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Joanne Brackeen: Learning from the Best

Jazzed Magazine • March 2012Spotlight • March 28, 2012

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By Matt Parish

Jazz is by nature an improvisatory art form, and that holds true for the way its practitioners have pursued educations as well as on-the-spot compositions.  From its roots in New Orleans, mixing African folk rhythms with Western harmonies to current jazz ensembles taking on Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring,” the music and its pioneers have largely decided on their own curriculum, as they scrambled for new tricks and voices to add to the vibrant and quickly-growing musical language.

Pianist and Jazz Messengers veteran Joanne Brackeen is one of the all-time greats at this kind of stylistic self-determinism. Growing up in California in the 1940s, Brackeen began teaching herself how to play piano at 11 after becoming enthralled by recordings of Charlie Parker. She transcribed all the solos she could get her hands on and quickly became a prodigy at the keys. She struck out on her own and was soon performing with West Coast musicians like Dexter Gordon, Teddy Edwards, and Harold Land, picking up styles virtually out of thin air whenever she felt like it.

She’s enjoyed a full, world-traveling career that continues to this day, but Brackeen is now also a full-time faculty member of the Berklee School of Music’s piano department (she teaches a class at the New School in New York City, as well), where she brings her wide-open instincts to new generations of students. Her classes are built on free-thinking principles and a stern expectation that students work as hard as she does. She asks the students what they’d like to learn and who they’d like to sound like by the end of the class. The journey from there is different every time.

“I let people do anything, as long as they get a result,” she says.

It’s no standardized type of education, but Brackeen certainly has the experience to back up her techniques.  After moving to New York from California (with four children to boot!), she was soon rubbing shoulders with luminaries like McCoy Tyner, Ornette Coleman, and Chick Corea, to whom her lively playing is often compared.

The ‘60s and ’70s saw her expand incredible collaborative work as she teamed up with Freddie McCoy on five albums and partnered with Woody Shaw and David Liebman. She went on to join Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers in 1968 – she was the first ever female to perform and to record with the group. Brackeen plays a major role in the Messengers’ Catalyst album. After that stint, she worked with Joe Henderson and then Stan Getz, who said that she was, “one of the most original and creative composers in my band.” She finally began releasing albums under her name in 1975, evolving into a dynamic group leader.  Over the years, her ensembles have included all sorts of cutting edge musicians – she has eagerly worked with musicians like Rufus Reid, Cecil McBee, Jack DeJohnette, Ravi Coltrane, Al Foster, Ryo Kawasaki, John Abercrombie, Freddie Hubbard, Terence Blanchard, Gary Bartz, Glen Hall, and Branford Marsalis.

A true believer in the free assimilation of styles, Brackeen spent the ‘90s churning out a treasure trove of recordings inspired by a love of Brazilian music that she had just developed, leading to a collaboration with Ivo Perelman on an acclaimed tribute to Heitor Villa-Lobos called Man of the Forest.  The Grammy-nominated Pink Elephant Magic soon followed.

Through it all, she’s earned a reputation as a musician who breaks conventions of all types and her convictions remain as strong today.  In her classes, it’s that fierce pursuit of the things to which individuals find themselves connected that she works the hardest to foster.  Everything else, as she says, is easy.

She’s won countless awards and honors, including last year’s Distinguished Faculty Award at Berklee, serving on the grant panel for the National Endowment for the Arts, and performing solo at Carnegie Hall.  JAZZed recently caught up with her from her home in Manhattan.

JAZZed: It’s amazing that you still maintain such a busy professional performing career – what duties are you responsible for in your teaching positions nowadays?

Joanne Brackeen: I teach full-time at Berklee and they’ve allowed me to do one class at the New School, so I do that.  At Berklee, I teach private students and I have a Jazz Master class, which is a maximum of eight students and a rhythm section.  Then I have an ensemble. So let me see if I can remember – the ensemble is three guitars, bass, piano, and drums. So there are six people in that at Berklee.  At the New School, I have eight people in the ensemble. Trumpet, two horns, guitar and a rhythm section, plus vibes.

JAZZed: In those classes, what is your goal?

JB: My goal is the students’ goal.  Their goal is my goal.  I always have taught like that.

JAZZed: So do you start with a discussion every semester?

JB: I find out everything about them. Who they like, what they like to listen to. What they don’t like and what they think is weak or strong, what they want to bring up, and what they want to work on.  That’s how I teach.  It’s different with each student, and also the rate that they learn is different because I go according to how they learn.

JAZZed: Did it take much trial and error to work that process?

JB: No, it’s pretty much how I started teaching. It’s just the way I am.  It’s the way I learn and it’s the way I teach. It’s the way I live. [laughs]

JAZZed: You had received a bit of education early on when you enrolled at the L.A. Conservatory of music, right?

JB: Not really – I quit there after two or three days.  I didn’t like their concept of whatever that was. I didn’t really agree with what they were doing.  So I’ve mainly learned everything by myself.

JAZZed: It seems like, since you’re so great at teaching yourself new things, you’ve had free reign over what you’ve been able to learn – you don’t have to seek out particular teachers or anything.  

JB: For me, of course.  I feel like anything that anybody likes is theirs.  So if someone else is doing something that you like, that’s yours. You better learn it if you’re serious.  And it’s not just music, of course.  It’s everything.

JAZZed: When you were coming up in the ‘50s and ‘60s, did it seem like your approach was out of the ordinary? 

