Luke is one of my favorite kinds of jazz musicians. Energetic and forward-thinking, but with tons of tradition to back him up. This guy knows his music. It also doesn’t hurt that he’s a great hang and quite hilarious.
I first met Luke when we were both going to school in Philadelphia. Well, he was going to school in Philadelphia and I was living in the somewhat-removed South Jersey (capitalized because South Jersey is its own state. Ask anyone who lives there; just don’t ask them where the northern border lies).
I’m pretty sure we met at a jam session at the venerable, but now defunct, Ortlieb’s Jazzhaus (I hear it has since reopened, but jazz is no longer the main focus). To a young, aspiring jazz musician, Ortlieb’s had the kind of mystical aura that I always imagined was present on 52nd Street in New York City back in the height of the 1940s Bebop revolution. It was a place to cut one’s teeth, to learn hard lessons, and to be surrounded by the elder statesmen of Philly’s jazz scene.
It was in that atmosphere where I first heard Luke’s playing. Shortly after, we began running into each other on gigs around Philadelphia and eventually ended up on the scene down here in DC. Our sense of humor is frighteningly similar and frequently out of control, so we tried to keep it tame for the interview. The photo shoot, well…
LB: Funny story. When I was in third grade, I was a whacky little kid, and I would just get these ideas and wanted to do things, kinda like all kids do I guess. I told my dad, “You know dad? I really want to play the trumpet. I just like the way the word trumpet sounds. I love the trumpet.” So he got his old marching band trumpet from his parents’ attic in Texas (we were living in California at the time, San Diego) and he brought it back to me. We were super poor so we went to a pawn shop and got this Yamaha 13CF4 mouthpiece.
He taught me my first notes, “Do, a deer, a female deer…”
And the next year, we had a band director at our school, but we went to a school that didn’t have a music program. So one morning a week at like, 6 am, the students came to practice out of the Standard of Excellence book. I wasn’t in a proper band until 7th grade.
JB: How about jazz?
LB: That was when I was in middle school; I joined the middle school jazz band. My teachers at the time were Donna Corbett and Ron Ciasullo. He would come from the high school and teach the middle school jazz band. He helped me learn “Now’s the Time.” That was on my first regional audition. I later studied trumpet in high school with Tom Scavone, and then Dominic Talotta.
JB: Do you remember what some of the first jazz recordings were that you heard?
LB: Study in Brown, Clifford Brown. Miles Davis, Bye Bye Blackbird, a compilation album. My Favorite Things, Doin’ Allright. Mostly Maynard Ferguson in middle school and little clips of things, like Charlie Parker.
JB: So what led you to Temple University and going to school in Philly?
It maybe wasn’t the best financial choice of my life, but I went with my gut.
LB: I just knew I wanted to do music and I knew that’s where I wanted to go. I heard Terell [Stafford] on JazzTrumpetSolos.com. I heard him play “Ill Wind” and “I Don’t Wanna Be Kissed By Anyone But You” and stuff like that. I heard those recordings and I was like, I want to study with that guy. So I only auditioned at Temple and Berklee, because my mom made me audition at Berklee. Berklee wait-listed me and didn’t accept me. I went to Temple and met Terell, knew I wanted to study with him, and got in. Pretty much no scholarship, out-of-state tuition. It maybe wasn’t the best financial choice of my life, but I went with my gut.
JB: I’d say it worked out pretty well for you! How did the jazz scene in Philadelphia influence your development as a musician?
LB: It was pivotal. I think that going to jazz school in a city or near a city is super important. I was able to go to [jam sessions at] Ortlieb’s and also Chris’ [Jazz Cafe]. I’d go to Ortlieb’s every Sunday and sometimes on Tuesdays. Sundays were a little less intimidating; Tuesdays would be a little more scary for me. I was forcing myself to go every week and just play. I would sit in the corner and if I didn’t know a tune, I’d figure out what it was and I would write it down and practice it. It was inspiring.
[Ed. note: the Sunday session was run by trumpeter Roger Prieto, who was a very encouraging, but serious jazz musician who didn’t put up with any garbage; Tuesday sessions were run by tenor player and owner Pete Souders and, to a young musician, could be incredibly intimidating. This was usually due to the fact that the rhythm section included Philly legends Mike Boone, Sid Simmons, and Byron Landham, not to mention frequent appearances by drumming giant Mickey Roker. Did I mention before how much I miss that place?]
JB: That sounds almost exactly like my experience there. I remember a time when we were both going there twice a week. So who are your biggest influences in music?
