"Let's Get Up in the Air and See What It's All About"

A final interview with jaimie branch (1983-2022) on the music of her life and pushing culture forward.
False Harmonics at Pioneer Works, December 16, 2019.Photo: Walter Wlodarczyk

One night in late July, I met jaimie branch in Red Hook for a meandering three-hour conversation that began at a sidewalk table at San Pedro Inn, and continued in nearby Coffey Park. Just over halfway through, she told me about her tattoos. “I’m working on my menagerie,” branch said, pointing out the eye-catching animal designs that adorned her arms and hands: a two-headed turtle, memorializing several box turtles she had as childhood pets; an aging peacock she’d seen in Portugal; a hummingbird. “I have a thing for birds, clearly,” she joked. There was also a portrait of her late dog Patton, and surreal vessels she called a “toucan spaceship” and a “dog plane.”

The theme of flight carried over into a discussion of the text that branch had tattooed on her neck in gothic script, three words that will be familiar to any lover of the trumpeter-composer’s music — or, more broadly, any astute observer of the vanguard of jazz and improvised music during the past five years: Fly or Die.

I asked why these words — a phrase she’d attached to both her visceral and captivating working quartet, and her three acclaimed releases to date as a bandleader — had become so central to her creative vision. “Well, it’s a great band name,” she said with a laugh. “But it comes off of that phrase motorcycle folks use, ‘ride or die,’ which means a person that's with you till the end. ‘Fly or die’ is this idea of, we're either going closer towards life or closer towards death. So it's kind of this idea of choosing life over death. This whole time that we're living… like, let's really live. Let's really experience life. Let's really get up in the air and see what it's all about.”

Despite the heavy subject matter, her tone sounded hopeful. Listening back, it still does, even in light of the devastating news that followed less than a month later. As anyone reading this likely now knows, jaimie branch died on August 22, 2022, at age 39.

At the time, my meeting with jaimie seemed anything but momentous — more like a friendly introduction to an artist I'd been admiring from afar for a while. When Broadcast asked in June if I’d like to profile jaimie — working in some multimedia documentation of her fruitful Pioneer Works residency in the spring of 2018 — I replied with an enthusiastic yes. I loved her records, and my fandom had only increased with continued exposure to her live performances, especially a raw and galvanizing Vision Festival set with Fly or Die at Pioneer Works in the summer of 2021, and an album-release celebration by Anteloper — her heady, free-roaming duo with drummer Jason Nazary — earlier this July at Brooklyn’s Public Records. Scott McNiece, jaimie’s close collaborator and the co-founder of her Chicago-based label, International Anthem, put us in touch, and we lined up an interview during a few-day window she had at home in Red Hook before heading to Lisbon to play at the city’s long-running Jazz em Agosto festival.

Sitting outside San Pedro Inn wearing her trademark Adidas bucket hat and ATLiens jersey, jaimie was absolutely in her element: about a block from Pioneer Works; a few from cozy neighborhood vinyl spot Record Shop, where she could often be found performing or just hanging out; and a short walk from the apartment she shared with some musician friends. She ordered a tostada and made small talk with the staff. I had a lot of questions prepared but wanted to let the conversation find its own route. My hope was really just to get an overall sense of who jaimie was and some insight into what gave her music its inimitable combination of danceable buoyancy, searching abstraction and unapologetic intensity.

Spending three hours with her, that was easily accomplished. In conversation, she was witty, laid-back and unflinchingly honest, shuttling easily between friendly chit-chat — about, say, her favorite La Croix flavor (“Pamplemousse all day”) — and reflective deep dives into her creative path, her hopes for the future, her struggles with addiction and her belief in music’s transporting power. By pure, sad coincidence, this turned out to be among her final interviews. As a tribute to jaimie, here we present an edited and condensed version of the conversation.

