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A Conversation With Jazz Great Joanne Brackeen

The Picasso of Jazz Piano Tells Her Story

Posted in MusicWorld on April 7, 2016 by

Groundbreaking pianist and composer Joanne Brackeen has been called “a maelstrom on the keys” by NPR, while All About Jazz proclaims her “one of jazz’s most prized possessions: a virtuoso pianist and master composer who epitomizes the history and evolution of jazz from tradition to free, and everything in between, all with a contemporary edge.”

This high praise is among many accolades that Brackeen has received since starting her career in the late 1950s, when she was inspired by Charlie Parker and Bud Powell and began playing professionally on the Los Angeles jazz scene. Relocating to New York City in 1965, Brackeen also quickly established herself there, gaining much attention in 1969 when she became the first (and, it would turn out, only) female member of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers. After playing with legends such as Joe Henderson, Stan Getz, Lee Konitz, George Benson, Sonny Stitt and Freddie McCoy, among many others, she began her recording career as a leader in 1975, often focusing on her own compositions. She is such a prolific writer that she’s amassed somewhere around three hundred original compositions (including commissioned works for string quartet and string quintet), only a third of which she has recorded on her 25 revered albums. Fortunately she has started catching up, with her new solo record, What If, due to be released soon.

Largely self-taught, Brackeen incongruously finds herself teaching at Berklee College of Music, where she received an award for Outstanding Achievement in Education. She is also the recipient of the International Association of Jazz Educators’ award for Outstanding Educator, along with prestigious grants from the National Endowment for the Arts. In celebration of Jazz Appreciation Month, BMI chatted with the eclectic artist about her brilliant career journey thus far.

How different is composition from improvisation for you?

They’re very closely interrelated. I would say that my composition comes first. I don’t hear it in terms of notes, I hear it in terms of energy. A composition will just come to me, and then I go on the piano and find out the sound that is that energy that I heard and felt. Often when I’m playing the piano, I’m not just hearing the sound of the piano, I’m hearing the sound of the song. That probably sounds weird, but I notice sometimes I hear it in terms of a voice – and not someone singing it, but just a voice – and sometimes in terms of another instrument or instruments, particularly if it’s very rhythmic, sometimes I’ll hear the sound of the drums.

You’ve been called the Picasso of Jazz Piano.

That happened one time [when] I was working with my trio at the Catalina Club in Los Angeles and Marian McPartland came down to hear us and then they wrote an article in the Times and that’s what she called me. I think what she was referring to was, when I started playing, the people I was surrounded by – and that largely had to do with Ornette and Charles Lloyd, people like that – we played what we felt right as we felt it. We didn’t go into the practice room and practice licks and then come back and do them onstage. When I play, I just play, and I could very possibly play some things that I couldn’t even duplicate again. Even if someone recorded it and I tried to transcribe it, I couldn’t even play it again.

And yet, you work as an educator [at Berklee] – how do you teach an approach like that?

Yes, I am, and that’s a funny situation because [normally] you can’t work there unless you’ve gone through college and got all these degrees and things, and of course the only thing I ever did was get a scholarship to the L.A. Conservatory of Music. I went there for four days and I didn’t like it because all I had to do was learn all these words for the description of what I could already do. And I thought, I came here to learn music, not to learn English or whatever they would call that. So I never went to college at all. My college was what you know as my history.

What happens is [Berklee has] a format that you have to have, what the students have to learn each semester; there are items they have to do at a certain level. My students come in and I let them know right away what that is, and if they want more, they have to get through that first. I promise [to], and do, come up with anything that they want to know other than that; I will teach them after they’ve done everything they need to do each semester. Every student gets something different. Sometimes they come in there very inspired and get enormous amounts of knowledge in one semester, and others barely get through the regular program and get a little influence, but I just teach them what they want to know. And if there are things they really have to know in order to be able to do what they want to know, I’ll make them do that too. It’s totally individual.

