Lee has known he would be a musician since he was nine years old. He came from a musical family—his father was a band director and everyone played instruments. They tried him on the saxophone at first, and it wasn’t a match.
But as soon as he picked up the trumpet, “That was it,” he said. “They saw me focus like never before.”
Throughout his later childhood and high school years, Lee grew as a performer, and in 1999 he won “best soloist” in the Essential Ellington high school competition hosted by Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York City. There he met the world famous Wynton Marsalis, director of the renowned Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra.
After that, Marsalis kept in touch with Lee. Something big was brewing up at The Juilliard School, one of the world’s leading music schools. A year later, Lee, who was 17, was asked to play a Louis Armstrong tribute with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, along with another classmate and a 14-year-old Trombone Shorty, for PBS special. (The video is online.)
Right after the performance, Victor Goines, who would become the director of the jazz program at Julliard, said to Lee, “Okay, that was your audition.”
The following year, Lee became part of the inaugural jazz class at Juilliard. Among the many things he learned there: Be excellent immediately. As Lee says, sometimes jazz is “the underdog” in professional music and in music schools, and the first class had to prove themselves in the most competitive music school in the nation. Lee and his classmates worked hard, under Goines’s meticulous direction. They often subbed in for the performers of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, no small honor for musicians in their late teens and early twenties.
Wynton Marsalis continued to be a major mentor for Lee.
“He taught me what he always says, ‘There’s only one way to play.’ You’ve got to bring it, night after night.”
Even after he finished his studies at Juilliard, Lee was still learning from Marsalis. When he began touring with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra as a regular player, he received what the group called “the initiation” from his mentor. Marsalis was the most specific and detailed-focused musician—and teacher—Lee had ever met. The Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra was a sort of family for Lee, and he continued to grow as a performer through his work with them.
Currently, Lee plays in several touring jazz groups, making appearances at New York’s Village Vanguard and Birdland. He recently made a tour with pianist Aaron Diehl and his band, playing “Jelly and George,” a program based on an imaginary meeting of Jelly Roll Morton and George Gershwin, who were contemporaries but never actually met. Occasionally, you can catch Lee in Durham at The Shed or Sharp Nine Gallery, or very occasionally in town, at the O. Henry Hotel.
He also writes his own music and produces albums, working with his core group in New York, his UNCG colleagues or with a new group he co-founded, Uptown Jazz Tentet, which released a new album, “There It Is,” in March. The cd release party will be in New York City in July, at Smalls jazz club.
In the UNCG trumpet studio, where he has taught since 2013, Lee aspires to give the same tough training he received to his own students. He expects them to learn their jazz music history, to “listen with a purpose,” as he says, and be influenced by what they hear. From the cd covers posted in his studio, it’s clear Lee wants his students to take in the jazz greats—Miles Davis, Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, Ornette Coleman, Charlie Parker, Clifford Brown, Sonny Rollins and many others, all of whom Lee cites as influences on his own work.
“They created the musical language we use in jazz today,” Lee explained.
In addition to committing to relentless practice, Lee asks his UNCG students to develop their ideas in music, to take the initiative in selecting their tunes and to do their absolute best every time they play.
Because, he says, echoing his mentor, there’s only one way to play.
Brandon Lee’s mentor, Wynton Marsalis, will speak and perform with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra at UNCG April 20. See next week’s Campus Weekly for a feature on the upcoming performance and campus visit.
By Susan Kirby-Smith
Photography by Martin W. Kane