Derek Brown – American Beat Box Saxophonist and Composer - 26
About Derek Brown
From his 30+ million views across social media to his appearance on international television and NPR’s Weekend Edition, Billboard-charting saxophonist/innovator Derek Brown and his one-of-a-kind solo “BEATBoX SAX” project have been exploding across the world music scene.
Derek has performed solo concerts in all 50 United States and over 25 countries around the world. Known for his boundless energy on stage, creative audience interaction, and musical depth, Derek’s live shows always surprise and delight. His ongoing “BEATBoX SAX” music videos and tutorials on YouTube have been enormously popular among saxophonists and music lovers alike with over 100,000 Youtube subscriptions.
Previously the director of jazz studies at Abilene Christian University for six years, Derek received his BM in Music Performance (Classical and Jazz) from Hope College in 2006 and his MM in Jazz Studies at the University of Cincinnati, College-Conservatory of Music in 2008.
Crossing genres from jazz to classical to funk, without looping or electronic effects, saxophone innovator Derek Brown’s unique playing style must be seen in person to be believed!
- 50 state tour of the USA in an RV.
- Getting started in the school band.
- Listening to Kenny G.
- 6 years teaching at Abilene Christian University.
- Working out what makes me unique.
- There will always be someone practising more than me.
- Avoiding competition in music. How to use youtube to boost your career.
- As a student, being encouraged to explore.
- Early struggles with self-esteem.
- Smaller schools allowed me to have more responsibility.
- I felt lost in my mid-20s.
- Staying one day ahead of the students.
- The importance of variety and contrast.
- The composition process and coming up with ideas.
- Practise routines when not on tour.
- Practising in the RV while driving.
- Hearing my own compositions played by students.
- Thoughts on self-publishing.
- Promoting music through social media.
- 90% of a career is music business, 10% craft.
- You’re can’t please everybody.
- Making video tutorials. Viral videos.
- The most effective social channels.
- Posting but not scrolling on social media.
- Post and get off.
- The importance of a website to keep control of your content.
- How to organise your day.
- Tips on preparing for a performance.
- Future plans.
- Derek on Facebook
- Derek on Instagram
- Derek on Youtube
- Derek’s Website | Derek’s Original Sheet Music
- Kenny G
- Dave Koz
- David Sanborn
- Hope College
- Sonny Rollins
- Dexter Gordon
- Michael Brecker
- University of Cincinnati
- Branford Marsalis
- Carrie Koffman
- Clifford Leaman
- Rudy Wiedoft
- Sigurd Raschèr
- Keith Jarrett
- Bobby McFerrin
- Whiplash the movie
A Transcript of the Podcast Interview with Derek Brown
Please enjoy the transcript of this podcast episode. With thousands of words in each episode it might contain a few typos and may also have been edited for clarity.
Barry Cockcroft: Derek, thank you very much for agreeing to this conversation. It was almost a year ago that we first got in contact because I started doing these podcasts. I had wanted to talk to you. I am good friends with Philippe Gleiss, and I think you just been to France on tour. He said, “You’ve got to talk to Derek. You’ve got to talk to Derek.” As I investigated more about your music, I was listening more and I’m like, “Yes, I definitely need to talk to Derek.
Barry Cockcroft: Then, when we touch base, you mentioned that you had this crazy project coming up. We could either squeeze in an interview beforehand, or maybe later would be good. So, you’ve just completed a massive, massive 50-state tour of the US. You must have finished, what, just a couple of weeks ago.
Derek Brown: Yeah, I think it was two weeks ago, and then I flew to Italy for another week. I’m back and then I moved from Chicago to Michigan. So, it has been a crazy last year. But, yeah, it was a nine-month tour through all 50 states. I played at least one gig in every state. So, I called it the 50-50 tour, even though it was close to the 75-50 tour. Some states I had multiple gigs in them.
Derek Brown: But, yeah. I had done a fair amount of international travel, especially Europe, and as romantic or sexy as that is, travelling across the seas, sometimes it’s just more practical to do gigs closer to home, and especially if you have a family. My wife and I were kind of just dreaming about like, “What if we did one of these big road trips in an RV?” We got an RV somewhere, drove from state to stay, and like, “What if we actually did every state?”
Derek Brown: It’s kind of fun, especially these days, to have a theme of a tour. I’m pretty active on social media. So, I’m always looking for different angles or themes of things and thinking about the press. If I’m going to do a lot of states, why not go for them all? I could talk a lot about how I booked this tour, because it was mostly at universities, with saxophone professors, where I would come in and do a clinic or two during the day, and then I would do a solo performance at night. Then I even started to do some kind of collaborations with some sax quartets and some jazz ensembles and started writing some music for that.
Derek Brown: Yeah, it actually happened. We borrowed an RV from a friend. My wife helped with logistics. We mapped. We have this crazy map with all these lines and stickers drawn on there. We actually did it. We actually made it through. We’re still a couple. I’m still playing the saxophone, still enjoying it. It was a very inspiring, once in a lifetime kind of trip.
Barry Cockcroft: I love to know some more about that and perhaps we can come back to the tour after, because one thing I’ve been curious about, I was sitting down, flicking through some photos today of different saxophone players. I was asking my daughter, “How old do you think this person is?” She’s like, “Old. Old. Old. Pretty old.” Anyway, it was good fun.
Barry Cockcroft: She caught up to your picture, and she’s like, “Hmm.” She was a bit stuck, because some of your photos are quiet, let’s say, active. You’re doing something. You’re not just posing. You’re not just smiling or something. You’re actually doing something. And she was a bit stuck there. I’m very curious to know how you actually got started on the saxophone in the first place.
Derek Brown: Well, the story is I didn’t even want to play an instrument. In the American school system, as you probably know, when it’s fifth grade, sixth grade, in most middle schools, people get an option to join the band and pick an instrument. I did not want to play, but my parents, knowing the power of music and music education they said, “Derek, you have to play at least for a year. You have to pick something.”
Derek Brown: I remember going to this kind of showcase thing where they put all the instruments up, and we would decide then. I remember the saxophone like, looked the shiniest, had all these movable keys. It looked really expensive. I remember kind of thinking, “Hmm, if they’re going to make me play, they’re going to pay.” So, I picked the saxophone because it looked like the most expensive thing. It’s kind of like me getting back at them. Then, of course, now it’s what I play. Yes, it’s not the most expensive instrument after all, but that that was the reason.
Barry Cockcroft: Was tenor sax the instrument you chose or was it alto?
Derek Brown: No, it was alto. At least a lot of people around the US would start with alto. Then I got into a soprano, I have to say, probably because of Kenny G. A lot of people, say what you want about him, but his music was everywhere. For a lot of young musicians, it was kind of cool. I kind of wanted to play that stuff, and so I got into soprano a little bit.
Derek Brown: I could even look back on those days, and even though I don’t listen to much smooth jazz now, I look back on that and I’m really grateful for musicians like Kenny G, Dave Koz, Dave Sanborn, because that was the music that just really inspired me, where it sounded current. It was cool. It had this cool backbeat. I would go into the garage and I remember, like, turn the lights off, I put my CDs on, and then just play with this kind of reverb in the garage. It really got me to play with a good tone, play with emotion. It was just music I could connect to.
Derek Brown: Anyways, it wasn’t until years later, I went to college, Hope College, a small school in Michigan, and I got introduced to jazz. I was a jazz and classical performance major, but I also got into jazz. Then, a lot of the players that I listened to, some of my favourite jazz players were tenor players, like Sonny Rollins, Dexter Gordon, and Michael Brecker, some of the newer guys. So, I got into the tenor.
Derek Brown: Now, that’s clearly my favourite choice. A lot of people ask me that, why the tenor. I think mainly because it’s kind of this middle ground where the low end of the instrument, particularly, if you’re slap tonguing, which I’m doing all the time. It’s just low enough where it can sound bassy, it can sound like an electric bass. But the upper end can really cut through so. The slap effects sound awesome on a bari sax. Upper end, maybe just doesn’t quite cut through for melodies like a tenor. That’s kind of my instrument of choice now.
Barry Cockcroft: Adolphe Sax always described his invention as an instrument that could replace other instruments. Maybe in an orchestra, the baritone sax could replace the bassoon or something like that. As you were developing, did you ever have the idea that the saxophone could replicate other instruments? You just described the electric bass and you’ve been talking about slap tonguing.
Derek Brown: Yes.
Barry Cockcroft: Did you think about that early on or has that been something that’s crept up on you more recently?
Derek Brown: Definitely, the stuff that I’ve been doing with the solo, beatbox sax style, I’m doing air quotes with my fingers, that’s what I’ve kind of called it a little bit, this beatbox sax thing. Even though I don’t like the term, it’s kind of a branding thing. It’s like an elevator pitch to describe to people what I do. I like playing the saxophone while beatboxing at the same time. It kind of sounds like that, even though I don’t actually beatbox. I don’t really listen to beatboxers.
Derek Brown: Anyways, if that’s kind of what I’m known for right now, I was not even thinking about that until long after college, grad school, when I was teaching at a college in Texas, Abilene Christian University. So, really not until the last eight or so years of my playing, was I really exploring that. First, it was just totally a traditional, I just like playing this band music. I like playing this classical music. I like playing this jazz music. Maybe I’ll move to New York City and be in a jazz combo, and make a million dollars, because that’s why you do it, of course. Yeah. Right.
Derek Brown: That was my thinking. It wasn’t until it was grad school, I was a second year grad assistant at the University of Cincinnati, and I had this like, I call it, my midlife crisis, at age 23, or something. I was supposed to be a top dog. I was a second year grad assistant in this good programme. In came this punk freshman kid who was half my age and twice as good as me. I was supposed to be coaching this guy in a combo.
