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Joanne Brackeen: Before & After

The pianistic trailblazer listens again for the first time

JoAnne Brackeen
Joanne Brackeen (photo: courtesy of the Whitney Museum)

In an interview with Wayne Enstice and Janis Stockhouse in Jazzwomen: Conversations with Twenty-One Musicians more than 20 years ago, pianist/composer Joanne Brackeen described herself as a “pioneer.” And indeed, no other woman of her generation apprenticed with Art Blakey, Freddie Hubbard, Stan Getz, and Joe Henderson before forging her own path as a leader.  “No one in my age group played the kind of music that I play and had their own group and does what I do,” Brackeen said, referencing her female contemporaries. “I’m talking about doing all of it, as if I wasn’t a woman. And I never deviated. Being a pioneer, you can imagine what that’s like. It’s not so easy.”

A working musician since her high school years in Los Angeles, the 84-year-old Brackeen, a New Yorker since 1965 and the mother of four daughters, has witnessed—and contributed mightily to—the progression of jazz during her lifetime. In L.A., she led trios and played piano for bop-era tenor legends Teddy Edwards and Harold Land in a rhythm section with nascent masters like bassists Herbie Lewis and Scott LaFaro and drummers Billy Higgins and Frank Butler, while also developing a lifelong friendship with Ornette Coleman. Once ensconced in Manhattan, she became one of New York’s most respected pianists, playing long-haul gigs at downtown boîtes like the West Boondock and the Surf Maid when off the road, and constructing a distinguished career as a bandleader. On some 20 consistently excellent albums between 1975 and 2000 in contexts ranging from solo to duo to trio to combo, Brackeen explored every style of music, straight-ahead to free, employing virtuosos like Michael Brecker, Henderson, Branford Marsalis, Terence Blanchard, Ravi Coltrane, Eddie Gómez, Cecil McBee, Jack DeJohnette, and Billy Hart (and that’s the short list) to record and perform her challenging original works.

“Every time I hear something, it’s like I’m hearing it for the first time,” the 2018 NEA Jazz Master prefaced her first Before & After encounter for JazzTimes. “I think it comes from improvising. That’s what we were taught—without words, without any concept—when I came up. Everyone was a composer. Nobody sounded or tried to sound like anyone else. These were people like McCoy Tyner, Chick Corea, Keith Jarrett, Horace Silver, Hampton Hawes, Ornette and Don Cherry—all totally different. That’s what I got used to hearing.”

Listen to a Spotify playlist featuring most of the songs in this Before & After:

 1. Art Tatum
“Louise” (20th Century Piano Genius, Verve). Tatum, piano; Leo Robin, Richard Whiting, composers. Recorded in 1955.

BEFORE: It’s interesting, because the first piano player I heard play “Louise” was Frankie Carle—and Frankie Carle could only wish he sounded like Art Tatum. So I see what you’re doing! That was fun. Art Tatum’s music boils down to him. This guy had every mood in his music, and he was full of life. I haven’t heard any piano player before or after be able to emit so many different … I could see the expression inside his head. Art Tatum felt human beings. That’s what he felt and that’s what he played—and it’s incredible.

Tatum played that in Hollywood, at a party.
I took some lessons at Westlake College of Music. I couldn’t find any piano teachers that I liked—at all. So the college let me in, if I would transcribe arrangements to different keys, the whole thing. I’d take those to high school and transcribe them under … you know, so no one could see what I was doing. That’s how I paid for about a year of piano lessons there. All the teachers were crazy about Art Tatum.

Frankie Carle played “Louise” on the album Frankie Carle and His Girl Friends [Columbia, 1944], which can be heard in its entirety on YouTube. You’ve said that you learned every tune, like “Rosetta” and “Liza” …
And the one that you just played: “Every little breeze seems to whisper ‘Louise.’” Yes, I learned them. My parents gave my sister and I lessons; she was 11 and I was nine. But I had already heard jazz on the neighbor’s radio, something that sounded more like boogie-woogie. I was totally impressed. That’s what I wanted to play on the piano. So I go for the lesson, and it’s [sings unsyncopated phrase]—I’m like, “What in the world is this?” I had to know stuff that I was extremely bored with. So I wouldn’t practice. But the one thing I did learn was the lines in the spaces in the two clefs that you read. My parents used to let me stay home alone, and I went through their records and they had Frankie Carle, who sounded very close to what I heard at the neighbor’s. So while they were gone, I figured it out. I could hear every note that the pianist was playing, so all I had to do was put the dots in the right place and then count four beats. I wrote down about eight of the tunes, from the beginning to the end, so I wouldn’t forget it, and then of course I played them by memory.

Do you perceive a connection between Tatum and yourself?
Not really. Because when I hear something … It’s like this tree. There’s every kind of this tree, but the tree that lives here has a breath to it, so it’s different than the other tree. I’ve hardly ever even heard a student learn a solo of someone else and play it exact, with the same feeling. I think it’s pretty hard. I mean, why would you do that? You’ve got your own. But there are people that take notes from people. They’ll learn the sequences and do them in all keys and play the same patterns. But what I feel when I hear music is not just the sound of the instrument. Usually when I’m playing, I hear an orchestra in the sound of the piano.

