When the National Endowment for the Arts contacted Joanne Brackeen to inform her that she was going to be inducted into the 2018 class of the NEA Jazz Masters, she was shocked. Why? Because so few women who were strictly instrumentalists and composers had gained that prestigious honor. Indeed, since the program started in 1982, the only other non-singing female musicians to be crowned NEA Jazz Masters had been trombonist/arranger Melba Liston (1987) and pianists Marian McPartland (2000), Toshiko Akiyoshi (2007), and Carla Bley (2015).
Few if any would argue that Brackeen belongs among that illustrious group. But she was still surprised, because of her idiosyncratic approach to piano improvisation and composing. “[The NEA] didn’t have any women who were all the way into the music on piano like I was,” the 81-year-old explained in mid-September at her spacious apartment near New York City’s Battery Park.
All the way? What does that mean? Pianist/composer Jason Moran explains that what separates Brackeen from other jazz pianists is the way she uses her hands. “She’s unafraid to disrupt that notion about how the two hands should work together,” he says. “She allows lines to emerge from both hands. Many pianists use their left hand to support their right hand. But Joanne wants the left to have just as much power and say in the musical conversation as the right. So her hands often get into real conversations with each other. Strangely, only a handful of pianists spend time focusing on that approach. Her music is a challenge technically, and it’s a challenge for the listener. But it’s soulful and needed.”
Saxophonist/composer Chris Potter, who worked with Brackeen on her 1999 disc Pink Elephant Magic, remembers the unique complexities of her harmonic language. “She had things in her music that I haven’t really seen since,” he laughs. “She would write three chords right on top of each other. We normally might write one chord with a different bass note than it would usually have. To write two completely different chords on top of each other is unusual. To write three? Wow. That sent me to the piano to figure out what she might have in mind. When she showed me, she was very specific. And there was no simpler way for her to write it.”
During Brackeen’s acceptance speech at the Jazz Masters Awards ceremony in Washington, she spoke of her creative process. “The music that I play appears to originate in silence,” she explained. “The silence forms vibrations and colors that come into my body. It’s like a very energetic feeling but it doesn’t yet have sound. And I go to the piano and find the sound.”
Brackeen insists that she has never consciously striven for originality. Instead, she saw herself as part of the jazz lineage that she grew up admiring. “When we were coming through, there was Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane, Stan Getz, Ornette Coleman, Joe Henderson, and others,” she said. “You wouldn’t mistake one of them for the other.”
Still, she understands that her music—particularly from the mid-1970s and 1980s—was incredibly, if not intimidatingly, forward-thinking. “Few people understood what was going on inside my music back then,” she noted. “The only drummer that I could get who could grasp my concepts was Billy Hart. Regarding the horn players—I had a sound in my mind, but few people could put the ideas together to get that sound. Now, it’s no problem.”
She then references “Egyptian Dune Dance,” a rhythmically intrepid original that first appeared on her 1982 LP Special Identity. Drummer Jack DeJohnette and bassist Eddie Gomez craft a devilish push-pull propulsion, which Brackeen explains is in 5/4½ meter rather than a Westernized 11/8. On top of that shifting rhythmic bed she embroiders hypnotic intersecting passages, distinguished by a punchy rhythmic motif. “Students love trying to get that bass line right so they can improvise on top of it,” she said with glee.
Brackeen’s unconventional approach to music was evident early on. As six-year-old child prodigy Joanne Grogan in Ventura, Calif., she intuitively could comprehend the inner workings of songs she heard on the radio without knowing the actual names of chords and other musical terminology. When her mother hired a piano teacher, Brackeen disliked the regimen. “I would never practice. Why would I want to practice just a couple of notes at one time?” she remembered, before explaining that she was already thinking holistically about how to interpret music by the likes of Frankie Carle and Carmen Cavallaro.
As a seventh-grader, Brackeen joined her middle school’s jazz big band, which played several Glenn Miller arrangements. Again, she took an intuitive, ear-based approach to learning the repertoire. “I’d never seen any of the sheet music before,” she said. “But I’d heard his music. I didn’t think anything about it. I just went into the band and played.”
In her teens, she moved to the Westchester neighborhood of Los Angeles with her family, then immersed herself in the L.A. jazz scene. She began to get steady gigs—leading her first trio at 16, landing the opportunity to play with Dexter Gordon at 18—and gradually became a professional musician without intending to do so. In 1965, she moved to New York with saxophonist/then-husband Charles Brackeen and three children (their fourth was born on the East Coast). Three years later, she became the first female instrumentalist to play in Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers for any substantial length of time.
Brackeen recalls first playing with Blakey at New York’s notorious Slugs’ Saloon. She lived near the East Village venue and decided to check out Blakey’s concert one night. During their first set, she noticed that the Messengers’ pianist was just sitting at the piano without playing. “[The music] sounded like there should’ve been a pianist playing,” she remembered. “So I just asked Art if I could play. And he said, ‘Yes.’”
She soon found herself on a grueling Japanese tour with the Messengers—after which she remained with the group for three years. Among her bandmates were trumpeters Woody Shaw and Bill Hardman, as well as saxophonists Carlos Garnett, Buddy Terry, and Ramon Morris. She called the experience “great” because everybody in the band was serious about the music. “That’s all I needed,” Brackeen said. “Art and I never talked that much. But we knew each other really well. He used to call me his adopted daughter.”
In the decades since, Brackeen has cultivated a wondrous body of work as a leader that includes bracing duets with guitarist Ryo Kawasaki and bassists Eddie Gomez and Clint Houston; career-defining trio dates with DeJohnette and Gomez, Al Foster and Cecil McBee, and Billy Hart and Walter Schmocker; larger instrumental settings featuring the likes of saxophonist Branford Marsalis and trumpeter Terence Blanchard; and brilliant explorations into American standards and Brazilian jazz. She’s also backed up George Benson, Freddie McCoy, Joe Henderson, Sonny Stitt, Lee Konitz, and Stan Getz, among many others.
“I just enjoyed what I was doing…I never, ever thought of myself as a ‘woman playing jazz.'”
Despite her history, Brackeen winces at being labeled a pioneering female jazz musician. “I just enjoyed what I was doing,” she said before recounting her discomfort when she was asked to perform at a 1978 Women’s Jazz Festival in Kansas City. “I thought that was the weirdest thing in the world, because I’d been playing jazz all my life. During the whole time that I worked in all of those bands, I never, ever thought of myself as a ‘woman playing jazz.’”
Brackeen contends that if someone is willing to put in the hard work and is relatively easy to work with, their gender will not become an obstacle for mapping out a jazz career. When asked to share her thoughts on saxophonist Roxy Coss’ Women in Jazz Organization or Terri Lyne Carrington’s Berklee College of Music of Jazz and Gender Justice—both of which, in part, aim to level the playing field for performance and recording opportunities based on gender—Brackeen says that she could never conscientiously be a part of either one. “However, I can help people individually,” she acknowledged. “Talking in front of a mass of people about gender issues in jazz would never work for me. I often tell my students that dealing with life has a lot to do with having a sense of humor.”
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