Derek Brown: I had this moment of, “What am I doing with this instrument?” I’ve spent so much time and I’m not half as good as him. That was when I realised at this point like… first of all, there’s so many of us that are trying to be clones of someone, whether that’s in the classical field or jazz field, and one will never be the same as that clone. We’ll never be as good as them or the same, because there’s life experiences involved and all these things. But then, two, especially I wanted to be like a Sonny Rollins clone, there’s like 10,000 other sax players trying to be the same thing. There’s always going to be people practising more or that are just better at it than me.
Derek Brown: Why in the world would anyone listen to me? What is it? Is there anything that makes me unique? I’ve always been an overachiever, this kind of straight A person, always rising to that… for the first time in my life, in grad school, I was going to my lessons unprepared. I was unmotivated. I didn’t know what to do. It wasn’t until afterwards, when I was then teaching full time, and I kind of had… the pressure was off a little bit.
Derek Brown: I’m just definitely not a fan of competition in music. To me, that just drains my energy. That’s not why I do it. Anyways, when I was kind of out of academia, for me, I just felt like there was less competition, and maybe it’s all self-imposed. But I could just truly just explore what I want to explore, no pressure, and just like, “If I’m going to play this instrument, I’m going to do it in a way that I truly, truly want to, and just exploring whereever my passion leads me.”
Derek Brown: That was when I started being influenced by, particularly, other instruments, or kind of crossing genres. I can talk a lot about that, but I’ve just never known exactly where I belong. Am I in the more of the classical world? Am I more in the jazz world? Am I more in the pop world? I have no idea.
Derek Brown: I’ve taken sounds maybe from free jazz, hearing a sax player use these pop sounds, like a Zorn character, or using slap tonguing, like I’ve heard Sigurd Rascher do, or Rudy Weidoff. To me, a lot of times those sounds would remind me of another instrument, like the slap tongue reminding of an electric bass, particularly kind of slapping the strings, or that pop sound of course reminded me of a drum, particularly a snare, or watching guitar players who actually hit their instruments. So, kind of that finger style guitar, and wondering like, “I wonder if I can hit my instrument.”
Derek Brown: That was when I started getting into using metal rings on my thumbs to hit and scrape the instrument, or using my feet to stomp like a drummer would, or trying to find sounds, other percussive sounds like other instrument, or other parts of the drum set, so like the cymbals. Can I get like kind of a high hat “teki, teki, ta” or a cymbal crash sound.
Derek Brown: It wasn’t really until I started to piece these together in a way that made sense to me that I kind of feel like I finally started to figure out my voice or something new to say. A lot of times, because I talked about this a lot, when I go to universities, this idea of finding my voice or making your way in the music industry. A key thing for me was taking this music that was really kind of deep, deep down in my soul that just made me come alive, which for me, it’s like this kind of guilty pleasure music, the music I was listening to as a teenager, this kind of pop music, this kind of ’80s pop music.
Derek Brown: When I went to college, I kind of hid that under the bed. I could talk more about the how I was glad for a period that I did that, because I wanted to fully dive into classical music, and I wanted to fully dive into the jazz, bebop. It wasn’t until I actually then brought that back out and it was like, “I wonder if I could use these sounds,” these new tools that I’m using, whether it’s from the classical repertoire or jazz.
Derek Brown: When I start to incorporate them in this lens or frame of this music that really excites me, this music that has a backbeat, this pop music, this funk music, when I apply those tools to that stuff, that was when I realised I came alive, and maybe had something to say and kind of a new place to explore, at least for me. Since then, I haven’t been looking back. It’s just what else can I do?
Barry Cockcroft: Did any of this happen while you were still having lessons or were in an institution, or did it all happen afterwards?
Derek Brown: The putting it together definitely came afterwards. In lessons, it was definitely more about the fundamentals, the foundational, and I’m so glad that I had that stuff, because also I see a lot of young people… I’m throwing all this stuff out there, all these tutorials about all these techniques that I’m doing. Pretty much everything I do, I put it out there on a YouTube tutorial.
Derek Brown: I see some of these kids in middle school, they’re trying to do all this stuff. And that’s cool, but I’m also glad that I really had a strong foundation, a strong grasp of tone, intonation, basic idea, concepts of improvisation and sight reading. Because, otherwise, I just don’t know if the music would have as much integrity or not.
Derek Brown: Really, the lessons were mainly about that stuff. At that time, a little bit at the end of undergrad and graduate school, kind of the end of my last lessons, I was just starting to explore slap tonguing, and these kind of pop sounds that kind of sound like open slap tonguing. I remember my sax professor who didn’t do any of that stuff. He was still pretty encouraging. He said, “I’m not going to work with you on that, because I don’t do that myself. But keep exploring that, Derek.”
Derek Brown: At that time, I was very deep into jazz in grad school, and I didn’t know how to put it into like swinging, “tang, tang, ka-tang, tang, ka-tang.” I didn’t know how to do that. I’m still kind of trying to slowly incorporate that idea, but it was mostly really afterwards, I would say.
Barry Cockcroft: Did you experience some different styles of teaching on your way through as a student?
Derek Brown: Yeah, for sure. On both sides of the gamut. I mean, in high school, when I was just learning, middle school, high school, I did not have… my band director did not play saxophone, didn’t know a lot about jazz. I almost view that as kind of a good thing, because there is this period of… he was still encouraging of, “Hey, oh, you guys are kind of rising to the top. I need to find new stuff for you guys to do. Why don’t you guys, instead of rehearsing today, why don’t you go into this practise room and try doing like this jazz combo thing. Here’s some music.”
Derek Brown: We’re just thrown off on our own to figure this out. We actually had to listen to it ourselves. We had to figure out how to put this together. We had to figure out how to keep it together when it got off. Then we were also motivated to, instead of everything being kind of handed to us, or being told to us, like it’s so easy to… and I was a teacher for six years, and it’s so easy to just tell, “Do this. Do that. Do that. Nope, don’t do that. Do that.”
Derek Brown: Sometimes when you have that freedom, that’s when you really grow because you have to figure out, you have to really internalise it, and you had to figure it out on your own. and that stays with you. I’m kind of glad for that experience. Also, this isn’t necessarily a teaching style, but just having both experiences of going to a small school and a large school were both really good and formative for me, because I mentioned the school, this small school, Hope College in Michigan, that was a pretty small school. That was good for me.
Derek Brown: If I had gone directly to one of these schools, like University of North Texas, where there’s literally 200 saxophone majors, a lot of us musicians, or at least I do, struggle a lot with self-esteem. We’re always comparing ourselves to others, and we get frustrated easily. At that age, if I was just thrown into that mix, I would have gotten so lost and so discouraged by all these amazing players. I really think I would have given up had I gone to a big school, because I didn’t have any strong foundation. I had no self-confidence in my play.
Derek Brown: For me, going to the small school and getting this more individual attention, one, it allowed me to kind of build up that self-confidence, but, two, it allowed me to just be involved in lots of things. Whereas, maybe I wouldn’t have made the cut for these top jazz bands. At the small school, eventually, I got to be the lead tenor in the jazz band. I got to be in the sax quartet and kind of take a leadership role, and that I got to play different instruments in the wind ensemble. All those kind of things that maybe in a bigger school, I wouldn’t have had those chances at that time.
Derek Brown: But at the same time, as my ego is rising, and I’m starting to think, “I’m pretty good. This isn’t going to be too hard making a career of this,” then I needed that important step, that important step of going to a large school like Cincinnati and realising, “Oh, wow, there are a lot of good players.” My gosh, I got to step up my game. That was what really took me… made me take it seriously, this idea of finding my voice like, what is the thing that makes me unique. What is it that I have to say? It almost made me quit. But rising through that I of course got… I just was able to grow much stronger.
Barry Cockcroft: A lot of people say the standard of sax playing is just getting better and better and younger and younger around the world. Do you think that the challenge of, as you describe it, finding your voice is really the number one challenge with so many great players? But a lot of great players doing the similar thing, is there’s something that you have come across on your way through that can enable people to make that step to do something different that their teacher did or their peers are doing, and take a risk and do something different? So, something you found that can really kick people over that line?
Derek Brown: Yeah. There’s a few things, because I do think that is the… that’s the million dollar question in this age of just oversaturation of music, is like, “Yeah, what is it that makes you unique? Or what is it your thing to say?” The one thing I’d say before this, I often like to tell people, I think it’s the best of times, and it’s the worst of times to be a musician today.
Derek Brown: It’s the best of times, because we have things like the Internet, like YouTube where it’s so easy to spread our music for free around the world. It’s crazy. Recording technology is so cheap anybody can make an album. I made my album in my bedroom with Garage Band, a free programme. It’s crazy. It’s amazing time to be a musician. But it’s also maybe the worst of times because it’s so cheap. And because it’s so readily available, everybody is making an album. It’s no longer a big deal. Because YouTube and the Internet so free and so easy to use, everybody is making videos.
Derek Brown: There’s just this oversaturation. Yes, we can learn so much, but it’s just so easy to get lost in that mix. So, that is the million dollar question, is what is your unique voice. One thing, I think it’s important to remember, or a couple things, nothing is just like brand spanking new, never been thought of before. I love how Steve Jobs labels creativity. He says, “It’s connecting things.” That’s it. It’s not waking up with some idea that no one has ever had.
Derek Brown: It’s just this idea of taking one thing that belongs over there, trying it over here. That is creativity. That’s what the most creative people are doing. They’re just kind of putting things together that maybe didn’t belong together in the first place. A lot of that comes from trial and error. We have these years of trial and error where we’re trying different things, and we feel lost or without direction. But then we get some clarity.
Derek Brown: One of the big things I say to people is, at first, if you don’t have that vision that’s kind of more specific drive, say yes to everything, at least once. I’m talking musically, of course. If you’re a classical player and the jazz director says, “Hey, we need some sax player,” it’s like, “I don’t improvise,” say yes and you can figure it out later. Just try it once.
