Brandon Robertson’s first gig earned him $15 and some cold grits.
“It was 2004, and I was playing for Senator Bill Nelson’s private party,” Robertson remembered. “He had just been elected as a senator.”
Robertson was expecting to be paid more for the 4½-hour performance with a quartet, but was still excited to earn the money.
“I was so proud of that $15! After that, I got to meet Senator Nelson, and he talked to us, and then he dropped us a lovely tip – each of us $200.”
Robertson, now director of jazz studies at the Bower School of Music & the Arts, said he likes to tell that story to students in Florida Gulf Coast University’s Jazz Band, Pep Band and in his “Jazz Methods” course to show them how important it is to play music with passion, not just for a paycheck.
“I didn’t care about the money,” Robertson said. “That’s how I played that night, and that’s why he came up to us and dropped $800 in our tip jar.”
Robertson’s performance experience is one reason he’s resonating with FGCU music students, but he never intended to become a teacher. It was only in Robertson’s final year of graduate school at Florida State University that a professor encouraged the Tampa native to take a few education courses, just in case he ever pursued teaching.
In 2016, Robertson earned his master’s degree in music and left a growing career in Tallahassee – two of his favorite jobs during that time were playing with the Count Basie Orchestra and a funk band that opened for Steely Dan – to be with his wife in Southwest Florida.
With few connections and no job, Robertson walked into the Bower School and introduced himself to the staff. He left as the new instructor of FGCU’s “Jazz Methods” course.
“I walked in the building with no job and walked out with a job,” Robertson said.
Eventually, Robertson took on the jazz and pep bands and is now trying to make sure his students have the practical professional skills they’ll need as musicians – skills such as how to play in a combo and book gigs.
Joel Law, a sophomore music education major who belongs to a student combo Robertson put together, said that at first, Robertson helped the group find gigs, but now they handle their own bookings and marketing, with weekly check-ins.
“He doesn’t change for anybody,” Law said. “His teaching style is straightforward and very hands-on.”
When he isn’t teaching, Robertson is performing across Southwest Florida. A duo with Law is one of four ensembles he’s a part of. He also plays with his own trio and quartet, and with the Dan Miller-Lew Del Gatto Quartet. Miller is a trumpet player who used to tour with Harry Connick Jr.’s big band. Del Gatto spent 30 years as a saxophonist for NBC’s “Saturday Night Live” band.
Miller said Robertson’s performance experience is a valuable resource for FGCU students. “They respect him as a performer, so they know what he’s telling them is the truth,” Miller said.
As a musician, Miller appreciates that Robertson is always prepared. “He brings passion and fire to the bandstand every time,” Miller said. “Every time we get on stage, we’re going to play hard.”
Robertson’s experiences will come together this spring as he records his first album, “Bass on a True Story.” The album will play like a greatest-hits soundtrack of his life, made up of nine songs he has written at different points in his career.
One of the songs, “Pursuit,” was written immediately after Robertson finished graduate school to express his excitement for what was coming next in his life. Another, “Better Days Will Come,” is a song Robertson wrote for his wife after her mother died.
“When she passed away, it changed my entire life,” Robertson said. “I was living in Tallahassee, I was making really good money, I was touring with the Basie band.”
Robertson’s wife moved back to Southwest Florida to take care of her younger sister, and Robertson followed after he completed school. “I was so crushed because my life got turned upside down and I didn’t know how to handle it. In the blink of an eye, I’m in Southwest Florida.”
The musicians playing on the album will be colleagues from different points in Robertson’s career, from Miller and Del Gatto to friends that Robertson performed with in college. One of those friends is Zach Bartholomew, with whom an 18-year-old Robertson performed on a cruise ship with Frank Sinatra’s pianist, Ray Coussins. Another is Adrian Crutchfield, a saxophonist who played with Lionel Richie and Prince.
Robertson said the album will be released in spring 2019, and he hopes to tour that summer.
“The music I’m doing now is based on experiences in my life, where I’m at currently,” Robertson said. “I’m married, I have kids, I’m in a different space, so my music is more mature. I’m trying to advance and enhance it – I want it to be timeless.”