Fred Lipsius - Connections
by Jim Sullivan

As Fred Lipsius, an associate professor in the Woodwind Department, looks back on his career, connecting with people both inside and outside of music has been the high point. In 1967 the saxophonist joined forces with keyboardist Al Kooper and guitarist Steve Katz to form Blood, Sweat & Tears, a band that is generally credited with bringing horn-driven jazz to the world of rock. The band scored nine gold records and Lipsius garnered a Grammy for his arrangement of the hit song "Spinning Wheel." But by 1971, Lipsius was ready for a new connection.

"I'd spent four and a half years with the band,'' says Lipsius over lunch at a Thai restaurant near his Brookline home. "I was young, and as happens in any band, things got very heavy at times. As wonderful as it was, I felt I needed to get away." The strain of being on the road as well as personal dynamics among the band members led to his decision to leave. "I'm sensitive, so all this was knocking the wind out of me," Lipsius says. "I felt like an old man, and I was only 26 or 27."

The Bronx-born Lipsius bought a parcel of land an hour north of New York and moved there with his first wife. He sought other gigs but found the transition harder than he expected. "After BS&T, I had a rough time," Lipsius says. "I wasn't a particularly good business person at the time and began seriously thinking about becoming a farmer. I owned two acres of property and a big tractor."

Lipsius, who was raised on a diet of Benny Goodman, Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Sonny Stitt, and Cannonball Adderley, ultimately decided against farming in favor of seeking work in New York's studios. It just took a while to make the right connections. "It was funny," Lipsius says. "I needed the work, but I guess people thought I had a mountain of gold after my success and that I didn't need to work."

Eventually, doors opened up to him. In his post-BS&T life, Lipsius played gigs with Al Foster, George Mraz, Larry Willis, former BS&T band mate Randy Brecker, and many more. He played on more than 30 albums as a sideman or leader and composed and arranged TV commercials and themes for CBS Television. He also went on tour with Simon and Garfunkel for the duo's 1982 reunion. The tour also enabled him to make perhaps the most important connection of his life. While in Osaka, Japan, with Simon and Garfunkel, Lipsius met his current wife, Setsuko.

In 1984, Lipsius joined the Berklee faculty, and he has spent the past 21 years instructing saxophone students, directing woodwind reading and improvisation labs, and teaching courses for the piano department. Along the way, he's written five books on jazz improvisation and reading jazz rhythms. Lipsius hadn't initially planned on making a long-term commitment to music education and Berklee. "I thought because I'd had success before, I'd be at Berklee for three years and then move on to other things. But I'm very comfortable teaching."

Making connections is something Lipsius stresses with his students, and he hails the advantages of being among a diverse group of musicians. "I tell them, 'You're so fortunate, whether you know it or not, to be around students from all over the world,'" Lipsius says. With his saxophone students, he stresses the importance of developing a good tone no matter what style of music they choose to play. Some of his former students who've gone on to establish great careers include Antonio Hart '91, Roy Hargrove '89, and Danilo Perez '88.

In addition to playing occasional concerts with other Berklee professors and releasing his solo CD Pure Classics last year, Lipsius has been connecting through music with patients at nursing homes and mental hospitals. "I started doing this two summers ago," Lipsius says. "I had previously done one for free in Brookline. About 40 people were wheeled in. I played the piano and spoke to them, and it was one of the most beautiful experiences of my life. The music made a lot of these people happy.

"I met an 80-year-old Japanese woman there who when she was younger had played for the emperor of Japan. She started asking me questions between tunes, and we began to talk about jazz and other things in my life. The whole experience was heart opening for me.'' Since then, Lipsius has done about 60 similar performances playing piano and solo saxophone on tunes from the 1920s through the 1950s. "A fellow professor who performed with me at a few of these nursing homes said to me, 'Fred, I think you found your calling; you really know how to reach these people.'"

While these gigs aren't as spectacular as playing to throngs of screaming fans in a new city each night, a simpler, quieter life works just fine for Lipsius for now. Making a connection with an audience and his students through music is very satisfying for him.

His most significant connection, though, has been with his second wife, Setsuko. "She's a really big part of my life," says Lipsius. "We've been married for 21 years, and she's one of the reasons I don't feel a huge need to get out and gig more. It's simply a miracle to be with someone who loves you so much. Just walking down the street with her can give me as much enjoyment as playing."

-Jim Sullivan is a freelance music journalist who lives in the Boston area.