Jaimie Branch: Chicago State of Mind

How a Windy City trumpeter, raised on Ornette and punk rock, became one of the most thrilling new voices of the New York avant-garde

Photo of Jaimie Branch

On the night in June that she turned 34 years old, Jaimie Branch welcomed a small crowd to Ibeam Brooklyn with bashful, almost childlike charm. “Thank you, guys, for coming to my birthday party,” she murmured—then immediately undercut the air of naïveté with an incendiary burst of shrapnel-spewing intensity from her trumpet.

That uneasy balance of vulnerability and aggression seems to churn at the very core of Jaimie Branch. It’s certainly a vein she mines effectively in her music. Throughout her recent debut album, Fly or Die (International Anthem), named after the band she leads, Branch regularly wrings poignant, melodic order from turbulent chaos before inevitably decaying into turmoil again. She combines a tightrope-walking sense of adventure, a quality that made her a vital part of the Chicago avant-jazz scene for nearly a decade, with an electric virtuosity that’s landed her on tours with rock bands like TV on the Radio and Spoon.

At Ibeam, alongside bassist Luke Stewart and drummer Mike Pride, moments of enticing beauty sprung forth shockingly from a whirl of abrasive textures. Though the trio’s set was wholly improvised, Branch, sporting a black White Sox hat and jersey and bright-red sneakers, would pause between each piece to offer a few words of guidance or direction, giving her some degree of control while still allowing the music to roam freely wherever it might. “I don’t want to give too much direction, but even with language and talking everybody interprets things in their own manner,” Branch explained later. “Even if I say something really specific or sing a little melody or [spits a beat], that could mean something entirely different to Mike than it does to me. But if we’re all holding on to this one idea, the music will hang together too.”

Photo of Jaimie Branch at Ibeam with bassist Luke Stewart and drummer Mike Pride (photo by Peter Gannushkin)
Jaimie Branch at Ibeam with bassist Luke Stewart and drummer Mike Pride (photo by Peter Gannushkin)

It’s dangerously tempting to indulge in a bit of armchair psychology here, to see music as the stabilizing counterweight to Branch’s sometimes turbulent life, steering her through struggles with family and drugs and other missteps. As one of her mentors, trumpeter John McNeil—himself no stranger to battling personal demons—put it, “It’s been an interesting trip for Jaimie. It hasn’t been conventional, that’s for sure, but she’s an unconventional person. Everybody tells their story. If you don’t say it in words, you say it in actions.”

Her Chicago Roots

Walking her 14-year-old dog, Patton, through a light drizzle in her Red Hook, Brooklyn, neighborhood earlier on her birthday, Branch recalled her early, insulated life on Long Island. “I was 9 before I actually sat down to look at a map and understood that people lived other places than New York,” she said. “Literally, my world view was ‘Everybody’s born in New York, some people move to Jersey, and when you’re old you move to Florida.’”

That same year, her family moved to the Chicago suburb of Wilmette, on the city’s North Shore, where she began playing trumpet in the school band. The horn wasn’t her first choice. “Had we stayed in New York I would have played the bass, but my school didn’t have an orchestra so that wasn’t on the table. My mom really wanted me to play oboe, and the band director really wanted me to play French horn, but I was choosing between saxophone and trumpet. My family went out to dinner one night and I spilled my dad’s red wine all over the saxophone [sign-up] sheet and all over his white shirt. And that was it—I played trumpet.”

Branch’s earliest musical exposure came from her two older half-brothers, who passed along cassettes by the likes of Michael Jackson, Beastie Boys and the Go-Go’s, while her “kinda square” parents listened to Barbra Streisand, Perry Como and Elvis. Like many a kid with such conventional options at home, Branch found her escape through punk rock, latching on to bands like Descendents, NOFX and Minor Threat. “When we were kids, I remember it was ‘Are you Nirvana or are you Pearl Jam?’ I was steadfastly Nirvana.”

