By Lee Mergner
Lee is JazzTimes magazine’s contributing editor. Between 1990 and 2018, he served the magazine in a multitude of roles, including editor and publisher.

Since releasing his debut album in 1992 for Mesa/Bluemoon, Rick Braun has established himself as one of the most popular and prolific artists within the smooth-jazz genre. The trumpeter’s albums routinely top the charts and his tours, both as a solo headliner and on co-bills with artists like Richard Elliot (as R n R) and Dave Koz, sell out theaters across the country. But his commercial success belies a strong affinity and facility for mainstream jazz. Trained classically at the prestigious Eastman School of Music, Braun also cut his teeth playing straight-ahead jazz in clubs. 

Braun’s latest album, titled simply Rick Braun, features material developed in part from Rick’s Place, the weekly online concert series he hosted from his home during the pandemic. Braun produced and wrote all the tunes for the album, released on his own Brauntosoarus Records label. Inspired by his autistic daughter, he’s also hosted an annual New Year’s Eve concert and event in Tucson, Ariz., that raises money for the Autism Society of America and other charitable organizations.

The trumpeter and sometime singer talked with JazzTimes about his journey in music—one that took him from the small rust belt city of Allentown, Pa., to Los Angeles and all over the world.

JT: You grew up in Allentown. I was researching what other musical artists are from there and all I came up with were a punk band called Pissed Jeans and a metal band, Pearls and Brass.

Rick Braun: Keith Jarrett is from Allentown. It turns out that he’s a third or fourth cousin, whatever that means. But I’ve never met him.

Was your home there a musical household?

My mother was very musically talented. She had a great ear. She smoked constantly, as almost everybody did back then, so she had this beautiful husky voice. She’d often sing us to sleep. She knew the bridge to so many of those old standards. She was self-taught on piano and banjo. We had both instruments in the house, so I learned to play piano. That came in handy later when I played with Rod Stewart and I was the “garbage guy” who would play anything that wasn’t being covered. So I covered background vocals, keyboard parts, and of course trumpet. I think I got my music ability from my mother.

My father, on the other hand, couldn’t sing to save his life. If he sang us to sleep, he’d sing “The Notre Dame Fight Song” and we’d pretend to be asleep because he was so bad. He worked for the Bethlehem Steel company, in the mill. He never graduated from high school, but he worked his way up to be a supervisor in the mill. And he was an insurance agent part-time. He took good care of us there in Allentown.

It’s amazing what that generation of parents sacrificed for us and our self-indulgent ways.

True. When I went to Eastman School of Music, the tuition was $18,000 per year. I got a scholarship for something like $10,000 per year, so he still had to come up with the extra $8,000 or so, plus living expenses. Of course, I worked in the kitchen and did odd jobs there at school. I played with Gap Mangione when I was in college.

Let’s go back to your early entry into music. Was trumpet your first instrument?

I picked up the trumpet because my second oldest brother played trumpet in junior high and high school. Then he quit, but he had a trumpet and left it in the closet. Back in those days, when you’re eight years old and in elementary school, they had this closet full of smelly instruments. You got to go in and pick one. The clarinet smelled worst of all, so I wasn’t going to do that. I came home and found this trumpet in the closet. I wanted to play an instrument. I put the mouthpiece in the trumpet and I was able to get a sound out of it right away. It was like a love-at-first-sound experience. Not everybody can even get a sound out of it. I loved everything about it. The sound of it. It seemed to come pretty naturally to me. That door opened pretty quickly and I never put it [the trumpet] down.

Of course, now you know that it is one of the most demanding and unforgiving instruments.

Yes, I was playing really well with the Christmas tour [with Dave Koz and Richard Elliot] because it was a day-in and day-out thing. But it’s tough. It’s a love/hate relationship with that instrument because you really have to dedicate yourself to it. If I don’t play it for a week or even a couple of days, I just don’t feel right and I certainly can’t play it well at that point. So I have to keep it up all the time.

I assume that you were in the typical school and marching bands there, but did you also play in bands out of school?

