Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Sandke, Randy (Jay Randall)

Trumpeter Randy Sandke has a rare ability to balance traditional jazz styles with his own unique and progressive approach. Having overcome career setbacks, Sandke has established himself in New York as a sought-after educator, performer, composer and arranger.

Randy Sandke was born May 23, 1949 in Hyde Park, a neighborhood on the south side of Chicago, Ill. His mother was an amateur pianist, and his grandparents had a collection of popular music and jazz 78s from the 1920s, music towards which he and his older brother Jordan gravitated.

Jordan began playing trumpet and listening to the records of Louis Armstrong and Bix Beiderbecke. At 11 years old, Randy took up the trumpet as well, and got involved in his school music program lead by Frank Tirro, who would later become a renowned jazz historian.

Sandke studied music theory with Easley Blackwood at the University of Chicago, a teacher who maintained that any aspects of music that could be taught, such as harmony and scales, were worth teaching as thoroughly as possible. Combining this approach with his interest in jazz, Randy was opened to the world of improvisation not by a jazz teacher, but by his intense study of chord and scale function.

Chicago in the early 1960s was teeming with live jazz, and Randy heard all of the greats at clubs where under-age fans were allowed to attend. He heard Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Oscar Peterson, Wes Montgomery, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley, and many others, all while at their peaks as performers. Randy was especially drawn to the melodies and warm sounds of Davis and Armstrong. In high school he began to study privately with classical trumpeter Renold Schilke, and to form groups with fellow students.

He also began to perform with professional musicians in different neighborhoods of Chicago, writing jazz arrangements, and playing cornet in a rock band. Because his classical training did not equip him to project over rhythm sections, around this time he developed playing habits that eventually lead to serious throat problems. In 1966, with these throat problems looming on the horizon, Randy entered the music program at Indiana University.

At IU, Randy studied with David Baker in one of the only collegiate jazz programs in the country at the time, and took alumnus Randy Brecker’s spot in the jazz band while pursuing a degree in composition. While he felt unsatisfied by many of his academic experiences, the example of his peers, including saxophonist Michael Brecker and jazz historian Ed Berger, inspired his musical progress.

The zeitgeist that prevailed at IU then among musicians at the time was a forward-looking creative sentiment, and Sandke sought to consume all types of music and make use of the best things in each style. Sandke listened to everything from traditional jazz such as Bix Beiderbecke and Louis Armstrong, John Coltrane, Janis Joplin, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Anthony Braxton, and the Art Ensemble of Chicago.

Michael Brecker shared Sandke’s boundary-breaking drive, and together they formed a band that fused jazz, rock, and avant-garde music. Their band competed at the 1967 collegiate jazz competition at Notre Dame University, but the judges, including Ray Brown, did not respond well to the rock and avant-garde influences. Despite the tepid reaction of the judges to some of the stylistic approaches of the band, Sandke was awarded a flugelhorn and Michael Brecker was offered a scholarship to Berklee College of Music, which he didn’t accept.

However, the band received a glowing review by music critic Buck Walmsley in the Chicago Daily News. Walmsley’s wife happened to be an amateur photographer who wanted to try her hand as a band manager, and persuaded the group to move to Chicago the next year, in the summer of 1968.

That summer brought some dark events that had a lasting impression on Sandke’s career. His group was living together and performing in Chicago and in the spirit of the late 1960s, experimenting with various hallucinogenic drugs. At one drug-fueled party, a guest ended up committing suicide, and the subsequent police investigation destroyed the band’s hopes of success. Neither Sandke nor Brecker were in attendance, but their band mates were carted off to jail. One member was severely abused there, and ended up taking his own life a year later as a result. During the investigation the Chicago police looted the band’s apartment and stole their equipment including Sandke’s flugelhorn.

This traumatic experience tainted Sandke’s view of life as a musician. The following year, after the pains in his throat led to surgery for a ruptured larynx, Sandke dropped his music degree and, along with Michael Brecker, became an art major. Neither of them finished school however, and Brecker moved to New York to play with his brother while Sandke decided to quit playing trumpet altogether. He didn’t play for ten years.

