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Saturday November 24, 2007

'Ambassador of the saxophone' was a champion of his own virtuosity

Musician who fell in love with the sax as a boy probably performed more music for the instrument than anyone in history, writes Sandra Martin. He was also a tireless and polished self-promoter who even invented a fictional front man to ensure concert bookings

The man and his instrument. During his 50-year career as a professional musician, Paul Brodie, "the ambassador of the saxophone," probably played more concerts, recorded more albums, toured more countries and taught more private students than any classical saxophonist of his or any other day. He was the champion not only of his own virtuosity as a player, but of the saxophone as a musical instrument.

The saxophone, invented by Belgian Adolphe Sax in Paris in the 1840s, is a hybrid that combines the volume and carrying power of brass with the intricate key work and technical finesse of woodwinds. Although some modern classical composers have written for the saxophone, it is still mainly played in military and blues bands and jazz combos. Mr. Brodie tried to change that.

"He was a master promoter and the saxophone needed someone like Paul, because as an instrument, it was invented late in the history of music, so it was shut out of orchestral circles," said his former student, concert saxophonist and composer Daniel Rubinoff "The great composers had already established the orchestra and composers in Europe didn't really want to take a chance on this latecomer.

Mr. Brodie was the first person to teach saxophone at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto. He was not himself a composer, but he persuaded composers such as Srul Irving Glick, John Weinzweig, Bruce Mather and Violet Archer to write daunting music for the saxophone. In his quest to promote the saxophone he co-founded the World Saxophone Congress with Eugene Rousseau in Chicago in 1969 to bring players, critics, composers and audiences together in a different city every four years.

"He built a career for himself. He was an incredible worker, he believed in himself totally and he never looked back," said Jean-Guy Brault, a flutist with the National Arts Centre Orchestra for more than 30 years. "He was an icon in the saxophone world - in the classical sense, but he also taught many jazz saxophonists," said Mr. Brault. "He changed my life. He opened my eyes to so many things - the realities of the professional music world," he said. "I owe a lot to him."

Paul (Zion) Brodie was born in Montreal in the bitterest depths of the Depression, the younger son of Sam and Florence (née Schiller). When Paul was 10 months old, his father, who ran a dry goods store, moved his family to the north end of Winnipeg, where he found work selling radios in an appliance store. The family moved again when Paul was 11, to Regina in neighbouring Saskatchewan.

He went to Strathcona School, sang in the junior choir at synagogue and played the clarinet in the Regina Lions Junior Band. In high school, the only subject that interested him was music. Sick in bed with a cold one day in Grade 10, he heard Freddie Gardner play I'm in the Mood for Love on the saxophone.

He was besotted with the sound and immediately decided to switch instruments. Goodbye clarinet. Hello saxophone.

He earned money to buy a saxophone working at a local deli, but he couldn't find a woodwind teacher and so transferred what he knew about playing the clarinet to the saxophone.

After graduating from high school in 1952, he packed his sax and his clarinet and headed to Winnipeg where he entered United College, but failed miserably in a pre-law program. With support from his high-school music teacher, he was accepted the following year at the University of Michigan, where Larry Teal taught the saxophone.

In one of his first classes in the history of music he heard a recording of French classical saxophone virtuoso Marcel Mule playing the alto sax. His ambitions changed; whereas he once hoped to be good enough to play in a band led by a musician of the calibre of Tommy Dorsey or Les Brown, he now considered the possibilities of becoming a classical saxophonist.

He joined the university band under conductor William Revelli and played the bass saxophone when they performed in Carnegie Hall in April, 1954. He also formed a dance combo called The Stardusters, which helped earn tuition money and taught him a great deal about the business of promoting and organizing a group.

After graduating with a bachelor's degree in music education and a master's degree in performance in December, 1957, he went to Paris to study with maestro Marcel Mule. Back in Canada, he moved to Toronto and looked for a job teaching saxophone.

"The Royal Conservatory of Music is now in its 72nd year and we have never allowed a saxophone in the building," protested Ettore Mazzolini, director of the RCM, but the ever-persuasive Mr. Brodie succeeded in getting an audition and played so well he broke the embargo. He was a woodwinds instructor from 1959 to 1960. Soon, he was also playing on an occasional basis for the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and doing regional tours with Jeunesses Musicales du Canada, first with pianist George Brough and then with Colombe Pelletier as his accompanist.

Late in November, 1959, a musician friend introduced Mr. Brodie to Rima Goodman, a modern dancer (and later a fibre artist) who worked in New York, but whose parents lived in Toronto. They were married on March 13, 1960. Their daughter, Claire, was born in October, 1964.

Mr. Brodie made his debut as a soloist with the TSO at a Sunday afternoon concert on Dec. 27, 1959, with Walter Suskind conducting and his New York debut at the Town Hall on Nov. 18, 1960, with George Brough accompanying him on the piano and Mrs. Brodie turning pages.

There were only about 45 people in the audience, but one of them was Raymond Erickson, the music critic for The New York Times. "Mr. Brodie's skill made everything he played sound fluent and easy although the music was studded with technical difficulties ... producing a lovely soft tone when he wanted to ... in his splendidly vital performance," he wrote. A jubilant Mr. Brodie phoned the Canadian Wire Service and begged them to pick up Mr. Erickson's review, which they obligingly did, flashing the news about the Canadian native's success in the Big Apple. Mr. Brodie carried that tattered clipping in his wallet for the rest of his life.

