Corrections or additions?
Jazz Musicians Behind Ivy-Covered Walls
This article by Ernie Johnston was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on April 7, 1999. All rights reserved.
The jazz sounds emanating from the Frank E. Taplin
’37 Auditorium in Fine Hall at Princeton University on this winter
evening could well be mistaken for a basement jazz club in New York
City. But these intricate jazz notes are in reality "Projects
in Jazz Composition and Improvisation," a concert of works by
students enrolled in Princeton University’s Music 213 course.
Also evolving out of Music 213 is the Princeton University Concert
Jazz Ensemble, bringing together serious jazz-minded students, coached
and taught by jazz musician and Princeton alumnus Anthony D.J. Branker.
A trumpeter and teacher by profession, Branker is visiting associate
professor of music, and director of the university jazz ensembles.
He is also associate professor of music and director of Jazz Studies
at Hunter College of the City University of New York.
Faculty and students come together this week for the concert "Composing
in the Moment: The Music of Wayne Shorter," at Richardson Auditorium
Saturday, April 10, at 8 p.m. A prolific composer, Shorter is known
for his contribution to the repertory that shaped the sound of three
historic ensembles: Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers of 1959-’64, the
Miles Davis Quintet of 1964-’69, and Weather Report of 1971-’85.
Musicians Branker, Walt Weiskopf, Bruce Arnold, Michael Cochrane,
and John Arrucci will perform with the young talent, which includes
high school student Julian Rosse (on bass), Eli Asher (Princeton Class
of 2000), Charles Silio (’99), and Keigo Hirakawa.
Branker, who has been a visiting professor at Princeton for 10 years,
leads a number of student jazz ensembles. He performs regularly with
the Spirit of Life ensemble, the jazz orchestra in residence at New
York’s Sweet Basil Jazz Club, and is featured on two of their recent
CD releases, "Life at Pori Jazz Festival 1996" and the "Panasonic
Village Jazz Festival 1997."
Branker is originally from Trinidad, West Indies, but grew up in Piscataway
and Plainfield. Although two of his uncles were musicians, It was
his father, the late Daniel Branker, who was his role model because
of "everything he stood for in terms of his commitment, honesty,
the values he instilled in me, plus the work ethic."
His great uncle, Ruppert Branker, was the musical director for the
famous Platters singing group. Another uncle, Roy Branker, was a member
of the Copasetics, a Harlem tap dancing group, and also composed music
and with Billy Strayhorn. He is also featured in Duke Ellington’s
biography. "I didn’t know about their musical abilities until
I was well immersed in music," says Branker.
A trumpet player since the age of 10, Branker entered
Princeton University as a mathematics major, but switched to music
in his junior year. Explaining why he immersed himself in jazz, Branker
says "it was the music that really spoke to me more than anything
else — in terms of the creativity that is involved, the inventiveness
of the music, and the rich legacy of musicians who came before me
were very inspirational to me." He earned his B.A. in music and
a certificate in Afro-American Studies at Princeton in 1980. He earned
his M.A. in music and jazz pedagogy at the University of Miami.
Branker sees today’s jazz program at Princeton as a "much needed
opportunity for students to really immerse themselves in not only
jazz per se but all forms of jazz.
"The focus is obviously on ensembles, and with ensembles comes
the big band tradition of swing and bebop. But students are also exposed
to a wide variety of styles — Latin styles, Brazilian styles,
the jazz avant garde, fusion, and learning the performance practices
associated with navigating each of these styles," says Branker.
Branker says that the other focus is on theory and composition, which
the students are introduced to and given a chance to develop throughout
Music 213. "They also understand the vocabulary of the music in
addition to performance practices," he says.
Branker says that the recruitment of students to the university’s
music program requires some outreach. "Most students don’t associate
a strong jazz program with an Ivy League institution," says Branker.
"We try to get them interested in what we are doing here by sending
CDs and letting them know that there is a strong jazz program here."
The audition process includes prepared pieces, sight reading, and
"It means a lot to have them and to have their interest. Jazz
obviously is an important part of American heritage and it’s an important
part of African-American heritage. For me it has been a real joy to
have these students who are very eager to learn, have wonderful attitudes,
and are very talented."
The students, Branker adds, "are familiar with a lot of the recordings
and the history of the music. By the time they get here, it’s a matter
of really polishing, digging deeper into the music, and introducing
music they may not be aware of."
Students in the jazz ensembles rehearse long hours and earn no academic
credit. "This is totally an extracurricular activity," says
Branker, noting that there are about 50 students involved in the program.
