I was mortified to see an unnamed guitarist (Mark Whitfield) on stage at an undisclosed location (The Iridium) in a major metropolitan city (New York) play some sort of instrumental pop, smooth, crossover, hybrid. What had led such a promising young musician to abandon his once true calling? After all, he (Mark Whitfield) was touted by most members of the selective media and his own label (Verve) to be the next great guitarist in jazz. The answer? Simple. It's why strippers disrobe (not that I'm equating smooth jazz to stripping, but you get the effect). Survival. So it is a true testament to the artistry of Joanne Brackeen, that four decades after she started doing small gigs with Harold Land and Dexter Gordon, the 60-year-old pianist/composer is still as popular as ever. Successful without comprising her art (take note Tommy LiPuma). Joanne was snowed in from teaching her classes at Berklee, so she sat down with me from her home in New York to talk about her life, her time as a member of Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers, and her new recording (her twenty-second) on Arkadia Jazz, "Pink Elephant Magic." She spoke as she plays, truthfully and from the heart, and as always--unedited and in her own words.
FJ: Let's start from the beginning.
JB: I was young and I just heard, for me, piano music and my parents had some recordings of some songs I liked, and so I learned them. I just listened to the recording and I copied it, from the beginning to the end, everything. Then in about six months, I did that for about eight or ten tunes, then I knew how to play and so I started working. I was about eleven and that's how I learned how to play.
FJ: What were you listening to at the time?
JB: It was just, I lived in a city that had seventeen thousand people, so they didn't have very much jazz, but the piano player that my parents had recordings of was Frankie Carle (swing pianist). Some people know him, but if you don't he's, kind of, it sounded to me like he's, kind of, out of Fats Waller. He didn't sing, but he was playing stride piano and somewhat that kind of feeling.
FJ: Where were your early influences?
JB: That was it, because in that city, that was all they had. There was nothing else there. Then a couple of years later, we moved into the Los Angeles area, and then I began hearing a lot of jazz that sounds great even today. Art Blakey, he was one that I heard. Oscar Peterson was another. John Coltrane used to come through with his quartets, a lot of people.
FJ: You were one of the very few woman instrumentalists at that time, did you encounter any resistance?
JB: You know, Fred, I played all that time and it wasn't until 1978, somebody called me up and said, "Would you like to play at the Women's Jazz Festival?" And that is really the first time that I had ever thought that I was a woman, in reference to playing music. I was, kind of, born without any prejudices. I don't know how or why. It didn't run in the family, but that's just the way I was born. I, literally, I was born that way. I didn't see that. I didn't even really know until, here was this Women's Jazz Festival, which meant women were there. Of course, men played in the group. My group was with men and most of them were and so I was playing for so long before the question even arouse, so it was, kind of, after the fact for me.
FJ: You were the first female member of Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers.
JB: Really the only one. I think, oh, what's her name? She was, kind of, like a blues player. She worked with him one weekend. But, anybody, I was the only one in the band that worked there and I worked for several years with him, the only woman. It seems, kind of, funny because I'm just looking. I see Cedar Walton. A lot of people pop into mind. All these people that worked with him. I don't think in terms of, so much in terms of men and women.
FJ: And what was that time with Blakey like for you?
JB: It was great. I felt like I got, well, I don't think I'm a funny kind of person, but I don't hear so many people talk this way, but I think if I meet someone, I met everything that they came from. I could feel Africa and the jungles in the music. It went right into me. It was instant. He used to call me his adopted daughter. He wasn't so far wrong, because his conversations very often were just a repetition of what was going through my head long before I ever met him.
FJ: And your time with Stan Getz?
JB: Well, you know, Fred, the pitch that he played in, his whole, everything came out of the sound that he played with. I got very spoiled. It became hard for me to work with other, you know, for a few years after, even now I still can hear that. The inner pitch, the tone, the pitch that he played with was something really magnificent. And he never played, he never spoke any words that he didn't feel. And he never played any notes that he didn't feel. So it was almost like he was the living image of whatever his playing was. He was that without the saxophone.
FJ: Let's touch on your new recording on Arkadia Jazz, "Pink Elephant Magic."
JB: Well, "Pink Elephant Magic," it was a tune that I've been playing for about two years all around. I had people from about five years old on up to about ninety years old, all coming up and wanting to buy this CD that that tune was on. So, finally I had a chance to record it. The core trio is John Patitucci (bass) and Horacio "El Negro" Hernandez (drums), he's from Cuba. I think people know John Patitucci from all his work with Chick (Corea) and still has some albums out as a leader on his own. I think Horacio worked with Gonzalo Rubalcaba for a long time. In fact, when he came and did my music, he said this was the first music I've seen so hard, just like Gonzalo's. It took two days (to record) right next to each other. And then there were a lot of guest artists. Kurt Elling sings one song. Dave Liebman is a guest. Chris Potter is a guest and Nicholas Payton. I think I've got everyone.
FJ: Then your Arkadia deal is your first long term record contract since your run with Concord?
JB: Yes, I would say that. Probably Concord was the longest and now this one is taking place. My last Concord album was in 1995, the one called "Take a Chance" came out. Then I did a couple of live albums in between there. Actually, there's another one that Concord has, some solo album that I did ("Live at Maybeck Recital Hall"). I don't even remember what year that was (1990). And I did a trio album on Turnipseed, a small label from New Orleans. We recorded a live concert there. It was called "Power Talk." Then I did one on Evidence called "Turnaround." Those were some other ones in between there.
