Billie Holiday, the artist to be featured in the fourth installment of the six-part “Looking At: Jazz” series at the Princeton Public Library, has always fascinated fans of jazz and general music alike. On Wednesday, March 28, the library will give a screening of “Lady Day: The Many Faces of Billie Holiday,” directed by Matthew Sieg, which focuses on the life and music of Holiday. It traces the troubles and difficult life she led while celebrating one of the greatest blues and jazz vocalists of all time.
The library is one of 50 institutions nationwide selected to participate in this pilot program, organized by Re: New Media in partnerships with the American Library Association and Jazz at Lincoln Center. The series, which runs through Saturday, May 12, uses documentary film and readings, and scholar-led discussions. The project is supported by a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities.
Holiday was so compelling because “she was soulful and real, and remains the essence of American music,” says Anthony D. J. Branker, director of jazz studies at Princeton University and conductor of its jazz ensembles, who leads the discussion at the library series. Holiday “influenced every singer in her generation and remains a major influence in the musical lives of so many of today’s great jazz singers.”
Holiday, Branker says, “was a true song stylist who had the ability to breathe new life into the most tired popular song. She possessed a unique vocal timbre, unfailing sense of pitch, and had the ability to communicate the emotion of the lyrics being sung. For many, Billie Holiday represents the quintessential jazz artist.”
At the culmination of the series, on Saturday, May 12, two of Branker’s ensembles, the Princeton University Concert Jazz Ensemble and University Afro-Latin Ensemble, will collaborate with trombonist Conrad Herwig in a concert at Richardson Auditorium. Herwig has also been commissioned to write a new work to be premiered in the concert, performed by the University Concert Jazz Ensemble.
Last year Barbara Silberstein and Sue Roth of the library approached Branker. “I was thrilled to say yes. We all believed that this would be an extremely valuable initiative for the Princeton community,” he says via E-mail.
Branker grew up in Piscataway and Plainfield. His parents both emigrated from Trinidad. Branker’s father was a business agent for the garment workers union (ILGWU) in New York; his mother a medical secretary at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Hospital in New York. While neither of Branker’s parents were professional musicians, Branker says “my dad played harmonica and bugle while growing up in Trinidad, and my mom has a very nice voice.”
Nevertheless, his extended family was very musical. “My dad’s father was a church minister and wrote countless hymns for his church in Barbados,” he says. “One uncle, Rupert Branker, was the pianist and musical director for the Platters; a cousin who lives in Barbados, Nicholas Branker, is a bass player, writer, and producer who was nominated for a Grammy and has played with Roberta Flack; another uncle, Roy Branker, had collaborated with the composer and arranger Billy Strayhorn.”
Branker naturally listened to a lot of West Indian music as a youngster, as well as other music from the United States and around the Americas. “There were a lot of different types of music that I was exposed to because of culture and the time period,” he says. “I remember listening to such artists and groups as the Mighty Sparrow, Lord Kitchener; Diana Ross and the Supremes; the Temptations; James Brown; Aretha Franklin; Marvin Gaye; Earth, Wind, & Fire; Stevie Wonder; Parliament Funkadelic; as well as the group Chicago.”
However, it wasn’t until Branker was 15 that he really started getting into jazz, he says. At Piscataway High (he graduated in 1976), he was very involved in the school’s music program and played trumpet in the wind ensemble, orchestra, jazz ensemble, and marching band, and he sang in the concert choir. In his sophomore year he got a chance to watch Maynard Ferguson’s big band in a live performance. For the teen, it was a life-changing event. “They were playing straight-ahead jazz and swingin’ hard,” he says. “I was absolutely amazed by the spirit, precision, and passion that the band played with. They had a killin’ trumpet section, and each of them was a great soloist. That’s when I decided that I really wanted to pursue the study of jazz.
Perhaps predictably, it was Miles Davis whose music made the greatest impression. “He was probably my biggest influence when I was coming up,” says Branker. “I was simply taken by the way he told stories in his improvisations, and I loved his sense of lyricism, which was always accentuated by his beautiful, rich sound.”
Branker graduated from Princeton in 1980, where he majored in music and African-American studies. After earning a master of Music in jazz pedagogy at the University of Miami, he returned to Princeton in 1989 with the goal of creating a first-class jazz program. “It was always my dream to come back to the university to develop a program in jazz studies,” Branker says. “I remember we had such talented young jazz musicians who just loved to play and were thirsty for knowledge — guitarist Stanley Jordan from the class of 1981 was a contemporary of mine.”
Branker is now in his 18th year of teaching at the university, which he considers “a wonderful environment for jazz.” In additon to the Concert Jazz Ensemble and the Afro-Latin Ensemble he usually works with several different jazz groups during the academic year, which include a changing array of small groups like the Jazz Composers Collective, the Wayne Shorter Ensemble and Swingtet. He also teaches jazz history and theory courses at the university.
During jazz’s heyday and its peak decades ago, jazz musicians learned mostly in clubs. Now, the traditions of the music are passed down chiefly in the academic setting. Branker sees positives in both approaches. “I learned the music in a combination of ways — in the classroom and on the bandstand,” he says. “The classroom focus was often on the acquisition of a strong technical foundation and theoretical understanding, and was sometimes combined with a more practice-based approach where vocabulary and stylistic materials are learned and applied to performances. On the bandstand, you learn how to use your vocabulary in an effort to develop your improvisations and take the listener on a journey. You also learn how to interact with the audience and how to create ‘in-the-moment’ with members of the ensemble.”
Jazz Series, Wednesday, March 28, 7 p.m. Princeton Public Library, 65 Witherspoon Street, 609-924-8822. Screening of “Lady Day: The Many Faces of Billie Holiday” and “Celebrating Bird: The Triumph of Charlie Parker.”
Wednesday, April 18, 7 p.m. Screening of “Celebrating Bird: The Triumph of Charlie Parker.”
Wednesday, May 9, 7 p.m. Screening of “Night in Havana: Dizzy Gillespie in Cuba.”
Saturday, May 12, 8 p.m., Richardson Auditorium. “An Evening of Afro-Latin Jazz.” Concert featuring guest soloist trombonist Conrad Herwig, and world premier of a newly commissioned work for big band. $15. 609-258-5000.