By Brian Soergel
Tom Braxton knew he needed to craft a tribute song to his good
friend Wayman Tisdale for his seventh solo CD, Endless Highway.
Tisdale was battling cancer, but his eternal optimism inspired
Braxton and everyone else who knew him––his family,
friends and fans. The saxophonist contacted frequent collaborator
Jay Rowe, and together they drew the outline of a song. After
hearing of the tribute, Tisdale told his good friend that he’d
perform on it.
But it wasn’t to be. On May 15, after a
courageous two-year battle that saw Tisdale lose a leg to cancer,
the smooth jazz bassist and former college and NBA great died unexpectedly.
After mourning Tisdale and being caught in a funk for a time, Braxton
knew he had to finish the tune and asked Braylon Lacy to perform
Tisdale’s bass parts.
“Braylon played in Wayman’s
band for a few years,” Braxton said. “A lot of people
will think that it’s
Wayman when they hear it. When I heard the mix of it for the first
time, my wife and I started crying because it sounded so much like
Wayman and I playing together.”
The completed song, “That Wayman Smile!” is
the centerpiece of Endless Highway, another groove-friendly
CD from the smooth jazz saxophonist on the Pacific Coast Jazz record
“It speaks to life’s journeys, how
learning and growing and moving down that road,” Braxton
are detours, but I want to put smiles on people’s faces as
they listen to the music.”
Braxton grew up in Lubbock, Texas, and was lucky
enough to have a supportive family who encouraged his passion for
music. His father, James Braxton, grew up in Oklahoma playing the
tenor saxophone and sneaking into clubs to see the day’s popular big bands. A retired
music educator, the elder Braxton recently celebrated his 90th birthday.
“My dad introduced me to the music of all
the jazz legends,” said Braxton, 48. He admits, however,
that he listened to pop music of the day, especially enjoying singer-songwriters.
This is one reason why he included America’s “Ventura
Highway” on the
“I grew up in West Texas with AM radio,” he
said. “People think, 'What’s a jazz musician doing
listening to Seals and Crofts, the Eagles, Bread and America?'
I love that stuff. But I had to do my version of ‘Ventura
Highway’ in a way so people won’t
say I’ve messed up one of their favorite songs, but at the
same time you have to put your own spin on it. I play it live,
and people recognize it from the first guitar lick.”
During his college years, Braxton formed the jazz-fusion
band No Compromise, which toured the Southwest and opened concerts
for Joe Sample, Stanley Clarke, George Howard and many others.
The band performed many of Braxton's original compositions, which
helped to fine-tune his writing style. Braxton decided to launch
his solo career after graduating summa cum laude from Texas Tech
University with a bachelor’s degree in music and performance.
His debut solo album, 1992’s Your Move, was produced
by keyboardist Bernard Wright and featured a duet with saxophonist
It was also in that year that Wright fortuitously
introduced Braxton to Tisdale, who at that time was playing for
the Sacramento Kings but was already beginning to formulate his
post-basketball career. Braxton joined Tisdale’s band and still remembers the first show: opening for
the Yellowjackets at Sacramento’s Red Lion Inn.
“It was a great show,” Braxton said. “I
had known about Wayman because I liked sports and, gosh, we were off and on
for 17 years after that.” Except for a few years off following the birth
of his two sons, Braxton was a regular member of Tisdale’s group since
Braxton says that an active music scene in Sacramento
inspired Tisdale to pursue a career as a smooth jazz musician,
and he released his first CD, Power Forward, in 1995.
“My first impression was that this guy was
a natural in the sense that he had the ability to play what he
said. “When he played, the audience felt it. He felt it.
The big thing I learned from him was that you can play a bunch
of notes, you can know all the theory, but then here’s a
guy who can play a bass and express it so well. I was impressed
by his abilities to write melodies and produce music. He really
knew what he wanted to hear. So I was surprised at first because
athletes try new stuff all the time, but to see Wayman make that
transition to his own flavor of R&B and funk, well that was
Braxton went on to perform on Tisdale’s
CDs, a favor Tisdale returned. He was instrumental in getting saxophonist
Dave Koz to release Braxton's first major smooth jazz album, 2005’s Bounce,
on Koz’s Rendezvous Entertainment record label. Tisdale produced
most of that CD.
It was on May 2 of this year that Braxton last
performed in Tisdale’s band at a smooth jazz festival in Clearwater, Florida. **
**The complete Tom Braxton feature story can be found in the November
issue of Smooth Jazz News. Pick up your free copy at our
radio station affiliates (see radio station
page for listings),
various concerts, festivals and select Southern California outlets.
Or you can subscribe and receive 11 editions of Smooth Jazz
News per year, mailed monthly (except January), for $35. Click
here to subscribe online today.
For more information on Braxton,
including his complete tour schedule, visit www.tombraxton.com.