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Arts + CultureMusicThe jazz musician we needed: Goodbye to jaimie branch

The jazz musician we needed: Goodbye to jaimie branch

She died last week at 39—but not before the bandleader and trumpeter updated her genre for a new generation.

The Brooklyn-based composer, trumpeter and multi-instrumentalist, bandleader, and vocalist jaimie branch (who forever kept her name in lowercase on purpose), brought new colors and an IRT utility to the jazz idiom—sometimes, through punk-rawk dynamism. She died on the night of Monday, August 22 at her home in the Red Hook neighborhood of Brooklyn. 

Her death was announced by International Anthem, the Chicago-based label that released her music. The statement, made in consultation with her family, did not provide a cause.

She was 39.

I wrote about branch seven times in two years, right here for 48hills. All that coverage would make anyone think that I knew her personally, like I was a day-one dude, preaching ‘bout this genre-busting phenom on some back-in-the-day type expanse. But actually, I never met the artist nor caught her live in concert—and I deeply regret it.

See, I came to j breezy late, but once i heard her—that fire—I knew that essentially, she was the future. That intensity made so many think that she was about to take her music to realms undefined. 

On that first listen of her work, I had to sit my butt down. Hydrate. Be still. Then call friends. Have late night conversations about branch’s influences: Stockhausen, what Miles stole—excuse me, repurposed—from him. I slapped Sextant on the turntable, by Herbie Hancock, and just got open.

branch and her music did what all great art is supposed to do: Rethink what you thought you knew. The way she would project those wails, vaulting her trumpet into the limitless. She screamed at levels of peak Freddie Hubbard-type melting. Posing both questions and answers within the throes of a condemnation. My Gawd.

As a musician first, and a singer second, she intuitively knew how to squeak notes into where they needed to be when vocalizing.

branch packed Sun Ra, Mouse on Mars, Moor Mother, Harriet Tubman, and Autechre energy into arrangements that went from modal to psychedelic space music. Her latest record Pink Dolphins by Anteloper, a recurring project with longtime friend and drummer Jason Nazary, stood brazenly on the fringes, transmitting 21st century atmosphere, peering directly into the abyss.

It all stuck with me. Hard.

Many would describe her live performances as “full-hearted,” and what she brought to venues as “presence.”

Piotr Orlov, a writer and critic who became friends with branch and inextricably involved (and happily so) with her, regarded her work and intuition as genius. He attested to the energy she brought to live performance in an email to 48hills.

“I don’t know why this is making me think of it right now, but she played like that Springsteen line from ‘Badlands,’” he said. “’For the ones who had a notion deep inside/That it ain’t no sin to be glad you’re alive.’ She played like she was glad to be alive, and alongside people who cared as much as she did.”

“There’s very few audience members I know who walked away from her playing the past few years as anything less than completely won over and going ‘Holy Shit,’” he continued. “jaimie’s playing demanded that you either care, or get the fuck out of here. And she did not bring anything less than what she demanded of others.”

branch’s music challenged us. Yo. It challenged me. It advanced what jazz is, in this moment, redefining those parameters of what it could be and who could make it. And then, as if that wasn’t enough, she gave it voice, purpose. Agency.

“We got a bunch of wide-eyed racists!” Branch shout-speaks in the middle of the blues dirge “prayer for amerikkka pt 1 & 2” from her take-no-prisoners FLY or DIE II: bird dogs of paradise album from 2019. 

“And they think they run this shit.” 

This was my introduction to branch, and it boldly spoke out against the Orange One during his reign of terror. Possessing that hard-driving, Friday night church meeting ferocity, the rant and song spoke to humanity. FLY or DIE addressed people being attacked by a government that’s supposed to protect those without resources.

A jazz musician being righteous in the exact moment of need? One who, by the way, was just working at a cafe, wrapping up sandwiches, a couple of years earlier? Yup. I was all in.

“I had the privilege to not only hear jaimie play often, but play different kinds of music in many types of circumstances,” stated Orlov. “And the through-line was that absolutely nothing was regarded as ‘just a gig.’ She gave so much of herself. All. The. Time. Musically, when jaimie was playing, she was often over-powering, just wave-upon-wave of taking advantage of the moment, especially when she was playing with folks who cared just as much she did—which was, in my experience, pretty much all the time. She was infectious that way.”

Through experimental method and that larger-than-life persona, she arrived as a whole lived-in talent, original from the jump. branch’s oeuvre held touches from Chet Baker, to Betty Davis’s bawdy-type humor, to firecracker-fusion Miles. branch and her labelmate, the producer-musician Jeff Parker, shared a love for Miles Davis’ Live Evil, and continuously borrowed from alternative rock and lo-fi expressions. She used punk approaches toward EDM, never concerned about their landing point—only the journey into sound mattered. That hip-hop swag fed the inventive process, guiding her love of grunge to seep into arrangements, liquify walls, oozing toward unknown destinations.

branch was a torchbearer with new pindrops for jazz. She advanced it forward with that J Dilla-type energy, ya know? Evolution. This woman, this take-no-shit human, donned a baseball cap, forever rocking Helado Negro’s “Young Latin and Proud” t-shirt with a kimono-type shawl swaddled around her shoulders, and with her trumpet up in the air, rang the alarm.

That aesthetic—nonconformist, unflappable, and primal—was just her. No fiction.

Photo by Flickr user Dirk Neven

branch’s arrival was perfectly timed for the current jazz resurgence. Proof of this renaissance is everywhere. I saw tenor saxophonist Kamasi Washington, multi-instrumentalist/trumpet player Emma Jean-Thackaray, and Grammy-winning musician Robert Glasper in The Bay over a 10-day span this summer.  

The feat had me on permanent grin status for days. But one fact could not be overlooked: The abundance of young people at these shows. They were mostly white kids, 20s and up, sometimes vaping at Outside Lands, other times with barely a lick of clothing on. Could have been out of respect or a newfound curiosity—but whatever the case, this generation was frequenting the jazz table. 

Both Washington and Glasper had similar moments at the top of their respective performances, doing the “personal math,” sensing the vibe, producing that nanosecond eye-squint of “are they going to get it?,” and then instantly returning to their professional entertainer alter-egos. Point is, new jazz aficionados were self-educating, getting baptized by America’s classical music in its composite resurgence.

branch, drawing from so many musical places, combos that put the dusty version of jazz into a bitcoin, Twitch, NFT-type reality, shook these kids up starting in 2017, taking up space on their iPods. That j breezy alchemy helped to usher in this moment. 

I just wish we could see more of the future she had tucked under that shawl.

Stream jaimie branch’s music here.

48 Hills welcomes comments in the form of letters to the editor, which you can submit here. We also invite you to join the conversation on our FacebookTwitter, and Instagram

John-Paul Shiver
John-Paul Shiverhttps://www.clippings.me/channelsubtext
John-Paul Shiver has been contributing to 48 Hills since 2019. His work as an experienced music journalist and pop culture commentator has appeared in the Wire, Resident Advisor, SF Weekly, Bandcamp Daily, PulpLab, AFROPUNK, and Drowned In Sound.

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