Leon Breeden

You may not have heard of Leon Breeden at all, but if you like jazz music in any way, then Mr. Breeden had an effect on you.

Leon Breeden died on August 11 in Dallas, Texas.  He was responsible for changing jazz music from an underground kind of music that only ne’er-do-wells played to an art form worthy of study.  You can read more about his life in this obituary from the New York Times.  Another, more local, reflection on the impact his life had on jazz music can be found here.

I did not have a direct personal connection with Mr. Breeden, but I went to high school with two of his grandchildren.  His daughter-in-law is a longtime member of our church and one of my dearest friends.  Her late husband, David Breeden, was the principal clarinetist of the San Francisco Symphony for many years, and during the two seasons (2001-2003) when I sang with the San Francisco Symphony Chorus, I would often carpool with David to performances.

I have an unusual story about Leon Breeden: One time when I was in high school, my family went to my grandparents’ house for a Sunday afternoon visit.  As I usually did, I headed into the back bedrooms to be alone and to read and to explore.  This particular time, I found some old Life magazines.  I randomly looked through a few, and found an article on none other than Leon Breeden!  I had heard of him through his granddaughter, whom I was friends with in high school.  The issue of Life was all in black and white, and I believe it was from the late 1970’s or early 1980’s.  I have always thought that was pretty neat; of all the old magazines one could find, I found THAT one, the one with the article on Leon Breeden.

Some of his former students made up a video and audio montage about him with some of his classic recordings on it.  It’s ten minutes, but it’s worth a listen.  You can find it on youtube here.

I especially liked this story from the end of Breeden’s New York Times obituary:

[Leon Breeden] is also survived by hundreds of skilled jazz musicians. Though many were already superb players by the time they passed through Mr. Breeden’s hands, they were students first and foremost, a fact of which he rarely lost sight.

That fact was perhaps never more evident than one summer in the late 1970s,, when the One O’Clock Lab Band accompanied Ella Fitzgerald at the Spoleto Festival USA, in Charleston, S.C. Impressed, Ms. Fitzgerald asked if she could take the band on the road with her.

Mr. Breeden respectfully declined. He could not countenance having his charges miss so much class time.