Derek Brown: You’ve just played the alto and someone says, “Hey, we need a bari sax player in the quartet.” “I don’t want to do it.” Say yes. Or, “We need someone to play in the pit orchestra.” Or, “Have you ever tried writing… Just force yourself to do a new thing. This is a lifelong passion. Maybe I have my voice now, but that might get old after a while.
Derek Brown: Already, I’ve had the itch to do more with other musicians. So, I hope, I hope that I’m practising what I preach, and will still continue to say yes, and take risks and try these new things. That’s one thing. Another thing is, there’s no rush. If the solo sax thing is my voice, I didn’t find this until I was about 30 years old. I’m 35 right now. There’s the answer to how old I am.
Derek Brown: I felt pretty lost in my mid 20s and could easily have stopped, but just kind of sticking with it and trying to… one of my ways of saying yes was doing this teaching job and pursuing that. I didn’t know what I was doing, but I said yes, and I figured it out later.
Barry Cockcroft: You were teaching for six years, right, at a university?
Derek Brown: Yeah. I feel like I got pretty fortunate. Right out of grad school, I was thinking of going to New York City, like I said, to make it rich in a jazz band, not knowing how difficult that would be. Then an old professor of mine who had moved to Abilene, Texas, reached out to me and said, “Hey, Derek, we’re looking for saxophone professor, someone to teach saxophone, classical jazz, music theory, jazz band, jazz combos,” and I’m just like, “I have no experience doing this.” But it’s like, “I’ll try it.”
Derek Brown: I know they’re going to say no. There’s no way they’re going to want me, but sure, I’ll try it. Then I went down there, and then it happened. They hired me. I’m teaching music theory and I’m scared to death, looking at my… It’s like second year music theory. I’m looking at the book and it’s like, “Augmented sixth chords. What? Oh my gosh, German augmenteds? Neapolitans?” Then, the next day in class, I’m like, “Hey, everybody, we’re going to be talking about German augmented sixth chords. That’s where we flat…”
Derek Brown: You just have to stay one day ahead of the students and they think you’re the smartest person in the world. Little did they know that I have no idea what the next chapter is about. There’s a life lesson in that, just taking these risks. On stage, being a performer, most of the time, I’m pretty nervous when I’m on stage, or sometimes very nervous. But it’s a little bit of acting. It’s a little bit of pretending that I know what I’m doing, even if I’m scared to death. It’s this kind of fake confidence of getting out there.
Barry Cockcroft: Are you taking risks on stage or are you thoroughly prepared and you know what’s going to come out?
Derek Brown: Yeah. There have been different times where it’s been more risk. I hope, I really hope and pray that throughout my career, I will always continue to take risks at some point, because that is, of course, the only way we get better. I listened to your interview with Branford Marsalis. The only way you get better is failing a bunch of times in front of people. You’re not going to fail a bunch of times in front of people if you’re not taking risks, if you’re playing it safe.
Derek Brown: For me, the only way that I’ve grown is by taking risks and working on new stuff that I don’t know where it’s going to lead, and kind of pushing myself more and more, sometimes in the practise room, but a lot of times on stage. Even five years ago, if you had told me, I would be doing solo saxophone concerts up to 90 minutes by myself, acoustic saxophone, I would have said, “No way,” even five years ago, when I was working on this stuff. One, I would have thought you can’t do enough different stuff with a saxophone to keep it interesting, at least you, Derek, you wouldn’t… if you’re being true to yourself, that wouldn’t be interesting enough for you.
Derek Brown: There’s no way. Then, number two, I would have said there’s no way you could have the physical stamina, Derek, just saxophone, that’s all you playing. But it was the the risk of at first doing a couple of solo things. I had a couple songs written that I put on YouTube and maybe playing in front of a band that’s kind of an opener, one or two songs. But then later on hearing, “Oh, there’s kind of a…” Well, one like an open mic night. Okay? They want three songs. This is like no other sax players. This is like singer songwriters.
Derek Brown: This was like a risk. I’m in a bar with other guitar players and I’m going to do solo saxophone and just see what people think. But then, to longer things of doing… when a professor friend of mine invited me to come to their school and give a 45 minute clinic and play half the times, it’s like, “Oh my gosh, I don’t have that much music.” So, go to the practise room and just cram it in. Then, later on, realise, “I wonder if I could do a festival? 45 minutes of solo? Sure. Yeah, sure.” Then run home and practise for months leading up to it. Can I do an hour? Can I do an hour and a half?
Derek Brown: That’s one of the ways I’ve been doing at risk, is just kind of pushing myself what more can I do. Another way I’m taking risk now is, at the beginning of this, even though I have such a foundation in jazz, in kind of traditional jazz, the vast majority of what I play in my concerts is definitely written out. I have sheet music that I sell for my music that proves this. This is how I play it note for note.
Derek Brown: Part of the reason is, it’s very complex stuff and there’s a lot going on. I can’t think that stuff fast enough. I have to have it totally muscle memory to be able to perform this. But a new risk that I’m taking is, as I’m getting more and more comfortable with making these big leaps back and forth and doing rhythms, various mixed rhythms, kind of the multiple things at the same time with the stomping and the ring, a new risk has been, “Can you actually improvise full tunes or intros to tunes, or change it up from night to night and throw it in a little bit differently?”
Derek Brown: A future risk that I really hope that I can strive for is, someday, this is years down the line of doing one of these Keith Jarrett Koln concert, where it’s just everything will be made up at the concert, nothing preplanned. That’s way down the road, but that’s somewhere I would like to head eventually. That’s kind of a risk I would like to pursue.
Barry Cockcroft: In your case, you’ve got an album that’s just come out. Do you approach an album in that way that you would expect that someone would listen to the whole album and, therefore, it needs to have some variation and balance across the album? Or do you think people listen now just to the single track, and they just want to hear one piece?
Derek Brown: That’s a good question, because the single piece thing is definitely the part where I’m doing these YouTube videos, where I am just… and the majority of the songs on my albums, I do have. They were first a video on YouTube. That just comes because I think it’s such a part of my shtick, or whatever you want to call it, is the idea that I’m doing it all, live, no over dubbing. So, I want people to see that. That’s why the video.
Derek Brown: It is really important to me to have variety and contrast. That, I would say, is one of my biggest goals when I am writing pieces. I do strongly hope that the album presents new things. Also, a big, big, big place where this shows up and what motivates me is the live performance, maybe more than anything else. As I’m kind of crafting my show, I really like to think about connecting with audiences.
Derek Brown: That’s another kind of thing that I really preach in these clinics that I do, is this idea of, if music is a language, if it’s a communication, and I think we all agree with that, whatever genre we’re in, that music is kind of a form of a language, you have to think of the audience. You have to consider how they’re experiencing it. It doesn’t mean you have to dumb it down in any way, but you have to put yourself in those shoes, in the audience shoes, and think, “How would I respond to this? Would I even listen to the music that I’m playing?”
Derek Brown: That’s a hard question for a lot of us to ask. Would I actually listen to the music that I’m making? That kind of guides a lot of my composing like, “Do I actually like these chord progressions or am I just trying to sound complex?” For me, yeah. We all have different tastes and some people really would listen to this really complex, atonal stuff, but that’s just not me.
Derek Brown: I tried to go down that path. I tried to do kind of the typical path of, you start with the basic stuff, and then it slowly gets more and more atonal and dense. I just couldn’t really get to it. I realised at a point, I was like, “I’m actually very okay with the fact that I’m not totally jiving with this, because I kind of like that I can relate to other people.” I like the fact that my wife is not a professional musician, and I can still relate to her. I can play music that she likes.
Derek Brown: Yes, I want to challenge myself sometimes and listen to more atonal or complex thing. Sometimes I want to challenge myself and try to write that stuff. But, mostly, I’m just guided by what would I want to listen to. A big, big thing is contrast. We need contrast. That’s what makes a good movie. It can’t be all happy all the time. There has to be the conflict, the dissonance. For me, it’s also really important that there’s resolution, at least sometimes.
Derek Brown: For the contrast, that’s the number one issue I think people have, if they don’t know my music, when I’m trying to book festival gigs, or share my music. I totally understand this, because I would have the same concerns of, “Wait. You play solo saxophone? Are you going to play for an hour? Are you going to use looping? No? You’re just…” Here’s a YouTube video example. I could even see them being, watching three minutes of one tune and be like, “Okay, that’s cool for three minutes. But how are you going to turn this into an hour?”
Derek Brown: That’s where I’ve just worked really hard. Sometimes I’m influenced by… a big influence for me is Bobby McFerrin, the great vocalist, he would do these solo concerts, where he would get the audience involved. He would have humour. He would have contrast. He would talk a little bit, lots of surprises. I’m always looking for different kind of creative ways, whether that’s putting my iPhone in the bell of my saxophone and having my dad sing through my iPhone and playing a duet with him, or beating the sax on the stage, or hitting my saxophone with instruments, different ways of vocalising while playing, trying to sing words while playing.
Derek Brown: I’m doing this partly to connect with the audience, trying to tell… but also for me, I’m doing this, I want contrast. I get bored pretty easily. I’m trying to keep this interesting for me. The hard thing with all this, and this was today with my practise, is a lot of times I want such variety that it’s just very tough. A lot of times I get very frustrated because I feel like, “This song doesn’t sound different enough,” and then I scrap. I’ve gone halfway with so many songs, compositions, or I’ve gotten halfway and then I just throw it away, because it’s just, “That kind of sounds like the last one. That sounds like the last one.” And so, I’m…
Barry Cockcroft: Do you keep those half-written pieces? Do you give them or do you really discard them?
