Michael Brecker, one of jazz's most influential tenor saxophonists over the last quarter-century, has been forced to stop performing by blood and bone marrow disease and is searching for a stranger to save his life.
Mr. Brecker, 56, was recently found to have myelodysplastic syndrome, a form of cancer in which the bone marrow stops producing enough healthy blood cells. His doctors say he needs a blood stem cell and bone marrow transplant, a harrowing procedure that will be possible only if Mr. Brecker finds a stem cell donor with a specific enough genetic match for his tissue type. So far, they have been unable to find one from the millions of people on an international registry for bone marrow donors.
Mr. Brecker vows that his saxophone has been silenced only temporarily.
"I really miss playing and I'll be happy to get back to it, but I'm really kind of dealing with a life-and-death situation now," he said recently, resting in bed at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in Manhattan.
His family, friends and fans have been urgently searching and organizing drives, from his temple in Westchester to the summer jazz festivals worldwide. At the Newport Jazz Festival this month, a table was set up where people could have themselves tested, and announcements were made periodically. A similar drive is planned for the Red Sea Jazz Festival next week in Israel.
Fellow musicians have been spreading the word in music circles, urging people to be tested to find a possible match for Mr. Brecker. There was even a rumor circulating that a match had been found, which turned out to be false.
"I'm trying to tell as many people as I can," said the pianist Herbie Hancock, who was touring with Mr. Brecker in March when the symptoms began seriously plaguing him. Mr. Hancock said he tried to buoy Mr. Brecker with "positive energy" and is telling him to be optimistic that a match will come, enabling the potentially life-saving transplant that uses a donor's healthy blood stem cells to replace the patient's unhealthy ones destroyed by chemotherapy.
Doctors told Mr. Brecker he had a 25 percent chance of finding his match from a sibling or one of his children. But neither his sister, Emily, nor his brother, the trumpeter Randy Brecker, nor either of his children matched. Neither did the distant relatives the family tracked down. He and his family are hopeful about the Red Sea Festival drive because Mr. Brecker's lineage is Eastern European Jewish and doctors tell him patients are most likely to match someone of their ethnic group.
Mr. Brecker said that he injured his back while on tour last August in Japan and received the diagnosis when he went for medical testing, but was told he could resume his busy schedule of performing, composing and recording. He went on tour with Mr. Hancock and the trumpeter Roy Hargrove in March and began having severe pain in his pelvis and lower back. Thinking the cause might be his posture, he got a custom saxophone strap, which did not help. One night, playing at Birdland in Manhattan with the saxophonists Joe Lovano and David Liebman, he could barely get through the evening. Doctors finally told him it was the disease causing intense muscle pain.
"Soon I could only play 15 minutes at a time and then not at all, no matter what I did," Mr. Brecker said.
Hobbled by "pain and a feeling of absolute malaise," Mr. Brecker said, he has been unable to practice or write music. He said he had written songs and arrangements for an entire album but became sick before recording it. He was at Sloan-Kettering for seven weeks recovering from an intense regimen of chemotherapy before being released last week. While there, he listened to iTunes on his laptop and researched his illness online, learning a whole new language with words like leukocyte, antigen and hematological oncology.
"We've entered into this world we knew nothing about," said his wife, Susan Brecker. Their daughter, Jessica, 16, has joined the search, working the phones and the Internet every day. Mr. Brecker speaks to his son, Sam, 12, each evening by using a small camera hooked up to his laptop.
Ms. Brecker said that although the family was desperate for a donor - and would certainly accept a donation from someone looking to donate only to Mr. Brecker - they were urging people not to become "Brecker-only" donors, but rather to sign up with the donor registry.
"I just want to be on the line," Mr. Brecker said. "I want as many people as possible to get tested, not just for my sake, but for the thousands of other people who might need what I need."
The Breckers hope that his prominence will increase awareness and that many more people will be tested and added to the registry as potential donors.
"To us it's a much larger thing than just Michael," Ms. Brecker said. "It's become sort of a crusade for Michael Brecker, but it might make a difference in a lot of people's lives.
"I didn't want him to be a poster boy, but if it takes a 'Save Michael Brecker' campaign to expose people to this, we'll do it."
Mr. Brecker first rose to prominence with his brother in the front line of the pianist Horace Silver's quintet, and the two had several hit records in the 1970's with their group, the Brecker Brothers. He has won 11 Grammy Awards and recorded and performed with McCoy Tyner, Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, Chet Baker, George Benson, Quincy Jones, Charles Mingus, Joni Mitchell, Jaco Pastorius, Paul Simon, Frank Sinatra, Bruce Springsteen, Steely Dan, Pat Metheny and Frank Zappa, among many others.
Shifting gingerly in his bed and propping up the pillows, Mr. Brecker said an anti-inflammatory steroid had helped ease his the pain. He added that he was gradually gaining enough strength to begin playing again and mused on how long it would take to build up his embouchure.
"I don't know if my neighbors would appreciate it," he said, referring to his fellow patients.
In his private room in Sloan-Kettering's transplant unit, the walls were covered with get-well cards that represent a Who's Who of jazz, including Sue Mingus, Charles's wife, the tenor saxophone giant George Coleman, the bassist Ron Carter and the trumpeter Randy Sandke.
There were also letters from fans and students and friends and family. A homemade card from the Litchfield Jazz Camp hung close to the head of his bed.
"The letters gave me a boost," Mr. Brecker said. "Some of them made me cry. I was so sick and so hopeless and they made me realize there are so many people out there who cared."
He leaned back, a man in limbo not only about whether his body will heal, but also about whether someone on the planet with his genetic type will materialize.
"I'm functioning as if it's going to work out," he said.