“Wrap Your Troubles in a Dream” written by Harry Barris and performed by Frankie Carle from Frankie Carlie at the Piano – The Golden Touch, used courtesy of Jazzology and by permission of Shapiro Bernstein and Co, Inc. ASCAP.
“African Aztec”, composed and performed by Joanne Brackeen, from Live at Maybeck Recital Hall, Volume 1, used courtesy of Concord Music and by permission of Balthasar Publishing.
“Thou Swell” composed by Rodgers and Hart and performed by JoAnne Brackeen, from Live at Maybeck Recital Hall, Volume 1, used courtesy of Concord Music and by permission of WB Music Corp/Lorenz Hart Pub, ASCAP.
“Pink Elephant Magic” composed and performed by JoAnne Brackeen, from the cd Pink Elephant Magic, used courtesy of Arkadia Jazz
“Free” composed by Ornette Coleman and performed live by the Bley Quintet, from the album Live at the Hilcrest Club 1958 (also released as The Fabulous Paul Bley Quintet), and used by permission of Kobalt Songs Music Publishing, ASCAP.
“C-SRI” written and performed by JoAnne Brackeen from the album, Six Ate, used courtesy of Candid Productions.
Joanne Brackeen: The best musical experience that you can have is just, you know, when you’re playing —it could happen when you’re just playing by yourself, but it’s double or triple or whatever, quadruple, if you’re playing with a group of people, and all of a sudden, it’s one person playing. There’s no separation and it just feels like it’s incredible. The best feeling that I could feel on earth.
Jo Reed: That’s 2018 NEA Jazz pianist, Joanne Brackeen and this is Art Works the weekly podcast produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. I’m Josephine Reed.
No one plays jazz like pianist Joanne Brackeen. She’s an innovative and dynamic performer who’s equally well-known and appreciated for her intricate and rhythmically bold compositions as well as for her captivating and complex improvisations.
Although she’s lauded for her solo work, she’s played with a veritable who’s who of jazz musicians. In the 1950s she teamed up with Teddy Edwards, Dexter Gordon, and Charles Brackeen (whom she married.) In the 60s, she played with Chick Corea, McCoy Tyner, and Ornette Coleman. She joined the bands of Art Blakey, Joe Henderson, and Stan before Getz before branching out and leading her own trios and quartets. Which featured players like Clint Houston, Eddie Gómez, Jack DeJohnette, Cecil McBee, and Billy Hart.
Born in 1938 in Ventura California, Joanne Brackeen was a child prodigy who fell in love with the piano at first sight.
Joanne Brackeen: My mother was a kindergarten teacher and she played piano. I remember—and my sister does, too, that when we – I was six, so she was eight, there was a grand piano in our house for maybe a month or two. We don’t know where it came from or where it went. Anyway, I remember sitting at this piano and, you know, playing—just playing the notes and saying, “Oh, wow. This is the easiest thing in the world. These notes all go up. These go down. I could do anything on the piano.”
Jo Reed: JoAnne also remembers spending time at her neighbor’s house—where at the age of nine, she heard a new sound.
Joanne Brackeen: My sister and I used to go over there, just hang out, that was in the days where you lived on a block and you knew everyone. The city was small, Ventura, California, had a population of about 17,000. So we’re over there and one day they had the radio on and on their radio—we weren’t allowed to touch the radio and change programs, but on their radio, they had something that I guess we would call boogie-woogie, and when I heard that, that was it for me.
Jo Reed: Responding to her daughter’s love of music, Joanne’s mother arranged for piano lessons—which as it turned out didn’t quite suit Joanne.
Joanne Brackeen: At that time I wanted to play the piano, and my sister did, too. So we both got piano lessons from a teacher, Mrs. Inman, classical teacher. So, my idea of a piano lesson was to play what I just heard, and I go to Mrs. Inman’s house and it’s [sings notes]. That’s the whole week lesson. So, needless to say, I didn’t practice that; I thought I was stupid.
