His sound is unique -- and it takes years to master.
Derek Brown is an instructor at the Jerry Evans School of Music in Wheaton. He's got a master of arts degree in jazz studies from the prestigious University of Cincinnati College Conservatory, but it's safe to say nobody taught him the "beatbox" technique. That he did on his own.
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Brown's highly skilled hands bang the bell keys on his vintage 1968 Selmer Mark VI tenor saxophone, dance with purpose across the piano keys and flow like a cool breeze across the strings of his violin.
But it's what he does with the sax that has brought him the most attention, and envy.
In his hands, Brown's tenor sax is both a musical and percussive instrument. Listening to Charlie Parker and John Coltrane, he was inspired to create the illusion of accompanying the melody line of a tune with drums and/or a bass line. It's one saxophone, but it ultimately sounds like two players.
Beatbox Sax, as Brown calls it, was conceived using a slap-tongue technique he didn't invent -- various players have used it for years. But Brown found a new use for it.
"Too long for me to want to think about" is how Brown sums up the time it took him to master his technique, "and I'm still working on it."
To get just the right "popping" sound on lower notes when playing the melody, he practiced the techniques for hours, resulting in only about 5-10 seconds of usable material that had that basic drum beat baseline sound.
Alternating the melody line with slap tonguing gave him the sound he was searching for. There is no loop pedal or digital overdubbing studio sound; it's just Brown.
"I'm one of those guys who is pushing this idea forward, doing my own twist, trying to make it more rhythmic," he explains.
"I'm trying to bring something new to the game, trying to have fun with it and see how far I can take the saxophone," Brown said.
Derek can take Beatbox Sax anywhere -- any room, any impromptu street performance -- and just play, with no special microphones, no amplification.
Pop songs, Brown claims, are his favorite melodies to add the beatbox percussive snare and bass drum techniques. From rockers The Police to pop star Justin Bieber, Brown finds songs he can adapt.
Brown found his way to the Chicago suburbs six months ago from Abilene, Texas, where he had been the jazz director at Abilene Christian University.
Brown's 20-year affair with the saxophone started when his parents pressured him in fifth grade to play a band instrument. Brown picked the saxophone to spite them -- he figured it was too pricey and his parents would back down. That backfired, and thank goodness.
Now, you can find the Derek Brown Syndicate playing Tuesdays at @North Bar in Chicago's Wicker Park and Thursdays at aliveOne in Lincoln Park, as well as other clubs around the Chicago area.
"It's a thrill to expose people to something they've never heard before," Brown says. "It's such a rush."