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Lauded trumpeter and composer jaimie branch dies at 39

jaimie branch, who died on Monday, August 22 at 39, performs with her group FLY or DIE in New York in 2020.
Jonathan Chimene
jaimie branch, who died on Monday, August 22 at 39, performs with her group FLY or DIE in New York in 2020.

jaimie branch, a trumpeter who combined punk ferocity with advanced technique in her version of improvised music, earning acclaim within and well outside of jazz circles, died on Monday night at her home in the Red Hook section of Brooklyn, N.Y. Her death was announced by International Anthem, the Chicago-based label that released her music. (The statement, made in consultation with her family, did not provide a cause.) She was 39.

branch could conjure a world of personal expression with her trumpet, sounding brash and conflagratory one moment, bleary and contemplative the next. What she always conveyed with her horn, in any setting, was an absolute whole-body conviction. One reason she became a beloved linchpin of the creative music community over the last decade was this spirit of gutsy intensity. Her demeanor, by comparison, was often hilariously profane and ultracasual — qualities she hinted at with a preferred moniker, jaimie breezy branch (no caps).

She was a rising star who'd amassed a worldwide following and no shortage of critical acclaim over the last five years, especially for her work with a chamberlike yet attractively rough-hewn band, FLY or DIE. Along with branch on trumpet and vocals, it featured Jason Ajemian on bass, Chad Taylor on drums, and either Tomeka Reid or Lester St. Louis on cello. NPR Music recognized FLY or DIE's self-titled debut as one of the Top 50 Albums of 2017. (The group also made my personal list of Top 10 jazz performances that year). A sequel, FLY or DIE II: Bird Dogs of Paradise, landed in the Top 10 in the 2019 NPR Music Jazz Critics Poll.

The trumpet wasn't the only tool in branch's creative arsenal: She was a skilled producer and electronic artist, and lately ventured headlong into vocals, spoken and sung. As WBEZ's Nereida Moreno reported in 2019, branch took focused aim at the resurgence of nativist and racist ideologies with "prayer for amerikkka," a piece from FLY or DIE II so titled because, as she told Moreno at the time, "this country was really founded on genocide and slavery, so let's just be real about that."

Before she was widely known for any political stance, branch was hailed in new-music circles for the dynamic range and grounded power of her trumpet playing. She was a welcome presence on the Festival of New Trumpet Music (FONT Music) in New York, which presented her as early as 2007, and on multiple occasions since.

"She brought us so many insights into how the trumpet could engage in the music differently," trumpeter and composer Dave Douglas, the founder of FONT Music, tells NPR. "She had a vision for synthesizing the voices of her inspirations and taking them to new levels no one had thought possible. It's a tragic loss for our community."

Those inspirations covered a spectrum, from the murmuring warmth of Chet Baker to the mischievous blare of Lester Bowie. Like Bowie and Miles Davis, another key influence, branch knew how to place her sound within the tumult of an assertive band, sometimes cutting through and sometimes burrowing in. A version of "Theme 002" recorded in Switzerland early in 2020, and later included on FLY or DIE LIVE, finds her bobbing and weaving against a springy variation on dub rhythm before the beat dissolves into freeform static. It's a neat distillation of branch's style as an improviser, though it's also just one discrete piece.

Born on June 17, 1983 in Huntington, N.Y., branch grew up in a musically conducive environment, partly inspired by the example of her half-brother, a decade her senior. She started on piano at age 3, and by 9 she had taken up trumpet. Within a few years, she later remembered, it was clear that this would be her calling.

The Branch family moved from Long Island to the northern suburbs of Chicago — Wilmette, Ill. — when jaimie was 14. At the New England Conservatory in Boston, she studied with Charles Schlueter, then the principal trumpeter in the Boston Symphony Orchestra, as well as seasoned improvisers like guitarist Joe Morris and trumpeter John McNeil. As a student at NEC, she also discovered the experimental sound palette of German trumpeter Axel Dörner, promptly falling down a rabbit hole of extended technique: circular breathing, multiphonics, spectral resonance, areas of pure sound.

This burgeoning area of expertise served branch well when she returned to Chicago, home to some of the most free-thinking composer-improvisers on the planet. Among her early champions there was cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm, with whom she formed a trio. Before long she had also met Ajemian, Reid and Taylor, as well as Chicago mainstays like multi-reedist Ken Vandermark, drummer Frank Rosaly and flutist Nicole Mitchell.

Another move in 2012, to study in a graduate program at Towson University, exacerbated some personal struggles: "Baltimore is a hard town to live in if you want to quit doing heroin," branch told Peter Margasak in a 2017 article for the Chicago Reader. She dropped out of Towson after two years, enrolled in a treatment program on Long Island, and found her way to Brooklyn.

She fell in with a new crop of collaborators in New York, including tenor saxophonist James Brandon Lewis, drummer Mike Pride and guitarist Ava Mendoza. At the same time, she preserved a knockabout Chicago energy in her music — most recently in an ambient-improv duo called Anteloper, featuring branch on trumpet, electronics, percussion and vocals, with Jason Nazary on synthesizers and drums.

This spring, as pandemic restrictions loosened enough for touring to resume, branch took FLY or DIE back out on the road. Among those dates was one at the Ruba Club in Philadelphia, presented by the nonprofit Ars Nova Workshop. "Jaimie used her music as an incredible tool to connect the creative and the critical," Mark Christman, ANW's Executive and Artistic Director, tells NPR. "And she used that creative, improvised, DIY tool to do what every great jazz artist uses it for: imagining alternative futures, addressing trauma, sustaining resilience."

branch is survived by her mother, Sally Branch; a sister, Kate Branch; two brothers, Russell and Clark Branch; and nieces and nephews. "Of all the people jaimie touched, I'm luckiest of all, because I've only ever known life with jaimie and her music," writes Kate Branch, whose loft in Red Hook served as the unlikely recording studio for FLY or DIE. "She was my older sister, my first teacher, my first friend, my first fight, my last fight. She was my everything. She was the bravest person I knew, on and off the stage. And life just seems too quiet now."

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