Jo Reed: And how long did you last with Mrs. Inman?
Joanne Brackeen: Oh, I didn’t last at all. My mom would sit down to the piano, and then I would play with her. So I think she did that for about maybe four or five months.
Jo Reed: But Joanne stayed long enough to learn to read music—a skill that worked well with her natural ability to play what she heard…and came in handy when her parents brought home a record that turned out to be a big influence on Joanne.
Joanne Brackeen: They got Frankie Carle, which was Frankie Carle and His Girlfriends. Frankie Carle is a piano player that maybe one of his favorite piano players was Fats Waller, kind of a toned down, but like that. So, every time my parents would go shopping––I would, “Can I stay home? Can I stay home?” And I put on the—the record player and I thought oh, wow, pianos in the same room. I like this sound. I’ll just listen to it a little bit. I could find it on the piano, and you just write it down. That way, I could remember what I found. So I went through this, and I did the entire solo for about eight songs. Every note that the piano player played, I played, and I wrote it in there.
Joanne Brackeen: And so it was six months later, I could play the piano. I didn’t know anything. I didn’t know that was called transcribing. I knew nothing.
Jo Reed: In fact, Joanne Brackeen knew enough to begin playing professionally when she was 12 years old.
Joanne Brackeen: In public schools, they had instruments and things you could play. They had orchestras – like a big band. And so they talent shows, so immediately I was on all the talent shows. Actually, my first job came as a result of my sister having a friend that played in the dance band. This was in high school, so you had to be in ninth or tenth grade to be in that band. But this girl had to leave, and they were without a piano player, so I was just coming in to the seventh grade and they put me in. And it was fine. It started out with that dance band. They had performances, and we got paid. Yeah, we got paid then. This is 1950. So, if you look up $10 in 1950, it’s almost $100 now, and that’s what we got for every time we played.
Jo Reed: By that time, the family had moved from Ventura to Los Angeles. Joanne continued to teach herself jazz piano…with the help of Charlie Parker and Bud Powell.
Joanne Brackeen: I was very adapted to transcribing by then. I would just do Charlie Parker and Bud Powell together. There’s one record, Jazz at Massey Hall, and it’s where I learned a lot from them, and I would just do both solos and so I could play—put the record on and play with it. You know jazz was not something that you could study that much.
Jo Reed: But Joanne could play with other jazz musicians—which gave her invaluable experience and grew her musical vocabulary.
Joanne Brackeen: I got my own little trio when I was 16. That—that was Herbie Lewis, who later became a well-known bass player, and a guy named Doug Cox that played drums. And then I met this other girl. Natasha was a singer, so she would sing with us sometimes. And I remember at that time I got a job through some other musicians that knew me at a club called the million dollar theatre in downtown Los Angeles, so I had to drive. And that job started maybe 9:00, and it got off at around 1:00 in the morning.
Joanne Brackeen: So I got home about 3:00, and I should be to school at 7:00 in the morning, so I went about half the time.
Jo Reed: And how were your parents with you playing?
Joanne Brackeen: They couldn’t keep track. They trusted me, because all this time I was getting the A’s, you know, that I figured this will work. All you have to do is just, you know, find out what the homework was and just do it.
Jo Reed: During this time, Joanne started to play in sessions—those after-hour jams where jazz musicians played for themselves.
Joanne Brackeen: There was jazz sessions at a club called The Digger and so, I worked there from the time I was, like, maybe 17 until 21, and we used to always hang out. Billy Higgins was another friend. Scott LaFaro, Charlie Haden, and of course I had met Ornette Coleman, Don Cherry, and Charles Lloyd.
Joanne Brackeen: Really, they had a lot of sessions. And jazz sessions, the rulers, so to speak, the rulers of the session were the musicians. There were no jazz critics that had any say of what happened or who played, so you only could play if you could play. So it’s like the Wild West or something.
Jo Reed: Yeah.
Joanne Brackeen: Yeah. Whoever could shoot could survive.
