has been very challenging [ever] since. 8 p.m. tonight at Cullen Theater, Wortham Center, 500 Texas, 713-524-5050 or www.dacamera.com. Box office opens at 6:30 p.m.