Jaimie Branch, Trumpeter Who Crossed Genre Lines, Dies at 39
Jaimie Branch, an innovative avant-garde trumpet player and composer whose punk-rock intensity and relentless commitment to experimentation and to dissolving the distinctions between genres invigorated the music scenes of New York and Chicago, died on Monday night at her apartment in Red Hook, Brooklyn. She was 39.
Her death was announced by International Anthem, the Chicago-based label that released albums by her groups Fly or Die and Anteloper. No cause was given.
Over the last decade, Ms. Branch had emerged as one of the most dynamic trumpet players in contemporary music, coaxing a remarkable range of sounds from her horn. She used electronic effects and toy noisemakers (including a Fisher Price Happy Apple from the 1970s) to further extend her sonic spectrum. She would often play a complicated passage, step back and scream, and then immediately plunge back into playing, without missing a beat.
“I mean every note that I play,” she told the online music journal Aquarium Drunkard in 2019. “When I’m up there, I’m putting it all out on the table. It’s like high risk, high reward.”
Ms. Branch forged a direct emotional, and even spiritual, connection with listeners. Her energy could barely be constrained by the stage, filling a room not just with the sound of her trumpet but also with the force of her presence.
Offstage, she was just as magnetic. Known to friends as Breezy, she was a gregarious figure, as averse to formality and affectation as she was to capital letters (she preferred her name and song titles lowercase).
She was conservatory trained, but her stage attire was unconventional for jazz circles: an Adidas track suit, a kimono draped over a “Young Latin & Proud” T-shirt, a baggy Outkast “ATLiens” baseball jersey. Her head was always covered, whether by a hoodie, a jauntily askew baseball cap or a knit toque, and her forearms were festooned with colorful tattoos.
“She was the quintessential example of ‘honest music,’” Scott McNiece, International Anthem’s co-founder and director of artists and repertoire, said in an interview. “Music that has the capacity to change people’s lives and change the world, which everyone needs now more than ever.”
With Fly or Die — a quartet whose other members were Chad Taylor on drums, Jason Ajemian on bass and Lester St. Louis on cello (who replaced Tomeka Reid after the group’s first album, called simply “Fly or Die”) — she composed most of the music. She favored improvisation for Anteloper, a dub-influenced duo with the drummer Jason Nazary, both of whom also doubled on synthesizers and other electronic gear.
While she regularly performed concerts for cultural programmers like Roulette (where she was a 2020 resident artist) and Arts for Art, she was equally at home creating dissonant synthesizer squiggles on a noise-rock bill at Knockdown Center in Maspeth, Queens, or playing an impromptu jam session at the San Pedro Inn in Red Hook with her most recent trio, c’est trois, with the bassist Luke Stewart and the drummer Tcheser Holmes.
In a 2017 article on women in jazz, the New York Times critic Giovanni Russonello described “Fly or Die” as one of “the most startling debut albums in jazz this year,” adding that “Ms. Branch uses extended technique and blustery abstraction to a dizzying effect.” In DownBeat magazine’s 2020 critics poll, Ms. Branch was voted “rising star” on trumpet.
On the 2019 album “Fly or Die II: Bird Dogs of Paradise,” she revealed her impressive singing voice on two songs, one of which, “prayer for amerikkka pt. 1 & 2,” recounts the story of a young Central American woman detained after crossing the Southern border. (The song was based on the actual case of an El Salvadoran teenager Ms. Branch’s mother had assisted.)
Despite the power of her trumpet playing, Jaimie felt very vulnerable, her sister, Kate Branch said in an interview, and she felt even more so when singing, adding, “She really cared about the message.”
Jaimie Rebecca Branch was born on June 17, 1983, in Huntington, N.Y., on Long Island Her father, Kenneth, was a mechanical engineer; her mother, Soledad (Barbour) Branch, known as Sally, is a psychotherapist and social worker. “Jaimie” is spelled the way it is, her sister said, because the girls’ Colombian maternal grandmother couldn’t understand why their mother would call her daughter Jaime, a boy’s name, “so my mom added another ‘i’ so my grandmother could properly pronounce it.”
She started playing piano at age 3 and wrote her first song, “My Dreams End in the Sky,” at 6. A small orchestra at the family’s church in Long Island performed it, and Jaimie sang it and dedicated it to a retiring minister.
When Jaimie was 9, the family moved to Kenilworth, Ill., a suburb of Chicago, where she began playing trumpet in the school band. After playing extensively at New Trier High School in Winnetka (including a stint in a ska-punk group, the Indecisives), she moved to Boston to attend the New England Conservatory of Music, where she studied jazz performance.
After graduation she moved to Chicago, where she became a fixture of the jazz scene. “You could hear her all-encompassing sound just by looking her straight in the eyes,” the trumpeter Rob Mazurek, a frequent Chicago collaborator, said via email.
She left Chicago in 2012 to attend graduate school at Towson University in Baltimore, but departed a few credits short of a master’s degree in jazz performance. She told The Chicago Reader in 2017 that she had begun using heroin in 2008, and she struggled with opioids for years and enrolled in multiple inpatient treatment programs, most recently on Long Island in 2015.
Following her time in that program, she moved to Red Hook. She gigged constantly, whether as the leader of her own groups or a guest in the ensembles of the saxophonist James Brandon Lewis and the vocalist Fay Victor.
“She was a true collaborator, and that’s why she was so damn good at playing this music,” said the Brooklyn composer and vocalist Amirtha Kidambi, who began improvising with Ms. Branch soon after she arrived in Brooklyn. “She could listen, give and receive in equal measure with an unparalleled generosity. She had so many extremely close friends who also were collaborators, and because of that she wanted each individual to be really strong and strengthen the community as a whole.”
In addition to her sister, Ms. Branch is survived by her mother and two half brothers, Clark and Russell. Her father died in 2017; the first Fly or Die album was dedicated to him.
Ms. Branch had recently finished mixing Fly or Die’s third studio album. Ever seeking new sounds, she was also discussing potential projects like dub remixes of Anteloper and exploring her interest in the Chicago electronic dance music genre known as footwork.
“A lot of her collaborators were jazz musicians,” said Piotr Orlov, a friend and supporter who wrote the liner notes for the 2021 album “Fly or Die Live,” “but ‘the music’ for her was much broader, always filled with rhythm for moving, improvisation for keeping it interesting or unexpected, and camaraderie. Which is why the connections she made between so-called jazz and contemporary classical, beats and electronic music, rappers and dancers, standards and the hard-core songbook, were completely organic, and always fascinating.”
On Wednesday night, as news of Ms. Branch’s death spread, about 75 of her friends and fellow musicians gathered on Valentino Pier in Red Hook, a few blocks from her apartment. As “Fly or Die Live” played through a phone propped up against a small, tinny-sounding megaphone, some in the crowd tapped out beats on drums or on the concrete, others banged tambourines and sleigh bells, and the young saxophonist Zoh Amba played melancholic funereal blasts.
From across the Red Hook Channel the distant sound of another trumpet could be heard, most likely from a mariachi band in a waterfront bar, joining the music in a phantom collaboration.