Jaimie Branch left us far too soon.
The tragically early death of the Chicago-born jazz trumpeter has robbed the world of a generous, good-natured soul as well as decades of her thrilling and powerful music.
Even assholes require affection.”
Jaimie Branch stated this in a 2019 interview with Aquarium Drunkard. She was describing “Love Song,” a song from her 2019 album Fly or Die II: Bird Dogs of Paradise. Branch was also teasing people about the type of connection she made with them without even trying. True, everyone requires love, but not everyone has what it takes to keep the love coming even after they have an asshole’s number. It takes a lot of heart, and Branch had plenty. That’s one of the reasons why people loved playing with her and listening to her play—and why they were devastated to learn that she died at the age of 39 in her apartment in Brooklyn’s Red Hook neighbourhood at 9:21 p.m. on Monday, August 22. The cause of death has not been disclosed.
Not everyone who plays free jazz exudes such ardor—the music does not necessitate it. Total improvisation frequently trades in smaller-scale intimacies and epic energies, and Branch was capable of delivering both with absolute technical and conceptual assurance. When she began establishing herself in Chicago’s improvised-music community in 2006, people noticed right away. Branch was particular about the music she liked, but she wasn’t exclusive. She grew up transcribing Miles Davis and Chet Baker solos, and she was a huge fan of punk, ska, and hip-hop; she was at home with abstract styles as well as music that communicated directly.
On a more personal level, Branch elicited concern and loyalty from other musicians. Peter Margasak reported in a 2017 Reader profile that when Branch was engulfed in addiction, they pulled for her and supported her. She kept in touch with Chicago after she got clean and settled in New York (she moved there in 2015). In 2017, she made her big break as a bandleader with a group of fellow Chicagoans: Fly or Die was formed by Branch, bassist Jason Ajemian, drummer Chad Taylor, and cellist Tomeka Reid (later replaced by Lester St. Louis). International Anthem, the label that has released much of her music, is based in Chicago.
Fly or Die fused free jazz sonics with jubilant melodies, celebratory rhythms, and (starting with their second album) Branch’s take-no-shit singing. She was definitely calling people out when she sang, “This is a love song for assholes and clowns.” But, in between songs, she made it clear that she understood that people who think they’re good guys can be assholes, and that even assholes need love. She attracted people, and people attracted her. They recognised the human complexities that were as much a part of her music as the practised rapport and exhilarating spontaneity of her band.
Branch’s death was first reported to me on Facebook. Her fellow musicians, of course, shared both fond memories and stunned grief. But I also saw fans chiming in—I read comment after comment from people who’d found solace in Branch’s records during the lockdown, or who’d been moved by a concert in Tennessee, Iowa, or Canada. Branch reached people not because she transcended the various radical musics she played, but because she didn’t want to. She combined those sounds into something big and loving enough for assholes and clowns.