2. Harold Land
“Sims A-Plenty” (The Fox, Hifijazz). Land, tenor saxophone; Elmo Hope, piano, composer; Dupree Bolton, trumpet; Herbie Lewis, bass; Frank Butler, drums. Recorded in 1959.

BEFORE: I don’t know who it is. The horn players sounded great, and it sounded like they really enjoyed playing the tune, like they thought it was something innovative. The piano player is playing very sure things, but you pretty much know what notes he’s going to play, what feeling, and when it’s going to come and when it’s going to stop—and those are the things that I like to be surprised more by. You have to remember that one of the first people that I heard was Ornette Coleman; I was 17. But if a student came to me and wanted to learn that piece, I would say it’s a great one, because the phrasing is impeccable, everybody’s together, they’re generating a big feeling of love.

AFTER: I never heard Elmo play much when he lived in Los Angeles. I never heard that tune. His wife Bertha was there. He hung out all the time. Everybody hung out together. I played with Harold Land. He was really suave. Always dressed nice. Always sounded wonderful. The sound he got out of the tenor was so different. Unmistakable.

Herbie Lewis was on bass and Frank Butler on drums.
Well, that’s the musicality I’m talking about. It’s hard even now to hear people that play that much together. Terence Blanchard is one who, for many years, organized all these different bands, and every band he got together, from my point of view, was one of the best bands that you could hear. Every once in a while, Gonzalo Rubalcaba will get a band together and it’s like that. But in those days, that’s how it was more often than not. Frank Butler was the drummer to get. He was unbelievable. He could get up off the drums, go to the microphone, and scat for maybe 20 choruses, making lyrics up that rhymed, that you never heard before or after.

As I understand it, Teddy Edwards hired you for a while and Harold Land would sub when Teddy couldn’t make it. How did that engagement come about?
Terry Trotter, who was a great piano player—he was two years younger than me—had the job with Teddy Edwards, Frank Butler, and George Morrow at a club called the Zebra Lounge. I can’t remember whether Terry had just got married, but he had some responsibilities, and he was asked to go with Les Brown’s big band, which was like forever—if you wanted it. So he took that job and then he offered me his job. That was 1958. I knew Terry because we were always working different places around town. That brings to mind a friend who I just received a note from on Facebook: Jane Getz. There were really only two serious jazz piano players that were women, and we’re still playing and we both still sound great! I met her when she was 13 and I was 17. Most of the women wanted to come to my house and play, a bass player or whatever, and they couldn’t play. They were a lot of fun to have around and they liked music, but if I liked a tune, I would learn it and expect people to play it. That’s what the guys did, but the girls didn’t—but Jane did. So she was a good friend. Then she moved to New York. I had three children and a husband, and she had a studio apartment, and she had us stay at her place until we could find a hotel.

What was the audience like for this hardcore bebop style? Was it racially mixed?
It was always packed. Everybody came in and listened. That’s the way the clubs were. That was the real jazz. The Zebra Lounge was in a totally Black neighborhood. But white people went in there. Always the jazz audience was mixed. I never saw otherwise.

“If you think you’re a musician … you’ll never be able to play music. Music has nothing to do with that.”

3. Geri Allen/Ornette Coleman
“Vertical Flowing” (Eyes in the Back of Your Head, Blue Note). Allen, piano; Coleman, alto saxophone. Recorded in 1995.

BEFORE: [Immediately] Well, anybody knows who that is. Is Cecil Taylor the pianist? David Bryant was the only piano player that I heard play with Ornette that was inside the spirit of what Ornette played. But this isn’t him. This pianist is so diverse. They’re trying to do what Ornette is playing, and if they’d just stop thinking and listen to how this sound feels and then play the piano, it would work. The piano player has already figured out what they’re going to do, and it’s what they always do in a different way; Ornette is there just playing this instant, this instant, this instant. I certainly can’t say it’s bad, but it’s really hard for me to listen to. Like, that other group that you played with Elmo Hope, everybody was open to everyone in the band, everything was precise, and it was incredibly balanced. This is way off balance. The piano is very heavy and laggy. They don’t know what to play, so they have to play something, so they follow what they think Ornette just played. But why don’t you play what he’s playing at the instant?

This piano player was probably Geri Allen. But it didn’t work. I mean, it worked for the public and all. I don’t have any attitude, or like, or dislike, except that it’s hard for me to listen when one person is struggling and struggling, and not taking what’s there to get. If you think you’re a musician, that you spent many hours doing this and that, that you worked hard and now you feel you’re a piano player, you’ll never be able to play music. Music has nothing to do with that. I mean, you have to do those things, but they need to come just like they come. It’s like learning to talk.

Did you stay friends with Ornette Coleman once you were both in New York?
The whole time. We were always talking. [Points phone at Hudson River outside her window] See the Hudson? He was sitting in this chair, looking out there. Somebody had painted a boat like a shark, and he was trying to convince me that was a real shark. I said he reminded me of Art Blakey. Art Blakey could tell you a story and the story cannot be true. But that story is totally true.

