Susan Brecker continues jazz musician husband’s legacy of help

A new documentary chronicling the lives of three brave men searching for bone marrow matches inspired record numbers of Sedona International Film Festival audiences to be tested last month. “More To Live For” also enjoyed a sold-out second screening and the second-highest rating in the SIFF 2011 documentary line-up.

“Right away I saw the opportunity to make something that would motivate real change in the world through what I love to do; tell people’s stories.” –Director Noah Hutton

Featuring the late multiple-Grammy-winning jazz saxophonist Michael Brecker, aspiring Winter Olympian (Skeleton) Seun Adebiyi, and Love Hope Strength Foundation co-founder/entertainment insurance executive James Chippendale, the documentary-narrative will next show at the Cleveland International Film Festival March 25, 2:20 p.m., March 26, 1:30 p.m., and March 27, 7:10 p.m., at Tower City Cinemas. After each screening, audience members will have an opportunity to sign up for the bone marrow registry, with a free, easy testing process, involving a mere cheek swab. Co-producers James Chippendale and Susan Brecker, Michael’s wife, will be on hand following the March 26th screening for an informative panel discussion.

The Couple 3 Films Inc./Love Hope Strength Foundation documentary already earned a nomination for the Greg Gund Memorial Standing Up Film Competition at the Cleveland International Film Festival (March 24-April 3), and was just picked up for an official screening (April 3, 7 p.m., and April 8, 7 p.m.)/Sunday panel discussion at the Dallas Film Festival.

For the first time in the film festival circuit, all of the documentary’s cast and crew – Dallas is where co-producer James Chippendale lives – will attend DFF’s Sunday premiere. Bone marrow registry drives will also, as usual, accompany the screenings.

The bone marrow registry drives are what drives Michael Brecker’s widow Susan – a psychotherapist, playwright, and mom to two children – to do what she continues to do: get the word out, and save more lives. It is what the late, revered jazz musician/composer Brecker would’ve wanted and what helped keep him going until his final days in January, 2007—along with the love and support of family, friends, and his music, which produced perhaps one of the finest recording projects in jazz history, “Pilgrimage.”

I hear the documentary More To Live For is doing quite well. What has it been like for you to see audiences respond so positively to the stories of three gifted, well-known men, including your late husband Michael?

It has been an amazing experience. After each showing, the theater becomes transformed, from a roomful of theatergoers, to an intimate environment. People begin to share about their experiences with cancer. And across the board, people respond that they are grateful for the stories, and would either like to donate, or they wished that they had known about the ease of donation when they were younger/eligible. One hundred percent of the eligible audience members have gotten tested after the screenings, which is very gratifying.

This documentary was just released. How did the germ of an idea for it even begin?

I met my co-producer, James Chippendale, after I had read an article about his successful transplant in the New York Times. We both wanted to find a way to spread awareness about this under-recognized cause, and to sign up new donors. Film seemed like a natural way to tell the story, and reach the largest audience.

More To Live Forhas been doing well since its February 23rd debut at the Sedona International Film Festival. As a co-producer, what is it about this documentary that has been moving the audiences?

Because the film is both a documentary and a narrative, people become engaged with the three men in the film. They learn about these three lives, and feel the struggle of finding a donor to save their own lives. I believe learning about the ease of testing and donation is a revelation to most people, and it is exciting to realize that saving a life can be so simple and rewarding.

What’s the ultimate goal for this documentary when all is said and done, and do you think Michael Brecker would be happy with its progress so far?

Our mission is to save lives, and we will do this by signing up donors after each screening of the film. In addition to the film festivals, our plan is to go to colleges, cancer centers–anywhere in the country where we can spread the awareness and sign up new donors. Michael would have been thrilled. When he went public with his illness, he did so only when convinced that he would help others. Although a world-renown artist, Michael was a very private person. [Only] when he became aware that others might find a match through his going public with his search did he then agree to a public campaign. Over 50 lives have been saved just from our searching for a match for Michael. He would have been very pleased.