At that time there wasn’t an opportunity to play with other people like that. There wasn’t much going on in Allentown, to be honest. I did the concert band and the marching band. We did have a jazz band in high school. We sounded pretty good. But I didn’t really start discovering the fundamentals of jazz until much later. My first inspiration was Herb Alpert, who was a big pop star. I learned to play along by ear to all of his music, except maybe “Zorba the Greek,” which was really hard. It was on the radio constantly then.

My mom was a big fan of Al Hirt and I started to play along with his music. He was such a virtuosic player, so it really challenged me. Then I found Miles Davis and I identified with Miles right away, because I loved melodies and pop music. When I heard him play, it really bridged that gap because everything he played was so melodic and interesting. I’ve never been a high-note player, so with Miles, there’s a guy that I can relate to because he’s not going Dizzy Gillespie or Clark Terry on me but he’s playing stuff that I really loved. It was super-cool. Miles was probably my biggest influence early on.

What was the album that really captured your attention?

I really loved the stuff with Coltrane and Cannonball Adderley and Philly Joe Jones. Milestones was probably my favorite. Of course, Kind of Blue is up there. I listened to those constantly.

What were some of your first gigs or band experiences?

I played in a polka band, of all things. When I went to Eastman, then I started to get saturated with all the wealth of jazz and music.

What was your first paid gig?

I think I was in junior high school. There was a thing called the New Park Conservatory—the Accordion Academy. We did this gig with around 24 accordions vs. three trumpets. That was my first professional show. We rehearsed all day and we did the show and I got $50.

That was big money for a kid then.

Hell, yes. That was crazy money. It was an interesting sound with all those accordions playing “Lady of Spain.” I got to play a solo because they figured out a way to feature me on something. I think it was an arrangement of “Trumpeter’s Lullaby,” which is a beautiful song. That first chunk of money made for blowing into some plumbing was pretty special [Braun laughs].

While you were in Allentown, did you come down to Philadelphia to see music in the club scene there?

During that time I was studying with Seymour Rosenfeld, who was in the Philadelphia Orchestra. I auditioned for Curtis Institute of Music. I was looking at being a classical musician. Even when I went to Eastman, my whole concept was around the C trumpet and the D-flat trumpet. I was dedicated to classical music more than anything at that time. Gradually, I decided that wasn’t for me. I didn’t want to recreate music that’s been done with the whole goal of recreating it perfectly each time. I decided while at Eastman that jazz was really more what I wanted to do. That’s when I started focusing on that.

Eastman has produced so many gifted musicians, both in classical and jazz. Who was there at that same time as you? Were the guys in the fusion band Auracle with you all from Eastman?

Yes, they were. Bill Reichenbach was there. Allen Vizzutti, who was a virtuosic trumpet player. Jeff Tyzik was one of my instructors. Bill Dobbins was one of my professors. Ray Wright was still there teaching arranging, and he was one of the composers for Radio City Music Hall for many years. Steve Gadd came back and did a clinic and I got to play with him. Ron Carter came there as well, and getting to play with him was amazing.

It seemed like that classical training at Eastman really established a strong foundation for you with the trumpet. You had to come out of there fundamentally sound.

That’s true. During the pandemic, we had a brass quintet with Nick Lane, a trombone player who played with and arranged for Maynard Ferguson; John Dickson, a very proficient French horn player; Jeff Bunnell on trumpet; and our tuba player Doug Tornquist, who’s in the LA Philharmonic. I still love to play classical music and it’s always a challenge to do that. It’s really difficult.

For classical players playing jazz or jazz players playing classical, it’s not necessarily an easy transition.

It’s two different mindsets and two different skill sets. Two different mentalities, really. I love it, but it’s nerve-rackingly challenging.

Was Auracle formed while at Eastman?

Yes, but I also did some gigs with Gap Mangione around Rochester. And there was a jazz quartet of guys from Eastman with Danny Fitzgerald on drums and Mike Boone on bass. We would play gigs at bars around town. I took gigs with a Latin band there in Rochester and to this day that is some of my favorite music. As a brass player, you’re a big part of the sound.

Auracle got a good record deal with Chrysalis then, when fusion was the hot thing. You got a shot.

