In January 2018 I moderated a panel with Kenny Barron, Joanne Brackeen, and Harold Mabern for the Jazz Congress hosted by JALC and JazzTimes. That was a terrific conversation and can be seen online at the JazzTimes FB page. Thanks to Derrick Lucas for taking this photo of me and Joanne backstage.
The week after the Congress I visited her apartment. The following conversation was transcribed by Kevin Sun.
Brackeen is about to receive her 2018 NEA Jazz Masters Award.
Ethan Iverson: Well, let’s start with that story you told last week, about hearing your first Frankie Carle record.
Joanne Brackeen: I was 11. My mom used to listen to the pop music on the radio, but some of that was like jazz. That was in the ‘40s. They tried to give me piano lessons when I was nine, but it didn’t work. I liked what I heard on the radio. Ventura, California was a small city, you don’t really run into that many different types of people. They came back with this record, and somehow I got a little record player I could take into my bedroom or whatever.
EI: These were 78s.
JB: These were 78s, yeah. I used to always stay home when everybody was gone. That was great. So I thought, “Oh, what am I going to do today? Oh, yeah, let me listen to that record.” I didn’t know anything about transcribing, I didn’t know that word.
EI: You started playing along with the record?
JB: No, I would write down each note. Right hand, left hand. Frankie Carle and his Girlfriends. I did about seven or eight of them, and after that, of course, I knew how chords went and everything. I’d play those pieces in school assemblies.
Much later I lived in a loft in 17th Street in New York, and somebody told me they knew about Frankie Carle. He was still alive and they found his phone number. I called him up and I talked with him. He was 95, and he said, “I still practice every day. I play a couple hours.” That was a nice ending.
When I was 12, I met Joanne. Her name was Joanne Zerwig at that time, but later she became Joanne Castle and went on to work with Lawrence Welk and become a multi-millionaire.
She had a pushy mom, her mom had her playing all over the city. We started playing together. She would play the accordion and sing, and I would play with her, then I would do one of my solos. We were getting paid!
EI: 12 years old and making a buck, besides.
JB: We were best friends, that was the main thing, but then we did our music in a little band together.
EI: How did you start playing more like real jazz?
JB: We kept moving around, I lived in Westchester for about three months when I was 14, and I met this guy named Don, and he played piano. You could go to his piano and play a chord, and both he and his sister could tell you every note you had down. He and his sister had a collection of Gerry Mulligan-Chet Baker records. I loved that!
I don’t know what happened, but people were always calling me for gigs. They thought I was 21. When I was 16, I got my driver’s license, but had it changed so it said I was older than 21. I worked all over and they all thought I was of age.
Bobby Hutcherson and Herbie Lewis and I used to get together. They were one year behind me in high school. I think I was in the senior high then and they were in the last year of junior high. They would have sessions all over the place. I had a trio with Herbie Lewis and a drummer that I never heard of afterward, Doug Cox, and we played all over.
When I was 17, I got a job at this million-dollar theater. It was like a Spanish show, with all the singers and the dancers and different skits, and they had a jazz band. We were playing only Latin music for the show, but downstairs we played jazz until the time it was to hit. We played these shows, and that paid really well, I was earning more money than my father. Meanwhile, they tried to kick me out of high school because I wouldn’t show up a lot of the time. I did all my work, I just got the assignments. I’m saying, “Well, how could you throw me out? I’m on the honor roll, and this is my business?” Anyway, I said something like that, I talked my way out of stuff.
EI: Who else did you play with in those years?
Teddy Edwards. I had this job, six nights a week for quite a while, Teddy Edwards was there and they would have a guest artist. For the Christmas show, they’d have a jazz show, and then we had Dexter Gordon was the guest sax, we had two saxes. Frank Butler was the drummer, and George Morrow from New York. Red Foxx was the intermission guy.
EI: Playing with Teddy Edwards and Dexter Gordon, I can’t imagine.
JB: Yeah, all the time, every night. That was the Zebra Lounge. If Teddy Edwards couldn’t make it Harold Land would play. There was another guy, a piano player, that gave me that job. His name was Terry Trotter. I felt sorry for him, his wife divorced him and married Phil Woods.
