Ruby Braff: Interview 3
Gordon Brisker

Gordon Brisker (1937–2004)

Perhaps under-rated as a journeyman musician, multi-instrumentalist, composer and teacher Gordon Brisker worked extensively as a session musician. He was best known as a tenor saxophonist as well as leading his own big band later in his career.

Born in Cincinnati, Ohio, Brisker started playing piano before moving on to clarinet and tenor saxophone as a teenager. He studied at Cincinnati Conservatory of Music before attending Berklee College of Music.

He toured with the Al Belletto Sextet before joining Woody Herman’s Orchestra from 1960 to 1963. He later freelanced with Louie Bellson, Gerry Mulligan and others, becoming a studio musician after moving to Los Angeles where he composed music for The Tonight Show.

Brisker’s most notable associations were with singers Anita O’Day, Bobby Shew, Rosemary Clooney and Tony Bennett.

Brisker returned to Boston to teach at Berklee between 1983 and 1985. He moved to Australia in the late 1990s where he taught jazz studies at the University of Sydney before moving back to Cincinnati in 2001.

Biography by John Rosie


A Ron Simmonds interview

In 2003 jazz trumpeter Ron Simmonds talked to tenor saxophonist, composer and teacher Gordon Brisker who chats about his career, the challenge in finding work in the 1980s and his teaching.


Bob Brookmeyer

Gordon Brisker

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Interview date 1st January 2003
Interview source Jazz Professional
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Forename Gordon
Surname Brisker
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Interview Transcription

Tenor saxophonist, composer and teacher Gordon Brisker has performed with many well known musicians, among them: Woody Herman, Lionel Hampton, Louie Bellson, Tony Bennett, Gerry Mulligan, Anita O’Day, Bobby Shew, and the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. As a clinician and instructor Gordon has taught at the University of Hawaii, San Diego State University, Mana College of Wellington, New Zealand, Cincinnati College/Conservatory of Music, Fullerton College, Ohlone College and the Berklee College of Music in Boston Massachusetts.

I’d worked with some local Cincinnati bands while I was still in high school, including Clyde Trask and Gene Hessler. My first professional job was with Ralph Marterie when I was about 17. An older friend who was joining the band recommended me and so we went off to Chicago. I was quite excited to be going out of town to play with a name band, but my enthusiasm was short–lived as the lead saxist, Jack Gaylo, who was also the band manager, didn’t think I had enough experience playing with sax sections. It was a long train ride back to Cincinnati, my sorrow somewhat ameliorated by the fact that Marterie had fired the whole trombone section the same week. Years later I worked off and on with the band and Ralph had mellowed a bit.

Several of my good Cincinnati buddies, including Bill Berry and Alex Cirin, had decided to head for Boston and the Berklee School of Music and I joined them. I found the Boston atmosphere quite acerbic compared to my Midwestern upbringing and it took a while to get used to the no–nonsense way of communicating. However, I made lifelong friends there, especially with Jimmy Mosher, who became my band–boy, main cohort when we were out with Woody’s band years later. I also was fortunate to be at Berklee at a rich period of talented fellow classmates, including Bill Chase, Paul Fontaine, Phil Wilson and Jake Hanna.

I didn’t stay in school full–time very long but decided to study privately with Herb Pomeroy and Ray Santisi. I wrote charts for Herb’s big band and also worked with the band at the Apollo Theater in a sax section, which included Charlie Mariano. In the mid–eighties I returned to teach at Berklee and wrote a good percentage of the arrangements for Herb’s smaller edition big band. Herb was kind enough to allow me to photocopy my arrangements, many of which I still play when working with the latest version of the big band in Cincinnati.

Following my early Boston years I returned to Cincinnati to work in a bar called Mother’s. Bill Berry was in the quintet, which was led by drummer, Dee Felice. During the months at Mother’s during various periods we had Hal Galper on piano, Billy Bean on guitar and Gene Roland on a strange euphonium–type of instrument. It was during this time that I left Cincinnati to go on the road with the Al Belletto sextet. This was a fun gig as I played piano, baritone and also sang occasionally with the group. At a later period Don Menza and Phil Wilson came on the band.

In 1960 I joined Woody Herman. Also in the band at that time were Don Lanphere, Rolf Ericson, Jimmy Campbell and Jimmy Guinn. I stayed with Woody for 2½ years and wrote several arrangements he recorded, including Blues For JP, Lonesome Town, and Free Again. Although I was on the band for that long a time, Woody only recorded one album during this period: Woody ’63 for the Phillips label. I was fortunate to have a solo on the Bill Chase composition, Camel Walk.

After leaving Woody I moved to NYC with my first wife and two small children, John & Julie. New York was difficult at that time but I worked a bit with Sol Yaged, played behind Tony Bennett and did Gerry Mulligan’s band at Birdland. My first marriage hit the rocks and I left NY for Cincinnati in 1965.

In Cincinnati I met my present wife, Cindy. At that time I was Musical Director for the Nick Clooney television show. I was also playing local clubs, sometimes on piano, and backing singers such as Jackie Paris, Anne Marie Moss and Mark Murphy.

In 1977 my wife and I decided to move to Los Angeles. My first gig was with the LA Orchestra at the Hollywood Bowl. The town was still pretty happening at that point and I was optimistic. That glow soon faded, as the short–lived musician’s strike sounded the immanent death knoll for that industry. I primarily wanted to be a composer, as woodwind doubling had never appealed to me, but found the local politics, ie. Schmoozing , alien to my nature. I did play quite a few enjoyable gigs in LA and learned a lot from the highly accomplished pros who live there. I especially value my years with the Bobby Shew Quintet, playing with Bill Holman’s band and working with Dave Pell’s Prez Conference. I also made recordings with Shew and Pell plus a few on my own for Albert Marx’ Discovery label. In the late 80’s I started traveling with Anita O’Day and later on became her MD when she parted ways with John Poole, her partner & drummer for thirty years. I worked and traveled with Anita until I left for Sydney in 1995.

The lack of gigs and the political scene in LA caused me to look in other career directions. I had entered California State University, Los Angeles in 1989 to get a Master’s degree in composition. After getting my degree I started applying for teaching positions. I thought that with my track record finding a teaching gig would be easy. However, US universities look at the degree paper trail before considering experience and I found most of the openings going to recent Ph D graduates. Finally a good friend, Kim Richmond, informed me of an opening at The University of Sydney in Jazz Studies. At first Australia seemed too remote but when things became even more sour in LA I decided to apply for the position. To my amazement I was accepted.

After being in Sydney for a couple of weeks and getting over the culture shock I thought I had died and gone to heaven. I was employed, which alleviated the need to wait by the phone in Los Angeles or make the obligatory phone calls. The city is also gloriously beautiful and the people are warm and friendly. It took a bit of time to get used to the Aussie teaching methods (or lack of same) but it felt great to be useful & needed. During the almost six years I spent in Sydney I met a lot of excellent musicians, made some great friends and enjoyed the ambiance and beauty of the country. The great pianist/composer, Mike Nock, also taught at the school. Mike became my mentor and produced two CD’s I recorded for Naxos Jazz:The Gift, and My Son John. I have since become a dual citizen of the US and Australia.

In 2001, mainly due to my wife’s need to become a caretaker for her aging parents, I relocated to Cincinnati. I have been writing and playing, with tours to San Francisco (masterclasses at Hayward U. and San Francisco State) and gigs in New England.

Copyright © 2003, Gordon Brisker. All Rights Reserved.