Jo Reed: That’s interesting. Sonny Rollins said something like that, too.
Joanne Brackeen: Oh, yeah. Really?
Jo Reed: He said, “You know, you’re up there, and if you can’t play you just shouldn’t be up there.”
Joanne Brackeen: They would take you off the stand. So I got used to that. I got kind of spoiled, but I’m glad I grew up then.
Jo Reed: As mentioned, it was during this period that Joanne met the great alto saxophonist and innovative musician Ornette Coleman who became a seminal influence and lifelong friend for Joanne.
Joanne Brackeen: What’s really funny is that it was like a good three years before that, he remembers hearing me at some place I don’t even remember. I was 17, and he continued to talk about that until he left the planet. Paul Bley, the piano player, got a group together at the Hillcrest Club. It was the main—probably the main jazz club there. And so I went to hear that, and it was Ornette’s band. Paul Bley just hired Ornette, Don Cherry, Billy Higgins and Charlie Haden. So he had a great band, and when I heard that music, I thought this is what I’ve heard all my life, but I never heard it.
Joanne Brackeen: What I heard was the sound of heaven and earth put together.
Jo Reed: During that time in LA, JoAnne Brackeen played with other jazz greats who would become NEA Jazz Masters like Art Farmer, Dexter Gordon, Charlie Haden, Billy Higgins, Bobby Hutcherson, and Charles Lloyd. She was such a phenomenal musician that after The LA Conservatory heard her music; it offered her a full scholarship. She attended classes for less than one week before heading back to the bandstand. Then in 1965, Joanne Brackeen moved to New York City.
Joanne Brackeen: Finally, I was married and I already had three children.
Jo Reed: And your husband was a jazz musician?
Joanne Brackeen: Yeah, he had – he just came from New York. He was born in Oklahoma but his relatives lived here. So he kept talking about New York. “We have to go. We have to go,” and I thought oh, why not? But we had—I had three children already, and then we got on a train and came.
Jo Reed: With three kids?
Joanne Brackeen: Yeah. And then I had the fourth one right after I got here, so…
Jo Reed: So four kids.
Joanne Brackeen: Yeah, there were four kids in five years.
Jo Reed: How was your music during that time?
Joanne Brackeen: I was playing. I never stopped playing.
Jo Reed: Did you have a piano in the apartment?
Joanne Brackeen: I always had a piano.
Jo Reed: Oh, my God. I know what New York apartments are like.
Joanne Brackeen: Yeah. We moved down to the East Village, East 2nd Street, between Avenues C and D.
Jo Reed: Oh, my Lord. That was not the best, like, place to be in that—
Joanne Brackeen: Oh, yeah. It was crazy. But Slugs was right around the corner. This was 1969. So, I had these four children and we’re on the sixth floor. So a six-floor walkup every time we want to go to do the diapers or go shopping, so I was—like, I was really tired, right? So—but it had its advantage because one night I said, “Oh, I’m going to go around and hear Art Blakey. He’s right around the corner at Slugs.”
Jo Reed: Slugs was a small jazz club on east 3rd street that became known as a jazz club for jazz musicians.
Joanne Brackeen: Tiny club with sawdust, a beer for $1. And they had all the major people came there. So, I go around.
Jo Reed: Dropping by to hear Art Blakey that evening proved life-changing for Joanne Brackeen.
Joanne Brackeen: The band sounded great, but the piano player was up there, not playing, just sitting, and it sounded like they needed a piano in the group right at that moment. And I’m so tired, I’m just—only I could only hear music at that point. I can’t even think. So I went up to the piano and asked him if it was okay if I played, and he said, “Yeah.” So I played, and I played the rest of the set. And then, Art Blakey, he looked up and saw it was me, and he hired me on the spot.
Jo Reed: That is an amazing story.
Joanne Brackeen: Yeah.
Jo Reed: And, as I recall, one of the first things you did with him was go to Japan.