We really did. We moved out to Los Angeles in 1976 and we had the fundamentals for the first record [1978’s Glider] done. We had a champion in Sam Trust, who was the president of ATV Publishing. He liked our band, so he signed us to a publishing deal, which gave us money to live on. Then he helped us secure showcases and gigs at clubs like Dante’s and the Baked Potato. Finally, Terry Ellis and Chris Wright from Chrysalis Records signed us.

It was quite a life. Our keyboard player, John Serry, was dating Aileen Getty. I went from an off-campus apartment in Rochester, where there was a plastic box over the thermostat to keep the temperature low because our landlord was a cheapskate, to the Gettys’ place on Sunset Drive with an indoor/outdoor pool. My world was turned upside down. The culture shock was overwhelming.

But we got the record deal and we went over to Montreux and there was Freddie Hubbard at the side of the stage. I went out for drinks with Freddie, who was one of my heroes. He was as sweet as can be. Freddie was teaching another trumpeter friend of mine, Ralph Rickert, who had a lot of Freddie’s technique, so we had a mutual friend. It was an amazing experience for me to get to spend even a minute with Freddie.

What chops he had.

He was so ahead of his time and such an athletic player, virtuosic to the 10th power. Him and Woody Shaw, it took me years to take in what they did on the trumpet. With Woody, I almost couldn’t listen to him because it was, like, bitonal. Eventually, I spent a lot of time with his music and appreciated his brilliance.

How long was Auracle together?

It was probably about four years or so. Our second album [1979’s City Slickers] really wasn’t very good. Of all the do-overs in life, I wish I had that record to do over, because we did have a platform and we did have an opportunity to say something. We just didn’t come up with the songs. We didn’t have a concept of direction. We had nobody to blame for it but ourselves. Chrysalis definitely gave us a shot. Then things went in their own direction. I was signed as a songwriter to Warner/Chappell.

What sort of gigs did you do when striking out on your own in L.A.?

A little bit of everything. I did some TV, including a show called Midnight Caller. That show [which aired on NBC from 1988 to 1991] featured a late-night talk-show host who took calls and things happened. It was an interesting storyline. I played on the theme and I played on almost every episode. Brad Fiedel, who wrote all of the music for the early Terminator movies, wrote the music for the show. I would go in and Brad would roll the track and then he’d point to me and say, “Play.” The vehicle that started my career as a smooth-jazz artist was the theme for Midnight Caller. I recorded a stand-alone three-minute version on my first record, Intimate Secrets. That was the first piece of music that I did that got some airplay.

That got my foot in the door with radio. After that album came out, I got a call to tour with Sade in 1993. I used my record as the calling card for them to hear what I do. I was giving away tickets that I had gotten as comps back when you had to pay to have your music played in retail stores. I was giving away tickets to Sade in exchange for things like store placement or coming in to do an in-store appearance. That helped me to get on the map a little.

Breaking out as a solo artist from being a featured member of a pop star’s band is not as easy as people might think.

What happened was that after Sade’s tour I got asked to come back and play stuff with Rod Stewart. At that point I had done my Beat Street CD [1995], and I remember I was in Lake Tahoe on the road with Rod and my manager called me. He said, “We got a song on this record that is making a lot of noise and a lot of radio stations would like you to come and do showcases.” He said, “You need to make a choice between continuing to be a high-paid sideman or take a risk and try to be a solo artist.” It didn’t take long at all to decide. I called Rod and told him that I had the chance to do some things and I was going to leave the band. He said, “I wish you good luck, mate.” He was very supportive, and we kept in touch for a while and I played on some things. So I did give all that up when I made that decision. I’m glad I did.

You’ve been a successful solo artist and bandleader now for a long time. I was surprised that this is the first album that features all your own tunes. I guess that’s why it’s your first self-titled album.

Better late than never, I guess. I thought, it’s 30 years down the road of making records and a career, and I’ve never had a self-titled album. I know I should have done that for my first album, but…

Back in the late ’70s I managed a jazz fusion band in Philadelphia called Reverie whose first album was self-titled. One reviewer wrote that it was an eponymous album, and me and a few of the guys in the band thought they meant some superlative like phenomenal or remarkable. But I think it was Jef Lee Johnson who said, “Guys, it just means self-titled.” Oh.

