Trumpeter, composer and bandleader Jaimie Branch was onstage in Paris, France, when an onstage rant evolved into an improvised song. It was the first time she introduced her singing voice to the world.
“It wasn’t necessarily an intentional move at the beginning,” she said. “I had some tequila.”
At the time, Americans were casting their votes in the Nov. 6, 2018 midterm elections, and Branch needed to get some things off her chest.
Branch, 36, said she wanted to send a message to “ranting right-wingers” and white supremacists who felt emboldened by the rhetoric of President Donald Trump. What began as a diatribe on the state of American politics became the song “prayer for amerikkka,” the centerpiece of her new album FLY or DIE II: bird dogs of paradise.
“It’s a big f-you to all those people,” she said. “America is spelled with three k’s because this country was really founded on genocide and slavery, so let’s just be real about that.”
Branch lends her voice to just one other song on the nine-track album (she vocalizes a dedication to “all those assholes and all those clowns out there” on “love song”), which was released on the Chicago jazz label International Anthem records this month.
“I wasn’t really prepared for the way that I would feel while I was doing it,” Branch said. “Singing is kind of as naked as you can get onstage ... it’s almost an out-of-body experience when it’s going well and when it’s not going well, it’s like an internal crisis.”
Born in New York, bred in Chicago
Branch took piano lessons for years before picking up the trumpet at age 9 in her native Long Island, New York. Her mom had originally wanted her to play the oboe, but Branch said she felt a connection to the brass section. (She later learned that her father and two brothers had played the trumpet as well.)
“When you’re improvising ... your whole body feels like it lights up. Part of that reason is a performance anxiety thing, no doubt,” she said. “But there is this magic of like surfing through music for the first time.”
She was 14 when her family moved to Wilmette, Illinois, a suburb about 15 miles north of Chicago. Branch credits the city as a place where she was “really able to experience the music” and grow as a musician and improviser.
“For a long time I thought I wanted to get back to the East Coast,” Branch said. “And as soon as I left and went to school in Boston — and I really started diving into free jazz and started learning about Chicago’s rich history of the music — I knew I had to be back in Chicago.”
As a teen, Branch performed in clubs like the Velvet Lounge in the South Loop and the now-defunct Lounge Ax in Lincoln Park. She earned her undergraduate music degree at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston and returned to Chicago in 2007.
On building trust
Branch collaborated with acoustic bassist Jason Ajemian on the 2008 album The Art of Dying before releasing her 2017 debut Fly or Die. She said she quit her day job five months later to focus on her music.
“I just feel like I’m in a real serious period of building,” she said. “I feel like many of my collaborators and co-conspirators that I’ve been running with for a long time are also building. It feels like an expanded worldview, maybe. I've been able to go more places to play music, I’ve been able to put myself out there in a way onstage in a purposeful way.”
Now, with release of fly or die II, Branch is back on tour in Europe with a band that includes Lester St. Louis on cello and percussion, Jason Ajemian on double bass, percussion and vocals and Chad Taylor on drums, mbira and xylophone. She said she trusts her bandmates “implicitly” onstage, which in turn allows her to be vulnerable, unafraid and empowered.
“There are so many things that are so obviously wrong right now. I want people to listen. I don’t really care how they feel after they listen,” Branch said. “I want them to consider the words. And then the takeaway is on them. But the trumpet is an alert, and we’re sounding some alarms.”
Nereida Moreno is a producer with Reset. Follow her on Twitter at @nereidamorenos. Click the “play” button to hear the entire conversation, which was produced by Jason Marck, and follow him on Twitter @jasonmarck.