Hoping to gain a fresh perspective, Sandke began playing the guitar and moved to Bennington, Vermont. He got a job as a piano accompanist in the Bennington College dance department and taught informal jazz classes. After three years in Bennington, Sandke left for New York, where he got his feet planted by checking log sheets for ASCAP, accompanying vocalists on piano, playing guitar in the house band at a club called Clifford’s Lounge, and operating an elevator in his apartment building.

Eventually, a friend from IU convinced Sandke to try to relearn the trumpet. After having not played for ten years, Sandke immediately felt reconnected to his first instrument. Within six months of taking up the trumpet, he got a call for a gig with Vince Jordano, who led a 1920s band. Sandke soon found himself working professionally as a trumpeter.

He was signed with Concord records in 1993 and began touring internationally with various groups including Benny Goodman’s Orchestra, playing at mainstream jazz parties, and doing tribute concerts for Louis Armstrong and Bix Beiderbecke. He played in Broadway shows including “Chicago,” as well as on soundtracks for five Woody Allen films, and movies such as “American Splendor” and “Brighton Beach Memories.” Beginning in 1995, be became involved with the German label Nagel-Heyer, for which he has arranged and recorded a large body of work.

While most reviews focus on Sandke's work as a swing and mainstream player, his work has many facets. In 1995 he published “Harmony for a New Millennium: an Introduction to Metatonal Music.” In this book, he outlines an approach to harmony that he began to develop as a young man in Chicago. Sandke's system of metatonal music balances the tradition and restriction of harmonic improvisation with the unconventional and unique sounds of free improvisation.

In Metatonal music, according to Sandke “scales and tonality are dispensed with, yet harmony still serves as a basis for form and melodic improvisation.” Two of Sandke’s recordings that display this type of composition and improvisation are the critically acclaimed “The Mystic Trumpeter” and “The Subway Ballet.”

An elegant musician capable of a broad array of musical styles, Sandke has established himself in the world of traditional jazz as well as forward-looking improvisation. He has also recorded with a veritable who’s who of jazz musicians, including Bill Charlap, Wycliffe Gordon, Ken Peplowski, Mulgrew Miller, Scott Hamilton, Warren Vaché, Michael Brecker, Chris Potter, and many others.

He has also composed, arranged, and recorded for symphony orchestra, trumpet, and jazz ensemble, and has had numerous of his arrangements performed by the Carnegie Hall Jazz Band and the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra.

Discography as Leader:

Unconventional Wisdom, Arbors, 2008

The Subway Ballet, Evening Star, 2006

The Mystic Trumpeter, Evening Star, 2005

Trumpet After Dark, Evening Star, 2005

Outside In, Evening Star, 2005

Cliffhanger, Nagel-Heyer, 2003

Inside Out, Nagel-Heyer, 2002

Randy Sandke Meets Bix Beiderbeckee, Nagel-Heyer, 2002

The New York Allstars Play Lionel Hampton, Vol. 2: Stompin' at the Savoy, Nagel-Heyer, 2001

Re-Discovered Louis & Bix, Nagel-Heyer, 2000

The New York Allstars Play Lionel Hampton, Vol. 1: Hey Ba-Ba-Re-Bop, Nagel-Heyer, 1999

Broadway, Nagel-Heyer, 1998

Count Basie Remembered, Vol. 2, Nagel-Heyer, 1998

Awakening, Concord, 1998

The Count Basie Remembered, Vol. 1, Nagel-Heyer1996

Calling All Cats, Concord, 1995

Jazz Summit, Jimco, 1995

We Love You, Louis! Nagel-Heyer, 1995

The Chase, Concord, 1994

Get Happy, Concord, 1993

I Hear Music, Concord, 1993

Wild Cats, Jazzology, 1992

Stampede, Jazzology, 1990

New York Stories, Stash, 1985

Contributor: Jacob Teichroew