Eponymous. That’s funny.

You’ve done a lot of production over the years, not just for your own albums but for other artists.

The first one I did was with Jeff Golub, because Jeff was playing guitar with Rod Stewart. Jim Snowden and George Nauful at Mesa/Bluemoon asked me, if I had a budget to produce somebody, who would I like to bring in? Of course, I thought of Jeff right away. I got tickets for Jim and George to see Rod at the Forum in L.A. and them seeing Jeff play “People Get Ready” with Rod made it an easy sell. Jeff and I made many records together and he was one of my dearest friends in life. I went on to produce some Dave Koz records. I produced Marc Antoine, including his Madrid CD, which was his biggest record. That was a thrill for me.

What did you learn over the years about producing?

I think my learning was an organic thing. I’ve always had a concept of clarity when it comes to music. I’ve always enjoyed making sense out of things and bringing things to the highest level. I’ve always engineered the records. I make coffee. I was signed as a pop writer and I had produced my own demos. Way back when, I had a four-track cassette machine and then elevated to a one-inch 16-track reel-to-reel machine with a soundboard. I always had an in-home studio setup. And I had the chance to work with a lot of really great engineers like Bill Schnee, Steve Sykes, Clark Germain, and Erik Zobler. I would always ask questions. As I listen to my own catalog, when I first started making records, I can hear the painful growth process as a producer/engineer, because I was doing it all myself. Some I look back and think, “Wow, I did a good job with that.” Others I look back and think, “That really sucks.” But I learned how to do everything, including the minutiae of mixing and so on.

What I think is also a big part of producing is to know the right people. To know who to call for what. To know that Greg Phillinganes is the right guy for this. Or Philippe Saisse is the right keyboard player for that. To really know how people play and have a feeling for that. And to have a network of players here in L.A. to call on. Tony Maiden, God bless him, was right down the street. I remember calling Tony to play on stuff and he’d be at Ralph’s. I’d say, “Tony, do you have your guitar in the truck?” He’d say, “Sure.” And then he’d come up and play on a track.

What producers do you admire?

George Martin was brilliant and way up there. Phil Spector was unbelievable. I worked with Mitchell Froom, who produced those Crowded House and Bonnie Raitt records. I worked with Teo Macero, who was my first inspiration as a producer. Teo was a huge influence, because he was my first experience with a producer. He was one of my heroes and he kind of took me under his wing a bit. He’d say, “What do you think of this?” He’d ask me for my opinion. It meant so much to me. I’d watch him work. One of his big messages was that it’s not so much what you play, it’s what you don’t play. It’s about the space. It’s about leaving the listener wanting more and leaving room for things to be heard.

Given your early love and appreciation for Miles Davis, it must have been inspiring to work with Teo.

Yes, it was incredibly inspirational for me. It was validation. I’m so grateful to have had that experience. Who knows if I would have gravitated towards producing if it hadn’t been for watching Teo. I’ve always been fascinated with the physical aspect of making a recording and bringing it to its conclusion. Maintaining your priorities and realizing what you can leave out, as opposed to throwing extra layers on top of it. To allow the song to speak and not be cluttered up.

Do you still think in terms of the traditional format of an album with 40-60 minutes of songs put together under some sort of overarching theme?

Look, the CD is over. It’s just another medium that’s come and gone, like the eight-track, reel-to-reel, cassettes. Convenience will always win out. It’s really all about playlists now, ones that you don’t necessarily have any control over whatsoever. As far as recording an album, I do like to put it together as a set.

What was your theme or concept for this one?

When you’re creating instrumental music, the whole process is really organic, so sometimes the titles and concepts don’t come around until you’re well into it or even finished with it. I think that was the case with this one because it took me a long time to make this record. Because of the pandemic, I was working on it in a vacuum a lot. As it evolved, it became clear to me that I put more of myself into this record than any other record I’ve done. I’m playing keyboards on several of the tracks. On the last track “Four on the Floor,” I’m playing that piano solo in there. I hired people to come in, but ultimately there was more of me doing more things on this record. The horn section, a good chunk of the string arrangements—though we were able to use a real 10-piece string section on this, which made a huge difference.