AFTER: By the way, Geri Allen was a great piano player. When I first heard her, it was my favorite album, and still is to this day, called Home Grown [Minor Music, 1985]. She was 27 or 28—it’s only her. You can hear that she has the power, she knows something about Monk, she knows certain things about certain people—but at that point she was just playing herself. I thought that would continue. But it didn’t. Any woman, it’s really hard for them—they want you to do this, they want you to do that. It’s rough. But she was a genius, much more than we even know.

How did you avoid that trap?
I don’t know. I’m crazy. She wasn’t crazy enough, maybe.

You’re as lucid as they come.
But you don’t know things that happened to me. I’ll give you one example. I was about 20. It was a Saturday night, and I’m going to a job in Santa Monica at a place called the Zanzibar, where I’m playing piano trio. I’d worked the night before, and I’d talked with a lot of people on the break. [Later on] I’m about three miles from the club, and all of a sudden I see the license plate on a car in front of me and I start laughing. I remember the license plate number! I have no idea why. So [the next night] I get to the club, and on intermission this couple comes up and starts talking to me. They said, “Don’t you remember us from last night?” I said, “What were we talking about?” Then they bring up the subject, and I said, “Oh yeah, I know you—and your license plate number is blah, blah, blah, blah.” That’s me. I’m crazy. But most of us are if we’d just be open, and it’s a good thing. Things like this happen all the time.

Did I read that you’d give people rides to and from the clubs?
I had a 1941 Oldsmobile that ran forever. I had that for years. It was like sitting on this elegant couch, a sofa, both the front seat and the back. The back window was so small, nobody could see in the back, so it was private. It was great. My mom found it for me. It was $40. I lived in Pacoima, and Billy Higgins lived there too. So a lot of times we’d end up at the same place and he’d come home with me, because he didn’t have a car. One night, Phineas Newborn hopped in the back seat of the car and just would not get out. We told him we’re going home. He just sat there. When we got home, my husband went in to open the door, and Phineas ran into the house and started playing the piano. This is around 4:00 AM. We couldn’t get him out. There’s all kinds of Los Angeles stories. Those things wouldn’t happen in New York. But they were very real.

You said in an interview I read that you were very enamored of Bud Powell’s playing.
Oh yeah. That’s the first guy I heard play. For me, he had much, much more depth than most of the piano players that I really liked. He had this crazy, beautiful feeling. He probably did the same things like I did—or I probably did the same things like he did.

But it happens in any different way. Like, when I was going to join Art Blakey’s band, they told me to meet them at Rockefeller Center. I got there in time, and I waited, and it was about a half-hour. I said, “I never wait for anybody over 30 minutes—I’m leaving.” So I went out a different way; I said, “Don’t go the same way to the subway, make life interesting.” I walked down this little side street, and here was Art Blakey’s black Cadillac, everybody shouting out the window, “Joanne, Joanne!” I wasn’t going to wait. I mean, I just have a thing. If somebody’s not there in 30 minutes … no, I don’t need that. But you know, Ornette was just that crazy, and I met him at a young age. Things like that would happen with him too.

4. Stan Getz/Kenny Barron
“Voyage” (Voyage, Black Hawk). Getz, tenor saxophone; Barron, piano, composer; George Mraz, bass; Victor Lewis, drums. Recorded in 1986.

BEFORE: [After 45 seconds] Okay, that’s good. Everybody loves that song. Kenny Barron. I’ve never told him this; I don’t know if he’d be mad or not. Every time I get a piano player and they think they know voicings, but they don’t know voicings, they only know this one way—I make them study Kenny Barron. Kenny chooses conventional chords, but he puts in all the extras too, and everything is there. There’s never anything awkward. I couldn’t find any other piano player like that. I recently heard something with Kenny on Facebook. He’s still playing with the same energy that he played with his whole life. He loves music, and he can really play, and you feel that through every bit of him. He was one of the first piano players I met when I came to New York. It made me feel at home, in a way, because he played more from Bud Powell than some of the piano players who were younger and playing a different way—which he can do too, but he chooses whatever he wants.

If I’m not mistaken, Stan Getz played some of your tunes when you were in his group.
Well, Stan Getz used to become as a singer with his band. He’d have us play two or three [of our] songs, then we played his music. One set with Stan Getz felt like you played four sets with anybody else, because not only did you hear every note he was playing, but he heard every note, every feel, every sound you were playing. I loved playing with him. He hits the tone in the center. I mean, he can move the tone, but the center turns into where he moves it. It doesn’t exist without him. It’s like singers like Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra, or Sarah Vaughan, who just have a pitch. He talked the same way as he played. Every conversation was almost like a movie—the script was perfect, exactly what he meant, exactly the right words in the right place.

Ted Panken

Ted Panken writes extensively about jazz and creative music for various publications, and programmed jazz and creative music on WKCR-FM in New York City from 1985 through 2008. He won the 2007 ASCAP Deems Taylor Award for his article “Smalls Universe,” published by DownBeat, and earned the Jazz Journalists’ Association 2016 Lifetime Achievement in Jazz Journalism award. His blog, Today Is The Question, contains over 260 of his articles and verbatim interviews.