Joanne Brackeen: Yes. Yeah, that was the first official job. And there were no rehearsals. So they had outlines and stuff…
Jo Reed: How long was the tour in Japan?
Joanne Brackeen: Seven weeks. It was through Japan, and we also went to Korea. There were 44 concerts in 42 days, to give you an idea. So we did early morning TV shows. We did all kinds of stuff.
Jo Reed: Her first concert with Blakely and the Jazz Messengers was an unforgettable experience for Joanne
Joanne Brackeen: The first concert started out in Tokyo, in a big concert hall. And so, we got up and we played a few tunes. This is fun. And then, all of a sudden, Art Blakey goes up to the mic and says, “And now, we will present our piano player, playing whatever solo she would like to play.” And they all walked off the stand. And I didn’t know how this happened, so I’m like, “Hmm.” So I played “Just One of Those Things,” and that’s how I learned how to play solo piano. This is really true.
Jo Reed: Why do you think he did that?
Joanne Brackeen: I think that was part of the format that they assumed I knew. There were no rehearsals.
Jo Reed: Like you can do it or you can’t.
Joanne Brackeen: Yeah. <Laughter>
Jo Reed: Like you said, “it’s the wild west.”
Joanne Brackeen: Yeah
Jo Reed: JoAnne Brackeen was with Art Blakey for three years when saxophonist Joe Henderson invited her to join his band. Here’s how she described playing with Blakey and playing with Henderson.
Joanne Brackeen: Oh, there was no similarity in one way, but then, in another way, very much so. Art was like a country. He was like a whole country. Joe Henderson was like the—if you had to put the—the sky with the ground and put it together, or the heaven with the earth, he had some of that knowledge, and he had the connection.
Jo Reed: After three years with Henderson, Stan Getz began recruiting her for his band.
Joanne Brackeen: Oh, that’s another funny story. I was on the road. This is in the 1970s. There’s no cellphones. There’s no computers. But Stan Getz would call me everywhere I was on tour and say, “Joanne, rehearsals tomorrow at 4.” And I’d say, “Stan, I’m in Chicago. I can’t make it,” you know. And then he’d call again, maybe three or four times. And finally, I don’t know if he jinxed that tour, but after we got about halfway through it, it folded, and so he called again right at the right time. He said, “The rehearsal’s tomorrow,” and I said, “Oh, okay. I’ll be there.” So it turned out that Clint Houston was already in the band, and Billy Hart also, but I think it was Clint that told Stan about me because Clint and I had had a duet for a long time in the Village. So it was very, very comfortable because it’s a rhythm section that I’d been working and had called—he was part of my trio. We’d made some records, yeah.
Josephine Reed: And Getz had a real affinity for piano players.
Joanne Brackeen: Yeah, he had some great piano player. He got great people in the band. He had affinity for the whole band.
Jo Reed: It was around this time that her own compositions began attracting considerable attention.
Joanne Brackeen: I started composing, like writing down tunes when I was in California, and we would play them. I’d get together with little trios there. The first trio was the one I matched with Herbie Louis and Doug Cox, but then it just progressed to some other people, and they would come over to the house and we—they’d play my music.
Jo Reed: And would Art Blakey or Joe Henderson play your music or encourage you to—
Joanne Brackeen: Let me see. Art Blakey, I think I may have brought in some music with Art Blakey, but no, no one played it. The things that they were writing were more like the sound of his band, but the music I wrote was just the sound that I would hear, and it didn’t seem to be like anybody’s band. And I know Stan Getz loved your music, played your music. Yeah. Well, what he did—he treated the band like a singer would. So the band comes out and plays a couple of tunes, and then he comes out. So, the tunes that we played before him were my tunes, and then he’d come out and play the music that he had in mind. That was fun.
Jo Reed: Joanne Brackeen is a prolific composer—her music is complex, harmonically advanced and rhythmically daring. Given the striking individuality of her work, it should come as no surprise that her process for composing is equally unique.
