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This article by Kim Pearson was prepared for the February 25, 2004 issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Miche Braden, From the Heart

I’ve been walking around

Learning the sound

of my own heart

I’ve been moving my feet

to the beat

Of my own heart.

– Miche Braden, ‘I Am’

Miche Braden has been following her heart for a long time now, and it has a jazz beat. When the accomplished singer, pianist, arranger, actress, and composer takes the stage on Wednesday, March 3, at the College of New Jersey to present her cabaret show, "Doin’ the Girls," she will be making an offering to the artists who helped fuel her development, as well as a gift to the audiences and artists of the present and future. The show, free and open to the public, is part of TCNJ’s Women’s History Month festivities.

In "Doin’ the Girls," Braden presents slices of the lives and work of an array of artists, each of whom has made unique contributions to jazz and blues in particular.

"I really just want to go from the roots of where the music started to where it’s going," says Braden. Although Braden’s repertoire spans the gamut of contemporary music, jazz is of prime importance. "One thing about jazz in particular is that you really have to dig deep inside," she says. "It’s like a secular spiritual."

In a telephone interview earlier this month, Braden (who pronounces her first name "Micky"), said she was still deciding which divas to include in the program. The possibilities include Ma Rainey, "The Mother of the Blues," and Bessie Smith, its "Empress," whom Braden credits with making the blues an art form. She may also choose Billie Holiday and Nina Simone. "Each one of them had some kind influence on me," she says.

That’s not surprising, considering that she has portrayed Rainey, Smith, and Holiday on stage before, making bold choices in each instance that reflect her unique artistic sensibility honed by musical training. Braden began singing lessons at the age of three and has worked with such music legends as bassist Milt Hinton, Lionel Hampton, and Motown’s venerated backup musicians, the Funk Brothers. It’s a sensibility that continues to evolve: just this past year, her contributions as a vocalist to saxophonist James Carter’s CD, "Songs for Lady Day," earned critics’ plaudits for smartness and originality.

A native of Detroit who now lives in East Orange, Braden is the product of a family of musicians. Her parents were choir directors and her grandfather played trombone. Several of her uncles were musicians, including bassist Jimmy Hankins, who will accompany her at TCNJ. Both her home and her hometown were fertile ground for a musical child’s development, permeated as they were with the city’s vibrant jazz, gospel, and soul scene.

It’s widely known that Detroit gave birth to the Motown Sound and to Aretha Franklin, "First Lady of Soul." What is less well known is that the post-World War II jazz scene fed all of the popular music innovations that arose between the 1960s and ’80s, the years when Braden was coming of age. Former Detroiter and writer Herb Boyd has written that during those years, jazz wasn’t just in nightclubs of the "Black Bottom" – the city’s neighborhood that rivaled Harlem. There were popular jazz clubs in the suburbs and in the city schools as well. So it is no surprise that the city helped form such jazz luminaries as flutist Yusef Lateef, pianist Tommy Flanagan, and singer Betty Carter.

Apart from Braden’s family, it was the Funk Brothers – especially Earl Van Dyke, Thomas "Beans" Bowles, and Uriel Jones – who became her mentors and eventual band mates. They were jazz musicians first and foremost. Braden says she also learned a lot from pianist Harold McKinney, whom she describes as "a remarkable jazz musician who crossed into classical."

McKinney, who sat in on sessions with Charlie Parker in his younger days, is one of those musicians only other musicians tend to know about. "It seems that the great ones don’t get the recognition," says Braden. "I’m just glad I got a chance to work with them."

The lessons Braden learned from those experiences would inform not just her music, but her life. "First," she said, "there was just a love of making music. Second, they taught me not to allow myself to feel as if I can’t succeed. And just to have fun."

Those lessons would also carry her through her time as music major at Michigan State University, where she found herself more interested in forming ensembles and playing gigs than sitting in a classroom. "I kind of created my own curriculum," she says with a chuckle. Before long, she was a full-time working musician.

In a new turn to her career, Braden found herself working as the musical director for a Detroit production of August Wilson’s noted play, "Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom." Reading the script reminded her of the stories that the Funk Brothers used to tell, and she persuaded the director to let her give Wilson’s Ma Rainey some songs to sing. Before long, Braden was actually tapped to play the Mother of the Blues in the production. It was her introduction to acting. Wilson actually came to see the show, Braden recalls, but he wasn’t too happy about the innovation, because he saw "Ma Rainey" as "a tour-de-force for actors only." Audiences were happier than the playwright. The show played to packed houses, even after it moved to a larger venue. And Braden discovered a new dimension of her artistic passion.

That passion led her to other roles, most notably the stage shows "Lady Day at the Emerson Bar and Grill" and "The Devil’s Music." In each show, Braden re-creates the last performances of Billie Holiday and Bessie Smith, respectively. Holiday died of a heart attack in 1959 at the age of 44. Smith died in 1937 at age 42. By the time of their deaths, however, both women were past their glory days, done in by racism, bad lovers, drugs, and booze.

