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Joanne Brackeen: A Maelstrom On The Keys

Joanne Brackeen grew up in California and taught herself jazz piano from listening to records. She moved to New York to be closer to the heartbeat of the jazz scene — so close that, in the late '60s, her apartment was around the corner from the fabled East Village club Slug's. One night, with her four small children tucked in, Brackeen ran down to Slug's to hear Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers. Blakey's pianist was elsewhere, so Brackeen slid onto the bench and started to play, and the next thing you know, Blakey hired her and took her to Japan. That story says something about both musicians. Not many women played in the top bands then; it was radical.

After three years with Blakey, Joe Henderson called, and Brackeen worked with him from 1972 to '75. Then another top tenor, Stan Getz, began leaving messages, saying, "Hey! Rehearsal's at 2 o'clock at my house, and I'll see you then." This is before cell phones, and Brackeen was on the road, so she never received the calls. But she did eventually hook up with Getz, who already had her favorite rhythm section of Clint Houston and Billy Hart, from 1975 to '77.

I took several lessons with Brackeen in the 1980s at her next apartment, a loft on West 17th St. After working at the keyboard, she would move over to the drums and play rhythm with me. Now, Brackeen is a professor at Berklee College of Music, with piano master classes and jazz ensembles. "Students have changed!" she says. "Some are better than the musicians out here playing."

Brackeen is tall, thin and stylish, and often wears a hat. But don't be surprised: She can unleash maelstroms at the piano, throw an elbow and pound a fist, then make a U-turn and come back swinging. In fact, ex-New Yorker Dee Dee Bridgewater used to go to hear Brackeen at The Knickerbocker in Greenwich Village just for the solos. For several Brackeen-powered solos on this JazzSet, check out the beginning of "Just in Time," "Lush Life" and Brackeen's stupendous improv toward the end of the show on "I Can't Get Started with You."


Mix by Duke Markos, with Josh Webb and Yujin Cha. (Farewell, JazzSet technical assistant Yujin Cha.) Thanks to Seth Abrams, artistic director at Jazz Standard, with Zak Szyszko, Martin Goodman and the rest of the team.

Copyright 2008 WBGO

Becca Pulliam