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Ailing saxophonist Brecker says he's 'hanging in there'

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PHILADELPHIA - The genes that bestowed a rare musical gift are now interrupting an important artistic life.

Michael Brecker, the tenor saxophonist considered to be one of the most innovative and influential in the world, is suffering from a potentially deadly bone-marrow disease. An urgent search is on to find the close genetic match he needs for treatment.

"We are all in a kind of shock," said Jaleel Shaw, an alto saxophonist who teaches jazz at Temple University. "I get lots of e-mails from different musicians about it. It's devastating.

"When you lose one of these guys - wait, we can't talk like he's gone. I think something good will happen."

Among the music community, there is a sense that a national treasure is gravely threatened.

Subdued and weak, Brecker said on Monday that he's "hanging in there," with the support of fellow musicians and fans, as well as his family.

"The e-mails and cards I get, beyond my wildest dreams, brought me to tears every day," said Brecker, 56, an 11-time Grammy winner, from his home in Hastings-on-Hudson, N.Y. "It never ceases to amaze me the power other people can have to help.

"Now, life is constantly throwing people curves. And this was a good curveball, boy."

Brecker suffers from myelodysplastic syndrome, a form of cancer in which the bone marrow ceases to produce healthy blood cells.

He needs a bone-marrow transplant, in which blood-forming stem cells are harvested from the donor's marrow, the spongy tissue inside large bones in the body. Brecker's unhealthy stem cells must be destroyed by chemotherapy, then replaced by those of a donor.

Unlike a heart or kidney donor, a bone-marrow donor must be closely matched to the recipient, with the basic cell type nearly identical, doctors say. The donor and recipient must have 10 genetic markers in common, or the marrow is of no use.

In Brecker's case, the donor would have to be of Eastern European Jewish extraction, to match his tissue type, not his blood type, said his wife, Susan.

The need for such specificity makes finding a donor extremely difficult.

Brecker already failed to find a match among more than 5 million people on the National Marrow Donor Program Registry, his family said.

And neither his two children nor his two siblings can serve as a match, said Brecker's sister, Emily Brecker Greenberg.

"When we couldn't find a match out of millions, I told Michael, `I know you think you're special, but you're not that special,'" Greenberg joked weakly.

Then she added, "The day I learned I couldn't be a match - oh, my God, I can't even tell you. I lost it that day. That was a bad day."

The family and Brecker's manager, Darryl Pitt, have been setting up bone-marrow testing drives to get people to become part of both the national and international marrow registries.

"Mike's thing is, if you're a Jew from Europe and you can help him, that's great, thank you," Pitt said. "But even if you're not, please get tested to help others. It's a nightmare situation: So few people are in the registries, especially minorities."

One such testing drive was held earlier this month at the Newport Jazz Festival, where more than 300 people participated, Pitt said.

"Finding a donor is like looking for a needle in a haystack," Pitt acknowledged. "But if more people get tested, we create more needles."

Brecker, who has been living with the diagnosis since October, is too weak to play these days. "I can't do anything musical, other than listen," he said.

The silence is difficult for fans and family, more used to complex and glorious sounds from the prolific jazzman, one of the world's greatest living saxophonists.

Critics praise Brecker's onstage improvisations and harmonic innovations. He is said to be one of the most studied instrumentalists in music schools.

Brecker is known, albeit indirectly, beyond the relatively small world of jazz enthusiasts.

A desired session man, Brecker has recorded and performed with Frank Sinatra, Joni Mitchell, Herbie Hancock, Paul Simon, Eric Clapton, Billy Joel, James Taylor, Steely Dan, Bruce Springsteen, Aretha Franklin, Elton John and John Lennon.

If you've listened to the radio since the 1970s, chances are good you've heard Brecker play something, somewhere.

Ask Brecker about it all, however, and he shrinks from the praise. "I honestly don't believe I'm so good," he said.

The world disagrees.

Brecker was born into an artistic family, Greenberg said. Their father, Robert, was an attorney and "phenomenal pianist"; mother Sylvia ("Ticky") was a painter.

Brother Randy, a trumpeter, joined with Brecker to form the Brecker Brothers, called one of the best jazz-rock fusion bands ever.

Greenberg, who was a piano teacher for 20 years, said her brother is too humble to boast about his artistry.

And, she added, he is too much of a fighter to give up on himself.

"He said once, `I will barrel through this,' and that's the phrase we all picked up. We're going to find a match for him."

His wife concurred.

"Michael loves his family and the life he's created," she said. "He does not want to leave it."


(c) 2005, The Philadelphia Inquirer. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.

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