I met Ornette there, and of course Billy and Don and Charlie. Billy Higgins lived out in Pacoima out in the Valley, and I lived there, too. I had this old car, like a 1939 Ford, so Billy always wanted me to pick him up, he didn’t have a way to get to LA otherwise. I was good friends with him, and we used to go to rehearsals that they had at Don’s house.
I used to see Don at another place where they had sessions. There was Ray Graziano…a good friend of his was Art Pepper…it’s all mixed up in my mind now. People you know, people you wouldn’t know. Walter Benton was another one of the horn players who was really great. Elmo Hope used to always be hanging out. He was beautiful. Hampton Hawes was another one. I used to hear him with Red Mitchell all the time. Often Billy would be their drummer, so I’d be dropping him off.
It was a great time to play and a great time to listen all the time.
EI: What did you think of Hampton Hawes’s playing?
JB: I loved the way he played, but Hampton Hawes’s favorite piano player was Horace Silver. You never know who’s anybody’s favorite anything. You can’t tell. It’s amazing. Hampton didn’t play at all like Horace and Horace didn’t play like Hampton.
Horace would write these great tunes, and at that time, there weren’t that many jazz records, so each Horace record was important.
LA is a country town, though. It still is.
EI: James Newton said something to me about that.
JB: You can’t get anything, you have to drive 30 miles and they don’t have the sense to tell you they don’t have the product, even if you ask. Yeah, it’s crazy back there, but it’s beautiful.
EI: What did Ornette’s music sound like to you when you first heard it?
JB: It sounded just like it does now. They were playing the same tunes that were on Somethin’ Else. They were playing that with Paul Bley.
EI: And you liked it?
JB: More than liked it! I thought, how could I never heard this before? This is everything! You know? I felt all music was inside that music. In every kind of way.
EI: It must have had an effect on your own jazz playing.
JB: Probably did. I mean, I never took lessons, and I really have no idea how I learned. I was always with somebody that wanted to play.
EI: Was it in California where you met Charles Brackeen?
JB: Yes, I met him there, he was great horn player. Everybody wanted to use him but he always hung back. Eventually when my own career started to go places he got mad and that’s when we broke up.
EI: When did you first hear McCoy Tyner?
JB: That was in California, with Coltrane. That was just one performance, but when I came to New York in 1965, yes, he was here, so you could hear him. I remember going down to a club on Seventh Avenue South, a place kind of out of the way. I didn’t really have money to get in, and I looked down on the floor and there was a bill down there that was the exact amount to get in. I picked it up and I got like a front row watching Elvin, McCoy, all of them. I was impressed by everybody, Jimmy Garrison, yeah.
EI: Your first records are with a kind of soul-jazz vibraphonist, Freddie McCoy. Who was Freddie McCoy?
JB: I really can’t remember how I ran into him, but he wanted me to play in his group. One time he had Paul Chambers playing, another time a good drummer, Ray Appelton. I tried to play the best I could for how they played.
EI: Must have been an interesting learning experience.
JB: Well, I never looked at it that much because I was doing what I wanted to do all in between, you know? But we did travel a little on the road, outside of the city, that was nice. He was a funny guy.
EI: Were you already composing at this time?
JB: I was composing since I was about 13. In LA, I had a whole slew of songs, but when we moved, we had to take a train, and I had three kids, so we could only take so much. I couldn’t find the music after that.
I always had groups, they would always come over and play, we’d play my music and Charles’s music. For me, there wasn’t a line between working and getting paid or simply playing for fun. There was another job at the Digger in East LA that I worked at every Sunday for years and years. It was just like we were always playing. You could play every night, and if there wasn’t a place to go play, we created the place, just among the people that were there.
EI: When did you first hear Chick Corea?
JB: I don’t remember the first time I saw him. The first way I got to his music the album The Brain. That’s also how I heard Jack DeJohnette, and I always loved Jack’s playing,
Miles Davis was at this club called the Baron on 135th Street, and they were working six nights a week, that band with Wayne Shorter, Chick Corea, Jack and Dave Holland.
