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A project of Jazz Appreciation Month, KNKX and Jazz24 celebrate highly regarded jazz creators who continue to inspire.

A self-taught pianist, Joanne Brackeen has played with the best

A woman with short gray hair wearing a black turtleneck sweater and hat softly smiles at the camera.
Carol Friedman
Joanne Brackeen
Pianist and composer Joanne Brackeen.

Joanne Brackeen is a composer and pianist who has played jazz with the best — and been hugely successful at it. She learned to play jazz improv at a young age and Art Blakey referred to her as his "adopted daughter."

A full-time professor at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, Brackeen continues to teach and, as she says, learn from music students.

Brackeen was self-taught at a young age by listening to records and working things out on her piano. She played in a Glen Miller-style big band and was paid to play the school dances – making good gig money as a young teen.

Then she hooked up with a fellow-classmate, Jo Ann Castle, who ended up playing piano on The Lawrence Welk Show. The duo played out in restaurants and clubs.

Brackeen loved the bandstand and even after winning a music education scholarship, she prioritized playing live music over school class time. In an interview with KNKX earlier this year, she explained why she skipped classes:

“For me, it wasn’t interesting because I already knew what they were teaching, all I had to do was just know what they called it. And I thought ‘I don’t think I have time just to learn the names of things – I can already play them and I can already teach them myself with - just by sound.”

So she quit everything except the piano lessons – keeping them because she said she enjoyed the challenge of classical piano.

And the live game served her well.

Because of her good grades she was able to talk her way into creating her own schedule, continuing to work and be paid as a professional to perform. A rare feat for a woman in the 1950’s.

“You have to play at least 10 percent higher than any man plays. You have to know more. That’s what I tell the women," Brackeen said. "Because if I tell them that, then they get a picture of what they need to do – it’s not even that that’s a truth or not a truth. There’s not that many women as compared to men.”

She married saxophonist Charles Brackeen and had four children. They moved from California to New York City – the epicenter for jazz. She eased the stress of raising children by escaping to jazz clubs at night, which landed her with an unexpected jazz hook-up.

On one of those "escapes" from family life to live music is when she got her first big shot with Art Blakey.

The pianist on the bandstand at famed jazz spot Slugs wasn’t playing, so Brackeen approached the stage and boldly asked to play. The pianist stepped aside and after the set, Blakey asked her back. She became the only female member of the Jazz Messengers:

“He (Blakey) would just get up and announce sometimes on the microphone and talk about it anytime he felt like it – “this is my adopted daughter.” I didn’t think too much about it until I started thinking about it and I said 'wow' - he was the only person I knew who, that said things that when I looked I just saw that everywhere. So I don’t know how he knew I said it because we didn’t talk that much but I guess maybe from the playing.”

Brackeen’s athletic playing matches Blakey’s stroke for stroke.

In New York City, Brackeen played with saxophonists Joe Henderson and Stan Getz and led a trio and quartet that featured players including bassist John Patitucci, and drummers Jack DeJohnette and Billy Hart.

Brackeen also toured extensively and has traveled to over 46 countries playing jazz. She became known as a great solo player and innovator.

Her travels created some of her most memorable stories.

She joined Getz in Cuba in the '60s even when there was a threat to the tour’s safety due to the Kennedy-era trade embargo. But it was well worth the risk according to Brackeen who said she found her people playing her music:

“And I heard the music that I’d been hearing in my head...I don’t know 2 or 3 years old I don’t know. It was like 'wow I finally met some people that are playing the music that I really hear in the color and the way that I hear' and so that was incredible.”

Brackeen’s impressive career has included performing at Carnegie Hall, recording over 20 albums as a lead musician, and composing over 100 tunes.

In 2018, she was named a NEA Jazz Master.

Paige Hansen has been heard on radio station 88.5 KNKX-FM for over 20 years where she’s hosted news & jazz. You can currently hear her hosting jazz weekdays & Sundays. She is also an active musician, writer and singer.