Just before taking up his saxophone to play, 16-year-old Jordy Freed looked out at the small cafe packed with people. The audience was a sea of faces, so much so that he couldn't even find his mom. He smiled to himself. All his hard work had definitely paid off. Now he felt free to jam.
His band of high school musicians — the Jordy Freed Blue Note Jazz Quintet — was the main attraction at the Little Dipper Cafe in Elkins Park on Feb. 24.
While the 150-person crowd clearly enjoyed the up-tempo music, the evening did have a somber undertone, serving as a tribute to Michael Brecker, a Grammy Award-winning saxophonist from the Cheltenham area who died earlier this year after a long battle with leukemia. To organize the show, Freed had to pick the music, book the venue, create the flyers and work closely with the Brecker family to choose a charity — the Marrow Foundation's "Time Is of the Essence Fund." The event raised $2,400.
In the years before Brecker's death, Freed had developed a relationship with the jazzman via e-mail. A student at Cheltenham High School — Brecker's alma mater — Freed looked up the then 55-year-old on the school's database and found his e-mail address. At first, it was a fan writing to a pro, but Brecker soon began mentoring the teenager, and the two corresponded, on average, about once a month.
When Freed had breathing problems, for example, Brecker offered him some exercises to increase lung capacity. It worked.
When Freed felt like he was mentally blocked while trying to write new music, Brecker suggested that he go back to the basic task of copying licks and solos from other sax players. That worked as well.
Freed has put these skills to good use sitting in at clubs like Natalie's in University City and Ortlieb's Jazzhaus in Northern Liberties. He's also played at senior centers near his home in Elkins Park, and even performed the national anthem at a Phillies game and at a half-time show at a 76ers game.
Freed attends Congregation Adath Jeshurun in Elkins Park, where he's performed from time to time in the synagogue's Rockin' Havdalah events. He is also the managing editor of the Cheltenham High School newspaper, The Cheltonian, and was invited to participate in the Peter Jennings Project for Journalists and the Constitution, where he met the likes of newsman Ted Koppel and political guru George Stephanopoulos.
But Freed's first love is music, and just after he'd begun e-mailing his hero, they got the chance to met in February 2005, when Brecker played a show at the Kimmel Center in Center City. Freed had second-row seats and an invitation to go backstage.
"I was very intimidated — in a good way — because he's greatness," said the teen, who spent about 15 minutes with Brecker. He also learned something else.
"He was tired, he was getting symptoms," said Freed. "He was really drained."
Although it was the only time they would meet, their friendship blossomed, even through Brecker's long illness.
"There was a month where that was all [I was] talking about — Mike and his illness, and what we could do," said Freed who also volunteered his time at a bone-marrow drive for Brecker at Keneseth Israel Synagogue in Elkins Park.
When Brecker died in January, Freed was "devastated."
Because he'd previously organized a benefit concert for tsunami relief when he was 14, Freed decided to repeat the process.
While performing at the last month's charity show, Freed incorporated Brecker's handy tips. Later, the admittedly "self-critical" young musician realized that his technique had improved.
"It was the best concert I ever performed," he said. "When you feel passionate about something or someone, it just takes it to the next level."