I’d already worked with Dave Holland with Pete LaRoca. There was another session that we did a couple days a week. Dave Holland was the bass player, Pete LaRoca Sims was the drummer, and a horn player like Joe Farrell.
EI: There’s McCoy and Chick, but you also must have been listening to Herbie Hancock, too.
JB: Yeah. If you listen to Herbie before Miles, that’s a huge difference. Miles made the difference, but it’s also like some connection between Herbie and Tony, right? It’s like Herbie just got into everything that Tony was doing. For the recording in Japan they got Sam Rivers. And Herbie and Tony were comping wild, like comping maybe like every 7 beats, but everything will come out even in the end. They had all this stuff planned, but they could only do that behind Sam. When Miles played, they’d go back into the regular thing.
Yeah, it was crazy in those days. I used to always run into Wayne Shorter and his brother Alan at Slugs. Everyone used to go down there because the main people were there. It cost a dollar to get in, everybody came there, it’s right around the corner. Wayne seemed to be a little bit out, but Alan was further out. Lots of colors was how he was. Wayne was playing beautiful, and Bobby was here working a lot, Pharaoh Sanders worked a lot.
One night I was really tired but I really wanted to hear some music, and Art Blakey was at Slugs with Carlos Garnett I went there and I wanted to hear the sound of the piano. It was so weird because …
EI: The piano player was laying out?
JB: Yeah, he was sitting at the piano but not playing, and for a long time. I mean, I was waiting, I thought he was just laying out for a few choruses, but it wasn’t, he was just sitting there. So, without even thinking…if you have four kids and you don’t know what you’re doing, you’re so tired, but I just went up there automatically. I’m like that anyway, my body just goes and I follow it. I asked him if I could play because I wanted to hear more sound, and he said yes. So I got up and I played, and then I just continued for a few more tunes.
EI: Who was the piano player?
JB: I’m not telling! If it was me, I wouldn’t want them to be telling, that person still lives here and works, so…
EI: OK, fair enough. Anyway, Blakey after the set said, “You’ve got the gig?”
JB: He just asked me to be in the band. I said, “OK.” He said, “We’re going to Japan. We’ll give you a call.” He called me later to go get the passport and everything. That was it, I was in the band.
Art Blakey was amazing. I felt totally at home. Ornette’s thing was wider, bigger, but the way the sound that Blakey gets out of the drums is incredible. Also, it was the first time I heard anyone say things about other people that was what I was thinking. I would not say because it would be too weird for me to say, but he would just come out and say it. It was like a relative of mine that I never met. He started calling me his adopted daughter, so he knew something.
His playing was incredible. The first concert was in Tokyo and I didn’t even know the format of the band. I didn’t know what music they played, I didn’t know who took a solo, nothing. And I never thought to ask. I mean, in those days, you would just play, so we’d get on the gig and we’re playing two or three or four tunes, then he gets up and says, “And now, the piano player will play a tune of her choice.” And everybody leaves the bandstand. It was 3000 people out there, and I thought, “OK, well,” and the first song I could think of was “Just One of Those Things,” and that’s how I learned how to play solo piano, on one concert, on one tune. Because you’re already hearing all the sounds of things coming from all directions, so that energy’s already in you, and then, I just did it. And I’d have never done it if I’d just sat at my house and just practiced. I mean, I could do it now because I know what that feels like. Yeah, it was amazing. A lot of fun. And we did a concert tour that was 42 days long and there were 44 concerts. Check that out. And some of them were like 7 AM TV shows. Yeah.
It was so great to be playing with somebody that sounded African, that their drums were from Africa. But the other strange thing is you don’t have to go to Africa to be in Africa. You don’t have to go to any country to be in that country. You can hear the music from any country wherever you are, without listening to it. That’s just something that I always felt. There’s a tune I wrote called “African Aztec,” Billy Hart heard that and said, “That’s a classic African rhythm.” But he listens to all different kinds of things and he’s the opposite of me in that way.
