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Jazz Philadelphia's Hometown Heroes: Spotlight on Trumpeter Randy Brecker

Rusty Russell
Randy Brecker

Trumpet great Randy Brecker is a legendarily prolific voice across the worlds of jazz, rock, pop, and R&B. He became a pioneer of jazz-rock fusion with Blood, Sweat & Tears, then with his late brother, saxophonist Michael Brecker, in Dreams and their own Brecker Brothers Band. At the same time he recorded countless sessions with superstars like Steely Dan, James Taylor, Frank Sinatra, Stevie Wonder, Frank Zappa and many others.

The groundwork for that stylistic diversity, Brecker said, was laid by his formative years in Philadelphia. “A lot of the jazzers in Philly really knew how to package their wares into more pop-oriented forms,” he says, pointing to the local bebop musicians who recorded with legendary Philadelphia labels like Cameo-Parkway and Philadelphia International. “Soul, disco, rock—I never looked at it as being commercial or trying to make money; it was just a way to reach a wider audience.”

Brecker grew up in a musical family in Cheltenham, just outside of Philly—one block from reaping the rewards of the city school system’s music education programs, he laments. His father was a lawyer who played piano and was a diehard jazz fanatic, a passion he instilled in his children from an early age. 

“I was destined to be a musician,” Brecker says. “I had no choice. Dad was a trumpet fanatic. He would regale me with stories of Clifford Brown. He once grabbed me by the arm after listening to one of Clifford’s records and said, ‘Man, the trumpet is the greatest jazz instrument!’ I wholeheartedly agree with that to this day—not to be too controversial.”

Brecker would accompany his father over the bridge to New Jersey’s Red Hill Inn in Pennsauken, New Jersey, where he got to see many of jazz’s greatest while still in his adolescence—Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, Maynard Ferguson, Carmen McRae. In his teens, he began to head into the city to hear live music, often accompanied by his father, who would ask the bandleaders if his trumpet-playing son could sit in. Through these experiences, he managed to insinuate himself into both the city’s white and black jazz scenes, which were largely segregated in the 1950s and '60s. 

While still in high school, Brecker stayed busy on the local scene, playing mostly in R&B bands, which would serve him well later as he found himself in demand for funk and soul horn section gigs. He left Philadelphia in 1963 to study at Indiana University, then headed to New York City. He recorded on Blood, Sweat & Tears’ ground-breaking 1968 debut Child Is Father to the Man before leaving to join his brother Michael in the Horace Silver Quintet. 

A stint with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers ended when the Brecker Brothers teamed with trombonist Billy Rogers, drummer Billy Cobham and guitarist John Abercrombie to form the influential fusion group Dreams. In 1975 the Brecker Brothers Band was formed, garnering six Grammy nominations over the next six years, and another five for their reunion efforts in the '90s. He’s also been featured on hundreds of recordings over the past half-century, many of them with music’s most iconic artists, and released dozens of solo albums—most recently Sacred Ground, performing music composed by his wife, saxophonist Ada Rovatti. For all of that, he still credits Philly as the ideal training ground.

“I haven’t lived in Philly since high school, but I still feel like it’s home,” he concludes. “I learned so much. It was such a special place, and it still is.”