Written by: 
Erin Cristales
Photography by: 
Ahna Hubnik

“I’m gonna do something real quick.”

Brad Leali (’89) rises from his seat and bolts to the piano in the corner of his office, which like the saxophone he clutched just a few moments before, appears to be an instrument that rarely sees rest. In a space where the walls are packed with posters of jazz greats and concert dates, music reverberates from every corner, even in the silence.

Outside, a lawnmower whirs monotonously, but the sound is swiftly, and mercifully, overtaken by Leali’s playing as his fingers dance across the keys. The tune is not immediately identifiable, but the rhythmic allure is undeniable. A couple of dragonflies visible through the window almost seem to dart and dive to the melody.

Leali looks up, gestures to the piano. “Tell me what that was, what chords did I just play?” He stands and heads back to his seat. “You have no idea, and you don’t care, right? You don’t need to analyze it, you just want to experience it. It’s all about how it makes you feel.”

It’s somehow a simultaneously jarring and completely appropriate sentiment coming from the professor of jazz saxophone in UNT’s world-renowned College of Music. As a student, he was a member of UNT’s Grammy Award-nominated One O’Clock Lab Band, the university’s Mount Everest of performance ensembles. Just a few weeks after graduation, he landed a coveted spot in Harry Connick Jr.’s band, eventually soloing on Connick’s Blue Light, Red Light album. He’s toured with the Count Basie Orchestra and Lyle Lovett. He has a master’s in music from Rutgers, and a scholarship named for him at Texas Tech, where he served as director of jazz studies until 2008.

So yes, Leali is a master musician who can easily differentiate between G, B, B flat, F. But at heart, he’s a kid who grew up soaking in his parents’ faves: John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley, Charlie Parker, Nancy Wilson, James Brown, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye. He’s the congregant who sat wide-eyed as his church’s gospel choir belted out hymns powered solely by raw talent and spiritual force, a recollection that to this day gives him chills.

He’s the guy who knows that true music appreciation runs soul-deep.

“In church, when they’d get on that instrument and do what they do, they would just tear you apart with their message,” says Leali, who grew up in Denver. “Once they started singing, it would be like a different world. Everyone would be transformed. Jazz stems from gospel — this is our foundation. We can only take music forward if we know where we came from. That’s why I’ve always been intrigued by bringing those two parts together.”

So in 2006, Leali did exactly that. He was impressed by the choir at the Lubbock-based church he attended, and thought, “What if I put them with my band at Tech?” The concert that resulted doubled as a Black History Month celebration, where slides of African American artists, educators and thinkers were projected as the intermingling of voices and instruments thrummed in the air.

“I thought it would just be a one-time thing,” Leali says. “But the audience loved it, and I loved it too.”

Now “Gospel Meets Jazz” — the name Leali assigned to the annual celebration — is entering its 14th year, and its 11th hosted at UNT.

“You know, music has always been about a community of people, not just academics,” says Leali, who this spring won the UNT Foundation Community Engagement Award for his commitment to raising awareness of the influence of gospel and jazz, and celebrating the UNT community’s diversity, through the Gospel Meets Jazz event. “In gospel, the message is about coming together, let’s just be good to each other. It’s a message of inclusion.”

From curiosity to career
Detail of saxophone
Inspired by his father, Leali began learning how to play the saxophone as a kid, and it was soon clear he had a gift.

Despite an ear for music, Leali was at first more transfixed by imagery than sound. As a kid, he’d tiptoe down to the basement and flip through his dad’s old yearbooks, impressed by the elder Leali’s array of sharply tailored suits and ties.

“I saw my dad in those clothes, holding the sax, and I thought, ‘That’s what I want to do,” Leali says. “The day I told him I wanted to play, he took me to the store and got his sax fixed. Then my mom signed me up for lessons.”

It was clear Leali had a gift, and what had at first been a passing fancy became a full-fledged plan for the future. Senior year, when his best friend was accepted to the music program at North Texas, Leali applied too. His friend backed out, so the future jazz professor told his mom he wasn’t going, either. “She said, ‘You better think again,’” Leali laughs.  