JB: Everybody else’s way seemed rigid.  It seemed hopeless.  Ever since I was in high school, they taught music.  I was in one of the classes. I’d talk to the teacher and say, “Look, I’ll practice the grand piano in the room by myself, and when there’s a test I’ll come in and take it.”  And so that’s what I did.  I always seemed to get my way there.

JAZZed: When you were going into the more professional jazz world, were there similar attitudes with other musicians?

JB: No, people who are into this kind of music aren’t like that.  I mean, the people who can really play, as a rule. Of course there is every kind of person everywhere, but as a rule they’re very flexible and in tune with the harmonies and the rhythms of the earth.

JAZZed: How did it change in the different generations that you’ve performed with since then?

JB: It’s always evolving. So when I was writing and playing and conceiving and trying to find people to play new music in 1980 it could be challemging. Now, 32 years later, there are actually people who have no problem with that and some of them are actually writing that same type of music now.  So it’s great.  And different varieties of course. Everybody has their own nature, which makes it all fascinating.

JAZZed: It seems like a lot of your approach to things in general involves being able to accept things that are already in existence around you.

JB: If you can encompass what’s coming to you in every instant of time, that’s what learning is.  As much as you can encompass.  That’s for everybody, all the time. Music is what I love, so that’s what I do.  But that is not an inactive state.  It’s an extremely active state, and increasingly so because humanity is constantly evolving.  I know who thinks along the lines of this is Ray Kurzweil.  I love to hear him talk.  I mean maybe he’s drinking a little bit extra green tea. [laughs] He’s really listening.  When you listen, you begin to learn things that there is no other way to know. When you do that, and you help your students listen, they also know things there’s no other way to know.  But when they get it, they know it.  It’s theirs.  They don’t lose it.

JAZZed: So much of your music, especially the Brazilian albums of the ‘90s, assimilates so many styles that it seems that travel itineraries like yours could benefit that a lot.  Is it at all a factor?

JB: No, I knew all of those things before I went anywhere.  It was great to go see that those things existed, but whatever I wrote in any of my music wasn’t actually around me.  When I’d go to certain countries, all I could really say was, “Wow, there it is.  That’s nice.”  But what I’m trying to say is that it wasn’t the other way around.  Everything comes for everyone from inside themselves and then goes out. So anybody – before they made computers, it’s the same way. Anybody anywhere has access to knowledge of anybody else on the earth, certainly in the past or present, but perhaps even to the future.  And that’s how I write. Now don’t ask me how I know that because I just do, but it’s 100 percent effective.  That’s how it works.

JAZZed: Playing with so many different types of people – have you found it hard to relate to different folks or different generations of musicians?

JB: Not really.  The only people I would have a problem are ones who aren’t open to certain things. But I don’t care what they’re like as long as they can play music. And I don’t think there’s any age to life or music. If there is, I haven’t discovered it. Some of the youngest people you’ll ever meet are some of the oldest ones you’ll ever know.  Someone can be two years old and be older than the 95-year-old that lives next door to you. Your body does not define your essence, and music is something that of course doesn’t get defined that well either.

JAZZed: The story of your beginnings always go back to being enamored of Charlie Parker and wanting to learn from his harmonies and melodies and everything, transcribing every bit of it. 

JB: I never felt like I ever wanted to learn from a harmony or melody because I never divided music into harmonies and melodies. It was very deep music and it’s the way I felt.  That was why I wanted to play and that’s why I did play. There was nothing different about it at all. There was something different about all the other music that made me not interested in that.  Good music felt like it was part of me – “Let me do that.”

JAZZed: It’s an interesting and also unorthodox approach to learning – did you ever have any problems with teaching institutions while trying to get students to learn that way?

JB: No.  There was this one class where the idea was that they all picked the members of the class themselves, and then that class picks the teacher.  That’s the kind of class I had yesterday as well, but this class was like that.  They didn’t like that notes had to be written for notation in music, and they wanted a new way to write notes for music and communicate with each other. So they did that for a semester and people were almost down on their knees with hands in prayer after they heard this concert.  But unlike any other class, they refused to go back to the school unless they were allowed to have me for another semester after that.

So the next semester, it turned out that their music had become so involved and complicated – they were doing all kinds of 15/7 and 2/5 all at the same time, that  they actually had to go back and write notes.  So they ended up writing notes, but only because their music became that complicated that they could not longer use those drawings or pictures they were making.  That’s what they did.  I let people do anything as long as they get a result.

Some people don’t like to teach like that because it means that from the moment you start teaching to the end, you have to be aware.  They don’t like that – a lot of people don’t like to be aware.  They just like to have a method.  They force it, and that’s that. I would be very bored and so would my students.

JAZZed: Another one of your early associations was Ornette Coleman.  How did you come to appreciate music that seemingly came from so far out?

JB: He was never far out.  It’s the other people who were far out. I thought that was the best music I ever, ever heard in my life. Better than Bartok, and Bartok was the one that I’d heard before that who might have been close. But when I heard Coleman, that was the best music I had heard and still the best that I have heard. Wherever it is, It came from this moment. That was why – it is more natural than anything else. A lot of people would say the same thing – “Bartok sounds really far out.” I had first thought, “Wow, that’s the first thing I’ve heard that wasn’t boring.”  Especially those quartets.

JAZZed: That music all sort of develops on its own terms, right?  It seems to go right along with your philosophy toward a lot of things.

JB: Yes, that’s right. It’s living right at that moment. It’s breathing.  I like to play music that breathes.

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