EI: So you didn’t have a particular discipline to get power and speed? At home, while practicing?
JB: No, just hearing and trying to figure out how could you get your body to do what you’re hearing and feeling. Yeah. I still do that, that’s still the same. Yeah. I don’t have any answers. I don’t have any! And for me, the question comes at the instant that you hear it, so I don’t even know what the question is. Yeah.
EI: Well, in conversation you do remind me of Ornette quite a bit. Seeing it all in this kind of circular, humanistic way or something.
JB: I don’t know, but I didn’t know another Ornette. There was only one.
EI: After you played with Blakey you started playing with lots of people. The next record is with Toots Thielemans.
JB: Oh yeah. There was a guy that came into Bradley’s, Gerry McDonald, and he had this house out in Queens or something where they made records. I think he had already talked with Toots, and they had the rhythm section, but they didn’t have the piano player. I think it was something like that, and so they asked me if I would come out and record, that was how I met Toots. I forget who else was on that album.
EI: Cecil McBee and Freddie Waits.
JB: I had a trio, and it started out being Wayne Dockery and Billy Hart, and then I ended up with Cecil McBee.
EI: The two of you have played a lot together.
JB: Yeah, we played a lot together in the trios. It felt like I worked a lot with Billy because we did all those Stan gigs.
EI: Before you were with Stan, you played with Joe Henderson.
JB: Joe had a horn player that was sometimes in his band, Pete Yellin, and Pete kept calling me up, maybe three or four times, saying, “Joanne, why don’t you come and join the band?” And I’m like, “What?” And he’d give me Joe’s number and tell me to call Joe, and I thought, “That’s kind of backwards.” I don’t know if I’d feel comfortable if side people call me up and ask me for gigs, so I didn’t call him. Finally, Joe called, and that was in 1972? And so I rehearsed and we worked off and on, actually from 1972 to ’75, was in his band and only not further because I went with Stan.
EI: What was it like to play with Joe Henderson?
JB: Really fun. and challenging, he’d take a long 25 minute solo, and go off the bandstand for another 20 minutes, disappear out of the club. So, you know, you’re up there with the rhythm section, and, hey, you’re really in there now to play a lot more what you want to play, otherwise. No one ever told me what to do, but he would be telling me what to do in another way.
And I liked his tunes. I liked them a lot. With Art Blakey, we played things, and they were nice, but, I don’t know, I guess the first music I really liked was Ornette’s, and that was a little bit more to it in a certain element than anything else I would hear, so I always had the fullness of that sound in my head.
EI: Did Joe Henderson have charts or did you just know the music?
JB: Yeah, he had music. He was very specific, he was an excellent piano player.
EI: Oh really?
JB: Yeah, and he used to have a gig around the corner no matter where he lived. When he was in Brooklyn, he was on Henry Street and there was some club around the corner he worked every Friday night and then he moved to San Francisco, same situation. And one time we did a tour. It was my tour but I had to hire the band so I had Billy and Joe Henderson and Buster. It was in Istanbul, and so the guys were going to sit in, so I went with somebody, I can’t remember who went, we go in there, the piano’s already playing, and you look over there, and it’s Joe. He’s already playing with the band.
EI: And he sounded good?
JB: He sounded excellent — not just good. He was an excellent piano player. He was very specific about what he wanted and where he wanted it and how he wanted it. Yeah.
EI: Well, of course, those tunes are so beautiful, it makes sense that he really understood harmony at the piano, but I’d never heard of him playing a gig on the piano.
JB: Yeah, he did, but he never talked about it, and only a few people heard it, like Eddie Henderson, Eddie Gomez, and myself.
EI: But when you said he had a little gig every Friday night, you’re not talking about a gig on piano?
JB: Yes, playing piano.
EI: Joe Henderson had a gig as a piano player every week?
JB: Yes, all the time. In Brooklyn, and then when he moved to San Francisco on a hill, he had the same thing. He was always getting these little gigs, the whole night. Yeah.