It’s tough for musicians, much less people in general, to see someone of Michael Brecker’s caliber to all of a sudden have to stop making music/stop doing what he loves most, to take care of such a terrible, debilitating illness—and not even know if he would pull out of it. As his wife, what was it like for you and your family to go through the highs and lows? And, how in the world did you all pull together to be so positive and inspirational for the rest of us?

You are very kind. Any terminal illness presents enormous hurdles for families to experience. We have a very strong family bond, and incredible friends and other family from whom we drew and continue to draw enormous strength. That’s not to say there weren’t hard times. Michael and I moved to Minneapolis to receive treatment from a facility there, and our friends and family pitched in with care of our two children and visits to us out there. There are so many people who loved Michael, and were willing to help us. I will be eternally grateful to my friends, family and the thousands of people who got tested in hopes of finding a match for Mike. I am very blessed to be surrounded by such constant support and love.

In Corey Kilgannon’s August 18, 2005, NY Times feature, “His Saxophone Is Silent, His Life Is in the Balance,” both you and your husband stressed that donors register not just specifically to save Michael Brecker. That must’ve been tough to do. Most of us couldn’t have been so selfless. If it’s possible, can you explain how you both managed this terrible condition, its effects on his ongoing music, and yet remained positive, hopeful, and so generous of others?

Mike was a humble and empathetic person. Knowing that his public search for a match might help others motivated him to go public with his illness. He was not always positive about his illness! But somehow the synergy between us kept us going; when he was low, I was able to pull him up, and often felt like I was giving him hope when he had none. And similarly, when I was frightened or down, Michael found a way to give me the boost I needed. Giving to others was never an issue for either one of us; we tried to remain hopeful that he, too, would find a match.

Tell me a little about what it was like for him to be able to finish “Pilgrimage” in 2007 before he passed away from myelogenous leukemia.

First, he passed way from MDS, which is myelodysplastic syndrome. It is an incurable condition, which turns into leukemia.

Before Mike got sick, he was studying Bulgarian folk music. He became skilled at playing in that style, and had written many tunes in that genre. His dear friend Pat Metheny came to our house one day, and they decided that Mike’s next recording would be a jazz record, and he would record the Bulgarian one afterwards. Sadly, he didn’t live long enough to make that record; the music is amazing. But he started writing the music for “Pilgrimage.” He worked on the demos in every hospital room he was in, and in May, 2006, he felt like he would be strong enough to record this album. I truly believe that this project kept him alive, as he had a goal of recording this music. It was a remarkable achievement, not only because he was so sick when he was recording, but because it is truly a masterpiece.

What about Michael Brecker, as a jazz artist, made him so outstanding with his colleagues and with the public at large in your opinion?

It is difficult for me to answer this, as I am not a musician myself. I know Mike the person, and I have never heard a bad word spoken about him. He was a gentle, giving soul. When you spoke with him, whether you were a famous artist, a student, or a sanitation worker, Michael made you feel like you were the most important person on earth. He had a very special way of relating to people, which stemmed from huge respect that he felt for everyone.

“Pilgrimage,” which would go on to win two Grammys, is filled with references to Brecker’s struggle with the disease. What was he going for with this last recording and how was it different from his previous work?

You might have to ask Pat or John Patitucci about this! But from my perspective, this was just another recording for Mike. It was, however, the first recording that he wrote every tune, and I think he felt the significance of this.

Great musicians like Herbie Hancock did everything for Brecker in the bone marrow drives and in encouraging him to continue on as a composing musician. What did their outpouring mean for him and for you?

I think Michael was aware of the efforts of his fellow musicians during his illness, but he was uncomfortable with getting any special treatment. When he learned that the drives could help others, he was able to support our efforts. He was focused on feeling better, working on his music when he could, and being with our children. Their support of him as a musician was constant throughout his life; he had a world full of loving and supportive colleagues.

These friends supported us both during his illness and continue to stay connected with me now, with my children and with this film. I am so grateful for the love and support of the music community, and find that everyone who knew and loved Michael is willing to help me. I couldn’t begin to express my gratitude for the outpouring of love from musicians, friends and family. I will forever be humbled by the beauty of Michael’s life, and the community which surrounded him and us with love.

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