You are something of an icon for women in jazz, which has long been considered a male-dominated genre.

I was a performer and composer, having worked with and recorded with Joe Henderson and Stan Getz and Art Blakey, long before they ever decided there was such a thing as women in jazz. That didn’t happen until 1978 – I mean, it didn’t come into my life [before then], and I just thought the question was crazy when they called me up and asked would I play at their Women in Jazz concert in Kansas City. It was kind of a shock, because my whole life I never thought in terms of you’re a woman or you’re a man, I only thought in terms of you’re a musician and you’re doing the same together because you like the same type of sounds and feelings of the music that was termed jazz. But I did do the concert, of course. I felt very uncomfortable when they asked me, because I thought I was then going to have to use women drummers and bass players, of which there were none that I knew at that time that would have been appropriate. But they didn’t, they had it so the woman was the leader and you could have whoever you wanted in your band, so then that was fine with me. I remember that Carla Bley was at that first concert, and she came up to me after my group played and said, ‘Joanne, you’re a freak of nature.’ She’s so funny, and she’s had some great bands and written some really interesting music herself.

Your mid-’70s work with Stan Getz is back in the spotlight thanks to the Resonance label’s February release of the Stan Getz Quartet’s Moments in Time and Getz/Gilberto ‘76. Tell us about that.

That was a week of shows. The Stan Getz band was unforgettable and very special. I would make a recording every night of the band, and after we finished playing, we’d go back and listen to the whole recording again to see how we could make it better the next night. Stan hired this band, Billy Hart had been with Herbie Hancock, bands just out there. Clint Houston and I had played quite a bit together in duets, and when we played, we would do some of my tunes all in different time meters, we would take as long a solo as we wanted to take, we would go as far out as we wanted to go. So when we got called together in this band, you had a bunch of dynamos in the rhythm section, but Stan Getz not only played with an incredible pitch of sound and energy, but he had a format that wasn’t what we had been doing at all, but evidently that’s the element he wanted. So we had to figure out how to make it all work. He never said anything, he just expected that we would do that – which we did. We had to figure out what we could do behind him to make him sound great, and then what we would do behind each other that would not interfere with what he did, but would be as much of us as it could be without opposing anything that was going on. It was like, we worked every night but then we listened to it again, so it was like we worked two jobs every night! Maybe it was his focus that caused us to focus like that. It was a fascinating experience and a very positive thing.

What would be a few less well-known jazz compositions that you would like to hear people play more often?

Well, I have a lot myself! I think I will be doing a concert in the fall – because I had a sabbatical and I wrote twenty songs, and now I have to go about learning how I want to play them. But there are so many songs. I love many of Ornette’s songs that you virtually would never hear unless you heard him play, and that’s not going to happen again.

You also just finished a new solo recording.

Yes, I did. I didn’t do any of those new compositions on it, but I did do some that I already had. One is called “Opera Pearls”; I think I called another one “Dragon Dance.” Both of those have different time feels, meters.

You being so prolific at this point in your career bucks the trend of Joe Henderson and Thelonious Monk – jazz composers who do most of their writing early in their careers.

That’s true about Joe. I think he wrote “Recorda Me” when he was 13. He went more on the improvisation side of things. We’d be on the bandstand and playing; his solo was maybe twenty minutes long, go off the bandstand and leave it for a piano solo, another twenty minutes. Improvising was a lot of his thing. He did another record with me where we played [only] my compositions [Ancient Dynasty, on pianist Bob James’s label Tappan Zee]. “Remembering” was one of his favorites that I wrote. This is when I was the leader and he was working with me. When he was the leader and I was working with him, we did his songs, and a lot of standards.

Tell us about your relationship with BMI.

I’m associated only with BMI, and that’s what I’ve been with since I started. My compositions all run through there. My friends told me; among the musicians I knew, they said, ‘That’s the one for the kind of music that we do.’