LB: I would say Terell Stafford. He was the most pivotal person in my development as a musician, hands down. We didn’t talk about music all of the time, and he had these sayings that he got from William Fielder (Terell had been a student of his at Rutgers). He had all these little phrases that got me thinking outside of just playing trumpet and how to master the trumpet. Universal concepts about being good at something no matter what it is; it doesn’t matter if I’m an architect or a musician or a plumber. He showed me how to work hard and what consistency can do for you.
JB: What kind of gigs did you play when you were supporting yourself freelancing?
LB: Right when I got out of school I was playing occasional jazz gigs and I was also in a wedding band, where I was playing maybe three or four dates a month, sometimes more. It paid okay and that’s pretty much it. It was hard, it was really hard for me right when I got out of school. I wasn’t really good at putting myself out there and working on the Luke Brandon brand. I didn’t have the confidence for that and I didn’t understand the game- it was kinda too big for me to wrap my head around.
Then I started teaching- I was teaching beginner piano and that was my main source of income. I was teaching little kids and eventually was teaching 15-16 beginner piano students per week and that was really cool. Teaching and a wedding band were my main sources of income. Things were starting to look up.
JB: What made you decide to audition for the Airmen of Note, and then accept the job?
LB: Within the span of a few days, I got a text from one friend, and then another friend, and then I got a text from Terell- all recommending to me that I take the audition. I hadn’t really thought about being in the military. My parents were both in the military, my grandfather was a colonel in the Air Force, and my uncle was an officer and pilot in the Air Force. But those two friends recommended it to me, and of course Terell was a very influential person in my life, so I decided to at least look at it. I decided I would take the process as far as it would take me.
Playing music at a high level, getting paid to get in shape, it all just made sense.
It wasn’t a very tough decision [once I won the job]. I figured, if I hate it, it’s not a bad way to end my 20’s. You know, join the Air Force, get in shape, play music all over the country. That was kind of the thing that really pushed me over the edge. Playing music at a high level, getting paid to get in shape, it all just made sense. This was something that had come along that I just needed to take by the horns and ride it as far as it would take me. I had opportunities to do things like that in the past and I didn’t completely take them. I wasn’t going to let another golden opportunity pass me by.
JB: Would you mind talking about how you got into the music scene here in DC?
LB: I started going out to the Bohemian Caverns Jazz Orchestra, subbing. I saw it as an opportunity to be in the forefront of people’s minds, and I was practicing and trying to sound good for the Airmen of Note so I figured, let me let some of that bleed over to a civilian gig. I would take that on Mondays and try to play great and meet people, be sociable, and have fun. I used to be so afraid [before joining the Airmen of Note] on gigs, financially. But now I figured let me just go and meet people and have fun. It was probably the strategy I should have taken as a freelancer in Philly, you know? Not worrying so much about the money.
JB: I felt the same way. I was trying to be perfect in every single way and was always worried about getting called again for another gig. But now I’m way more relaxed and I think that helps me come off as more confident. I used to be so uptight and worried about upsetting the bandleader so I could get more work.
LB: Yep, definitely.
JB: One more question [I lied, it’s the second-to-last question]. Would you mind talking about your daily practice routine?
LB: Sure. I’m not the best practicer in the world. In college, I was very consistent, but lately I’ve been using this trumpet warm-up sheet that I got from Terell. He just wanted me to pinpoint one thing on the sheet, but I decided to just do the whole sheet. Just to try to be consistent with what I do every day. I try to touch on what doesn’t feel good that day, but also a little of everything: articulation, flexibility, sound, long tones. The most important thing I find to do is [the Vincent Cichowicz] flow studies. If I do those, I can do anything.
Also, Clarke Techincal Study No. 1, Colin flexibility exercises; I’ve been doing those recently.
JB: Are you currently working on any musical projects of your own?
LB: Not really. I’ve been thinking about doing an album soon. I’ve been trying to write a little bit more and I’ve been co-leading a group with Grant [Langford].
Hometown: Cheshire, CT (by way of Guam, Texas, and California)
Instruments: Trumpet, Voice
Equipment: Bach 37 ML lacquer, Conn Constellation 38B; 3C or 3D mouthpiece
Education: Temple University, studied with Terell Stafford & Dick Oatts; also Ben Schachter, Greg Kettinger, Mike Frank, Dan Monaghan, John Swana
Experience: Airmen of Note, Vanguard Jazz Orchestra, Recording: Keep the Faith (Mike Boone, Byron Landham, Sid Simmons)
Favorite Gig: Randy Brecker w/ Airmen of Note
Time on the DC music scene: 2 years
Hobbies/Spare Time: cooking, reading, running, chess, building computers, Reddit
Favorite Book: The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran
What’s in Your Car CD Player (I know he actually uses it): Clark Terry’s Serenade to a Bus Seat