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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,"

says Branker.

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

Composing in the Moment, Princeton University Concerts,

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.

Jazz at Princeton University, Richardson Auditorium, 609-258-5000.

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.

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