I had this tune on this tour we did, it was called “Egyptian Dune Dance,” and I just wrote what it looked like, five and a half four, it had two lines, one goes like [sings line], and the other one [sings line], and he was like, “What do I play, Joanne? What do I play on this?” And then the next night, it was nothing for him.
He had a photographic memory for anything and everything.
EI: He took a gig to figure it out and then had it.
JB: Yeah. Absolutely he had it.
EI: You were writing odd meters before just about anybody else. All those tunes on all your records, so many odd meters.
JB: I used to hear Max Roach at Slugs, and his group played them. I didn’t know that was odd, so to speak. I mean, I don’t think I played them anywhere near where I’d like to play them, but I didn’t think they were odd.
EI: Vamp bass lines in odd meter are a real focal point of your own early records. I think you were doing it more often than most people at that point, although it’s pretty common now.
JB: I know! I had to wait, I had to wait like 30 years before people started doing what I was hearing, and I thought there were other people hearing a lot more than that!
You never know. Some of the same regular tunes are still being played. A lot of the kids at the New School like “My Ideal.” I like it, too; I didn’t really learn it well, I always forget the middle part.
EI: I want to hear a little about Stan Getz.
JB: OK, so I’m on the road with Joe, and as I once before mentioned, this is so crazy, 1972, there’s no cell phones, there’s no computers, there’s no nothing, and I would get a call in my hotel room. “Rehearsal’s tomorrow.” This is from Stan Getz, and we’re in the middle of a tour, so I’d say, “Well, Stan, I’m on a tour, and so I won’t be in New York tomorrow.” So this happened two or three or four more times, and were in all different places, and then the tour got cancelled — the last part of it, the last week, I guess we probably did two weeks and the last section of it got cancelled, when Stan called and said, “OK, rehearsal’s tomorrow.” I said, “OK.” So that was it.
But it turned out that Billy Hart and Clint Houston were in the band, and I guess it was Clint Houston saying, “Get Joanne,” because we worked together all the time. But it was weird the way he went about it. Then I heard later on that he’s very psychic. Could you be that psychic to know somebody’s phone number in their hotel room? I don’t know.
EI: You mean what, he just guessed the numbers?
JB: I don’t know! I don’t know.
EI: How’d you learn Stan’s book?
JB: It wasn’t written out. It was in Albert Dailey’s head and in his fingers, and he wasn’t happy not working with Stan, so I put two and two together. I knew that he wasn’t really wanting to show me the music, but Stan made him, so I took a little tape recorder and put it in my bag, and — as I thought he would do — Albert ran through each tune really fast, and that was it. He would say what the name of it was, and if he didn’t, I could call somebody up at home and say, “What is this?” So I knew the names of the tunes. 25 tunes, and I had one week prep, had seven days to get it all together, memorized. Some of that was like “La Fiesta,” Chick Corea, some of the tunes were long, and some of them, there was another one called “Morning” something, beautiful, I can’t remember the other part of it. Anyway, some of them were not that hard. “Lester Left Town,” a Wayne Shorter tune, nice, really some good tunes.
EI: I really liked “Summer Night” in that Chick Corea arrangement.
JB: Was that Chick’s arrangement? I like that arrangement, too. Yeah, we played some great music, very lyrical. I first heard Stan when I was like 11 or 12 where he played “Early Autumn.” I thought it was beautiful.
I was playing with Joe Henderson, and much more fascinated with that style, but then when I went with Stan. It was like Sarah Vaughan and Nat King Cole, the people who sing right in the center of the pitch. If they want to move it one way or the other, they know where they left and came back to, and that’s how Stan played saxophone. So that really spoiled me. Ah! I mean, when you do that for three years, you just hear that. The way he spoke when he talked was exactly related to the way he played music. He didn’t play any notes that he didn’t want to play, and he didn’t leave any notes out that he wanted to play. And when he spoke, he spoke like that. Just anything he was talking about was like that.
EI: There’s so many stories of Stan being a tough character, sort of hard to deal with, did you find that?
