Tea at The St. Regis

This great piece on Henry Threadgill brought up the name Steve Backer, a guy I hadn’t thought about in a while, and who I really miss. He had a big impact on my path as a musician, all behind the scenes.

Michael Brecker (L), Steve Backer (R)

Steve was responsible for getting a lot of music recorded at major labels, including mine. He did this at various labels over many years. Mostly involved with modern jazz, Steve worked across a wide spectrum of what that meant, starting in the late 60s right through to the 2000s. He loved all the music, regardless of stylistic direction. He was just a really good guy.

When I first heard from Steve, he would call me up to invite me to Tea at the St. Regis. I thought that was odd, not something I would have ever considered doing. But I figured it was his “thing.” And it was kind of fun. Tea and finger sandwiches with American songbook standards played live on solo harp. (That must have been a hell of a gig!)

We discussed a range of topics in food, politics, life, music history, and his vision for where he thought I could be recording and releasing my music. I was inevitably underdressed and overstressed and yet somehow I felt like royalty. Steve was so relaxed, it put you at ease.

If you’ve never been to Tea at the St. Regis, try it sometime. Go around 3 or 4pm on a weekday.

I found out at Steve’s memorial that he didn’t have this ritual with anyone else. Nobody else mentioned Tea at the St. Regis. So, did he think it was an environment that would impress me? Or maybe that he knew it was something I couldn’t afford and it would somehow blow me away? Or, maybe that he wanted to give me, at that time a recently graduated street musician, a taste of “the good life?” Or maybe he thought that because I was from Montclair and went to Phillips Exeter that I would somehow expect no less? I’ll never know.

But it was out of those discussions that I got the opportunity to make records like Soul On Soul, A Thousand Evenings, The Infinite, Witness, Freak In, Strange Liberation, and to record my suite of music for the Trisha Brown Dance Company. Over the years I was with RCA, the label head changed about once a year, and the name of the imprint changed, too. But Steve was always around somehow. Once I took him out to dinner and made a point not to go to the St. Regis. He seemed happy with that. Later on, when he got sick, I felt he was really proud of having so many relationships with musicians, facilitating so much music.

When he came to me with the offer from RCA, this normally pretty voluble guy became a man of few words. I was hesitant. He was persistent. I took the deal. Thanks, Steve. Miss you always.