Music in the key of life

Shai Brenner is a Tel Aviv jazz saxophonist who devotes several hours a week to lightening the emotional load of sufferers from serious ailments of various ages.

Shai Brenner (photo credit: Courtesy)
Shai Brenner
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Long before the intoxicating enlightenment courtesy of the New Age movement, when people in the generally wealthy industrialized Western Hemisphere became aware of alternative ways of keeping in the pink physically and spiritually, there were the odd few who had already cottoned on to the fact that there is something more to life than the plainly visible and immediately tangible. English playwright William Congreve (1670-1729), for example, sagaciously noted in his 1697 work The Mourning Bride: “Music hath charms to soothe the savage breast, to soften rocks, or bend a knotted oak.”
Far more recently, in his 1999 tome, author of Sounds of Healing, oncologist and alternative treatment advocate Mitchell Gaynor proffered: “You can look at disease as a form of disharmony. And there’s no organ system in the body that’s not affected by sound and music and vibration.”
Shai Brenner would wholeheartedly agree with the above gents’ observations, and has been putting the musical healing line of practice to good practical use for some time now.
Brenner is a fortysomething Tel Aviv jazz saxophonist. In addition to performing, recording and teaching, he devotes several hours a week to lightening the emotional load of sufferers from serious ailments of various ages – primarily children. For the past four years he has been volunteering his palliative services to hospital patients at Sheba Medical Center in Tel Hashomer and at the Reut Medical Center in Tel Aviv’s Yad Eliyahu neighborhood.
Brenner certainly didn’t take the soft option, and says he got the notion from a previous phase of philanthropic activity. “I worked with senior citizens, as a volunteer,” he says. “I did all sorts of things with them, including playing music at day centers.”
He found it a rewarding experience, and decided to take things a stage further. “I started thinking about taking the music to places that really need it, so I went to the children’s hospital at Tel Hashomer. I went for the oncology department and rehabilitation.
You see children there in an awful state – with severe burns, in wheelchairs and other problems.”
He jumped in at the deep end, with no emotional preparation, professional or otherwise. “You have to develop sensitivity very quickly. You don’t just play, come what may. You go into a room with cancer sufferers and you offer them your musical services.
You have to be very attentive to the way they respond, while you’re playing, too.”
He says that more often than not, he finds himself playing joyous jazz numbers, from Dixieland to swing and bebop, for youngsters in very challenging straits.
“I feel very emotional when I talk about this and, yes, it can be an uplifting experience for me, too, but I often find myself in very difficult circumstances,” he states. “There have been quite a few instances when you see children in a very bad way, and I also see people of my own age, from my own people, who are at the end of their life. You try to create an atmosphere of optimism, and then you see someone dying right in front of you. That is tough for me to take. That really gets to me.”
It has been quite a learning experience for Brenner. “At the beginning I would fall to pieces emotionally,” he says, although adding that there are rewards for him, too. “You see how much strength and encouragement they take from the music.” That applies to all concerned. “I meet the parents and the close family of children with cancer – they need support, too – and they always thank me for what I do. They need strength, too, to deal with such a terrible situation. They come to me and tell me how much they enjoyed my playing, but they don’t need to tell me in words. I see it in their eyes.”
Brenner is a seasoned performer and, over the last two-plus decades, has played at major venues and festivals, both here and abroad. But, he says, in emotional terms nothing compares with his voluntary work at Sheba and Reut. “They are an amazing audience, and I get a lot from it, too.”
The jazzman also works his wonders outside the confines of medical institutions.
“I was recently asked to go to the home of someone in Herzliya. He was terminally ill. The family asked me to come to play for half an hour. That turned into a whole hour, and I also sat with the man and told him all sorts of stories about jazz.” It did the trick. “He looked so bad when I got there, but as I played, he not only smiled, he clapped his hands. There was so much joy there, of the whole family. That was so heartwarming.”
However, the prime beneficiary of Brenner’s emotive musical offering did not survive very long after the show. “An hour after I left, I received a phone call from a member of the family who told me the man had died. It was a going-away party, from life.” That couldn’t have been easy for Brenner.
“This work is a sort of sacrifice, but, you know, sacrifice is part of love.”
Brenner fell in love with jazz at a relatively late age. “I got into jazz after I finished the army. I discovered John Coltrane, Charlie Parker and Sidney Bechet around the same time,” he recalls, referencing three of the icons of the bebop, avant garde and earlier jazz styles.
In my long experience of talking to jazz musicians, I have found that, regardless of the chosen form of artistic expression, almost all retain an enduring bond with the sounds they heard in childhood and adolescence, whether or not the music was “high quality.”
Brenner is one of the exceptions to that rule. “I heard pop, rock and classical music as a kid, but for me, once I discovered jazz, there was nothing else for me. I immersed myself in the sounds and rhythms and deconstructed and reconstructed them. It is a mesmerizing world. There is simply nothing else for me but jazz.”
He was also determined to ply his own course through the intricacies and complexities of the improvisational art form. “I learned a lot on my own,” declares Brenner. “When people ask me who my teachers were, I say Sonny Stitt, Dexter Gordon, Sonny Rollins and Sidney Bechet,” he says, reeling off a roll call of saxophone titans from the early days of jazz and the formative eras of modern jazz. “The real way to study jazz, as far as I am concerned, is to take a work, decipher it theoretically, reproduce it with your instrument and implement it yourself.”
Jazz, like all forms of art, is much more of a matter than the exponent’s technical expertise. Jazz artists frequently talk about finding their “own voice,” bringing their personal baggage to bear, and leaving their unique stamp on the work in question.
Typically, as far as Brenner is concerned, that is just a matter of going with the flow. “You don’t have to look for your own voice, it will emerge in time,” he says. “Your own voice is a matter of you, your musicianship and time. That’s all.”
Brenner has been giving of his time to people to whom fate has dealt a cruel hand, and is doing his best to improve their lot, in his own mellifluous and life-affirming way.