Brian Ripp (1976) Baritone Saxophone

Brian Ripp in 1976

Ed Note: Brian was a member of the 1975 and 1976 Jazz Ensembles. At the end of his senior year in high school, he received the American Music Foundation Award presented for Excellence in Modern American Music.

My standout memories from high school, those I remember with close to pristine clarity, are of participating in Roger Mills’ Jazz Studies Program and rehearsing and performing with the Lab Jazz Ensemble and Recording Jazz Ensemble. It changed my life.

The Avoca West K-5 and Marie Murphy Junior High schools had music programs that fed nicely into the New Trier West Curriculum.

I had played violin in a Suzuki class when I was eight years old. I didn’t feel that I was very good, but I liked playing music from around age five, I knew that I had a good ear for music. I was doing a rudimentary version of formal analysis in my head for all the Beatles, Supremes, and other pop tunes that my older brothers were playing on radios around our Glenview, Illinois house during the early, to mid-1960s. My dad had a respectable collection of mainstream classical records that were also being played almost daily. I liked music a lot but was not a very good violinist and did not really enjoy playing it.

I decided instead that I wanted to play tenor saxophone because my older brother, Ed, had a Dave Clark Five album with their tenor saxophone player pictured on the album cover. I thought the horn looked super cool! My music teacher at Avoca West, Gene Meltzer, told me saxophone would be easier to learn later if I were to study flute or clarinet first. Well, flute was OBVIOUSLY for girls, so in the early fall of 1967 my mom drove me to Karnes Music Store in Edens Plaza, in Wilmette, to rent a clarinet. The salesman asked me, “What instrument do you want to play”, and instead of just saying clarinet or saxophone, I said, “Gee, I’m not sure.” The guy disappeared for a minute and returned with an instrument case, opened it, and inside was a very tarnished trumpet. Some of the brass was turning black. If he had shown me one in good shape, I might have turned into a trumpeter! Anyway, I said no, I don’t want to play that, so he came back with another case, like he was bringing me shoes to try on. He opened it, and inside was a brand-new Olds/LeBlanc plastic clarinet, all black and shiny. I said that I would try it. I think rent was $6.77 per month (or per week; I wasn’t very aware of family finances), with all rent going toward an eventual purchase.

I was nine years old and just completely changed my life!

So, I get home, and older brother Ed asks, not do you know how to play it, but do you know how to put it together? I said no, then quickly put it together, and in seconds was playing along with whatever he had on the radio. Simon & Garfunkel? I don’t remember, but I do recall that I was playing a lot of palm keys and was accurately playing along. I even figured out what fingering put me in the key the song was in. No one was more surprised than me.

So, I take this black, plastic stick home, I put it together and play it more or less accurately without any instruction, and instantly, I’m good at something I didn’t know I was good at. My parents never had to bug me to practice. I did so every day, and even took it on family vacations, where I would play it for my grandparents.

Fast forward six years, to the fall of 1973, and the start of my sophomore year in high school. In late summer, of 1972, my family moved away for a job my dad got in Indianapolis. The job didn’t work out, and we moved back almost exactly a year later. My parents, thankfully, only looked for houses in the New Trier West High School district, and our new home was two blocks from our previous one.

I likely would have started playing alto, tenor, or baritone saxophone in NTW’s Lab Jazz Ensemble during my freshman year, but I was away that year, and the sax section was largely set – but not completely. The alto and tenor positions were filled but only Jules Pomerantz (1976) was playing baritone sax. The Lab, and Jazz Ensembles sometimes used two baritone sax players (like Stan Kenton’s band), and so far, this school year had only one.

I had grown up listening to my dad’s handful of jazz albums, including early Jelly Roll Morton, Sidney Bechet, Benny Goodman’s original 1930s trios and quartets, and Coleman Hawkins, which included his famous 1939 version of Body & Soul. I played the latter two LPs frequently. My older brothers had another small collection of jazz records: Miles’s Kind of Blue, Best of John Coltrane, on Atlantic (which included Giant Steps and Naima), and the Les McCann / Eddie Harris live album, Swiss Movement. But throughout the 1960s I was listening predominantly to blues and rock while hanging out with my older brothers. Sometime in early 1971, toward the end of my eighth-grade year, I copied two tunes by ear: In Memory of Elizabeth Reed, by the Allman Brothers (from their Live at Fillmore East double-LP), and Quicksilver’s Gold and Silver (from their first LP). I transcribed part of Gold and Silver, and with the help of one of the music teachers, performed it with Holly Schak and Leslie Winick, two flutists from my junior high band. I believe I even tried to improvise in a section of it. So, I was headed in a good direction, but I was still only playing clarinet. I had not started to think of myself as a musician, nor that I could possibly have a career in music.