This semester the students have formed themselves into the Miles Davis
Ensemble, a sextet focusing on Davis’s music throughout his evolution
with a repertoire that goes from bebop all the way to jazz rock and
soul fusion. There is also the Monk/Mingus Ensemble, a sextet specializing
in the repertoire of Thelonius Monk and Charles Mingus, as well as
a Jazz Ensemble II, and a Concert Jazz Ensemble. All the student ensembles
join for a year-end concert at Richardson Auditorium on Saturday,
May 8, at 8 p.m.
Although Branker tries to keep an open door policy on the ensembles,
the vast majority of musicians are undergraduates. However, "every
so often we get someone from the outside who is interested, and they
go through the audition process, and if they are of that ability level
we include them as if they were an undergraduate."
One such student is bass player Julian Rosse, a 17-year-old senior
at Hopewell Valley Central High School, who will perform on April
10. Rosse began playing in the jazz ensemble two years ago, and is
the featured bassist. "Julian is one of those names we are going
to hear a lot of in the future. He had only been playing bass less
than a year when he started in the ensemble program but he showed
amazing promise and he’s really developed into a phenomenal musician,"
Rosse recently received a prestigious award from the International
Association of Jazz Educators — some of the past award winners
have included Roy Hargrove, trumpeter, and drummer Terri Lynn Carrington,
featured on the Arsenio Hall television show.
Rosse had previously played the piano and French horn classically,
but at a summer camp where he went to study the French horn he picked
up the electric bass. It was there that the bass teacher exposed Rosse
to what he called "real jazz." "I knew that I had to come
home and start playing the upright bass and I have been dedicated
to it every since."
Rosse says that, "it’s a great instrument because there are not
too many bass players, especially at my age. It’s a large instrument
and people are reluctant to drag it around, but every jazz gig needs
a bass player."
As for his future as a bassist, Rosse says he would
like to do it all. "Jazz is finding its direction at the moment
but as the giants move on and keep aging, there are some young players
emerging who are obviously still developing. A lot of the great players
didn’t play their best until they were in their 30s."
Eli Asher is a junior music major from Chevy Chase, Maryland, who
became interested in jazz in elementary school. Starting on trumpet,
he says Wynton Marsalis was among the most popular jazz artists at
the time. He, too, will join Branker onstage on April 10.
Asher was given recordings by Marsalis and listening to the popular
jazz musician turned Asher on to many other things — it also led
to his becoming enamored with John Coltrane. "I didn’t get Marsalis
at first because it was too complex, but when Coltrane played the
blues I heard what it was all about," says Asher.
Audrey Wright, who works in the reference library at Princeton University,
is an alto and soprano saxophone player. Although she had a very good
saxophone teacher at Rutgers, Wright says that she never had the type
of experience with an ensemble as she is having at Princeton. "Tony
has been so gracious to let me participate in all of this. This is
really, really wonderful for me," she says.
Wright developed a love for jazz and the music of John Coltrane while
in high school. She played with the big band at Rutgers and two years
ago with the all-female band, Diva, based in New York. She also plays
saxophone at St. James AME Church.
As a professional musician Branker has worked in many musical settings
with such noted artists as Ted Curson, Michael Cochrane, Steve Nelson,
Talibe Kibwe, Rick Margitza, Gary Burton, Stanley Jordan (another
Princeton alumnus), Benny Carter, Ralph Peterson Jr., Clifford Jordan,
Terence Blanchard, Roscoe Mitchell, and Tavares.
Yet when asked to name a high moment in his career, Branker does not
choose an appearance in some huge concert hall or with one of the
giants in jazz, but a recent concert of Duke Ellington’s sacred music
at Princeton. "First of all the music was simply magnificent and
it was just so strong spiritually and all the elements came together,"
he says. "The choir was singing beautifully and the big band was
swinging and the featured soloist was inspirational. It was one of
those special events where everything clicked."
Why the high point? "Mostly because I see myself as an educator.
Although I am still active performing, my real passion is teaching."
— Ernie Johnston
Richardson Auditorium, 609-258-5000. The music of Wayne Shorter performed
by Anthony D.J. Branker, trumpet and flugelhorn; Walt Weiskopf, tenor
saxophone; Bruce Arnold, guitar; Michael Cochrane, piano; John Arrucci,
percussion; and Julian Rosse, bass. $17 to $26. Saturday, April
10, 8 p.m.
Anthony D.J. Branker leads the university’s Miles Davis Ensemble,
Jazz Ensemble II, and Concert Jazz Ensemble with a guest soloist to
be announced. $20; children $5. Saturday, May 8, 8 p.m.
Corrections or additions?
This page is published by PrincetonInfo.com
— the web site for U.S. 1 Newspaper in Princeton, New Jersey.