Derek Brown: No. I do keep them there. A lot of times how I write is, it’s usually on just voice memos on my phone. I use this app, Evernote, where I can categorise them. If I get an idea, I pull up that app, and then maybe I title it, what this idea is. Record, it might be six seconds, it might be 30 seconds, finish recording. If I have other ideas with that song, I’ll put it under that same list, but then I jump around.
Derek Brown: These days, I jump around a lot with my practising , what I’m working on. That just works best for me, so I don’t get too bogged down. If I’m feeling uncreative, I move on to another song or a different tech. If I’m feeling really uncreative, I just work on skills and techniques, because I don’t have to really be creative. Then if I want a more creative mood, I’ll get those old tunes.
Derek Brown: Sometimes I do go back and pull those those old things up. And sometimes it might turn into something. I’d be so curious asking you questions, Barry, about your writing style, because I absolutely love what you’re doing. We obviously have some similarities with some of the composition stuff. I’m very curious on on your compositional approach. Do you usually work one tune at a time? Are you working on many things? Are you jumping around?
Barry Cockcroft: I like that you wish that you think I have an approach. That’s good. Because one of the pieces I was working on last year… actually, Philippe Gleiss was there. He came out to Australia, and I’d organised a concert for him in my chapel. He played for a bit and I played just one piece, and it was a new piece I was working on.
Barry Cockcroft: I get a bit funny sometimes when a piece is not quite complete about people recording it. There was a lady there who loves to record all the concerts where I live. I just said to her, “Look, when I play, if you don’t mind, just don’t record that one.” Because I didn’t want that there, because it was still a work in progress.
Barry Cockcroft: I played this piece and I was really happy with it. It went really well and was great. I didn’t think about it again for a couple of weeks, and I came back to the piece. It was completely improvised. I came back to the piece a couple of weeks later, and I couldn’t remember it.
Derek Brown: Oh my gosh. It was gone. No.
Barry Cockcroft: It’s gone, seriously gone.
Derek Brown: The greatest peace in the world, and it’s gone.
Barry Cockcroft: Yeah.
Derek Brown: Because you told her not to record. Wow.
Barry Cockcroft: I’ve since sat down. Just, in fact, a couple of weeks ago, I sat down and I tried to play what I thought it was and I came up with some things, but it wasn’t the same. I feel like sometimes improvisation is for the moment. True improvisation exists in a moment, and is designed for that. It’s not supposed to be recorded and then listened back as a piece. It’s very spontaneous and it’s a reaction to your audience. I’m kicking myself a little bit, but at the same time, if I’m sort of respectful of that idea, then fine. Those five minutes were a good five minutes and it’s gone.
Derek Brown: Wow. That’s a very noble thought. I would mostly be frustrated.
Barry Cockcroft: I don’t find ideas easy to come by, and they creep up on me. Usually, they come through improvising and bit by bit kind of an idea forms. Then I can work on it more in a compositional style, juggling things around. Often, like you were describing, it’s finding a sound or a technique or an effect, or something that you can work with, a motif, and then develop it from there.
Barry Cockcroft: But coming up with that original idea in the first place is the thing that happens rarely. For me, I’m happy when an idea comes along, and then I’ll really work on it. I’m not a composer who sits down every day and writes for an hour. At the end of the week, I’ve got that new sonata. I’m not that person. I’ve got friends who like that, and that’s not me.
Derek Brown: I’ve tried that approach. I’ve had different mixed success with that stuff, because there was a time where it was more for combo stuff, but I said I’m going to write at least a little bit every day. It was good for a while. I feel like I came up with a lot of great ideas. Eventually, a lot of it was crap, but there was some good stuff.
Derek Brown: Then after a few years later, I tried that same process, and I was just writing the same stuff I had written in the past. It was just so hard to come up with something new. A lot of times for me the new stuff, it happens from mistakes. I’m kind of playing something and I make a mistake, and it’s like, “Oh, that was kind of cool.”
Derek Brown: I know I’m jumping ahead because I’ve listened to a lot of these interviews, and one of your questions is about mistakes and if they’re good. Oh my gosh, mistakes are the best thing in the world, because that is the only way that I grow. That’s the only way that I do new stuff. It’s also the only way that I kind of… Yeah, I did start to do a voice because I think if I was playing everything as I wanted to do, and if I was growing exactly as I wanted to grow, I would be that Sonny Rollins clone. That’s what I’d be doing. That’s all. But it was because I couldn’t do that, I couldn’t play that, that it forced me to kind of tweak it around. So, mistakes are my best friend.
Barry Cockcroft: Not many people compose, full stop. Most musicians play, I think, especially in classical music. Jazz, maybe there’s a bit more, but still, there’s a lot of people who are playing someone else’s music. I ask myself if that stems from early training, just because it’s not really taught or explored; therefore, it doesn’t develop. Then it’s a bit late and people don’t get around to it. Or ideas are so rare that there’s just not that many to go around.
Barry Cockcroft: I don’t know. I don’t know the answer. But I wouldn’t say that I come up with ideas through mistakes. But one really weird thing is, if I’ve been travelling somewhere, nearly every piece I’ve written has been written when I’ve been somewhere else other than at home.
Derek Brown: Really?
Barry Cockcroft: I don’t know if it’s just being in a different environment or being exposed to different things, or I have more time. I don’t know.
Derek Brown: Because I struggle when I’m in places. I need to be home. That’s interesting. Everybody is different. Wow.
Barry Cockcroft: I do want to talk about your tour, but I’m very curious, first of all, what’s your typical sort of practise look like? Then, could you compare how your practise is when you’re on tour?
Derek Brown: My ideal practise when I am not on tour, if I have the ideal, I ideally would play three hours, at least. It would be a little bit of long tones. That’s just to kind of remind my body to breathe from the diaphragm. That’s kind of the main reason I use long tones. Going into some scale things, which might be a finger thing, but a lot of times it’s kind of an improvisatory thing. I want to get better with this.
Derek Brown: A lot of times I’m doing scales now with my ring and stomping work, so trying to get more comfortable with that, kind of doing two things at the same time. Then it might morph into working on some technique. I’m always trying to work on something new, some new extended technique, whether it’s something that exists before or the slap tonguing, double tonguing, or trying to explore and kind of come up with something new.
Derek Brown: Recently, I’ve been working on this triple tonguing, a true triple tonguing, not taka, tataka, tataka, or ta-ta-ka. But it’s hard to say it, but doing kind of flap tonguing up and down on the read with your tongue, which can get very bloody by the way. But doing it down ka, up on the read, down ka, up, down, if that makes sense, kind of a circular motion. That was very exciting.
Derek Brown: Just today I was working on another thing of trying to do the similar sound effect of a slap tongue, triple tonguing, doing kind of a slap ka, and then a ram. It’s hard to just say it over the microphone. I’m always trying to work on some new technique. A lot of times that will then, speaking of composition, turn into a composition of like, “Oh, how can I use this in a way?”
Derek Brown: Sometimes, it’s the other way around. Sometimes the composition, I’m like, “Man, I just wish I could do stronger triplets with this percussive thing. I wonder if there’s a way to kind of get that sound?” That was sometimes then create a technique or something, a twist of that. So, some kind of technique working on, then throw in the compositional part. That’s a big part of my practising . I’m always composing with the saxophone. So, always kind of working on new tune ideas, or old tune ideas, trying to piece these.
Derek Brown: That’s a big, big part of my practise these days, is just writing, writing music. Then, lately, I’ve been doing a lot of ear training. I’ve always thought I’ve had bad ears for jazz, but also for classical, just to help make it easier to memorise stuff and just to play what I want to play. I’m kind of making my own play along tracks with this. It’s called the iRealB app, where I’m making my own chord progressions at random and listening back. Can I figure out by ear? Trying to do songs by ear.
Derek Brown: That’s another kind of long-term goals. It’s always a mixture of these short-term goals and very long-term goals. Another very long-term goal is this idea of improvising while doing ring rhythms and stomping things, while mixing in jumping down and slap tonguing the roots of chords, and then improvising on top, finding different ways of doing that. It’s a very long-term process. But that’s the stuff that keeps me coming back to practising , keeps me getting excited about it, just slowly, slowly noticing this progress.
Barry Cockcroft: What happens then when you’re away from home, you’re on the road, especially the last nine months?
Derek Brown: That’s tough. On this tour, it was actually kind of nice in some of the days. My wife drove the RV a lot. I would actually go back to the bathroom and just practise there, close the door. I’d put a little mouth guard on my upper teeth for all the bumps in the road, and I would practise while she was driving on the freeway. That was awesome, because it’s just like killing two birds with one stone. I’m on my way to the gig and I’m actually practising .
Derek Brown: Then I have to force myself. Even if I have a gig that night and even though those gigs are tiring and masterclasses, physically and emotionally tiring, I forced myself, I have to still practise earlier in the day or leading up to it, to some extent. A lot of times I’ll put on a very soft, extra soft read, so I can just practise.
Derek Brown: A key thing for me, I have to force myself to work on new stuff all the time. It would be so easy. With this tour, it’s 75 concerts of mostly the same music. It did evolve as the tour went on. I could work on all these pieces forever. I think a lot of us could say that about some of these really complex pieces, whether it’s someone else wrote it or you wrote it. You’ll never play it perfect. You could practise it to death to make it better and better.
Derek Brown: I could do that. But if I do that, I’m just going to stay the same and I’m not going to grow as fast as I want to. Usually, even right before a gig, I’m working on other stuff. I’m trying to work. If there’s a new piece that I’m playing, I’ll definitely work on that, because it’s always terrifying for me the first few times I play a new piece. It always feels like a train wreck in my mind and the performance.
Derek Brown: Otherwise, this stuff that I have down, I’m working on other stuff, just trying to keep pushing ahead. Yes, when I am on the road, there definitely is not as much time. I don’t usually get the the full three hours. That’s a constant frustration of dealing with that.