After I started my sophomore year at NTW, I heard about the jazz program. I climbed the stairs to the top floor of the music building and introduced myself to Mr. Mills. I asked him if he listened to the Grateful Dead, the Allman Brothers, Jimi Hendrix, other bands. He very patiently answered in the affirmative and told me he liked each one. I recall walking back down the stairs not knowing what to think of him, but that he wasn’t what I expected.

I don’t remember how, but the next thing you know, I’m set up with the school’s Selmer Mark VI baritone saxophone, a pro-line horn including the extra “low A”/low concert C, a locker for it, as well as a private teacher, John Vames. There was no rental fee to borrow the school baritone saxophone, and though I’d begun taking private clarinet lessons from a very good teacher, Don O’Neill, they were inexpensive enough that my folks were able to also pay for sax lessons. Vames was an excellent teacher as well. He taught me sax fingerings, simple jazz feel and conception (with the help of books of jazz etudes by arranger Lennie Niehaus), some simple jazz theory, and turned me onto some great baritone sax players who I would not have otherwise known about (like Serge Challoff, Cecil Payne, and Leo Parker).

And most important, suddenly, I’m playing baritone saxophone in the New Trier West Lab Jazz Ensemble. My first few rehearsals were a little difficult, but I caught up quickly. I’d been in junior high band and orchestra rehearsals before, and I was a pretty good player, but they hadn’t completely focused my attention. All of a sudden I am in total immersion. Rehearsals every single day. Listening to much better players. Going to rehearsals and performances by the Recording Jazz Ensemble. Being exposed to all kinds of jazz albums and musicians that the other students listened to. Thank you, Marc Kupferberg (1976), for turning me on to Clifford Brown and Lee Morgan – and for teaching me the circle of fifths. Thank you, Mike Friedman (1976) for turning me on to Art Blakey and Elvin Jones, for teaching me how to really listen to what drum heads and cymbals sound like, and for being such a good friend. Thank you, Don Robin (1975) for turning me onto Bill Evans.

I started practicing baritone sax all the time. I knew it sounded low, tubby & more than a little ridiculous. From my very first lessons, Mr. Vames taught me tone exercises that were a tremendous help (I practiced just long tones at least an hour a day my senior year), and ultimately set me on the path of becoming a strong baritone saxophone player with a complete, commanding, unique sound.

I started listening to jazz records every night after school, especially saxophonists. Though the focus in every rehearsal was on the ensemble, just from being in this milieu, I learned about copying solos by ear and transcribing them. I transcribed Gerry Mulligan’s solo on the original version of Line for Lyons with Chet Baker; Ray’s Idea from the LP Constellation by Sonny Stitt, and critically, Sonny Rollins’s solo on St. Thomas from Saxophone Colossus. Mr. Vames had sheet music for four Charlie Parker tunes which included one chorus of his solos that were all-important to my development, Moose the Mooche, Yardbird Suite, Confirmation, and Ornithology. (By my senior year, I could play Bird’s difficult Donna Lee).

Even before I had a driver’s license, I had started to go to clubs and concerts. I was going to the Jazz Showcase once or twice a month (which is where most of my teenage allowance money went). I heard EVERYBODY. I heard the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra several times, talking to baritone saxophone master Pepper Adams, at length, the first time I heard them (when I had shoulder-length red hair. When I next heard them, I had it cut quite short, and though it had been months between these two gigs, as I was walking up to him, he said, “You got a haircut!” made my month). Gerry Mulligan. Elvin Jones. Sonny Rollins. George Benson. Sonny Fortune. Clark Terry. Count Basie Orchestra. Oscar Peterson. Jean-Luc Ponty. Eddie Harris (multiple times), Sonny Stitt with Dexter Gordon, Joe Henderson, Art Blakey, Kenny Burrell, the phenomenal Mahavishnu Orchestra. Weather Report (three memorable times), Charlie Mingus, McCoy Tyner, who I talked to before a show at Amazingrace in Evanston, Stanley Turrentine, who I also met, Archie Shepp, who talked to me for an hour between sets and changed my entire approach to the bari, a true turning point, Gato Barbieri, Maynard Ferguson, with a stripped down, smaller big band which burned. I met his dynamic baritone sax player, Bruce Johnstone at that gig.