Hank Shteamer

One of my favorite moments of the Anteloper show at Public Records was hearing you sing the song “Earthlings.” At the time of the first Fly or Die album, people mainly knew you as a trumpeter, but on Fly or Die II and Anteloper's Pink Dolphins you've started bringing your voice into the mix. What’s it been like to expand your palette like that?

jaimie is belting a song.
False Harmonics at Pioneer Works, December 16, 2019.Photo: Walter Wlodarczyk
Jaimie Branch

One of the reasons I really like doing it is because it's a different level of vulnerability. I’ve been performing with the horn for so long. When you're singing, you're really just out there; it’s just you. So that changes the level of vulnerability, but it also changes the level of adrenaline. It brought back this new layer of excitement for me. So I was like, I’m just going to keep rocking with that for a while and try to get better at it, and try to be able to be more literal with some of the things I'm trying to say.

I've always been a conversational trumpet player. Even when I was doing the super avant-garde stuff, where it was mostly textures and articulations, I was still having this conversation in my head, but not with anybody; it was one-sided. And I feel like people could feel parts of that, but they had no idea what I was saying. So when you use a voice, it becomes this literal thing, for better or for worse. I believe it was Brian Eno who said, no matter how quiet you make the vocals, your ear is still going to focus there. So he eventually got rid of the vocals. And I'm coming at it from the other way: I want to see what happens when I'm saying things and how people recontextualize everything else around [my voice].

I believe it was Brian Eno who said, no matter how quiet you make the vocals, your ear is still going to focus there. So he eventually got rid of the vocals. And I'm coming at it from the other way: I want to see what happens when I'm saying things and how people recontextualize everything else...

I think especially in a band like Anteloper, where everything is fully improvised, to bring in a song is a really nice moment of breaking that tension, of releasing it and letting things air out a little bit. Some things can be very dense, but ["Earthlings"] in particular is pretty sparse, as far as density goes. So it's a nice reprieve from this hardcore density.


There was another beautiful moment like that at Public Records, when you came offstage and handed those bells to a little girl in the crowd, and she started shaking them and dancing.


That was my little niece, Soledad… And that actually made my entire life that she was there, for real. She has never seen me play. She just got vaccinated a few months ago. But I handed her those bells. She was shaking the bells, and then when the section ended, a fully improvised section, she passed them back to me. I was like, “How did you know that?!” [Laughs.] So, yeah, that made me so happy.


You’ve talked a lot about your classical training and your experiences playing all kinds of jazz, but there’s also obviously this strong punk-rock spirit in your work. How did you come to punk and what did it open up for you?


I was walking home from high school with my trumpet and this kid came up to me. He was like, “Can you play that thing?” And I was like, “Yeah, I can.” He had me audition for him on the spot, and then he invited me to be in this band called Danny and the Ketchups, the first band that I was in that ever played shows. It was a suburban ska-punk band. And I got really hooked on playing shows where people were dancing, people wanted to see you play. I'd done all these school concerts where parents have to come or it's very sterile. And then doing these other concerts where it was wild. I was like, “Oh, this is something.” The bands put on shows for other bands; you made it happen. You’d play at youth centers and Unitarian churches and stuff like that. And when I look back at it, that was my introduction to how shows are put on, and that’s still how I think of shows today.

False Harmonics at Pioneer Works, December 16, 2019.Photo: Walter Wlodarczyk

I think punk rock is not just the type of music; it's definitely an ethos and a way of going about life and being kind to others, and having energy and enjoying life, appreciating humor and being excited about shit. All of that stuff is really important to me. I’m not trying to have a bad time while I’m around.


Once you got involved in playing punk and ska, did that expand your listening as well?


I definitely got opened up. I was coming from Nirvana, big time. The Pixies, the Descendents, I really loved. And then I got hipper to Minutemen, and what’s that band, pre-Fugazi? Minor Threat — love Minor Threat. Fugazi too. I also fuck with Shellac, coming from Chicago. And then I found out about Tortoise, Chicago Underground Duo, those Thrill Jockey things, a little bit later. I kept always trying to go see Tortoise. I could never get into this club called Lounge Ax. I always wanted to go, and they were the only club that would never let me in.


It seems like all these musical currents, punk and jazz and everything else you’d played and been exposed to, were leading in a way to Fly or Die. You were more than 10 years into your career at that point but that was your first album as a leader and it made a big impact. What do you remember about that band coming together?