Barry Cockcroft: Now I’ve got some questions, which I probably really haven’t asked anybody else, because you’re…
Derek Brown: Okay.
Barry Cockcroft: Sorry. You’ve got no idea what I’m going to ask.
Derek Brown: Because I was prepared. I’ve listened to so many of these interviews.
Barry Cockcroft: One of the things that fascinates me about what you’re doing is you’re really taking an active role and responsibility for your own career. You’re not relying on a university salary to get by while you do gigs on the side. You’re publishing your own music. You’re writing your own music. You’re organising tours. You’re taking your music into your own hands. And I’m very fascinated by that. I think there’s a lot we can learn from you in some of the methods that you use to be able to do them.
Barry Cockcroft: Perhaps, one of the first things is you mentioned that you sell your music, and I saw on your website. You have a web store where you sell your old scores. What’s it like now as you travel around and, instead of a kid getting up to play, maybe a piece that you played when you’re a student? Now they’re standing up and they’re playing one of your tunes.
Derek Brown: One, it’s a little bit surreal, because I feel like this has happened very fast. I am still at this point where I sometimes have to pinch myself, because this idea that some people are kind of feeling like they can learn from me or that a school, a conservatory in Italy will pay for me to come out there and teach them for three days. At times, I feel like I’m definitely not worthy, most times that is, and I’m just kind of faking it.
Derek Brown: But I’m happy to share whatever I have learned. I’m definitely happy to do my best to inspire people, to think about the saxophone differently. It does seem like there’s a lot of younger people that are into what I’m doing. It’s similar to your music, because I hear a lot of students, of course, playing and, of course, professionals playing your awesome pieces. A lot of times they will play your piece…
Derek Brown: In Italy, someone played Rock Me and Ku Ku for me with the idea that, “Okay, Derek also does extended techniques. Do you have any thoughts on this?” First of all, I’m like, “I can’t slap tongue that fast for Rock Me.” I was actually working on that today. I was like, “Man, 16th notes at 132, that’s fast.” I kind of cheat and I do kind of a slap ram or slap and an inverted slap together to make a double tongue. But, anyways, that’s another story.
Derek Brown: It is fun when someone actually picks one of my pieces. It’s funny. There’s a couple of mine that are still I haven’t heard anybody attempt them. They also involve rings. Maybe they just don’t want to, maybe smartly so, damage their instrument. I’m waiting to see if that will start to happen. Although, there was a there was a jazz student that had a ring, and he was doing a little bit with that.
Derek Brown: That was kind of fun to see that. It’s interesting and it’s fun. I’m, of course, very honoured that someone would choose to try to pursue any of my stuff. I don’t know what more to say about that.
Barry Cockcroft: Is there a reason that you chose to release the music yourself and not go through a traditional publisher?
Derek Brown: One is because I don’t know what I’m doing, and just trying to do that. I don’t know who to go through. Number two, I am in this generation of totally just doing it yourself. We figured out YouTube and to make videos ourselves. We make albums ourselves. It’s just kind of in that age of you… It’s another one of these best of times, worst of times.
Derek Brown: It’s the worst of times, because most labels and booking agents aren’t interested in people anymore, unless they’re full-time making lots of money. But it’s the best of times, because like I said, there’s just all this gear that’s just so easy to use and there’s just all this information about how to do it. So, we can become videographers and we can become graphic designers to make our own websites. We kind of have to.
Derek Brown: That was just another extension of that. I guess I’ll just sell it myself. I use this website Bandzoogle where you just get all of the money of anything you sell, whether it’s digital, or whatever. I’ve talked to some other people that are publishing stuff. I’d be interested to hear you maybe outside of this interview of percentage of royalties, what you get, but it seems like it’s usually pretty low. At least I’m able to promote stuff by myself.
Derek Brown: That’s the best thing for me about YouTube. I would not have a career if it wasn’t for YouTube. I get a tiny bit of money from the ads. Even with more than millions of views, you still just get a tiny bit of money. But the promotion of that, the fact that people around the world could be exposed to my music has single-handedly given me a career because, otherwise, I would just be playing in a small city, and it wouldn’t get outside of that.
Derek Brown: Because I had a little bit of confidence of, I can spread my music online, people, sax players are starting, some of them are starting to know who I am. So, maybe that’s enough to actually just sell it from my website versus having to put it all on the publisher to get out the word, same thing with a label. I can make my own videos advertising for my album and my tour and my music that I don’t have to spend the thousands of dollars, or only get a tiny percentage to get that word out.
Derek Brown: I have had second thoughts about I know a lot more people would buy it if it was through a publisher. Right, I think that, but I do get 100% of of that sale. So, I’m happy with that for now.
Barry Cockcroft: The website provider charge a subscription fee for that service. Right?
Derek Brown: Correct.
Barry Cockcroft: You pay a small monthly fee, but you keep all the proceeds after that.
Derek Brown: Correct. For me, it’s just totally worth it, because that’s everything. When I talk about kind of this music business or entrepreneurship, I reference this. I don’t remember who it was, but it was a professor at Berkeley. This was listening to kind of a music business podcast, and they mentioned this professor saying, “If you want to make it in the music industry today, it takes 10% craft, like that’s your practising your music, 90% business.”
Derek Brown: First of all, I’m thinking, “Okay, so I’m practising three to five hours a day, that’s 10%. What? No, that doesn’t add up.” Maybe that’s a little over exaggeration, but it takes way more thought into that business side of things than most of us think, and more than most of us want to do, of course, and way more than most universities are teaching. Most colleges are not talking about that stuff. It’s only about how to sound better.
Derek Brown: Once again, if music is a communication, a language, actually, hopefully we have something to say, and we want to actually share that with people. So, you have to put hard, hard thought and hours and time into, how can I get this out there? What am I needing to do? I did notice on your interviews, a lot of times, the people you would talk to, a lot of the professors would say, when you would ask about a website or social media, they would often say, “Yeah, that’s kind of my weak point. I haven’t been updating that.”
Derek Brown: The sad thing is that’s almost more important than the music, especially if you want to make a career out of that. You want to spread that music. I wish it was the other way around. I wish it was only about the music, the art. Yes, that is important, but there are a lot of musicians that aren’t nearly as good, or whatever, but they have slick presentation, they have the best videos, and they are getting their music out, and we can learn from them.
Derek Brown: We might have something different to say or want to say it to different people. We can learn from Justin Bieber. He’s connecting with a lot of people. Like I said, it might be a totally different message or different people, but he’s connecting. I wish I could connect with that many people. So, important things to think about.
Barry Cockcroft: I’m sure you know about this, but there’s a great article called 1,000 True Fans.
Derek Brown: I know that idea. Yes.
Barry Cockcroft: It’s Kevin Kelly write the article. He said, “You don’t need millions of fans. What you really need are 1,000 people who are so dedicated to what you do that everything you release they purchase. Everything you do they want to know about. From there, you can build…”
Derek Brown: They market for you.
Barry Cockcroft: Exactly.
Derek Brown: They spread the word.
Barry Cockcroft: That’s a concept that’s not just in music, but it’s applicable in many areas. The older school model of being a professor, and a lot of academic music happens within the university circle, so you’ll have a university teacher touring other universities to play for other saxophone students. I have a feeling, especially based on the number of views you’re getting on YouTube, that your music is going out to a wider audience. That must be bringing knowledge of the saxophone to people who really absolutely didn’t know what it was capable of before.
Derek Brown: Yeah, I hope so, and I think so. Of course, I would always like it to be more and faster. It is true that I did start, and it was mainly sax players that were passing my videos. I often do tell people, if you do want to kind of… one, if you want to find your voice, but if you want to make a dent out there, one of the key things, at first, is getting really specific. Don’t go too broad. You’re not going to please everybody. If you try to just be too generic, it’s not going to touch anybody, and it’s going to get lost in the mix.
Derek Brown: It’s when you go really, really, really specific that the world is, yes, it’s getting smaller all the time because of social media, but it’s still a big world, and there’s a lot of people out there. If you get into a really specific niche, like the world is so big, yet so connected, that those people will find you, I think. If you’re really passionate about it and really specific those people… there are other people that are just like you and, really, there are like a thousand other people that could get that passionate.
Derek Brown: Then, hopefully, maybe you can break out of that, or maybe not. There has been a point where, at first, it was all about just saxophones. A lot of my videos, it’d be saxophone tutorials, and they’re getting more and more complex and technical, into these advanced techniques. Then, these other videos, with these cover songs and whatnot, it’s definitely, I would say, more non-sax players than sax players. And that’s exciting.
Derek Brown: Hopefully, it is that kind of core group that’s helping to spread the word, or at the concerts, they bring their parents, or they bring their friends from band who don’t play saxophone, and they carpooled together. That’s really funny. I always tell people, if I’m doing CD signing afterwards, and I’ll ask them, “Are you a musician?” They’ll be like, “Yeah, I play the trumpet.” I’m like, “That’s awesome.” That means even more that you don’t play the saxophone, because you’re here because you… it’s not just that you want to learn how to play the saxophone better, but you actually liked the music for the music’s sake.
Derek Brown: That’s a whole nother story of, sometimes, I get… we want to impress people. But most of all, I really do deep down want it to be more about the music and writing, good music, good chord progressions, good melodies. Then this is just the way I showcase it. That’s also the stuff I think that will touch non-sax players where it’s not just about the technique, of course.
Derek Brown: Of course, that’s a big discussion in, I know, the classical saxophone world, of all these extended techniques. Are they doing what they want, what we want them to do? Are we reaching people with them? Are we communicating with them? Is it more just kind of this weird fascination of just our own family, showing little tricks that we can do? I can sometimes get caught up into that. Hopefully, it can go beyond that. That’s the dream, I think, for a lot of us.
Barry Cockcroft: Do you think that video you made, I think, is it Stand By Me?