Joanne Brackeen: Before I get to the piano, I just feel something inside, and that’s the music. It’s before it goes into the sound. Twice in my life, all sound just disappeared, and the thing is, when it disappears, you don’t know until it starts to come back. So, to a smaller extent, that’s usually what happens before I would go to the piano.
Jo Reed: JoAnne has learned to record herself when she first moves to the piano because the music she creates is enormously complex and at times she herself can’t duplicate the sound.
Joanne Brackeen: A lot of times, I could get on the piano and play it, and then I have to record. Put it on an iPhone or some recorder or something. And then if I would listen to it an hour later I can’t play it, maybe I could remember the sound of it but I can’t physically play it, but when it comes – it just comes through my body.
Jo Reed: So then it’s learning how to play it from a recording?
Joanne Brackeen: Yeah, from whatever energy came into me, that’s what plays, and then I have to—oftentimes, I have to learn it.
Jo Reed: Joanne has composed hundreds of pieces of music for trios, quartets, quintets and solo piano.
Joanne Brackeen: Well, my favorites is probably just a little over 100. I mean, I’ve done much more than that, but the—the ones that we use.
Jo Reed: That’s a lot.
Joanne Brackeen: Yeah, but there’s a—there’s still more, I could tell you that.
Jo Reed: In addition to her work as a composer and soloist, after her time with Stan Getz, she branched out as a leader….
Joanne Brackeen: I thought it was so much fun with the band. I never thought of anything as a business. I thought of it as music. And—but everyone was saying, “Oh, no, you have to have your own trio,” so I’m like, “Oh. Oh okay, I guess.” Well, that’s okay. We could just play some of my tunes. So it was fun that way.
Jo Reed: And she chooses musicians whose improvisational matched her own…..often they were among the many musicians she had played with like Billy Hart or Clint Houston…but she also kept her ears open for new collaborators.
Joanne Brackeen: We’d meet new people, the ones that felt like in tune. Like I heard Chick Corea’s group. He had an album. I think it was called The Brain. At least the tune was called “The Brain.” And he had Jack DeJohnette on there. I heard Jack, I said, “Ooh, I like that sound,” you know? So then I did a series of albums with Jack. And I like Eddie Gomez, So, we worked together. We still do. Javon Jackson put together a group that has Jimmy Cobb, who’s also an NEA Jazz Master. That’s Eddie, myself, Javon and Jimmy, a quartet, and sometimes Randy Brecker plays with that. I used Rudy Royston and Ugonna Okegwo those are the ones who have been working with me a lot recently as the bass and drummer.
Jo Reed: JoAnne is keenly aware it takes a particular talent to play her music.
Joanne Brackeen: With my music, it’s pretty hard. I tried with some people to show them. They’d say, “Oh, yeah. I could get it. I could get it.” But they never get it. Because it doesn’t work so well––I haven’t figured how to teach people who learn from the outside in. It’s better if the person already has at least the seed within, and then when they hear it, they know it. If I could figure out the other way, I’ll be in good shape.
Jo Reed: How much rehearsal time do you like with the band?
Joanne Brackeen: Not much.
Jo Reed: --before you play out, no?
Joanne Brackeen: Oh, yeah. Well, we need to know something.
Joanne Brackeen: Yeah, they need to be familiar with the sound of it.
Jo Reed: Touring when you’re the leader is a lot different than touring as a sideman—probably the most important decision any band leader makes is choosing the other musicians in the tour. The band isn’t just playing together night after night, it’s also traveling together often in some pretty tight quarters.
Joanne Brackeen: Yeah, there’s a lot of people that maybe could play, but they have different, diverse personalities that don’t combine so well when you’re traveling. They could do something for a week, but for something for two or three weeks, that’s not comfortable for them. So you try to pick what works best. I never had any problem, so I didn’t really concentrate on that. I just concentrated on the music and, you know, how could we play it in such a way that it will work, and that includes the personality of the person, too, I think.