FJ: It is a shame that it has taken so long to get your music heard.
JB: It's a crazy fad. It will never last, but it's happening. It seems very, very out of balance. And nothing really works unless it's in balance. It's the way the universe is constructed. Sometimes you have to wait and be patient and wait for things to come around. I think anyone who has their music has to continue to work on it and develop it and be ready for when the things do turn for them. A lot of people right now find it very in vogue to sound like Herbie Hancock. I can probably name thirty piano players, if you listen to their recording that's what you're going to hear. Herbie's a genius. He's wonderful, but still.
FJ: And your teaching?
JB: I'm a professor up at Berklee. In fact, I should have been there now, but they had a huge snowstorm and the college was closed. I don't teach on the weekend, but I was going to have to make up because I had some concerts, so a week or so ago, I was out of town. Each student, I teach differently. The first thing I ask them is what they want to learn, what they think they want to learn, and what they like to listen to, and what their goals for that semester are. Most of the time they have some kind of an idea and sometimes a very clear idea, so I like to teach them in the context of what they want to learn and of course there are certain things that the college has. You must do certain things. Most of my students, I hardly have to check that part, but as a teacher you have to make sure. I'd like them all to get A's anyway. That's the bottom line. And then, once they get that covered, anything they want, I give them. It's easy to teach because you are just relaying what you do, when you compose and you play, for me anyway. It's like a, kind of, reflection. You have to be spontaneous. To be alive is to be spontaneous. To really be able to help yourself and everyone else, you have to constantly be new, every moment and pay attention there so you can direct. When people are that age they haven't really learned to direct a lot of thing and that's what you help them to do.
FJ: And practicing?
JB: It's preparation. You have to prepare. I don't have enough time to practice enough. Oh, no. If I had all the time to do everything that I'd like to do, I would have to add at least four or five hours on to every day. Sometimes I think I would have to have, they talk about cloning, I would have to have two of me, at least, to be able to do a lot of the things.
FJ: Are you content at where you are musically?
JB: Well, right now, Fred, it feels like a flash. I don't even have time to hardly reflect, to know if I'm content (laughing). But, yes, I guess so. I like doing everything I'm doing, so that's great. It always gets better. Just like life. Every year I say, "Oh, life begins at this age." You learn more. You experience more, so it becomes even more fascinating.
FJ: What other projects do you have planned?
JB: One is going to be a solo album, recorded not too far from now. And then we also might do a live recording of my quartet. Those are some of my immediate plans.
FJ: Who intrigues you now, musically?
JB: Well, music is my modern day influence. This music and all the things, the harmonies and the rhythms that go with it and of course I tend to like to listen to the people who are, kind of, have the same vocabulary. So anyone like that is great, whether it's somebody fifty years ago or somebody two months ago, or today.
FJ: And what is that which inspires Joanne Brackeen?
JB: Being alive is great (laughing).
FJ: And the changes that you have seen in your musical life?
JB: Everything has changed. We didn't even have computers then, hardly. Sometimes the audiences are much more educated and sometimes they are much less educated. Sometimes you go into a club and you feel that everyone's read the latest "Downbeat" or something and you wonder why they're there. But more often then not, they really like music and they don't always have to have been educated to hear it. I like to thing that part of my performance is about education without using words. It doesn't always work, but it's a goal that I'd like to get. I can tell you a story about this lady, I found out just two weeks ago, that she's actually the wife of an ambassador. I didn't know any of that. Three years ago, I played a solo concert at a church in St. Paul. The church held about three hundred people and there were three hundred people there. Among them was this lady, who was eighty years old. Friends had talked her into coming and she told them, "I don't want to go. I don't like jazz. I just don't even want to be there." And she came and she listened to a little bit and true to form she felt like leaving and then all of the sudden, one tune I played, she just hooked up with that. She went totally berserk and she turned into a total jazz fan, flying all over the country to come and hear my performances. And then, at one of the clubs there in town, she began being an avid jazz fan, going there three or four times a week. She often buys four or five tables of people all their dinner and drinks and invites them to come and hear the music. Big blocks of the club, she buys. And that's her whole life now, and not only that, her whole personality changed. So this is the story of jazz for somebody eighty years old, who was totally, she says it's a whole other life for her.
FJ: What was the song that you played?
JB: "Just One of Those Things." And she wants to hear that every time too. She sat next to me when we went, I played a concert again, a duet with Eddie Gomez about a week and a half ago, and afterwards we went to the club, and she knew everybody on the bandstand, and their whole history, and all their wives, and where they lived, where they were from. She just, it's amazing. I like stories like that. That's what our music is for, is to change people's lives, open their hearts up. The musician has access to so many elements of life that so many people haven't even been introduced to.
FJ: And what would you like people to take away from your music?
JB: I would like people to feel a magic that extends into their lives and that they feel that it empowers them in their own life. When they put that music on, they feel something really good and even after the music finishes playing, they still can hear it and enjoy life more as a result of having heard it.
To find out more about Joanne, check out her website at: The Jazz Corner