Derek Brown: Yeah, I mean my viral one.
Barry Cockcroft: It’s had a really lot of views. Do you think if a saxophone player, any musician, take something that can hit a wider audience, something like that, as an example, do you think that can then feed to your more self-composed pieces? Do you think that can draw people in to help discover you?
Derek Brown: Absolutely. Some people might take that approach just for that purpose. And that’s fine, as a business approach of thinking, “I don’t really like the song, but it just came out on the top 40. I’m going to record.” There are some people that are recording the hit songs as soon as they come out, and they’re getting millions of views, because all these young kids that hear that song, they want to hear it being played on the saxophone.
Derek Brown: Whether they like the song or not, it’s effective for getting their name out, that’s for sure. For me, there’s maybe a little bit of that where it’s like, “Yeah, it’d be fun to do some cover songs, because I know it’s fun to hear songs that I know.” But a lot of them, I still try to ground it in what I actually get passionate about.
Derek Brown: I did Stand By Me because I really like that song. I love that one, six, four, five progression. I could do that all day long. That’s just a part of my life, my background hearing that chord progression, and it will always be with me. You can try to get rid of that stuff, but it’s nostalgic. What you listen to when you’re a teenager will stay with you your whole life, and it will touch you in a way that music you hear later won’t.
Derek Brown: I am learning to fully embrace that. It’s when I fully embraced that, that then I noticed that it comes alive and other people connect with that. For me, it’s kind of a mix of, “Yeah, I do think about, this might reach some people, but I also want it to be something that I still really enjoy.” For me, that tune, Stand By Me, another thing was just the challenge of like, “Can I actually sing a song with words?” That song worked well with kind of the spacing. So, that’s a big part.
Derek Brown: Now, there are moments where… since then, I have done a few other cover songs, a few other songs with words, but more it’s been mostly original tunes. My first album was maybe three-quarter cover songs. This new album is maybe one-fourth cover songs, because I’m just enjoying writing new stuff. If I was really all about maxing out the views, I would probably just pursue cover songs, because that will always trump an original tune, almost always.
Derek Brown: There’s a lot of really successful instrumental groups like Lindsey Stirling, Two Cellos, and they pretty much almost all do cover songs. I know if I really wanted to go there, if that was the most important thing was getting more views, more followers, I would do that, but staying… I want, first and foremost, just kind of stay true to myself, because I want to do this for the long haul. I want to be excited about this. I want to sustain this career.
Derek Brown: Doing something original or just whatever I want to do in the moment trumps doing it just because I think it’ll get more views. I think, in general, that’s a good idea because we don’t want to become jaded musicians that are doing it just for the money, because you could get another job that’s much easier if that’s what it was about.
Barry Cockcroft: You’ve talked about YouTube. Let’s talk a little bit about some other social channels. What platforms do you find give you the best reach for the message that you’re trying to get across?
Derek Brown: That’s a good question. YouTube has been by far the most important, and that’s because it’s the visual and audio element of what I do. It’s actually my art out there. That is what I make. That’s what it is. Like I said, it has the video.
Derek Brown: I’m on Spotify, but it’s just harder, because I think there is an important element of people seeing… and that almost seems, I don’t know, I’ve struggled with that at a time of like, “Why should it matter that that you see what I’m doing? Shouldn’t it just be about the music?” But then I come back to, once again, I think, back to myself and what I like. I’m a visual creature, just like the majority of people, and I like watching things. That’s an important thing to me. So, I’m fine with that.
Derek Brown: Anyways, that’s YouTube. I’m on Facebook, just because everybody’s on Facebook. That just is a number one way for people these days to connect. Facebook is not my first and foremost. That’s not always staying the most current. More current than that, more important to me, I use Instagram, and I just send pretty much whatever I post goes to Facebook.
Derek Brown: In a perfect world, I would have 50 hours a day to do all this stuff and I would just love posting things all the time. I would post different content into Facebook and Instagram and Twitter. But we also realise, we have limits. Like I said, we need to sustain this career. That is, first and foremost, the most important thing, that trumps everything, is sustainability.
Derek Brown: If it’s just too much to try to post something every day, don’t do it. You can try it once, but if it’s going to make you less, less excited, less motivated, you got to find your limits. We want to push ourselves a little, of course, on that business side, and hopefully we can find something that we like. That to me is Instagram. It’s easy to take photos. It’s fun taking photos of just whatever I’m doing or of the crowd or the audience, or the gig or something goofy. That can be relatively fun for me.
Derek Brown: That’s why I prefer Instagram to Twitter, having to come up with witty things all the time. The Instagram that feeds into Facebook, and then you do… I could talk a lot about social media, I have a very strong love-hate relationship with social media. Sometimes I’m more in the mood than not. I also have this stupid thing where I personally cannot… I can’t just look at other stuff on social media. I can’t go down that rabbit hole of just clicking on all these YouTube videos. I can’t just scroll on Facebook and Instagram.
Derek Brown: I just get into a weird funk, if I do that. I get very moody, you could say depressed. I could talk about why that is. It’s this whole phenomenon of we’re all posting our perfect lives, all the best things. So, we see everyone else’s lives. Even if I’m on tour in Italy, yet I see one person saying, “Oh, I had this interview in Downbeat.” I’m like, “Oh, I didn’t get that.” Then I’m feeling bad about… It’s so stupid. It’s so petty. I hate to admit that stuff, but I’m human. We are always comparing ourselves.
Derek Brown: That’s one of these things where I have learned, for me to sustain this career, I need to not look at these social media sites. I’m going to post my stuff and then get off. Some people might say, “Derek, that’s kind of selfish. The best way to do it is you have to promote other people’s music. You share their videos.” I don’t do that. I just can’t. I’m weak.
Derek Brown: If I do that too much, it takes more time. I’m kind of opening myself up here, but I don’t know if that makes sense. I’m just like, “I have to do what works for me.” I’ll get negative. I’ll start wasting time if I’m on there. I have to do what works for me, which is post an Instagram photo whenever I have a gig, maybe once before or once afterwards, send it to Facebook; maybe every couple months, put out a video on YouTube to stay relevant. It also motivates me to keep writing new stuff. That’s it. I have to move on. That’s how I sustain this.
Barry Cockcroft: Is your personal website perhaps different to that because you seem to use it as a documentation of what you’re doing, a history almost?
Derek Brown: Yeah. I guess I left out the website, derekbrownsax.com. That’s something I’ve just read online, professionals saying social media in one way will come and go, but your website is the one thing that you have total control over. That is important to keep that up. I actually do make money from my website, from selling these digital downloads and sheet music. It actually is possible to make money.
Derek Brown: The only reason I can say that is also because I make the recordings really cheap. I feel good about them, but like I said, I made it with Garage Band in my bedroom. If I spent $10,000 on a recording, no, I would not be making money. That is important.
Derek Brown: Also, when you know when people are searching for you online, that website is important to see for a festival or a university, and it’s important that that looks professional. Like I said, sometimes that’s even more important than the actual music, as sad as that is. It’s so important that you have professional photos that you keep it up to date.
Derek Brown: I have to figure out kind of the next route to go because this tour has ended. I had a separate website for that. Now, I have this baby on the way in a month and things are going to really change there. It’s really important to keep that stuff current. That’s the little bit part of the job that we always… everybody has part of a job they don’t like to do. Yes, you have to do those things, and that might be the business side.
Derek Brown: Hopefully, you can find ways to, to enjoy it. You can get into just basics of graphic design and look at what makes this image better than that one. You get into the basics of photography and buy a decent camera and enjoy that, “Oh, wow, I can make that background really blurry and the person in focus.” That’s kind of a key, is trying to actually enjoy this stuff.
Derek Brown: At some point, you have to do a little bit that you don’t like to do. But then, another point, you can reach a boundary and say, “You know what? I have priorities. If I can’t do this today, it’s more important that I stay healthy, and stay creatively fulfilled and keep going.” It’s just a balance of all that. Balance is a key word.
Barry Cockcroft: I was thinking about your approach to… so the combination between composition and improvisation. So, you’re trying to lay down something regular, but improvise over the top of it. Your mind is doing two different things. Do you feel, in other aspects of your life, the administrative side of just keeping everything running? Do you find that you’re able to do those processes where you can have something ticking over, regularly, maintaining something maybe mundane, in a sense, but necessary, and at the same time, keep those creative ideas flowing?
Derek Brown: Yeah. I like that analogy. I’ve never thought of it that way of comparing it to that idea of improvising over the top of something else, two things. That’s great. I’m going to use that in the future. I guess I have to do that, and it’s never easy. That’s why, when I mentioned my practising routine lately, I mentioned that I’m kind of skipping around a lot. That’s because if I end up just doing one thing, the balance gets out of whack. It means you’re ignoring other things, but also, sometimes it’s…
Derek Brown: I’ve heard of this technique called the Pomodoro Technique, where it’s kind of a productivity technique. It’s called that because it’s like this tomato timer that somebody had that’s it’s like 10 or 15 minutes long. You set it, and it’s this physical object, and it’s like if you’re practising something, or let’s say you’re doing something on your website. When when that thing goes off, when that alarm goes off, after 15 minutes, no matter what, I am going to change and move on to the next thing.
Derek Brown: There are different times where I might have a different length of time for that, or that might be more effective or not. In general, it works for me, because if I start working on set, let’s say I’m working on the website, or trying to book gigs, and I’m looking up different emails, soon enough, an hour goes by, two hours go by, maybe three hours go by, and my energy level is dropping by the minute. All of a sudden, I realised, I am drained. I do not want to practise. I don’t want to do anything.
Derek Brown: Yet, had I set some kind of a timer or some kind of limit that even if things are going well, when that timer goes off, I am switching and it’s just going to keep me motivated going on to the next thing. I think that can relate to practising , but also to real life of making sure that you’re doing multiple things during the… There’s different types of people. Some people work better with the different ways. But for me, that’s kind of an important thing.