The band I put together for that record [with cellist Tomeka Reid, bassist Jason Ajemian and drummer Chad Taylor] was going to be a one-off. It just so happened that I had set up a show at Manhattan Inn [in Greenpoint, Brooklyn] for Scottie McNiece at International Anthem to present the Nick Mazzarella Trio, with [drummer] Frank Rosaly and [bassist] Anton Hatwich, who’s like my brother. And they just saw that band play and Scottie hit me a few months later and was like, “Hey, I've got this idea that might change both our lives. You want to make a record?” I was like, “Yes. [Laughs.] Yes.”

I think we played our first gig in January 2016, and then we played two shows in June of 2016 and recorded them. Then we did literally a five-hour session in my sister's apartment in Red Hook, where we used couch cushions as baffles and stuff. That was the Fly or Die record, and it sounds really unique, partially because the trumpet is in all of the other [tracks]. So when we're mixing it, it's not like we have isolation. I’ve got to give a lot of credit to [engineers] Dave Vettraino and David Allen from International Anthem. They’d be like, “Yeah, but this could be tight. We could just take the overhead drum mics and make that the reverb for the trumpet.” They saw these things not only in a really precise, technical way, but in a holistically positive way. That was my first time working with them and I was like, “Damn, I want to keep working with them.” Not to mention they got my trumpet sound right. I had been recording for years and had never heard my trumpet sound anywhere close to what it sounded like to me.

So I'm thankful as hell that that coalesced the way it did. It could have not happened; it could have been a one-off. I quit my day job in 2018 — I could very easily still be working all the time.

jaimie blows leaning in to her console.
Anteloper at Pioneer Works, June 18, 2018.Photo: Walter Wlodarczyk

You mentioned recording the album in this neighborhood, and obviously you’re living here as well. What is it about Red Hook that feels like home to you?


Red Hook is its own little small town within Brooklyn. There are a lot of artists and musicians, a lot of metal workers, a lot of woodworkers, a lot of sculptors, because a lot of this was industrial for a long time. There are folks that have been here a really long time. I came upon this neighborhood totally randomly. I was just looking for a cheap place to live, and when I moved into this musician house that I live in — it's called the Jam Palace, although I call it the Yam Palace — my little sister was living a block and a half away. So I took that as a sign of, “OK, I'm landing in the right place.”

Then one of the first places I went to was Pioneer Works. Because I had my dog, Patton Dog, and that was his favorite place; I couldn't go on a walk without him dragging me to Pioneer Works. He loved the garden, so I just started meeting the folks there, and they’ve been very supportive. Once they heard my music and understood me as an artist, I did a residency there in 2018. They have a shipping-container studio in the backyard, and I basically moved in there for the month. [Laughs.] They gave me the code to the gate so I could come in and out as I needed. Only set off the alarm in the building a couple times. I had some formal sessions, especially with Anteloper; we recorded Tour Beats Vol. 1 there, and then I had some informal jams. I had [bassist] Luke Stewart up there; I had Anton Hatwich up there, just people dropping by.

This is May 2018 when I had that residency, and I worked right around the corner, at the Court Street Grocers Hero Shop, so I was still balancing that. But it was my first taste of what it might be like if I didn't have to do this other thing. And I think that really helped push me over to quit the job because there's always, in the back of my mind, “What if the bottom falls out?” which I think we all have because we're brought up in this hyper-capitalistic society. But yeah, as far as my creative development, if I'm looking backwards, I think that was a big step for me, to just have this creative autonomy and this space.

jaimie branch playing trumpet down a mezzanine at Pioneer Works.
Second Sundays at Pioneer Works, August 12, 2018. Photo: Walter Wlodarczyk

Thinking back on your discography and the shows I’ve seen, two qualities that stand out are the importance of groove — a sense of rhythm that makes you want to move — and, especially with Fly or Die, these catchy, instantly memorable themes, neither of which are a given in the jazz avant-garde. What attracts you to those elements?