So in 1985, he arrived at UNT, stepping into an environment where he was “engulfed by music all the time.” He lived in Bruce Hall, home to music and jazz students, and together they’d play, eat, head to concerts, have jam sessions where they’d cheer each other on. “They’d say, ‘You’re killin’ it,’” Leali says, “even when I probably wasn’t.”

But class was a different story. There, he received nothing but the truth from his professors — and he loved it.

“The instructors I had at the time were very real and very honest with me, and that’s what I needed,” Leali says. “Even before I came to college, I always wanted the truth. The teachers who had the most impact on me were the ones who told me the things I didn’t necessarily want to hear, but needed to hear.”

From performer to professor
I looked at myself in the mirror and said, ‘You have to get it together, because you may only have one chance.’
Brad Leali

Still, the practice and pedagogy didn’t immunize Leali to failure. He’d been hired straight out of UNT to join Connick’s touring band, then realized almost immediately that he hadn’t mastered his scales — his friends may have thought he was a natural when he played by ear, but Connick’s company of seasoned New York- and New Orleans-based jazz musicians were unimpressed. After less than a week on the job, he lost his soloing privileges. But Connick kept him on, and Leali took it as an opportunity to grow as a sax player.

“I looked at myself in the mirror and said, ‘You have to get it together, because you may only have one chance,’” he says. “So for two years, I never went out after gigs to hang out or drink or party. I’d go into a hotel conference room and practice. I’d get up in the morning and practice. And Harry would always see me. To this day, we laugh at that. I tell him, ‘That was one of the greatest lessons of my life, and you never said a thing.’”

When Connick gave him the chance to solo again, Leali knew he had to deliver the goods. “I thought, ‘This is never happening to me again,’” he says. Connick was so impressed by his playing, he wrote a feature for him on his song “The Last Payday.” Leali’s confidence, and career, were back on track.

Though he continued to tour, he also headed back to academia, pursuing his master’s at Rutgers. He’d never seriously considered teaching, but the possibility became more concrete as he saw older instrumentalists, even well-known ones, taking $50 a night gigs just to make ends meet.

“I was like, ‘I don’t want to be 70 years old and have to live like this,’” Leali says. “I love what I do, but times change.”

And then, as fate would have it, Texas Tech beckoned. Alan Shinn had been promoted to associate director for undergraduate studies in the School of Music, and he called to tell Leali his former position as director of jazz studies was now open. The two had become acquainted a couple of years before, when Leali had visited Lubbock and briefly mentored some of the school’s music students. Maybe, Shinn said, you should think about applying.

A new career was born.

The past informs the present

By 2008, Leali was back at his alma mater, with UNT bringing him on as a professor of jazz saxophone. He packed up his idea for Gospel Meets Jazz, along with a truckload of life-shaping experiences, and headed back to Denton, ready to mold the next generation of music aficionados.

He remembered his professors’ honest critiques and knew that was the kind of instructor he wanted to be. It’s not always easy, he says — bluntness can sometimes be misinterpreted as mean. But he teaches his students the ‘why’ of music just as much as he teaches the ‘how.’

“I want them to contribute not only to our musical world, but to our world itself in a positive way, and that means being the best that they can be,” Leali says. “Once they know that, it’s not just about playing the scale, it’s ‘Let’s play it correctly, let’s practice, and let me tell you why it’s important.’ That’s what builds trust.”

And so does sharing his experiences, the things that made him love music in the first place. It’s clubs like Pierre’s, where fans from every generation listened and danced as jazz swirled from upstairs to down. It’s playing sax from the back of a truck bed at Denton’s first Jazzfest, when maybe only 500 people attended the entire festival. It’s the lifelong friendships born from a shared love of old-school jazz. It’s the gospel singers whose voices sliced through the air like knives through butter.

“Those memories are the things that make all of us unique. That’s why I tell my students to never lose sight of those,” Leali says. “Sometimes we try to be everyone else, and we forget who we are and our true beauty. Remember where you come from — and be proud of that.”

Gospel Meets Jazz

This annual musical celebration created by Brad Leali is entering its 14th year. The 2020 event, set for 6:30 p.m. Feb. 9 at Voertman Hall, will feature the Morse Street Gospel choir under the leadership of the Rev. Bobby Hicks, with featured vocalist Cassandra Berry.

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