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 label.     

“It speaks to life’s journeys, how we’re learning and growing and moving down that road,” Braxton said. “There 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 new CD.     

“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 Kirk Whalum.     

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 the beginning.     

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 felt,” Braxton 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 just great.”     

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.