I think of all music as dance music. You have to get the music in your body. If the music is in your body, then you can be truthful with it in any other form. And then I love playing with amazing drummers. Jason Nazary and Chad Taylor are really different drummers, but they're both just amazing rhythmic… “machines” is not the right word… Chad, the grooves he sets up, it's almost like they go through the floor and back up, they're that deep. And then Jason, me and him, we loop a lot of shit and none of it is actually in time. We're not linked at all. So he's continuously recontextualizing these loops that are out of time; they're not perfect. And he's making it feel like it grooves.

I think of all music as dance music. You have to get the music in your body. If the music is in your body, then you can be truthful with it in any other form.

I used to do a lot of articulated, timbre-based music and kind of shied away from a lot of my natural tendencies of being a melodic player, which is, in my heart, where I always go. For a while I thought it was corny, and it might have been because I was playing corny [laughs], but I grew into that and stopped shying away from that and instead leaned into it. I had an improviser I was playing with who said, “Can you just stop playing melodies?” In my head I'm like, “No, fuck you.” I mean, a melody can be really explicit or it can be completely fragmented and broken apart into a million pieces, and to me both of those things are melody. I’ve tried to get closer and closer to what I hear in my head in the moment. For instance, “theme 002” on the first Fly or Die, I’ve been asked that question of, “Is that melody written?” That melody was improvised in the moment, and then it's now become the head. And that's just because I'm trying to play exactly what I'm hearing, and what I'm hearing is fairly accessible melodies.


All of these factors clearly have an effect on your audiences. Your shows feel a lot more interactive than many jazz shows.


I think that's something that I’ve been working on. I don't really think of the music as jazz music. I think of it as music, and [I’m] just always pushing it forward. And for me, I came from a conservatory background, so I'm a music-school kid, but one of the hangups that I think people leave music school with is this idea that there's a right way, or a correct way to do something. And I think that's total bullshit.

As far as the audience thing goes, man, it took a long time for me to learn this, that it isn't really about the way the band plays. If you have trust with your players, the band is going to play great. The audience thing is about this energy exchange, and that's the shit I'm trying to get to these days: Can I feel them? Can they feel me? And if I feel that exchange is there, that to me is a good show.

I think a lot about this music as “moment music.” And chasing the moment is futile, because if you're chasing it, you won't catch it. But if you sink into it, you'll be there. And then you could be there for a long time, and on a really good night, you do lose the ego. I don't think you fully lose your personality; I think that shines through, because we radiate our true being, for real. But if I don't remember how a gig went, that's probably a good sign.


You’re talking a lot about getting in touch with how music really ought to feel, for both you and the audience. Since you’ve spoken openly in the past about battling addiction, I’m wondering if music started to feel different to you after you confronted that.


So that's almost like going from black-and-white to Technicolor to full color, or something, coming out of that shit. I think it's also when I stopped really shying away from the melodic shit. It's like, "This might be pretty; it doesn't necessarily mean it's corny." I feel like the sound of my horn gradually got bigger and bigger too through this period of moving to New York. Just the physical sound. I feel like I got stronger. You could make a lot of correlations that may or may not be there: It could just be growth on the instrument. But I feel like I really started settling into what jaimie branch sounds like when I got here.

When I left Baltimore [Ed. note: branch studied jazz performance at Baltimore's Towson University], I was pretty much homeless. I came to New York to go to rehab; that's how I came here. And MusiCares, actually — the Grammy foundation — paid for it. Because there's no way I would've been able to afford that. But music has always been the thing that has kept my spirit alive. And I'm not really a religious person at all, but I feel like the spiritual side of music — which is basically, in my mind, all music — is a powerful thing. And I think I had a lot more music to make. So luckily I was able to get here and start doing that.


You spoke above about shedding hang-ups that can come from conventional musical schooling, but obviously you’re someone who’s deeply invested in the histories of the various traditions you’re working in. Over time, how have you figured out what to keep and what to question or discard?


Music schools will literally teach an entire jazz curriculum without having one Black professor or without teaching that it's Black American music first, which is a disservice to not only African Americans, and music, and the students, it's a disservice to everybody because the history [of music] isn't just what it sounds like; it’s what people were living through.

There's just a really amazing track on the new Moor Mother record, Jazz Codes, the last track with Thomas Stanley [a.k.a. Bushmeat Sound], who is an amazing poet from D.C. He's like, “…many observers have told us that 'jazz' used to mean sex/And maybe it needs to go back to meaning sex.” It’s so right on point, because everything has been stripped away from the original [meaning].

