TALLADEGA -- “Everything is based on scales,” saxophonist Brandon Ragan explained to the Talladega High School band Wednesday, after improvising on the Gershwin's “Summertime” as an example. “You have to get your fundamentals down pat. You can’t skimp on the basics, but once you get the scales down, it allows you to improvise over them.”
Ragan learned some of those fundamentals in the very room in which he was standing Wednesday. Jerry Lewis was his band director, he said.
He first took up the saxophone in fifth grade, after seeing a cousin play in the Alabama State Marching Band. “I thought saxophone players were pretty cool dudes,” he said.
After graduating from THS in 1986, Ragan went to Jacksonville State University, where he continued participating in marching band for two more years. By 1989, he was pursuing a degree in music education from Talladega College, where he also worked with the stage band and the choir. He earned his degree in 1989, and worked in the area as a substitute teacher until joining the Marine Corps in 1994. “That was mostly for financial reasons,” he explained. But while he traveled overseas, he said, he continued to play on the side when he got the chance.
“I had changed my career from carrying a sax to carrying an M16 rifle and a 9mm pistol as a military policeman. But I still played, still enjoyed it, still practiced.”
After four years in the service, he came home, worked on a master’s degree and took odd jobs.
His background as an MP came in handy in 2009, when he was able to land a job as a security specialist for the Defense Department. His new career took him to the West Coast.
“I had always wanted to go to (Los Angeles), and I was kind of surprised by the fact that my new career took me there. In LA, I was making decent money with my day job, and I was able to join the National Federation of Musicians Local 42.”
The LA music scene has been part of his life ever since. He said he has gotten to meet luminaries such as Quincy Jones and Stevie Wonder, as well as members of various talk show house bands, soundtrack artists and others.
“I attend jam sessions whenever I can, and I host some around Ventura County,” he said. He has played restaurant gigs, fiestas, birthday parties, weddings, banquets and B-movie scores since then. He has played one massive American Cancer Society event in Santa Barbara so far this year, and will play another in the fall.
But he also finds time to come home to Talladega County a couple of times per year, spending time with high school buddies including Michael Keith and Glenn Wade, who now have children of their own in high school.
“I’m invited to come hang out with the band (at THS), with the saxophone section, and I’m always amazed at the level of talent and skill. I was sitting in Monday, and they were playing ‘Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,’ I think, an old Motown song. I hit a sour note, and I look over and I’m getting the old sour eye from a 10th grader.”
Ragan also likes to spend time at Zora Ellis Junior High School and Munford High School, he added.
“I’ve got four gigs already lined up when I go back to California (later this month),” he said, “but it’s always good to be back at home. It’s good to be able to give back to the places that gave so much to me.”
Contact Chris Norwood at email@example.com.