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jaimie branch 1983 — 2022

The respected trumpeter and composer has passed at 39

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

jaimie “breezy” branch, a trumpeter and composer who was among the fastest-rising jazz stars of her generation, died August 22 at her home in Red Hook, Brooklyn. She was 39.

Her death was announced in a joint statement by her record label, International Anthem, and her family. The statement noted that she had died at home at 9:21 p.m. but did not provide a cause of death.

branch (who preferred to style her name in lowercase) burst onto the scene in 2017 with her debut album FLY or DIE, which also became the name of her quartet; both album and band made an immediate mark (including top spots on multiple critics’ and publications’ year-end lists). branch, in particular, was hailed for her bright, brash trumpet tone and highly original improvisations. Though they were highly melodic and technically accomplished, they were also free-form and made use of an unusual tonal palette, including horn-induced white noise and strangulated tones. As such, branch was associated with creative music’s avant-garde contingent.

A more accurate association, however, might be with punk. As a youth in Chicago, branch was a punk-rock singer, and she brought that attitude—disaffection, irreverence, social and political outrage, and an overall outsider-ism—to her jazz playing. It meshed well with her personality, that of a laid-back but sardonic and funny observer of the human condition.

At the time of her death, she was increasingly incorporating her very naturalistic vocals into the music as well.

branch was also a composer of considerable gifts, though she downplayed that aspect of her work. “I’m what you call a very ‘deadline-oriented’ composer,” she told this writer in a 2019 interview, explaining that she wrote on the fly as the scheduled recording session or performance approached. “It’s like I’m collecting scraps as I go. And I’m putting it on paper, and I’m putting it in front of people, but it’s really what they do with it that determines the course of the music.”

In addition to the FLY or DIE quartet, branch was half of the electronic improvisation duo Anteloper (with Jason Nazary), and a third of a free improvisation trio with bassist Luke Stewart and drummer Mike Pride. She was also a regular collaborator with guitarist Dave Gisler and worked with saxophonist James Brandon Lewis and Chicagoans Ken Vandermark and Keefe Jackson.

branch’s talent, youth, and sudden death prompted an outpouring within the jazz community. Saxophonist Jaleel Shaw tweeted about his first time hearing the trumpeter: “I was mesmerized & remember asking her so many questions about her music afterwards,” Shaw wrote. “Such an amazing spirit.”

“YOU MADE AN IMPRESSION!!!!” pianist Orrin Evans wrote on branch’s Facebook. “YOUR LIGHT WILL CONTINUE TO SHINE!!!!!”

Jaimie Rebecca Branch was born June 17, 1983 in Huntington, New York (on Long Island). Her family moved to Wilmette, Illinois—a suburb of Chicago—when she was nine, and she regarded Chicagoland as her hometown. branch studied piano as a child, and then in the school band took up trumpet—primarily because she accidentally destroyed the sign-up sheet for saxophone.

She became a jazz lover during her time at New Trier High School in Wilmette, when she fell for the sound of Miles Davis. She fell in love with ska at the same time, which served as an entrée into the punk sphere. She could, at one point, play in the Chicago ska-punk band Tusker during the week, and then jam at Fred Anderson’s Velvet Lounge on Sunday nights.

After completing her undergraduate studies at Boston’s New England Conservatory, where she studied with John McNeil, Joe Morris, and Steve Lacy, she returned to Chicago and began working on the local scene, particularly with bassist Jason Ajemian and saxophonist Keefe Jackson. She raised enough of a profile there to be featured at Dave Douglas’ Festival of New Trumpet (FONT) in New York. However, soon afterward she began using heroin, with which she struggled for the next seven years, stunting both her personal growth and her artistic development.

After getting clean in 2015, branch moved to Brooklyn and took a day job at a café while playing gigs and working on music at night. After FLY or DIE took the jazz world by storm, she was able in 2018 to give up the day job. “Music is now my 24-7,” she said in 2019. “Once you’re able to throw yourself fully into your art, it really takes a different shape, because you’re spending the time necessary, you know?”

She was in increasing demand at festivals and performance venues throughout the United States and in Europe, touring frequently and in various ensembles. (A branch performance was the last jazz concert that this writer saw before the pandemic lockdowns of 2020.) This year, she and Nazary released a new Anteloper album, Pink Dolphins, and had planned a brief European tour later this month to support it. branch played her final performance with Anteloper on July 16 at Brooklyn’s Public Records.

branch is survived by her mother, Sally Branch; two brothers, Russell and Clark Branch; and a sister, Kate Branch, as well as several nieces and nephews.

“jaimie’s family asks not just for your thoughts and prayers but also for your action,” said the statement released August 23 by International Anthem. “Show your love and support for your family and friends and anyone who may be in need — just like jaimie did for all of us.”

Jaimie Branch: Chicago State of Mind

Michael J. West

Michael J. West is a jazz journalist in Washington, D.C. In addition to his work on the national and international jazz scenes, he has been covering D.C.’s local jazz community since 2009. He is also a freelance writer, editor, and proofreader, and as such spends most days either hunkered down at a screen or inside his very big headphones. He lives in Washington with his wife and two children.