Braden first took over the Billie Holiday role in a Canadian production in 1988, with a combo that included Archie Alleyne, one of Holiday’s former drummers. According to Toronto Star critic Val Clery, Braden played Billie with "a finely-honed dramatic intensity." She played Billie in several American cities over the next several years, continuing to garner praise for her performance. A Boston Globe critic wrote, in a 1992 review, that Braden "brings [Billie Holiday] to life with brassy humor and poignancy. . . she offers a variation on Lady Day that is distinctly her own." A New York Times critic wrote of how her performance "evokes the terrible unbearable sadness of Holiday nearing the end of her life."

More recently, a critic for the Montreal Gazette noticed how, on the James Carter CD, Braden’s connection to Lady Day is still powerful. In the reviewer’s words, Braden’s interpretation of "Strange Fruit," Holiday’s stark musical invocation of a lynching, "has rarely been given such a powerful, horror-invoking rendition." Of Holiday’s tragic life, Braden once said, "I can’t relate to her addiction to drugs, but I can sure relate to her addiction to music."

The shared love of music is also part of Braden’s affinity for Bessie Smith. Over the past five years, Braden has embodied the role of the woman she affectionately calls "Miss Bessie" in "The Devil’s Music: The Life and Blues of Bessie Smith." The rave reviews of that performance include being named one of the Top 10 Off-Broadway shows of 2001 by the New York Daily News. Braden has also enjoyed an extended run in the show at the Hartford Summerstage last summer.

Braden admits to reading all of her reviews. "I’m glad if they’re good, because it makes me feel as if I’m going in the right direction," she says. However, her years of working with and portraying jazz visionaries have given her a strong internal compass. Her performances have gone beyond entertainment to testimony. That’s especially evident in her 2001 CD, "Diva Out of Bounds," which mixes funky bass lines with singing that can run the full range between operatic and lowdown. The centerpiece of that album, a soulful anthem called, "I Am," has become Braden’s signature tune that has audiences singing along, bearing witness to the power of their own dreams. "I always wanted to write a song that honors the love of the self," she says.

Braden’s fidelity to her vision has inspired others. Saxophonist Carter is a former protege. Interviewed in Jazztimes, Braden recalls how she met the versatile horn player when he was 16. "I was part of the crowd that he was trying to be around," she says. "Now he’s surpassed most of us." For his part, Carter has said that Braden has the essence of an ever-evolving Billie. "I really dig her style, the spirit that she has."

Another ardent fan is Reverend Kevin Taylor, a former producer for Black Entertainment Television who has worked with artistic legends ranging from Lena Horne and Nancy Wilson to Stevie Wonder and Natalie Cole. Taylor now is pastor of Unity Fellowship Church in New Brunswick, where Braden is minister of music. "I have worked with and loved some of the greatest voices in history," says Rev. Taylor, "and Ms. Miche is glorious among them. She has the vocal technique that is rare to human capacity and when she opens her throat and her soul, the sound that comes from her, through her, is pure God! I am humbled and propelled every Sunday! She is a wonder!"

After decades in the business, Braden may be poised to become an overnight success. Last November, she out-sang and out-played 200 contestants in Washington Mutual Bank’s "Big Shot" competition. Her prize: a chance to play "New York State of Mind" at the finale of the January 22nd performance of the Billy Joel-Twyla Tharp Broadway musical, "Movin’ Out." Resplendent in a white tuxedo pantsuit, bathed in light, Braden garnered a rousing standing ovation for her interpretation. While Braden considers the opportunity a "dream come true," she says that when she was performing she also felt, "like I was supposed to be there – and what took them so long, and how can I make it continue!"

She isn’t waiting by the phone. In addition to "Doing the Girls," Braden is rehearsing a new show, "The Second Coming," with her musical theater troupe, the Performing Arts Chorale, which will debut in late-spring. There are other gigs, such as her regular club dates in places as close as New York City and as far away as Japan, a jazz-loving nation where she plays for several weeks each year. There’s also television, which she broke into last fall, playing Nurse Tolentino in an episode of "Law and Order: SVU."

Whatever Braden’s future holds, it will surely involve music. Although she’s a fan of some of the groups that are currently popular, such as Floetry, Braden says, "I’m praying that we get back to real music, I’m tired of the formula now. I want real songwriters, real plush arrangements." Like the divas whose memories she honors, Miche Braden is keeping the faith.

– Kim Pearson

Doin’ the Girls, College of New Jersey, Music Building Concert Hall, Ewing, 609-771-2539. Cabaret featuring Miche Braden as some of the great women of jazz, Billie Holiday, Ma Rainey, and others. Free. Wednesday, March 3, 7:30 p.m.

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