Not everything. The “preservation of fire” is something you hear [talked] about, right? Like, the Art Ensemble of Chicago? Preservation of fucking fire. There are certainly a lot of folks — Luke Stewart, who we were just talking about, I think that he's a huge leader in this movement of new music that's happening now, of the new sound of that preservation of fire. [Drummer] Tcheser [Holmes], [saxophonist] Chris [Pitsiokos], Moor Mother. I mean, it's not music that you can codify and teach. Like, you cannot play like Albert Ayler and be Albert Ayler. That's just missing the whole thing of being Albert Ayler and living! I'm not the most eloquent person when it comes to speaking about these things, but I really feel strongly that the jazz education is super fucked up in this country. I think it's fucked up everywhere, actually. But this is where the music came from and yet we can't teach it.

[To explain that, we have] to go to bigger problems at large of white supremacy and institutions, and then I become super ineloquent. But I think that music, at the heart of it, is putting beauty back in the earth. That's literally what we do as musicians; I think on a sonic level, on an atomic, physical level, that's what we're doing. There's certainly some music which is hate music, but almost all music is on the side of good, I think. And that has nothing to do with genre. If you're a kid or adult and you're zoning out or headbanging to some metal, that's making you feel some real shit that's in your body. It's a way for people to process emotion; it's a way to channel some other thing that's not this didactic day-to-day shit.

I feel really lucky being a musician because I think a lot of people have a pressure valve that never gets to be released. As a musician, I can let that shit go all the time. And I think that's where we get a lot of hatred, anger and frustration — these senators like Josh Hawley who just can't leave other folks alone. Why not? Well, maybe because they have so much pent-up aggression that they just can't release. Maybe they should just sing a little bit.

Vision Festival 25

You’re talking about a growing movement of artists that you feel are pushing music forward. In the coming years, as you and your peers become better known worldwide, what would you like to see happening in your creative community?


There is a wave of real-deal musicians playing jazz, playing free jazz, playing improvised music. There's a lot of us that are really close friends and we're playing these bills, we're crisscrossing Europe, missing each other by a day. I think once those bills start coalescing and we can become a whole night of just heavy-duty, super-powerful music… I think those sorts of things need to be realized in order to get the full impact of what's going on.

And it's not just the New York scene or the Chicago scene; it’s happening all over the world. And I think presenters and promoters, they've been doing things one way for a long time and we need to start broadening what that can be. I think Anteloper needs to be playing on hip-hop bills, needs to be playing with electronic music. Speaking specifically about that band — I have a lot of places and things I want to see, but I want to see this music, the preservation of fire, be worked into more quote-unquote "mainstream" situations. I think people are ready for it.


Your gig at Public Records showed that. I felt like I was in a room with a lot of different types of listeners — not necessarily the crowd I’d normally see at jazz shows. It was one of these shows where I thought, "I'm not sure who these people are,” in a good way.


I didn't know who a lot of those people were too — that is a good feeling as a performer. It was a special show, man.

At the very beginning [of the opening set], there was this loud feedback moment and my niece Soledad fucking hightailed it out of there and was not going to go in. And she walked around the block, and her mom and dad were like, “Maybe we’ll just go take a peek.” And they came in to that side area and Soledad was like, [tearfully] "I’m coming to say goodbye. I love you, Tía! I don't want to come in. Not even for a peek." Because she got so scared by the feedback. I was like, "Soledad, you don't have to come. I love you too."

And then Sole was like, "I want Tía to come to my birthday." My sister is like, “She can come to your family party, but she can't come to your friend party." And she's like, "Why not?" “She's on tour.” “What's that?” “Oh, she plays concerts and people go to see her play, and that's what's happening right now.” And she was like, "Right now?!" My sister's like, "Right now!” Soledad was like, “Let's go together and we'll be brave!” And when she walked in, she was, like, fist-pumping. I saw her doing that and I thought she was dancing. But it turns out she was psyching herself up. To go in. To be brave. ♦

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