Joanne’s Musical Beginning:
Joanne was born Joanne Grogan in Southern California in 1938, and began to play the piano at the age of 9, even though she had desired to play since age 5. A grand piano her parents owned lured her to the keys, but “mysteriously” disappeared and was replaced by a tiny upright. Her first lessons were a disaster however, because the teacher required the students to play basic classical exercises. “That was not my idea of what piano music was!” laughs Joanne. “What I really wanted to play was what I was hearing on the radio. So of course, I didn’t practice.” Her exposure to jazz began during this time with the recordings of bandleader and pianist Frankie Carle, who she imitated as she taught herself to play and improvise. “I figured out all the notes and chords for the left and right hands, because it never dawned on me that you couldn’t do that without instruction. It took me about 6 months, and I copied about eight of the solos. I memorized them, then started playing out at school functions when I was 11 with a girlfriend on accordion!” As her talent was realized, she was accepted to the Los Angeles Conservatory of Music, but she dropped out to pursue jazz because “too much of the education of the day was ineffective. All they did was talk about music. If I can’t see or actually do something that I’m learning, I get very bored.”
From Los Angeles to New York:
By the late 1950s, at the age of 20, Joanne was already sitting in on jam sessions in Los Angeles, playing with heavyweights like Dexter Gordon and Harold Land and gigging with Charles Lloyd, Bobby Hutcherson, and Billy Higgins. Her jazz career was launched. She met and married saxophonist Charles Brackeen in the early 60s, and subsequently had four children together. Contrary to popular belief, Joanne never stopped her career during this period: “I wasn’t always gigging, but I never stopped playing.” When the couple moved to New York in the mid-60s, Joanne began to command the attention of the upper echelon of jazz players and worked with Woody Shaw and Dave Liebman in 1969. She spent the next several years with the ultimate working band, The Jazz Messengers, led by Art Blakey. “Art called me his adopted daughter,” says Joanne, “and he was the first person to say all the things that I heard inside myself since I was 9 or 10. I think that he influenced my whole musical experience. He played the way he talked, and the way he talked was the way I thought.” She became one of the most lauded pianists of the day, working extensively with saxophone legends Joe Henderson (three years) and Stan Getz (two years).
Joanne Emerges As A Leader:
By the mid 1970s, Joanne was leading her own groups. She established herself as a cutting edge pianist and composer through her appearances around the world, while her solo performances also cemented her reputation as one of the most innovative and dynamic of pianists. Her trios featured such noted players as Eddie Gomez, Jack DeJohnette, Cecil McBee, Billy Hart, Sam Jones, and others. “There’s a kind of feeling that I get from certain artists, like Ornette Coleman, where you don’t get bored listening to them,” Joanne states, saying her music refuses to sit still. “I don’t want to just look at the color red for an hour, why can’t I have different colors? I like my music to have that feeling, different colors.”
Joanne As Educator and Mentor:
Joanne has been awarded two grants (for performance and composition) from the National Endowment for the Arts, leading to solo performances at Carnegie Hall and the Kennedy Center. In the mid 1980s the U.S. State Department sponsored her tour of the Middle East and Europe. She also has served on the NEA grant panel, taught as a faculty member at the New School in New York City and is a tenured Professor at the Berklee College of Music in Boston. She also hosted her own television show called “Joanne Brackeen Presents Jazz”. Always ahead of the curve, Joanne wonders: “Maybe I was born 30 years too soon,” regarding a clinic and performance she once gave at Berklee. “There were kids in the audience that were asking the same kinds of questions I was asking when I was a kid! It took 30 to 35 years for people to be interested in the same things I was. It’s like I met a bunch of Me’s! The good thing about teaching is that the students learn so fast and I know what to do, because it’s what I did. You don’t have to make them go slow.” In 2018, Joanne became an NEA Jazz Master, as awarded by the National Endowment for the Arts.
Joanne as Composer and Performer:
In addition to her small combo work, Joanne has been commissioned to write compositions for large ensembles as well, including a string quartet and a string quintet. Her compositions have blended a myriad of textures, rhythms and moods that define the expanding language of jazz. Institutions like Duke University, The New England Conservatory of Music, Rutgers University, Dickenson College, Cleveland’s Tri-City Jazz Festival, and SUNY-Plattsburg have been champions of her work. She participated in a tour of Japan as part of the 100 Gold Fingers Tour in 1995, which also featured Hank Jones and Kenny Barron. Joanne usually tours Europe several times a year, and recent gigs at New York’s Avery Fisher Hall (at Lincoln Center), The Blue Note, The Jazz Standard, Town Hall, as well as the Smithsonian Institute have been great successes. She has also been part of a recent “Jazz Pioneers” group, which includes Dave Liebman, Buster Williams, Al Foster, Randy Brecker, and Pat Martino, all of whom came from the same 1970s era of jazz.
Joanne With Arkadia Records:
Brackeen’s creative output is undiminished since starting out on her career as a leader, with no end in sight. In 1998, Joanne joined New York based Arkadia Jazz with an exclusive long-term contract. Her debut, “Pink Elephant Magic” (#70371) features some of the top young players in the jazz world: Grammy winning trumpeter Nicholas Payton, Chris Potter on saxophones, bassist John Patitucci, the incredible Cuban drummer, Horacio “El Negro” Hernandez, with special appearances by label-mate and master saxophonist Dave Liebman as well as Grammy nominated vocalist Kurt Elling. And despite a reputation for composing “challenging” music, Joanne finds little effort in the process. “When I compose at the piano, Joanne says, it’s like I’m sitting there and I’m looking at someone else’s hands play these things. The music just comes out of me. Almost all of my compositions happen like that and I know that I got that energy while playing in Art Blakey’s band. And if I write a song like “What’s Your Choice, Rolls Royce” with lyrics, then it has vocals! I don’t know, it’s a mystery to me! Bob Karcy gave me a couple of Kurt Elling CDs, and I knew right away that he would be perfect for that song. And working with Horacio “El Negro” Hernadez was so refreshing. He immediately knew what was hard and what was not. He could play almost anything on the spot. He was very comfortable.”
As a follow up to her acclaimed 1999 recording, Arkadia Jazz released “Popsicle Illusion” (#70372) in 2000, Joanne’s first solo piano recording since 1990 and her only studio solo album. A daring and intense collection of Brackeen originals and reworked standards, “Popsicle Illusion” displays Joanne’s compositional creativity and improvisational mastery.
Arkadia Records will be presenting two never-released live albums, recorded at The Jazz Standard in New York, featuring Ravi Coltrane, Ira Coleman and Horacio “El Negro” Hernandez.
With jazz in a retro self-examination these days, what is magical is that Joanne continues to play, compose, and evolve with the joy of someone that has just discovered a universe of possibilities at her fingertips. Her music defies easy explanation, refuses to conform to the norm, and in the end distinguishes itself from the crowd in every way. Arkadia Records is proud to present Joanne Brackeen and her music.