JB: Billy Hart told me some antidotes. He said, “You know, Stan can’t stand ladies with big hats.” Like, it really upsets him. OK. So if Stan talked badly about another musician, I wouldn’t say anything, but I would wear a big hat that night. Yeah! What do you call that? Is there a name for that? Subtle and intricate.
EI: Well, “passive-aggressive” comes to mind, but I mean, it’s a very high level passive-aggressive.
JB: One of the ultimate things that was really funny. We’re in a parking lot in Mexico, and getting out of the car, I don’t know where the other guys in the band were, I think they were in another car or something. We get out and Stan hands me his saxophone to carry, so I offer it to somebody else coming through the parking lot two seconds later, “Oh, can’t you carry this horn for us?”
EI: A stranger?
JB: Yeah, I don’t know anybody in Mexico! To me, every human is a human, and if they do something like that, I don’t know, it makes another action.
EI: What happened?
JB: Stan said “I’ll take it back!” I don’t think he was too happy. For some reason, he felt like he needed to pay me back, or maybe he didn’t. I didn’t know, but I knew that that was up there.
The next night, I go to the job, there’s a huge room, it’s a dressing room that we’re using for a dressing room, and it has maybe 1000 lockers, like two deep and they’re all around the room. And so, unbeknownst to me, Stan has bought a dozen or maybe two dozen roses that he’s going to give to me, to make up for some of his stuff, so I just come dancing to the locker room. Nobody’s there but Stan, and no one knows anything but Stan, and I just dance around and all of a sudden I just felt like going to a locker and opening it. That’s the locker with the flowers in it.
EI: Another psychic connection. You sound great on the records with Stan. There’s a real vibe between the two of you for sure.
JB: Yeah, well I loved Stan and and the ideas and the fact that he talked like he played. Dexter, too, to a large degree, was like that too, not in the way but still similar.
EI: You’re playing with Joe Henderson and you’re playing with Stan Getz, and Stan Getz is older, but his book was almost as hip as Joe Henderson’s. It was quite amazing, and the rhythm section was a hard-hitting rhythm section, with you, Clint Houston and Billy Hart.
JB: That record A Moment in Time came out recently, live at the Keystone, and I was pretty impressed. I never thought of anything at the time except that we’re there, we’re there for him, we’re trying to play the most we could play behind him and still really support him, and that’s all we ever thought. Everybody, the three of us in the band, every night, would go back and listen to the entire night’s music.
EI: You would tape every night.
JB: Yeah, Stan didn’t care. I mean, he never said anything, I just put it up on the piano. I told you about the time he did the cadenza.
EI: Tell us again.
JB: Yeah, we were in I think it was Germany, might have been Hamburg, Germany. It was July 4, 1976. He always played a cadenza on “La Fiesta.” He started with his regular cadenza, and all of a sudden, it sounded like John Coltrane in person. And he just went all over, he played anything that he had ever heard John play. We listened back to it and we were talking about it. That was the only tape that Stan asked for, just to listen to he said, and of course, it never got returned.
EI: He just kept it. He didn’t want that out there.
JB: He didn’t want that out there, no. Yeah, it was amazing, we didn’t know he could do that.
That was like Art Blakey coming to my room and hearing Tony Williams. The whole band always got together somewhere, and it was usually my room because I had the little portable record player, and we’re listening to the Miles Smiles album. It was new.
EI: So you’re like on tour in Japan and listening to Miles in your room?
JB: Yeah, and Art Blakey came in after everybody else was there, knocked on the door to see what’s going on. He came in and stayed there for maybe a half hour or so. And the next three nights, we didn’t hear Art Blakey, we heard Tony Williams!
EI: Blakey was playing like Tony Williams on Miles Smiles?
JB: Exactly. Exactly. Now you figure that out. That’s like Monk playing like Bud Powell, right?
EI: That shows you the music is so connected, though. With those master musicians, it’s really a circle that goes both ways.
JB: All different kinds of ways.
EI: I would have liked to have heard one of those gigs!
Let’s talk about some of these musicians that you have such a long relationship with: Clint Houston, for example.