Derek Brown: That might mean thinking about my day, the first thing when I wake up, after breakfast and everything, practise, when I have the most energy for the day. That’s really important not to do the business stuff. If I do the business stuff first, that usually drains me and often that has to do with the fact that I send out a bunch of emails, and then I get a couple back. And they’re rejections or something. I just got a couple today that were like, “No.” You feel bad as a person that they hate you as a person, and even though they don’t. It brings you down and all of a sudden you’re practising is less motivated.
Derek Brown: You have to figure out how to organise your day. A key, key thing is just figuring out yourself what works for you. Do you work better in small chunks? Do you work better having a break between that, doing your practising in shifts, doing your business stuff in between at the end, before? Doing 30 minutes every day or doing a big chunk? That’s so key, is to figure out how you tick, what works for you, because you have to do all those things. The modern musician today, the best of times, worst of times, we have to do everything ourselves. So, you got to figure out how to do that.
Barry Cockcroft: I really like this concept of the idea of priority, because priority is a singular word. It’s not supposed to have a plural.
Derek Brown: Really?
Barry Cockcroft: Because a priority is the most important thing at that time. You can’t have two priorities.
Derek Brown: Interesting. I like that.
Barry Cockcroft: You can only have one. We’re always juggling many things. But something has to be the most important at that particular time. I like what you’re describing that you set aside some time to do that particular important thing, and then you move on to the next important thing. The first one, perhaps, it’s forgotten about then, it’s put aside, and you’re focused on the next one. But you’re not juggling two things at the same time, or three things, or 10 things. You’re staging your day or stepping out, just like you would in practise. You don’t play one scale and then you move on two, and improvising, and then back to a piece. You tend to break it up into…
Derek Brown: Though, sometimes that might happen. But that’s a sign of very bad practise.
Barry Cockcroft: Now I’ve got some rapid fire questions.
Derek Brown: Oh, boy, I was waiting for this.
Barry Cockcroft: Is there something that you believe that few people agree with?
Derek Brown: Yes. Well, I don’t know few. Okay. I love this thought about music, and this relates to all art, for me. There are two types of music in this world; good music and bad music. And I love them both. It’s this idea that we have music that is meant for artistic purposes, to challenge you, to stretch our minds. Then there’s music just for dancing or background, or just to have a good time. And I like both of those reasons for music, and want to incorporate both of those.
Derek Brown: The other way I like to say it is, sometimes I enjoy pursuing the taste of wine or a fine steak, or an aged cheese, something that a kid would be grossed out by. But over the years, you refine your taste, and that’s awesome. But then sometimes I just want a candy. Sometimes I just want McDonalds. I love them both.
Barry Cockcroft: If you just had one piece of music that you could play from now on, what would it be and why?
Derek Brown: When I’ve heard you ask this question to others, I noticed that you said the word could, instead of had to, because if I could, I definitely would not play one song just until the end. Like I said, I get pretty restless. If I’m playing the same music, if I’m still ending every concert with Stand By Me, my hit song, I just feel like to me that’s like I haven’t grown or I haven’t challenged myself.
Derek Brown: It’s fun to bring it back sometimes and it’s fun to see audiences kind of perk up, “Oh, I love this version of this. That’s fun.” For me, it’s more important to kind of keep moving on, see what’s next. I’m going to cop out and just say that.
Barry Cockcroft: Actually, most people, and I probably include myself, we all feel obliged to answer the questions we get asked. Sometimes it’s okay just to say, “I don’t want to answer that.”
Derek Brown: Yes.
Barry Cockcroft: Except if you’re on my podcast, and then everyone has to answer everything, right? No. If you just had one hour to practise, just one, how would you spend your time?
Derek Brown: Oh my God. Only one, I would say, exploring the instrument, which would mean just no rules, just like being a preschooler in a room with toys, flipping the mouthpiece upside down. What does that do? Sucking in on the instrument, what does that do? What does it do if you hit the instrument on this side? What does it do if you pound it here? What does it do if you scream into the horn? A lot of that turns into kind of compositional things for me, and 99% is absolute crap that comes out.
Derek Brown: There’s the possibility of that little gem. Usually, it’s a tiny, tiny speck of something new, that usually the next… But that, oh my gosh, that gets me so excited, if there’s the hint, the taste of something that could possibly maybe be a different way of playing the saxophone or a different way of getting sound. Usually, the very next day, I’m like, “That was kind of a stupid idea.” That’s the drive for me, what else can I do on this thing, and somehow make it musical.
Barry Cockcroft: Who do you consider to be one of the most successful contributors to the saxophone?
Derek Brown: This was tough because, obviously, there’s the classical world and the jazz world. I’ve mentioned that I’ve always felt somewhere trapped between. A lot of times people outside of the saxophone just assume that I’m jazz, because they see a saxophone and they think jazz. A lot of times I think, though, I’m maybe more in the classical world, because I’m writing compositions. I’m using standard techniques that jazz musicians often ignore and classical musicians are getting into.
Derek Brown: I often find it kind of sad that those two worlds seem so divided sometimes, not always. I could talk a lot more about that. I know this is the rapid fire section, and I’m failing at that. It’s interesting. I just had to say this, it’s interesting like with this 50-50 tour with visiting these universities. A lot of times I would be brought in, maybe the classical professor would bring me in, and the jazz side would stay far away, wouldn’t even introduce themselves. Then, sometimes it’d be the opposite. The jazz person would bring me in, and then the classical studio professor would stay far away.
Derek Brown: It’s like this weird, I guess my music is a little divisive. But all I can say is, you got to make a stand somewhere. Sometimes, if you are divided… if you break out of genres, you’re going to make some people unhappy, but you’re also going… you have the chance of something new and something fresh that might attract other people. I’ll have to say contributors of the saxophone, I could say the big names.
Derek Brown: In the classical world, I’d probably say Sigurd Rascher because he was responsible for… so many pieces were dedicated to him. To me, the legacy of music is more in the song itself, which is usually it takes a great player to make a great song. I sometimes think that maybe the composition is the most important thing, especially in classical music. If it gets played by multiple people, it’s the composition that lasts. To me, Sigurd Rascher. Even if I’m not a huge fan of the sound idea, or using older mouthpieces, or I would like kind of a different tone, just doing my… knowing my history that so many of these important pieces were dedicated to him, that is really important in the saxophone.
Derek Brown: That’s why I think something like what you’re doing, your music, Barry, I think it’s like changing the saxophone world. So many people are so excited about this stuff. That’s going to be remembered so long. I think it’s going to be remembered more than the people who played it. You’re up there, for real. In the jazz world, it’s a little different because of the improvisation. It’s almost like each player is the composer.
Derek Brown: Maybe it’s a little different, where I’d kind of maybe go more down, like saying Charlie Parker completely changed the language. We still call what he did modern jazz, even though that was in the ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s. We call that modern jazz and it was made so long ago, but it was just so ahead of its time and changed it.
Derek Brown: Then I could also talk about, if we’re talking about connecting with… this question could go different ways. As much as a lot of people don’t like his stuff and I don’t listen to it, I’m not a huge fan, but Kenny G was able to reach so many millions of people. His music is, as much as we might be sick of it, it is the soundtrack to so many people’s lives. Yes, maybe sometimes in elevators or in grocery stores, but in weddings and funerals.
Derek Brown: Oh my gosh, if someone played my music at a wedding or funeral, I would be like, “I made it,” like I did something right. I can’t even ignore Kenny G as a contributor. It’s just a mix. I guess that shows my mix that I refuse to pick one of those genres between classical and jazz pop.
Barry Cockcroft: Perfect. Thank you. Thank you very much.
Derek Brown: You’re welcome.
Barry Cockcroft: Now you’ve played, what was it, 75 performances over those 50 states?
Derek Brown: Yeah, something like that.
Barry Cockcroft: Something like that. You must have a routine here. What’s the most important thing that you do before you walk on stage to really give you the biggest chance of playing at your best?
Derek Brown: Cliff Leaman, I went to his school, I love how he said before his concerts, he wants to welcome in the adrenaline. I love that idea. In my best moments, I tried to do that. I often say, instead of saying I am nervous, which I usually am, I turn it and I twist it on its head, and say I am excited. I got the jitters and instead of being like, “Oh my gosh, I’m so nervous.” It’s just, “Oh my gosh, I’m so excited. This is awesome.”
Derek Brown: Like Cliff said he likes to have five minutes at least by himself. You don’t always get that. That’s pretty key to just clear my mind. I’m not always necessarily thinking, “Okay, I’m going to do this song, that song,” or running through stuff. I just need just a few moments to be like, “This is happening. This is real. This is serious. But it’s also really fun.” Maybe I’m kind of jumping a little bit if there’s no one around, doing some jumping jacks.
Derek Brown: A key, key thing for me, I mentioned this earlier, this idea of fake confidence. I said that when I was teaching, this idea of pretending I know what I’m doing, even if I don’t. A key thing for me is if I’m introduced at a concert or whatever on stage, I often like to run out onto the stage at least a little bit, jog out a little bit.
Derek Brown: That’s this idea of, I’m turning this nervous energy into excitement. I’m just going to pretend that I’m so excited to be out there that I’m running out there. It’s almost kind of acting, but it’s acting in a way that becomes your making it become reality, and you’re turning it into excitement.
Barry Cockcroft: Imagine if all of these years would actually be mislabeling nerves.
Derek Brown: Maybe we have.
Barry Cockcroft: What we thought was nervousness was actually excitement or anticipation. If we replace those words with something more positive, maybe it would change us with that in mind.
