Steve Braunginn at home in his home studio.
Part 2 of 2
By Jonathan Gramling
Steve Braunginn lives and breathes jazz. He listens to it with his breakfast in the morning. And it isn’t hard to imagine him falling to sleep listening to some soft jazz in the evening. It is a real life force for him. Braunginn has had three primary periods in his community and professional life spanning over 40 years. First it was jazz, then community activism culminating in his work as CEO of the Urban League of Greater Madison and then jazz again as co-host of WORT-FM’s Simply Jazz Sounds, which he cohosts with Jane Reynolds.
Strictly Jazz Sounds is a premier Madison look into the world of jazz. Braunginn and Reynolds don’t just spin records. They have been totally immersed in the local jazz scene and most visits by regional, national and international jazz performers.
“What is so fun is giving life to these musicians, their music, and their art form,” Braunginn said. “It’s not so much, ‘I get to hang out with the band.’ That is fine. But they are musicians. They are making their living off of music and enjoying music and enjoying the art form. I am enjoying the art form. I have jazz on at the breakfast table. This morning, I was listening to Terri Lyne Carrington and Henry Threadgill this morning. He’s from Chicago and now lives in New York. He’s a part of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, Roscoe Mitchell’s organization. Hanah is part of it. Henry Threadgill was one of the co-founders. This week, one of the hours of my show will be with the three musicians who were just given their recognition as NEA Jazz Masters. Albert ‘Tootie’ Heath, one of the Heath Brothers, is the surviving family member. So it’s Terri Lyne Carrington, Henry Threadgill and Albert Heath. That’s the second hour.”
It is Braunginn’s understanding of the minutia of jazz that allows him to create themes and strains of awareness for his shows.
“Jazz is part of my essence,” Braunginn said. “I am so eager to learn more. Any time there is Jazz Appreciation Month, it’s really great to dig in and figure out what would be great to pull out and throw at folks. The last show, I did Charles Mingus and Paul Chambers because it was their birthday. But those were two of the greatest bassists that we ever had. But their birthdays are on the same day, April 22nd. Mingus would have been 101-years-old and Paul Chambers 87. He died at 33-years-old. He played for only 13 years. But he is on over 1,600 recordings. That was like John Coltrane. Coltrane played from 1955-1967. That was it. And during that time, he greatly influenced and still influences. He is an icon of enormous proportions. These are the folks who inspire me. I just love the art form. It moves me.”
There are an infinite number of jazz sounds. Movie producers like Clint Eastwood would often incorporate jazz in their movies. And one can often hear jazz sounds in elevators and other places where Muzak is played. And yet its broad commercial appeal has appeared to have receded in recent decades.
“Jazz is commercial,” Braunginn said. “What folks are real comfortable with is smooth jazz. It all came around in the early 1960s. There were a few musicians who were really influential in making it happen, musicians like George Benson. It’s done in an easy beat. It flows. You don’t have to think about it. As Bob Steele would tell me, ‘I don’t want to have to think about it. It’s too intellectual.’ I would say, ‘Bob, I’m sorry, but no.’ He said, ‘You can’t dance to it.’ I said, ‘Yes you can. They danced to it before and you can still dance to it today,’ ‘Well, it’s too intellectual.’ That’s what I get.”
While Braunginn promotes almost anything jazz, he does have his limits.
“One of the favorite jazz musicians, particularly in the Black community, is Kenny G,” Braunginn said. “I go, ‘Grow up, he can’t even play good elevator music.’ He’s terrible. But the thing is he has a tach on the rhythm that makes it feel fun. I was just looking at the Jazz Week Top 100. And there are folks on there I wouldn’t play. But that is because we have a niche in what we do and we stayed there. You aren’t going to hear me play some stuff. That’s someone else’s tea. It’s not mine. Mine is broad, but it doesn’t flow over into what I would consider as very commercial. Smooth jazz is definitely commercial. But there is also other jazz that is more commercial, more mainstream jazz. It’s very straight ahead.”
And yet there is some jazz that appeals to Braunginn’s sensitivities and can sell a bunch of records.
“I like something that is complex,” Braunginn said. “I like something that just makes me get it and you hear this thing happen. You just know when it happens. You just go, Ooh, yes!’ Geri Allen could do anything. Terri Lyne Carrington did a fusion album in 1987. She got a Grammy nomination for it. That’s very commercial. I might even play one of those tunes as an exercise to say, ‘This is where Terri Lyne Carrington was at one time.’ Then I’m going to play her latest Grammy-nominated album, which is far from that. It is not commercial. The title of the tune I’m going to play is called, ‘Pray the Gay Away.’ It has hip hop in it, but it is jazz. It’s really well-done. It’s got Malcolm Jamal Warner on it and Debo Ray, good voices. But yes, there is a market in commercial jazz.”
For the most part, the wave of jazz as a popular art form has come and gone in the U.S. And there have been local efforts to revive the enthusiasm among young people, getting them to understand that before hip hop, there was jazz.
“We still struggle in developing listenership,” Braunginn said. “It really is about developing listenership. This is where the Greater Madison Jazz Consortium created these jazz residencies in the public schools. We want k-12 kids to listen to this music and understand it. I grew up with jazz. It was in my house. There were more Euro-American kids playing jazz than African American. One of the goals was to expose more African American kids to jazz and Latinos. We weren’t really successful in that.”
But that doesn’t mean that jazz is dying out. Far from it.
“We asked Sonny Rollins and McCoy Tyner how they felt about it,” Braunginn said about the state of jazz. “They said, ‘Jazz is an art form that is appreciated and expressed by a wide variety of people around the world. It is a global language. So for instance, on my last show, on new music that I had, three of the pieces were by European jazz artists. DCM Records, Manfred Eichhorn is doing a heck of a job producing albums now. DCM is now one of the top three labels in the world. And it is Manfred who did that. It’s good that on April 30th, Herbie Hancock and many others are going to take off International Jazz Day. Jazz is going to be played around the world on one day. It’s going to be played all around the world. And that’s what it is all about. It’s sharing this international language, an indigenous African American art form, around the world. That’s what we do.”
In order to really reconnect with jazz, Braunginn suggests that people listen to one particular album.
“You can listen to Kind of Blue, which has sold over five million copies,” Braunginn said. “It is the bestselling jazz album ever. Listen to Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue on Columbia Records, 1959. It has John Coltrane on tenor sax, Cannonball Adderly on alto, Paul Chambers on bass and Bill Evans on piano and of course Miles Davis on trumpet and Jimmy Cobb on drums. You can’t get any better. That is the best album ever. I urge people to pick that up or download it. At least listen to Kind of Blue and start there.”
Braunginn would be quick to tell people that is just the tip of the iceberg. There is a lifetime of jazz awaiting to be experienced.