Because two performance careers in one family meant too much travelling for a couple that wanted to stay together, the Brodies decided to make their base in Toronto. There, they established the Brodie School of Music and Modern Dance early in 1961 in a former furniture store. The dance studio was on the ground floor, six music studios were in the basement and the second floor had two apartments. They lived in one and turned the other into an additional five music studios.

One of his first students was Jean-Guy Brault, who had played saxophone for fun while studying philosophy at university. He studied saxophone, clarinet and flute for about two years and then began teaching in the Brodie school before taking a master's degree at the University of Michigan with Mr. Brodie's old teacher, Larry Teal. "He was a fantastic teacher," Mr. Brault said of his mentor, describing Mr. Brodie as "encouraging and never flinching."

When the National Arts Centre was looking for players for its new orchestra in 1969, Mr. Brault auditioned and got a job as second flutist. He played with the orchestra for more than 30 years, retiring in 2002 after a concert with jazz singer Cleo Laine and her saxophonist husband, John Dankworth

The Brodies ran their school for nearly 20 years, employing about 20 music and dance teachers, and training about 650 students a season - among them Willem Moolenbeek, Lawrence Sereda, Robert Pusching, John Price and Robert Bauer. Mr. Brodie also taught woodwinds at the University of Toronto from 1968 to 1973 and formed a quartet in 1972 to showcase his own playing and the work of a revolving group of three students. The Paul Brodie Saxophone Quartet played at the World Saxophone Congress in London in 1976 and in the 1981 film Circle of Two.

Never a slouch when it came to self-promotion, the canny Mr. Brodie invented a fictitious character, Ronald Joy, to serve as his front man in booking concerts. After printing business cards and letterhead, the Brodies and some of their students stuffed envelopes and sent them to more than 5,000 concert sponsors throughout North America. When potential sponsors called the school asking for Mr. Joy, the call would be put through to Mr. Brodie who would lower his voice by a couple of octaves and start bargaining performance fees, hotel rates and dates. Mr. Joy booked nearly 800 concerts for his "client" in the next two decades and also promoted Mrs. Brodie's career as a sculptor and fibre artist.

Mr. Brodie was playing his saxophone in his music studio one day in 1978, when the phone rang. The caller was actor Warren Beatty, casually inquiring if he could use a recording of Mr. Brodie playing the saxophone in Heaven Can Wait, his movie about a football player who also plays the soprano sax. An amateur saxophonist, Mr. Beatty believed that Mr. Brodie's recording of the fourth movement from Handel's Sonata No. 3 would be perfect background music for the scene in which Mr. Beatty's character plays football with his servants.

After agreeing on terms, Mr. Brodie put his promotional skills to work. Before long "the Canadian media somehow got the idea that a Canadian saxophonist was being featured throughout the film," according to the account that Mr. Brodie related in his autobiography, Ambassador of the Saxophone. When Heaven Can Wait was nominated for several academy awards, the Brodies and Claire (then 13) flew to Los Angeles, where Mr. Brodie sent 250 postcards pumping his connection with the film to Canadian media and arranged to do a live telephone interview with CBC television the day after the ceremonies.

The following year, the Brodies closed down their school and the quartet. The lease was up, he was in "phone ringing-off-the-hook" demand after the release of Heaven Can Wait and she was "wildly busy" with commissions for her work as a fibre artist. He never stopped teaching, however, either privately in a smaller studio or at York University, where he taught from 1982 until the late 1990s.

Concert saxophonist and composer Daniel Rubinoff was one of his last students. "I needed a mentor and I found one," he said in a telephone interview. After studying in Europe, he worked with Mr. Brodie for 18 months beginning in 1995 and won the gold medal at the Royal Conservatory for the ARCT exams in 1997.

"One of the things about Paul's legacy is that he realized that you had to practice the saxophone to become as good a performer as you could possibly be, but you also had to be a tireless promoter," Mr. Rubinoff said. "He was a wonderful business person and he passed that on to people like me." How to have a career as a concert saxophonist, how to talk to an audience, how to be tough about criticism, how to cold call a concert promoter and how to set up a teaching studio, were among the synergistic "life lessons" that Mr. Rubinoff learned from Mr. Brodie.

About seven years ago, Mr. Brodie, who was suffering from high blood pressure and diabetes, developed an aortic dissection - a tear in the walls of the aorta which is frequently fatal. "Miraculously" without surgery "his body glued itself back together," according to Mr. Brodie's daughter, Claire. "The last seven years were a gift."

Earlier this fall, an MRI revealed an enormous aneurysm in Mr. Brodie's aorta. Mr. Brodie asked if he had time to make a CD of favourite pieces with harpist Erica Goodman before undergoing surgery. (The CD, which was recorded at Grace Church on the Hill in Toronto, will be released shortly.) On Monday morning Mr. Brodie was wheeled into surgery, but three-quarters of the way through the long operation, his heart gave out.


Paul Zion Brodie, O.C., was born in Montreal on April 10, 1934. He died during heart surgery at Sunnybrook Hospital on Nov. 19, 2007. He was 73. Predeceased by his parents, he leaves his wife, Rima, his daughter Claire and an older brother.

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