You did have a little help from your friends, like Lenny Castro and Chris Davis.

I love having Lenny play on this. And Chris Davis, he’s a genius. He did the string arrangement on “Amor de Mi Vida” top to bottom and it’s magnificent. Sergio Gonzalez is playing drums, along with Darryl Williams on bass.

Tony Pulizzi is an accomplished session player who was on The Voice. He’s an amazing, virtuosic guitar player. Tony came over and played all the guitar on the record in one day. All of it—nylon-string, electric…  Nick Lane, the trombonist and arranger, did a great job conducting, transcribing, and just leading the string session. It went so well. We got an amazing amount of work done in a short time.

Another reason that this is a self-titled album is that it’s the first record that I’ve done on my own label, Brauntosoarus Records. I did do a record called Swingin’ in the Snow, a big-band Christmas record, and I did a side project called Sessions: Volume 1. Those were both on Brauntosoarus, but they’re not really Rick Braun albums.

You did one record in 2011, Rick Braun Sings with Strings, on which you sang and played, sort of in a Chet Baker mode.

Arturo Sandoval loves that record. He’s such a great musician and writer. There was a time when we were hanging out and spending a lot of time together. I went to his house one time and we were drinking tequila and smoking cigars. He killed me because at one point after we were feeling no pain, he said, “Ricky, Ricky, I have to show you something.” He gets his horn out and plays “The Carnival of Venice” flawlessly. He’s doing the octave thing. I had to say, “You have to stop.”

Arturo can make any trumpeter reconsider their choice of instrument. Tell me about your annual New Year’s Eve event in Tucson that’s a fundraiser for families affected by autism.

Tucson has a very active jazz community. I have to thank [bassist] Brian Bromberg because he’s the one who introduced me and brought me into that scene. The Tucson Jazz Society was putting on an event and I was a part of it more times than not. The organization ran into some financial issues. I had a business partner and we decided that we were going to start our own New Year’s Eve event. We’ve been doing it about 15 years now. It’s at a wonderful resort and they’ve been very supportive. It’s not a big market like Los Angeles, where the costs would make it impossible to get it done.

My daughter is autistic, and she’s been a part of the event. She introduces some of the artists and shows. She loves music and she can recognize anybody’s sound or voice instantly. We’ve raised a significant amount of money for the Autism Society of America. We raised money for the Meristem School. We split the sponsorship money to benefit two charities. This year it was the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation and the Autism Society.

The recent documentary Listening to Kenny G brought up something that I wondered about for you. Does it stick in your craw that even though lots of people enjoy your music, you don’t get the love from the mainstream jazz press and aficionados?

Yes, it does. One of the prime examples is Don Heckman [former longtime Los Angeles Times jazz and world-music critic; he passed away in November 2020]. I would play the Hollywood Bowl and he would always single me out, not favorably. One of his classic quotes was, “If smooth jazz was a circus, Rick Braun would be the clown.” You really can’t get more harsh than that. Then he went on to say, and this was years ago, “But I hear elements of Freddie Hubbard and I know he can play the horn.” When it came time to do Sings with Strings, I wanted Don Heckman to do the liner notes. I got his number and called him. It was an interesting call because I told him that I was doing this record and that in spite of him not being a fan, I couldn’t think of anyone better to do the liner notes. We started talking and it turns out he’s from Easton, Pa. He came to see me play at Vitello’s and he was overwhelmingly complimentary. He did a fantastic job writing the liner notes and we became friends. I think that’s what’s frustrating. If people put their ears on it and get past the label of smooth jazz, which I think is inappropriate … it’s really instrumental R&B more than anything.

There’s a song on the record called “6th Street” that I’m very proud of. It’s in an odd meter. Harmonically it goes places where you don’t expect. It’s a challenging song. It’s not in a mold. I’ve been making records for 30 years. I always try to push the envelope with what I do. That’s the reason I have a career to begin with. When my first big song “Cadillac Slim” came out, it was basically a hip-hop-influenced tune with a live band playing together in my house. It has nothing to do with the established sound of smooth jazz. And it was welcomed. I’m hoping that this record will connect in a way as well.