JB: We played at a lot a club called the Surf Maid on Bleecker Street, diagonally across from what used to be the Village Gate.
JB: Yeah, it was a duo job. The main bass player was Clint; if he couldn’t make it, there’d be somebody else who subbed for the night. It was like 6 nights a week, 6 hours the length, and then in-between a piano player would play, but we really played a lot of music and got to learn a lot of standards and things. Anytime anyone would come in, and ask for something, if I didn’t know it, I would just learn it and I’d have it the next night. It was just fun.
Clint played a little different from everybody else, and he really liked to solo. He played a solo more like a horn player than like a bass player, but it had a certain rhythm, there was a certain thing that he played.
EI: Very driving.
JB: Yeah, that was what he loved to do, that was his thing. Yeah, no motive other than that.
EI: You played a lot with Eddie Gomez as well.
JB: Yeah, Eddie and I still play now. Javon Jackson put this group together with Jimmy Cobb and Eddie. So I’ve been seeing him again and I think we have something else in February that we’re doing.
We’ve done quite a few things over the years, we were together on quite a few albums. Up at Berklee, they gave me the BNY Mellon Jazz Living Legend Award, so they played a bunch of my music and they had some students afterward play. Eddie Gomez was walking across the street the day of the concert, and I said, “Eddie! You’re not on my concert, you want to play tonight?” And he said, “Sure.” So he showed up and I told Matt, who was in charge, that we’d be doing a duo as well as the rest, so we played, I don’t remember, maybe “No Greater Love” or something. When we play, it’s like we rehearsed every night for five years. And we never did anything. Yeah, that’s what he’s like, so comfortable.
EI: He’s a very swinging bass player.
JB: I love it. He’s crazy, but I love it! I had him on another job, and Ravi Coltrane was on there. There was one melody of mine that was kind of ridiculously hard. No one really had enough time to shed. Eddie noticed Ravi was having a little problem in one section, and Eddie just played the whole thing. It was all 16th notes, not just 16th notes, but little rests and everything, and of course written in the treble clef, and not slow, and Eddie just played the whole thing to make it sound right.
EI: You can tell on your duo and trio records with Eddie that you’re writing something for a virtuoso bass player to play with you.
JB: He’s totally a virtuoso, yeah. Over-virtuoso!
EI: Cecil McBee has a lot of chops, too, what’s he like?
JB: He’s fun too, yeah. He solos like a horn player, he phrases like a horn player, he’s written some really interesting compositions and they get more interesting. He’s amazing, that’s what he is, and he’s got his own sound. He’s got his special sound.
EI: You’ve played with a lot of people, but when I think of Joanne Brackeen, I think of Clint Houston, Eddie Gomez, and Cecil McBee. They all fit with your left hand in a certain kind of way that really makes sense.
JB: Yeah, that’s great. Ugonna Okegwo has also been working with me more recently. I enjoy him a lot.
EI: Let’s talk about the drummers for a second, let’s talk about Billy Hart, for heaven’s sake.
JB: I had nicknames for people. For Billy, I called him Harry.
EI: Why Harry?
JB: Ask him.
JB: One day we were on an airplane. Billy always got off the airplanes last. I was sitting on the outside and I thought, “Oh, I’ll just do what he does.” So, we let everyone get out, and then, Harry — I mean Billy — Billy stands up and says, “All right, Agatha.” and I said, “What do you mean, Harry?” [laughs] That was it.
He’s on my trio album Cecil McBee, and then there’s another one with Michael Brecker. Of course with Stan I got to play with him every day. I loved his sound. He gets a sound out of the drums that’s his sound. It’s not just a drum sound — it’s a sound. Whereas, Art Blakey, it sounds very much like a drum sound. You know what I mean? How do you explain that?
EI: There’s something very free about Billy. Actually last week you compared him to Ornette Coleman, which I found interesting. I think that’s something of what you mean.
You’ve played an awful lot with Jack DeJohnette as well.
JB: Yeah, we did a lot of recordings. I really like what I hear.
EI: Compare Billy Hart and Jack DeJohnette.