I also went to hear NTW alum Steve Eisen (1971) with the local original pop band, Redwood Landing, several times, even before I had a driver’s license. I later heard him repeatedly with NTW alums Eric Hochberg (1970) and Ross Traut (1972), with their fantastic fusion band, Orbit. During my senior year, the Recording Jazz Ensemble did a show with them. After their performance we were able to play one tune together, and I was ecstatic! Steve also gave me a private lesson at some point while I was still in high school. It was a huge help. He had me listen to different types of big bands, including a raucously dynamic one led by Dizzy Gillespie, and another led by trumpeter Charles Tolliver, which is still one of my favorites. He also taught me Eddie Harris’ Freedom Jazz Dance. I didn’t know then that when I returned from college, Steve and I would play together on innumerable live gigs and recording sessions, including touring from 1989-1991 with New Orleans piano legend Dr. John.

Through Mr. Mills and Mr. Vames, I heard early in my senior year about a professional line baritone sax that was available; a Selmer Mark VI. At the time, there was actually a waiting list for them, and they were hard to procure. I spent all the money I’d saved from my bar mitzvah and summer jobs, around $1000, plus my parents lent me $500 more to in order to purchase it I didn’t realize it at the time, but I lucked into getting the best baritone sax I would ever play. I’ve played many horns since then, including some fine, free blowing ones, but none have the nearly limitless tonal and dynamic capabilities of that one. What a find!

But the key was the NTW jazz program. I’d never been in rehearsals which demanded my total focus, every minute. No teenage messing around. That sax solo on Buddy Rich’s, Groovin’ High, sounded ok to me at first, but it took many rehearsals, including sax sectionals, to get it consistently correct and swinging. Very soon after I joined the Lab Jazz Ensemble, as a sophomore, I started taking the program, and my musical growth, very seriously. The performances in New Trier’s auditorium were intense and important. I looked forward to each one. But it was rehearsals where I really grew. Where my sense of swing solidified. Where I learned how to subdivide a measure, to play in tune, and to play as a section, and as an ensemble. To listen to the drums, really listen to them, what each head and cymbal sounded like. To listen to each other. These were lessons of incalculable worth.

I knew during those years that the NTW jazz program was unusual, but what I really knew not to take for granted was the Soundtraks Recording Studio.

I knew that few high school jazz programs existed in the mid-1970s, and very likely those didn’t have access to professional line microphones and recording equipment, let alone recorded their own albums. This was another huge leg up for me when I ended up working in Chicago’s professional recording studios.

When I arrived at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign in the fall of 1976, majoring in music education, I auditioned for placement in one of their six jazz bands. Each one had merit, and my first semester, I made it into the third band, taught by superb tenor-man Karel Lidral (who ultimately went on to teach jazz at the University of Maine). My second semester that year, I continued in the third band, but also joined the first band under the great teacher John Garvey. I sat next to Karel every afternoon in 2-hour rehearsals and at live bar gigs and concerts at least once a week. I was not only the only freshman in the top band, but I was also the only underclassman. I played in the Garvey Band the rest of my time at U of I. My junior year, I played sitting next to tenor saxophonist legend Ron Dewar, as well as in my own quintet. Along with Eisen, Dewar had likely the biggest, most important influence on my playing. I’m still friends with each of them. I would not have gotten into the first band right away, if it had not been for Roger Mills’ Jazz Studies Program.

I moved to Chicago in 1981. My first year in town, I played with The Manhattan Transfer (in a show which was broadcast on Showtime); with jazz singer extraordinaire Joe Williams; on a concert of Duke Ellington originals, led by composer Gunther Schuler, where I played several transcriptions of solos by the great Harry Carney; and at the Chicago Jazz Festival with Louis Bellson on drums. These last three were with the Jazz Members Big Band, where I sat next to titanic tenor-man and New Trier East alum Ed Peterson at weekly gigs for more than five years. I highly doubt I would have played any of these gigs had I not been in Roger Mills’ Jazz Studies Program.

I played with Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, The Four Tops, Temptations, Gladys Knight, Boz Scaggs, Dr. John, Willie Dixon, Clifton Chenier, Sammy Davis, Jr., Celia Cruz, The Manhattan Transfer, Joe Williams, and Dizzy Gillespie.

Local bands that I performed with include The Chicago Catz and La Confidencia. I recorded with pianist Ahmad Jamal (on the album, Pittsburgh), The Curly’s Shuffle, by Chicago’s Jump ‘n the Saddle Band, the Glenn Kaiser album, You Made the Difference in Me (which is how I feel about the NTW Jazz Studies Program!), and on many radio and TV commercial jingles.

My biggest influences on the baritone saxophone are Harry Carney, Pepper Adams and Hammiet Bluiett. My favorite contemporary baritone sax player is my friend, NTW’s Dave Shumacher (1978).

Brian Ripp

Chicago, Illinois

V: 01/15/23