When jazz pianist Joanne Brackeen walks on stage and sits down at the piano, there is no doubt who is in command. Tall, slender, almost fragile in appearance, she astounds and amazes as she leaps at the keyboard with an energy amounting almost to ferocity.
Working usually alone, or with bass or drums, or both, she creates rolling crescendos and lightning-fast runs and arpeggios that seem to come from some deep and private place within.
The effect is nearly overwhelming. she now plays only her own material, shunning the "standard" tunes so popular among most jazz musicians.
At the recent Women's Jazz Festival here, Leonard Feather, a jazz historian, introduced Brackeen at the final concert as "Them pianist of the '80s," grouping her with such luminaries as Art Tatum, Oscar Peterson, and McCoy Tyner. Anyone doubting Feather's pronouncement had only to listen to what followed.
After the concert, I met with Brackeen, to try to fathom the secret behind the music of this most remarkably talented woman. I found an individualistic person, sweet-tempered and yet aloof, one who seems to have defined her own universe in an unjudging but observant fashion.
Brackeen started playing at age 11, copying solos note for note from her parents' Frankie Carle records, which she would then perform at school assemblies. Despite very little musical training, she continued to develop on her own, eventually playing with other musicians in the Los Angeles area, where she lived at that time. Her first real break came in 1969 when she joined Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers.
"I heard Blakey's group in a club," the soft-spoken Brackeen explains. "The piano player was just sitting there, but he wasn't playing.
He didn't know where they were in the tune. So I went up on the bandstand and started playing. After I finished I thought it was pretty strange for me to do that, but that might have been how I got the job."
After the stint with Blakeley, Brackeen joined saxophonist Joe Henderson's group, and then, in 1975, she went with Stan Getz for two years. These experiences opened up opportunities for her to do a lot of recording and begin to do her own music.
"Since 1979 I do my own thing exclusively," she remarks.
Has she always worked in music?
"Yes, except for the years when I was raising my four children. Then I never seemed to work. I played at home and developed instead."
Her development has taken her into a realm of expanded harmonic and rhythmic ideas. Brackeen's compositions are very much removed from the average jazz or standard tunes. What is her approach to music?
"I can feel a tune almost anytime." She pauses. "We don't write the music; it's already there. Whatever we want to do, it's out there. There is no limitation."
"My tunes aren't written in any key. As far as I'm concerned there are no keys: It's all one key to me."
Does she practice, and, if so, what does she practice?
"I don't call it 'practice,' she corrected. "I call it studym . I just do something that I make up. I don't do anything written. I don't have any books, or anything that I listen to."
Although Brackeen's style seems very different from the tradition of a Charlie Parker or a Bud Powell, she still feels an affinity for these players.
"I think we're close in feel, if not in notes."
What does she think about when she improvises at the keyboard?
Does she ever feel she is transcending herself when she plays?
"I don't think there is any self there."
What about her incredible energy -- where does it come from?
"From the earth and the air and the sun. If you walk or dance or jump, you can feel this. Watch animals: They have it. Humans have it, too, but they can think, and when they think, then they think they don't have it. Not too many people use the capacity of their being. Little children do."
Did she ever have to "unlearn" to get to where she is now?
"No, because I never did learn."
How did she avoid learning?
"I never did anything that seemed silly to me. For the first 20 years of my life it was hard, because I had to deal with parents and teachers."
From the serenity she now expresses, it is obvious that Brackeen has come to terms with the world and her own special way of viewing things. What does the pianist do when she's not busy with her career?
"There are a lot of things I'd like to do but there's so little time. There are about seven different languages I'd love to learn to speak. I also like to play a lot of different instruments. I have a flute, a mandolin, and a set of drums."
I wondered what advice Brackeen would give to aspiring musicians, although by now I had an idea what her answer might be:
"You just do what you do. I don't recommend anything for anyone else. I just watch and see what I do. I don't decide and then do it. I just do it."
What about the future
"I don't know. I just do what comes nxt."
For this "jazz pianist of the '80s," what comes next is bound to stir the imagination of her rapidly growing audience.