JB: Well, I think Billy thinks of himself more as a drummer and that Jack more is a musician that happens to play the drums. Billy is more open in that, if something’s just going to happen right now, he doesn’t have to think — he already knows that, or he doesn’t already know that.
With Jack, with my music, I think sometimes he would hear it and he thought either he knew what it was, or he didn’t have to know what it was. I don’t know how to put it, and Jack would come around. He would hear it.
But with Billy you don’t have to say anything, I feel like it’s like my brother or something.
EI: How did that sort of breakthrough record with Gomez and DeJohnette that Bob James produced come about?
JB: Oh, OK. George Benson knows about that. Bob James came down to watch him, I wasn’t even playing in my own band. I was playing with George Benson.
EI: Well, that’s pretty cool.
JB: Then at Town Hall, Bob James asked me and Richard Tee to join him. Richard Tee was more of another style, but yeah, a great piano player.
EI: Later on, in the ’80s, you would hire people like Donald Harrison, Branford Marsalis, Terence Blanchard, keeping up with some of the young horn players.
JB: Well, it was Al Foster, somehow we were working together, we were working together in someone else’s band, and then I had the record date with Concord, and I said, “I want alto” because a bunch of stuff was in that range, and Al Foster said “What about Branford?” I said I never heard Branford play alto, and he said, “Branford plays alto,” so I called Branford and he had an alto, he could play it, so that was how that got together. Terence Blanchard, how did I get him — I don’t know how, I knew about him.
EI: That’s a nice record, Fi-Fi Goes to Heaven.
JB: Yeah, and they played really well. Al Foster, he didn’t read music, so he had to come over and learn all that stuff. Al Foster’s just, every detail has to be perfect. He’s amazing, too. An amazing sound.
Tony Reedus was another guy who learned all my tunes. He’s not with us now, sadly. He could sing any tune that we played, but never used the music.
EI: At some point, you became interested in teaching.
JB: It wasn’t something that I wanted to do, but Berklee called me to play a concert at the BPC, and then they had a clinic that I would do the next day. It was fun and open.
After I taught there for one semester, they had so many really excellent students, so I thought, “This is fun.” The most they could ever talk me into getting was one day and a couple hours of the next day, and that was it. But in the late 90s, all flights were getting diverted, it was a mess, and I did a tour and it was like five times in just a couple of weeks that my luggage was lost. I had to play a concert in San Jose in my jeans. It was rough, so I thought, “OK, I’ll apply for full-time.” Not thinking much of it. And then, I had it, so I just did it.
EI: What do you listen for when you’re listening to a student?
JB: Every student is different. I usually ask for the list of the favorite people that they like and what they want to do, and then I tell them what they have to do with Berklee, and that we have to do that first, but anything else they want, I’ll give it to them. If it’s something that I don’t like or don’t listen to, it doesn’t matter, I’ll still go in there and check it out.
EI: I’ve heard that about you, that you’ll research contemporary styles to teach it.
JB: Right now, I had a student that wanted to play Brad Mehldau’s “Trailer Park Ghost.” The thing is about like 40 pages long, it’s really intricate, and I let him do it. I’d listen and try to check it out a little bit. The tune is using the two hands together in all these different rhythms. If people like that, it’s really good for their technique, and won’t have to be bored with playing exercises trying to do it. I don’t go that deep into it, but I do what I can do. It’s fun, it’s exciting.
If they play classical music, then I do the same thing.
EI: How much classical music did you play?
JB: Not much. I liked the Chopin etudes.
EI: Which ones did you play?
JB: I learned 10 of them. I don’t know all 10 of them now, but I did. The first one in C that has big skips. Number two, for your fourth and fifth fingers. G-flat on the black keys, number four in C-sharp minor. The “Winter Wind” in A minor.
I can’t play all of them at the speed they are supposed to go, but I can play them at some speed. [laughs] It’s really good for your fingers.
Life is so interesting. You never know, you might think you know. But’s there’s always more to know.
EI: That might have been the perfect ending. Thank you, Joanne!