Only God lets someone play the saxophone by ear, Brian Babin says. Somehow, Babin also learned to play by heart.
For 12 years, Babin, a retired attorney, has taken his tenor sax and a song list he keeps in his head to play for audiences that, in many cases, don’t get to hear much live music any more. He plays in retirement homes, for Alzheimer’s Services and other organizations about 50 times a year. He doesn’t charge for any of them.
Four times a year, Babin plays for patients receiving chemotherapy at the Hematology Oncology Clinic.
“I play in the chemo room and both waiting rooms,” Babin said. “I tell my wife it’s the most difficult gig and the most rewarding at the same time. I’ve actually played in front of long-long-longtime friends of mine getting chemotherapy treatment, and that definitely is a different deal.
“I played a few years ago. I was in the restroom with one of the gentlemen who had been taking chemo, and he said, ?That was the fastest damn chemotherapy treatment I ever had.’”
An unusual compliment, to say the least.
“There’s all kinds of compensation,” Babin said. “It doesn’t have to be green and foldable.”
Music runs in Babin’s family; his mother had a degree from LSU in music, and a brother became a music professor. Babin, 70, has been playing the saxophone off and on since he was 8 years old, including a local rock and roll band called the Dynatones in the 1950s when he attended Redemptorist High School, and also played in the Tiger Marching Band while attending LSU from 1958-62. He graduated from the LSU Law School three years later.
A law career that took Babin from Baton Rouge, to New Orleans, to Jackson, Miss., and back again put the saxophone on a shelf for 30 years. In 1997, he dusted it off and began playing for the Baton Rouge Concert Band, and later for Platinum Sound. But the desire to perform solo gigs was there.
In 1999, Babin asked Ed Picard, then working at Ollie Steele Burden Manor, if he could play for the residents there. Babin’s father had spent his last days at Ollie Steele’s Alzheimer’s unit, and Picard gave Babin an appropriate slot - Father’s Day.
Babin asked other facilities for the opportunity to play, and as word spread, people started calling him.
“The clients really enjoy music, and I think when he plays music from their era, it brings them into a moment when they can go back in time and reminisce on certain songs that bring back memories of certain times from their past,” said Picard, who now works for Alzheimer’s Services of the Capital Area.
“Our residents love his music,” said Ramona Matthews, activity director for Southside Gardens Assisted Living.
Babin intersperses songs “When I Fall in Love,” “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” “It Had to Be You,” “Misty” and “Amazing Grace” with talk about how he plays and his instrument. His tenor saxophone is a Selmer, made in Paris, and his Berg Larsen signature mouthpiece is 50-plus years old and, to him worth more than the rest of the sax.
He brings with him no background music or percussion, and not a single page of sheet music. Babin has about 80 songs he can play, and he chooses about 18 to 20 to play at any given performance.
“It’s a good thing to ward off Alzheimer’s, I can tell you,” he said. “All my tunes are made up. I prefer playing by ear than by music, although I’ve played by music longer. It’s just so fluid and you can do whatever you want with it. I probably never play the tune exactly the same way, and that’s one reason I play unaccompanied. I don’t want to be structured
“It’s a little bit unique to play by ear. My best friends who play wonderfully can’t. People ask me about it. I say it’s a thing between you and God. He either makes you so you can relate a tone to a note or he doesn’t.”
The compensation, as Babin notes, comes not only in applause between songs but in kind words from audience members who are grateful he took the time to come.
“I don’t know that I ever envisioned that I’d be playing as much as I do,” Babin said. “But it keeps me out of some mischief.”