Twenty-year-old Braxton Cook, a sophomore in the College, has been slowly taking over the D.C. jazz scene with his alto saxophone. A regular performer in D.C. jazz clubs, Braxton has received countless accolades for his music: gold medalist at the National ACT-SO competition, NFAA Young Arts finalist, member of the Grammy Jazz Ensemble, to name a few. He has been followed by The Washington Post and has played with legends Wynton Marsalis and Herbie Hancock. Currently, Braxton is deciding whether to accept an offer to study at The Juilliard School of Music in New York City.
Why the saxophone?
In fifth grade I signed up for the trumpet for band and they ran out. My second choice was saxophone. The school ran out of trumpets; I played sax. That’s the normal story; the deeper story was when I used to listen to my dad play old show tunes on the alto sax when I was a kid. And that sound kind of caught my ear. In my memory it was great, and that helped me sort of gravitate toward the saxophone.
Not every saxophonist plays jazz though. What was it that got you focusing on that genre in particular?
In high school, when I auditioned for jazz band, the band director said,”No.” He cut me and put me in the marching band, and I thought, “This is horrible!” And all the jazz band kids didn’t have to do marching band, so I thought, “You know what, I’m gonna get into this jazz band.” So I took some time to figure out what I had to do, and went to a summer camp the summer of 10th grade. And that was it. I met my mentor Paul Carr and he put me on to Charlie Parker and all that jazz. Then in 10th grade Marsalis came to our school and told me I sounded good. It’s little things like that, because somebody needs to tell you that this is a legitimate path. You have to see people doing that.
Have you been innovative with your own style of jazz?
People have told me that I have a mix of straight ahead and R&B just in my tone and compositions. And that makes sense because that’s the music I’ve grown up on — Motown and Jazz.
Speaking of music you’ve grown up on, who are your inspirations?
Stevie Wonder. Favorite record: “Songs in the Key of Life.” But the thing is, I listen to Stevie, I don’t study him. I don’t listen to his tracks ten times over, repeating the same sections and learning the instrumentals. I study jazz. But Stevie, Marvin Gaye and then with instrumentalists — teachers, musical inspirations — John Coltrane and Cannonball Adderley.
Are you still learning formally?
I’m not taking any actual classes anymore. The best learning comes from your peers and records. Playing at gigs, coming up with your own workout. The good thing about D.C. is that it’s a pretty live music scene and accepts younger musicians. But at the same time, that’s why I’m thinking about going to Juilliard: to get some concrete direction. And in New York, the possibilities are endless.
What’s a common misconception about what you do?
You can’t just come out the womb and magically play notes. You have to practice and master the instrument and master the pitch, learn the jazz language like any other language. It’s a lot of hard work. And with jazz specifically, you can’t not give it your all. It’s rude and disrespectful because this music is about history and musicians who’ve come before you and the circumstances they’ve been through. You have to connect to that, which is why I don’t think jazz is for everybody. But at the same time, the genre is so broad, that there are always conversations about what is jazz.
You’re a decorated musician at a young age — what elevated you above your musical peers?
I love to work at it. Where some people see it as work, it’s more fun to me. It still is. It never became work. I don’t count the hours. I forget time during practice because it’s so much fun. I love it.
You can catch Braxton Cook at the Dupont 18th Street Lounge on Saturday nights from 11 p.m. – 2 a.m. He also regularly performs at Twins Jazz on U Street with the Braxton Cook Quartet.
— Interviewed by Danish Zaidi