At the same time, Branch’s trumpet playing led her to begin exploring jazz, beginning with Miles Davis’ ’58 Sessions Featuring Stella by Starlight, off of which she transcribed Miles’ solo on “On Green Dolphin Street.” Flipping to the jazz station in the upper channels of her cable service, she was stunned by Ornette Coleman’s “Lonely Woman” and immediately biked to her local Coconuts to buy The Shape of Jazz to Come. “I went to school the next day talking about Ornette Coleman’s new record,” she laughed. A friend corrected her, pointing out that it had been released in 1959. “I said, ‘This is the same year as Kind of Blue? What the fuck?’”

Soon thereafter she began venturing regularly into Chicago to hear music at the Jazz Showcase. Her more or less conventional path was disrupted, though, when she accidentally started a fire that burned down her house and opened a schism with her family. “The summer before my senior year of high school, my buddy and I made some food, lit some candles [in my basement bedroom, and then] watched The Matrix and fell asleep [upstairs]. At 6 in the morning I hear my mom screaming; I go to open the door and smoke rushed in. We lived in a ranch house, so I got my little sister and my friend out and then I jumped out the window. After that, my mother was like, ‘You need to not be around for a while.’”

Making the Chicago Avant-Jazz Scene

Staying with the family of her future sister-in-law in Denver, Branch attended the Mile High Jazz Camp that summer in Boulder, where she crossed paths for the first time with John McNeil. “He’s a total weirdo and I was a total weirdo, so we hit it off,” she explained.

“I understood her, that’s for sure, if anybody can understand anybody else,” McNeil said. “Jaimie had a very strong personality, like a ‘get out of my way’ kind of personality, but not unpleasant. She played the same way: very pointed, very aggressive, but always with a purpose.”

Recognizing her drive and ambition, McNeil encouraged Branch to move to Boston and study at New England Conservatory, where he’s a member of the faculty, and lobbied the school to accept her into the jazz program. And although she ended up graduating from NEC, her restlessness continued, sending her back to Chicago every summer. “The move to Wilmette had been rough because the north suburbs were super white and square and I really wanted to get back to New York,” she said. “Then, as soon as I got to NEC, I learned about Chicago’s free-jazz history and went running back to Chicago.”

Branch’s discovery of the thriving avant-jazz scene in Chicago brought the two sides of her musical life together. In the city’s musician-led activity she saw resonances with the attitudes and aesthetics that had attracted her to punk. “I liked the DIY-ness of it all,” she said. “Ken Vandermark had done a lot of organizing in the late ’90s, so there was this great infrastructure in place. There was literally a series almost every night of the week. Everyone was playing music at a super-high level but it wasn’t ego-driven. There was really a focus on the music. That was super appealing—actually, I don’t even know if appealing is the right word. I was drawn to it in a physical, visceral way. I needed to be part of that scene.”

Branch landed a summer job at the Jazz Record Mart, where she restocked shelves and talked music with several of the scene’s then-rising players, including drummer Frank Rosaly, cornetist Josh Berman, vibraphonist Jason Adasiewicz and saxophonist Keefe Jackson. “She was really young, but everybody was really impressed with her right away,” Jackson recalled. “She was so energetic and so interested in so many different kinds of music. Those were the days when not everything was on YouTube, so if you knew a lot about different kinds of music it took a little work.”

Along with making regional tours with a couple of short-lived ska-punk bands, Branch began playing more with her coworkers and other musicians in the city, where she was welcomed with open arms. Taking a semester off from NEC to recover from gall bladder surgery, she became more immersed in the improvised music scene. “That was the semester that changed everything,” she said. “I took a lesson with [German trumpeter] Axel Dörner at Fred Lonberg-Holm’s house. Fred heard me play and invited me to play with his Lightbox Orchestra, and I met all the dudes.”

