Q&A with Brandee Younger: The Legacy of Jazz Harp

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Brandee Younger curated a portion of the Women's Jazz Festival at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem, which begins March 6. (Photo: Courtesy of the artist)

Jazz harpist Brandee Younger is shining a much-needed light on her long-overlooked instrument. In the process, she’s illuminating a world of jazz harp history. 

A graduate of The Hartt School of Music, in Hartford, Connecticut, this native New Yorker has become a fixture in the current jazz scene, working with everyone from Ravi Coltrane to John Legend. She even appeared with hip-hop artist Common on his 2007 album Finding Forever (GOOD Music/Geffen).

DownBeat first sat down with Younger last July, shortly before her live duo set with bassist Rashaan Carter at the Caramoor Jazz Fest in Katonah, New York. She walked us through her unchartered path in music, helping her to become one of today’s preeminent musicians of jazz harp.

We recently followed up with her to discuss her dual role at the upcoming annual Women’s Jazz Festival at The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem, which kicks off on March 6.

Younger is a vital part of this year’s lineup, one that also includes renowned drummer Terri Lyne Carrington and the soulful French duo Les Nubians. She was also a guest co-curator of the festival’s program “Ella, Ella: A Centennial Celebration of Mama Jazz,” exploring the prolific career of Ella Fitzgerald.

Congratulations on being asked to co-curate this year’s Women’s Jazz Festival.

I’m thrilled to curate this wonderful evening at The Schomburg. They approached me and explained the different approach they’re taking this year, having a different curator for each night of the festival.

There’s so many ways to highlight the music of Ella Fitzgerald. Tell us about the approach you wanted to take for the festival.

I really wanted to focus on a side of Ms. Fitzgerald that we never [get to] see, one I often think about—and that is [her] spirituality. So, I listened to Brighten The Corner, [a 1967 release on Capitol Records], which is an entire album of spirituals. We don’t [often] hear her sing spirituals, and I even read [somewhere] that she was concerned about [being compared to] Mahalia Jackson.

Which musicians did you enlist to help bring out the more spiritual side of Ella?

I immediately knew that I wanted [vocalist] Jean Baylor to be a part of this concert. With Jean, alongside Camille Thurman [on alto sax and vocals] and [pianist] Courtney Bryan, supported by [bassist] Dezron Douglas and [drummer] Kassa Overall, I’m hoping that the evening’s program, “Divine Ella,” gives the audience a glimpse of the spiritual side that most of us in the ensemble were reared with, leading us to where we are today.

At what time did the harp first enter your life?

There was a woman who played harp that worked where my father worked. So my parents were like, “Hmm, maybe you can spend some time with her” ... free extracurricular activity. I played flute, so we did some little harp and flute duets. They asked if I may be interested in taking lessons. They kind of had a vision of a scholarship, but when you’re young, you’re not thinking about that. So that’s really how it came about.

By the time I was in high school, my parents bought me that Alice Coltrane Priceless Jazz CD, and I said, “Oh, I like this. It’s better than my method book stuff.” And I got stuck. I went to The Hartt School and I studied classical music there as well as music business. I thought I was going to go that route. You play for the scholarship, you know, but I think that God had another plan.

Jazz harp is still an untapped sound or style, even today. With so few precedents, how were you able to carve out a path for yourself?

Right away, I listened to Dorothy Ashby and Alice Coltrane, but I didn’t play; all I played was classical music. I knew about Casper Reardon, who was a wonderful jazz harpist, and Adele Girard.

After college, when I moved to NYC, I was going to all of the clubs and everyone was saying, “Do you know Daphne Hellman of Hellman’s Angels?” She used to play every Tuesday night at The Village Gate. It was something I didn’t think about. But when I was in college, when Jackie McLean would let me audit all of the classes, I never played; I would just sit there. So I would go to all of the repertoire building classes, the masterclasses and the ensemble classes, which were taught by bassist Nat Reeves and trombonist Steve Davis. I would just watch, absorb and learn. But I was always too shy to even think about trying to apply that to my instrument.

Dorothy Ashby is definitely on a long list of unsung heroes in jazz. Tell us about her impact on you and your music.

There’s so much music and activism. She was all for civil rights. A lot of people don’t know that she had a radio show, and she was very vocal on that radio show about social injustices and other issues going on. She was under appreciated and she knew it. That’s when Dorothy moved to L.A. from Detroit to get in on the recording scene.

She and Bill Withers had a wonderful relationship. She actually produced one of his records, although they ended up releasing the more glazed-over version. And that’s where she was able to record “If It’s Magic” with Stevie Wonder and get on all of the Top 40 records.

When I went to graduate school at NYU, Ira Newborn, who was big on the recording scene, would always walk by the harp studio and he would just say, “There was this session one day and they kept hiring harpists to play it and no one could get this one part. And they just called Dorothy Ashby and then she nailed it on the first try!” She was really a prodigy. Like Alice Coltrane, she also played piano, and her father was a guitarist. Wiley Thompson was his name.

Her playing is very guitar like, her voicings and what not. It’s kind of sad. I don’t know if it’s the whole woman thing, or probably a combination of [being a] woman and the instrument. It was also not all that easy to get love from the harp community because it was a very obscure thing that she was doing. After realizing how many people don’t know Dorothy’s work, I do feel some responsibility to get her name out there, so that people do know her name without having to think back or [associate her only with] “If It’s Magic.”

Do you find similar struggles in your own career? How have you handled them?

I be trying to ignore it! (laughs) Because when something happens, it can break you down inside and break your spirit. And each thing chips away at your spirit. When your spirit is chipped away, you just end up either giving up or becoming bitter or just saying I was dealt an unfair hand. So I just count my blessings and try my hardest to shake it off.

People were like, ‘It takes guts to go hard with the harp.” I didn’t plan on playing harp after college. I wanted to work in the [music] business or become a nutritionist (laughs). So I wasn’t thinking “I gotta make this harp thing happen.” I guess it is ballsy when I look back.

Catch Brandee Younger and all of the wonderful performers at this year’s Women’s Jazz Festival at The Schomburg Center, honoring Ella Fitzgerald over four consecutive Mondays in March, beginning March 6.

For more information, visit the festival’s website. DB


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