Derek Brown: Yeah, I think so. I keep coming back to what Cliff was saying, but he said, “People pay big bucks for adrenaline.” They pay money to go to amusement parks to scare themselves. It’s like, “I’m a professional sax player. I don’t I don’t have to pay to do that. I get paid to do that.” It’s flipping that on its head. This is living the life, man. This is doing it, living the dream.
Barry Cockcroft: You look pretty fit and healthy. Is there something that you do that, either consciously, on purpose, to maintain your physical ability to play the saxophone, but also to maintain your health so that you can enjoy a long career?
Derek Brown: Yeah, I do solo 90-minute saxophone concerts where I’m stomping and hitting rings on my saxophone and jumping around on the stage. No. On this tour, it was kind of cool. One of the good ideas my wife had was getting a gym membership to this very popular national chain called Planet Fitness, where pretty much in every city, they have these.
Derek Brown: One, it was a chance to get a shower everywhere, if we didn’t want just the RV shower, in these gyms. Two, we were actually working out a couple times a week. Now that I’m back in a stationary place, I need to remember that, that I felt a lot better when I was actually exercising. I’m still working on the whole eating healthy thing.
Derek Brown: That’s something where I still I kind of deny that I’m in my 30s, and I’m still at that point where I’m just like wishing I was living in this life in my early 20s, where you can eat a whole pizza, and it didn’t matter, in college. But I do notice that that stuff affects me. That’s another thing where I can’t eat a big meal before I perform, on a full stomach. That’s just not good, also with nerves. But I don’t want to stuff myself afterwards being on tour, and thinking once again to that sustainability.
Derek Brown: That is such a key, key thing. I did these two tours once. They were both a month, 24 days, 24 gigs in a row in Russia. First one was 23 gigs, 24 days. Second was 24 days, every night, a different city, different gig just me travelling around. I had a booking agent actually set that up, a Russian guy. I’m in this for the long haul, I’m going to take it one day at a time, and I’m actually going to eat healthy if I can. I’m going to eat salads, as lame as that is.
Derek Brown: The nice thing about doing the solo concerts is when I’m done, I don’t have to wait for the band to tear down. I don’t have to wait for the band to go to the bar and hang out. Yes, it’s fun hanging out sometimes, but sleep is a priority. When I’m done with my gig, I just pack up my sax and go right to the hotel. I really value my sleep and I try to get eight and a half hours, if I can. I know that’s going to drastically change in about a month when I have a baby. We’ll have to figure that out.
Barry Cockcroft: We’ll need to have another conversation in about a year.
Derek Brown: It’s going to be a lot different. Everything that I said is going to be the opposite, I’m sure.
Barry Cockcroft: Now, with a little bit of hindsight, is there a piece of advice you would like to pass on to your younger self that you’d like to send back in time?
Derek Brown: I heard other people answered this the same way, and I feel like I have to answer it this way, that I feel like I wouldn’t, as lame as that sounds, other than, I think, Carrie Kaufman said something like just telling… keep doing what you’re doing, the decisions you’re making are the right ones, because I do I feel so fortunate for where I am sometimes. I have the typical ups and downs, the highs and the lows of an artist’s life. Sometimes it seems like too much work or I’d be happier doing something else. But there are moments where I feel so fortunate for where I am.
Derek Brown: I can’t really look back. I honestly don’t really believe in fate, or this kind of plan, this long-term plan that’s been laid out for us. But I can’t look back on any moments and say like, “That wasn’t important.” Everything really did kind of lead to this. My insecurities in high school turning into my building ego in undergrad, turning into being torn down in grad school and burning out, and these moments of starting with classical, but then getting discouraged, and then doing jazz and getting discouraged. That all led me to where I was.
Derek Brown: Then teaching for six years, which it wasn’t ever a plan of mine, but that really freed me up to just keep doing the saxophone, to keep exploring and thinking about the instrument differently. That’s all led to how I’m doing what I’m doing right now. I wouldn’t want to change that. Like I’ve said, if I was playing things perfectly, I’d just be another Sonny Rollins clone, and just be doing nothing.
Derek Brown: A lot of people are happy doing that. That’s great. Or a lot of people burn out with the saxophone, or realise they can make a lot more money a lot easier with other things, and they’re very happy. And that’s awesome. The most important thing is that we enjoy what we’re doing and we can sustain it. But I’m really enjoying what I’m doing.
Barry Cockcroft: Great. It’s okay sometimes to say good job, when you are…
Derek Brown: There are times when it’s not good. Have you seen the movie Whiplash?
Barry Cockcroft: No.
Derek Brown: You should see this movie, about this jazz director from hell. He says that the two worst words in the English language are good job, because he talks about how he just say it everybody and it doesn’t mean anything. Sometimes, for me, I do not strive with really negative feedback. Yes, I need critical feedback and I have to face the facts sometimes. But I do way better when someone actually tells me good job, someone that I trust, especially if they mean it, if they actually mean it.
Derek Brown: It doesn’t mean more if they’re specific, but if someone says they’re, “Wow, you did great,” I don’t want to disappoint them the next time. I have to do better than that the next time. That to me, yeah, so that would be, looking back on myself, I’d say, “Good job, Derek.” That’s good.
Barry Cockcroft: Now, while you’re travelling around recently, maybe you could describe some of the changes that you’ve seen in the saxophone, and also what has not changed. What is staying the same?
Derek Brown: At 35, I don’t know how much I’ve witnessed. I was just so naive when I was younger. It does seem like there has been a little bit of an awakening into this idea that the world is not going to… and this is in all genres at the saxophone. I’ve heard it from professors, on your interviews, but also seeing it with young players, this idea that we know the world is not just going to come to us, and just an audience is going to come to us. There won’t be an audience if we don’t actually think about connecting.
Derek Brown: It does seem like in the past few year, I don’t know, not a few or decade or something. Maybe I just haven’t noticed it. When I first came aware of your music, or came aware of the playing of Colin Stetson, who’s older than me, I don’t know if you know his playing, but these new ways of playing that are still actually connecting with people, and not everyone. I’ve heard lots of people talk about the John Adams piece for Tim McAllister.
Derek Brown: It’s kind of like the saxophone getting out there. There will always be those that are just playing for their saxophone players. And that’s fine, if that’s what excites them. There are times when that excites me, is impressive sax player. But it does seem and it’s like a positive thing that the saxophone is getting out there a little bit more. I could talk about the player, the bari sax player, Leo P, who’s huge on YouTube.
Derek Brown: So many middle school, high school sax players absolutely love his stuff. We could we could say, “Yeah, a lot of that stuff is the image or the dancing.” But on some level, it doesn’t really matter. If it’s about connecting people, like I’ve said, he is connecting with people, and he’s exciting young people. He’s bringing people to the instrument. And that’s awesome.
Derek Brown: I’ve even heard more saxophones and pop music. I would say that’s very exciting. It’s not going to always please everybody. But I think it’s exciting. If we do really think it’s about connecting and communicating, that’s a good thing.
Barry Cockcroft: Now, you’ve mentioned your websites and your social platforms, I will make sure there’s a link to all of your places where people can find you on my website.
Derek Brown: Thank you.
Barry Cockcroft: And find out what’s going on in your recordings and all of those things, and perhaps buy some sheet music too so that they can tackle your complex compositions.
Derek Brown: I put it all out there every detail that I can, is in that stuff, all my secrets.
Barry Cockcroft: Is there something that you would like to do that you haven’t done yet?
Derek Brown: Definitely, yeah. The next thing I’m working on that I’m excited about, and it was inspired by this tour to these various universities, where maybe some sax ensembles, or jazz, big bands would say, “Hey, do you want to play with our student group or a couple of professional groups? Do you have any music?” At first, I didn’t have music. I mainly do my solo stuff, but I’ll play on anything. But then I was like, “I wonder if I could write some stuff that might feature some of my soloistic stuff, but also just my writing style.”
Derek Brown: I started writing. Actually, that started with this, America, the beautiful video collaboration where I had all these US sax players play this arrangement that I did. That was just really fun. Then I started writing some big band charts and just got… it was fun seeing the response. That’s been kind of a new uncharted territory for me, is just writing more for other musicians, that might feature me, but might not as much stuff that I can play with.
Derek Brown: A goal of mine is actually… I think my third album, I want to do a big band album, with the whole albums with a big band and me doing some of the solo stuff in between, but just my writing. Eventually, this is a big, big dream, it’s probably unrealistic, but to play with symphony orchestras doing similar things. I also just love playing in concert halls compared to clubs. I love the natural acoustics. I certainly love stringed instruments.
Derek Brown: So, doing kind of collaborative stuff with orchestras or symphonies, maybe starting with trying to do this at some universities or youth Symphonies, but then turning into that. And this idea of I hope that I’m always evolving, and I hope that I won’t always just be known as the beatbox sax guy, whatever that even means. But the number one thing is that I’m still having fun. I’m still connecting with people, and sustaining it. We’ll see what other paths that take, but that’s kind of the next goal, dream project.
Barry Cockcroft: Derek, thank you for sharing your immense experience. Also, you’ve got some perspectives that I haven’t come across before and I think are invaluable to anyone who’s developing a music career, in general, not just saxophone players. You’re composing. You’re writing. You’re reaching out to your audience directly. I think all of these things are crucial now in the way that you describe it as the world is saturated, and we have to take responsibility for our own stuff.
Barry Cockcroft: Thank you for sharing all of your experience so far. I can’t wait to see what comes next. I can feel the ideas bubbling out of you. I’ll be watching and waiting to see what’s coming up next. Thank you very much for spending this time with me tonight. Also, I wish you the best in one month or so when things will change to some degree.
Derek Brown: Thank you. Thank you, Barry. Seriously, thank you to you. I hope to stay in touch with you and cross paths with you a lot more, and maybe even work together, because like I said, you are inspiring a lot, a lot of sax players. And I think you are helping to push the saxophone world in the right way. It’s awesome witnessing that. So, keep doing what you’re doing.