Lonberg-Holm remembers that first meeting, when Branch approached Dörner following a duo gig. “We weren’t real sure what to make of her, to be honest,” the cellist said. “This punky chick wearing a Ramones T-shirt, a backwards baseball cap and cut-off jeans comes up and asks to get a lesson, and Axel was just looking at me like, ‘What do you think?’ But I went up to my room and heard the trumpet. [I] could tell it wasn’t Axel, but she sounded really good.”

Typical of the collaborative Chicago scene, Branch formed a number of regular configurations out of a loose pool of players: Princess, Princess, with Rosaly and bassist Toby Summerfield; Sherpa, with Summerfield and Lonberg-Holm; a duo with multi-instrumentalist Marc Riordan, which became the trio Rupert with the addition of Summerfield, which would become the trio Battle Cats by subbing bassist Anton Hatwich for Riordan.

Photo of Jaimie Branch (photo by Mark Pallman)
Jaimie Branch (photo by Mark Pallman)

Coming East

Branch’s prolific Chicago tenure ended in 2013, when a chance encounter with trumpeter Dave Ballou while on tour in Baltimore led her to continue her studies at Towson University. Her stint at the school combined music with her increasing interest in audio engineering. A self-professed “gearhead without a lot of gear,” she began experimenting with recording shows she ran in Chicago, and she continues her engineering work on other musicians’ projects and in the post-production elements she brought to Fly or Die.

Ballou said that Branch “shook things up at the school pretty good,” but in 2015 she made another move. Her graduate assistantship at Towson ended, and she found herself lacking the funds to continue. Most important, she was determined to kick the drug habit that had increasingly been consuming her life over the last several years. Intent on a change, she landed in Brooklyn and quickly began forming a new circle of collaborators. “She always seems to be at the nexus of something,” McNeil said. “She’ll be the center of a scene, no matter where she is.”

Ironically, Branch’s long-delayed debut came about after her move to New York but features a cast of Chicago musicians: cellist Tomeka Reid, bassist Jason Ajemian and drummer Chad Taylor, along with guest appearances by cornetists Ben LaMar Gay and Josh Berman and guitarist Matt Schneider. The lattermost takes over for the lyrical closing track, “…Back at the Ranch,” subtly suggesting Branch’s varied interests and searching curiosity.

The album, recorded live at (Le) Poisson Rouge in New York’s West Village, and then supplemented and manipulated in the studio, carves out an abstract narrative arc through the combination of traditional and graphic notation as well as guided and free improvisation. Spontaneous inventions from past performances became written melodies, while the suggestion of “space sounds” in the score, illustrated by a sketch of Saturn, leads to the airy, floating “Waltzer.” Influences of Walt Whitman and Stan Kenton converge in “Leaves of Glass,” and “The Storm” begins with ominously swooping strings and rumbling toms and alters the sound of cornets to evoke eerie trombones.

In addition to Fly or Die, Branch currently leads her trio and teams with drummer Jason Nazary in an electronics-heavy duo called Anteloper (“I jokingly call it the New York Underground Duo,” Branch admitted). She’s also recently had the opportunity to play with veterans like saxophonist Oliver Lake and bassist William Parker, enthusing that “the super-dope thing about New York is that there’s elders everywhere.”

For his part, Parker said he invited Branch into his Little Huey Creative Music Orchestra because “I needed some new fire in the band and I felt she could handle the entire palette of sound. Jaimie doesn’t fool around; she has a darting and daring sound that has power and isn’t intellectual.”

Arriving relatively far into a still-young career, Fly or Die reveals a well-hewn vision that revels in the space between off-the-cliff daring and big-picture imagination. It may be long overdue, but it also arrives at exactly the right time. “I’ve decided recently to push a lot harder, and I think that’s partly why things are going better,” Branch said. “Shit happens for a number of different reasons. That’s life.”

Preview, buy or download songs from the album Fly or Die by Jaimie Branch on iTunes.