‘Cruising with the pros’

October 22, 2008

By Jim Feehan

High school saxaphonist perfects his craft playing at local jazz clubs

Perhaps Brandon Willis was destined to be a musician. Six months before he was born, his parents attended a jazz concert by local smooth jazz artist Darren Motamedy. Sixteen years later, Willis, a Liberty High School junior who lives in Newcastle, is performing alongside Motamedy at local jazz clubs as he pursues a career in music.

Brandon Willis plays his tenor sax with the Liberty High School Marching Band during the Salmon Days Grande Parade earlier this month. Photo by Greg Farrarr

Brandon Willis plays his tenor sax with the Liberty High School Marching Band during the Salmon Days Grande Parade earlier this month. Photo by Greg Farrarr

“I think the seeds were set way back then, when my wife and I heard Darren perform at Taste of Tacoma,” said Sherman Willis, Brandon’s father.

Willis plays tenor saxophone in four bands, including the jazz band, the wind ensemble and the marching band at Liberty. He also has his own band.

When he’s not playing in one of the school bands, he’s performing with Motamedy, who is also a music instructor in the Kent School District. 

“I’ve learned a lot about the business side of smooth jazz in hanging out with Darren,” Brandon said. 

Motamedy said Brandon has an excellent ear for music and a bright future in the music industry.

“We’re already doing gigs together,” Motamedy said. “Here’s a 16-year-old who is playing in jazz clubs.”

Three years ago, Brandon was among 225 singers, dancers and other performers at Seattle’s Langston Hughes Performing Arts Center to audition for “Showtime at the Apollo,” the legendary televised show from Harlem that helped spawn the careers of such music giants as James Brown, Ella Fitzgerald and Ray Charles. He advanced to the next stage in the competition and performed before a live studio audience at Seattle’s Paramount Theatre.

A great deal of Brandon’s success can be attributed to his dad Sherman, Motamedy said.

“Brandon was raised in an environment that was conducive to music,” he said. “His dad played the bass and he was always talking about jazz with his son. I can teach Brandon technique. His dad is his best teacher.”

Phil Donley, Liberty High School band director, agreed.

“His dad has high standards for music excellence and that’s important,” he said.

Besides being an outstanding musician, Brandon also excels in the classroom, Donley said.

“The music option is certainly there, but I could see him doing well as a doctor or a lawyer,” Donley said.

Brandon is quick to name the number of jazz musicians who have college degrees. Some musicians, such as Motamedy, teach music to augment their income as performers, he said. He plans to major in music at the University of Washington, or possibly Pacific Lutheran University. He’s already making money from his sax playing. 

In his spare time, Brandon picks up $300 (for four hours work) performing at weddings, birthday parties and corporate functions. 

“He’s cruising with the pros,” Sherman Willis said.

Last year, Brandon was named outstanding soloist among band members from 3A schools at the Bellevue Jazz Festival.

“That was pretty cool. Hopefully, I’ll win it again,” he said. 

While a fifth-grader at Apollo Elementary School, his music teacher, Lynn Boeger, encouraged him to pursue music and consider joining the band when he entered Maywood Middle School the following year. He chose the clarinet, but after six months, he switched to the tenor saxophone and started listening to Kenny G albums.

“It just stuck with me,” he said of the sax. 

Two years ago, he started writing songs with Motamedy and Donyea Goodman, a Seattle music producer. They hope to have a CD released in the coming year.

Brandon lists Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Charlie Parker among his favorites. Former President Bill Clinton, who made news in 1992 playing the saxophone on the Arsenio Hall TV show, should stick to politics, Brandon said.

“I don’t think sax is one of his major areas of expertise,” he said.

Reach Reporter Jim Feehan at 392-6434, ext. 239, of jfeehan@isspress.com.

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