Jo Reed: JoAnne Brackeen has recorded more than two dozen recordings as a leader, which have included at least 100 of her 300 plus original compositions. And she appears on nearly 100 additional recordings. Like most everything else in her life, her recording career began when she was young.
Joanne Brackeen: They were asking me to do records when I was in L.A., so I was like 17 or 18. But the first thing that I think I had as a leader was 1974. Jerry McDonald had a label called Choice, and Toots Thielemans was—asked me to do an album with him. It was a quartet album for Choice. So, I met them that way, and then they wanted me to do an album, so I did.
Jo Reed: Sharing her musical knowledge has been an important part of JoAnne Brackeen’s career. She has led clinics, master classes, and artistic residencies worldwide, she’s taught at the New School and has been on the faculty of the Berklee College of Music for many years.
Joanne Brackeen: 1994, they asked me to go up there and play a concert, and so the concert was one night, and the next day they asked me to do a clinic after that. So, I played the concert. That was fine. And I had this clinic, and I thought it was great. So they asked me to do a jazz residency, which would be one semester, three days a week, and I just said, “Well, no, I don't want to do three days a week, but I’ll do one.” So, the associate or the assistant chair of the piano department––talked them into getting me for one day and someone else. I think they got Bob Brookmeyer for the other two days. So, that was how I got started teaching there. And so I did that for a long time.
Jo Reed: Unfortunately, she was also finding the airlines were becoming less than reliable.
Joanne Brackeen: They lost my luggage. I ended up in Brussels when I’m supposed to be at Berklee, and then the chair came up and said, “Joanne, how would you like to be full time?” I thought hey if this is what’s going to happen—I would be in California, I went on in my—an old pair of blue jeans as my concert clothes. It was crazy. So I said, “Yeah, okay. I’ll sign up.”
Jo Reed: JoAnne teaches an ensemble class, a master class and gives private instruction which is part of core curriculum for all Berklee students. She’s impressed with her students—particularly the ones in her master class.
Joanne Brackeen: And it’s really interesting now. Because the level of the people coming in is amazing. I’ve got four—three of them are first-semester students. The top level that Berklee gives to a student is eight, and these are all sevens, and they just got there. And they’re real sevens. So all the stuff that I imagined that it probably would be really fun to teach and give to people, now I could give it. And I call them geniuses, you know? They’re like—it’s amazing. One of them that is––he’s been playing jazz for two years. He’s doing the Art Tatum solos. It takes him about two seconds to memorize anything. He’s learning tunes every—all the time, every day.
Jo Reed: So what do you try to impart to a student like that?
Joanne Brackeen: More, you know. Okay, that’s great, but you’re—the—the sound that you’re getting out of the piano doesn’t equal the idea that you’re playing. You know, why don’t you try this, and go back and listen to yourself. Play it this way for a while, see if that’s the sound you really hear. And they listen. They’re all ready to learn. Anything you give them, they take.
Jo Reed: Joanne Brackeen has received many honors throughout her career, including three awards from the Berklee College of Music: an Outstanding Educator Award from the International Association for Jazz Education and a Living Legend Award from International Women in Jazz. And now she’s been named a 2018 NEA Jazz Master—the highest honor that our nation bestows on jazz artists.
Joanne Brackeen: It’s great because I didn’t try to do anything that was for anything other than playing music. So, I think that’s a very high-level award if you could create in your whole life just what you want to create, and then somebody recognizes that.
Jo Reed: That was 2018 NEA Jazz Master Pianist, Joanne Brackeen. The 2018 NEA Jazz Masters Tribute Concert will take place on Monday, April 16, at 8 pm at the Kennedy Center here in Washington DC. For ticket information about this free event, go to arts.gov. And if you can’t make it to DC—don’t despair—we’re live streaming the concert at arts.gov.
You’ve been listening to Art Works produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. Please, subscribe to Art Works where ever you get your podcasts and leave us a rating on apple—it will help people to find us.
For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.
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