Features, Interview

Anthony Branker: Imaging the Possibilities with Imagine


Anthony Branker: Imaging the Possibilities with Imagine

by Susan Frances

Anthony Branker: Imaging the Possibilities with Imagine 1
A prolific composer, arranger, performer, and educator, Dr. Anthony Branker’s breadth of music is, in comparison, as extensive as the body of work from author William Shakespeare, as lengthy as the film archives of director Steven Spielberg, and as substantive as the characters made memorable by actor James Earl Jones. But, besides amassing a catalog as deep as these luminaries, Branker’s material also raises social consciousness on a global scale to a level that transcends people’s differences and their conflicting beliefs.


“When writing,” he diagnoses, “I am always trying to find ways to forge a relationship with the listener and engage with them on some level. While it might sound a little strange, I don’t really write specifically for a jazz listener in mind. I am actually thinking more about the everyday or general listener – someone that may be coming to the listening experience with a lack of familiarity with or exposure to jazz or music that involves a more active listening approach.”


“With that said,” he proceeds, “I try to find ways to bring them into the music by connecting with them or meeting them where they are in order to provide them with a feeling of participation.”


“As a composer,” he projects, “I have long been drawn to the raising of social consciousness by exploring issues related to social justice, equality, spirituality, intolerance, prejudice, gender, ethnicity, humanity, politics of representation, and ‘place’ in society, all in an effort to provide opportunities for all of us to gain a deeper awareness and understanding of these issues, each other, and ourselves.”


“While taking up these bigger picture topics,” he examines, “the essence of my approach to composition explores lyrical melodic content within different types of settings; musical ideas with strong rhythmic identities; the creation of music from a more visual or cinematic perspective; and the utilization of ‘groove’ with its infectious nature.”


“I also use such source material,” he offers, “as tone rows and pitch sets or smaller groupings of pitches and then manipulate those ideas through inversions, retrograde, and shuffling sets. However, I only put these techniques into practice when it is done to serve the journey of the musical story being told in meaningful ways.”


The tool by which he uses to express the musical stories inspired by his life and his surroundings is found in his collective projects, specifically Ascent, Word Play, and Imagine. These collectives are comprised of multiple musicians he has met through his experiences, attending and teaching at colleges and performing and recording with a diverse stock of artists. In order to understand how Dr. Branker arrived at this point in his life, fostering collective projects, one needs to start at the beginning of his journey.


Born in Elizabeth, New Jersey, and raised in Piscataway and Plainfield, New Jersey, Branker was drawn to making music in his youth, as he illuminates, “I grew up in a West Indian American household during the 60s and 70s. My parents were originally from Trinidad, so there were a lot of different types of music that I was exposed to because of culture and the time period. I remember listening to such artists and groups as The Mighty Sparrow, Lord Kitchener; Diana Ross and the Supremes; The Temptations; James Brown; Aretha Franklin; Marvin Gaye; Earth, Wind & Fire; Stevie Wonder; Parliament Funkadelic; as well as the group Chicago.”


“In all honesty,” he considers, “I really wanted to play drums at first but was persuaded by some of my friends who already played trumpet that this was the ‘cool instrument.’ So, it was because of peer pressure that I started on trumpet in the 5th grade (laugh out loud). My first horn was a school rental from a music store in Newark, New Jersey, which inspired in me a mixture of excitement and fear. I was really fascinated by it, but I was also scared of it because it was really difficult to get a good sound out of the instrument (LOL).”


“When I was a sophomore in high school,” he recounts, “I went to my first live jazz concert featuring the Maynard Ferguson Big Band when they were playing straight-ahead jazz and swingin’ hard!! I was absolutely amazed by the spirit, precision, and passion that the band played with!! They had a killin’ trumpet section, and each of them was a great soloist. That’s when I became more focused on my jazz listening habits and truly dedicated myself to learning as much about the music as possible.”


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“When I really started listening to jazz records,” he recalls, “it was mostly to trumpeters Miles Davis, Freddie Hubbard, and Woody Shaw. Those were definitely my ‘Big Three.’ From there, my love for the music grew exponentially. The thing I loved about Miles was the beauty of his sound, his use of space, and just his being aware of creating great drama in a solo, largely by that sense of space. Whenever I get a chance to turn kids on to the music, the album I always say they should check out is Kind of Blue.”


He emphasizes, “I would have to say that trumpeter Miles Davis was probably my biggest influence when I was coming up. I was simply taken by the way he told stories in his improvisations, and I loved his sense of lyricism, which was always accentuated by his beautiful, rich sound. Later, I was also checking out Wayne Shorter, Art Blakey & The Jazz Messengers, Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, and John Coltrane, to name a few.”


“When I was a senior in high school,” he documents, “I was given a chance to write my first composition for a recital connected with the advanced music theory class that our band director, Mr. Bruce Bradshaw, taught. I wasn’t enrolled in the course, but Mr. Bradshaw knew how serious I was about jazz at the time and really encouraged me to write something that certain members of the class would perform.”


“So,” he continues, “I came up with a jazz composition for quintet titled ‘Like a Mug,’ which was a colloquialism we used to use back in the day. It was actually a modal composition that I sort of stumbled into because I didn’t really know what modality was at the time, it was just something I heard harmonically, and it felt right to me.”


Following high school, Branker pursued a higher education, attending Princeton University, where he received his B.A. in Music and a Certificate in African American Studies. He prides himself, “I actually started conducting while an undergraduate at Princeton University, serving as one of the student conductors of the top big band.”


“Initially,” he admits, “I went to Princeton to study mathematics but always hoped I could convince my parents to let me switch my major to music. I did all the preliminary coursework necessary to major in either math or music and was able to persuade them that there was more to music than just the challenging life of a gigging musician. I let them know I was very interested in composing, conducting, doing research, and teaching, which convinced them that I was both mindful of what it would take to have a career in music and that I was passionate about the field.”


“But,” he adds, “I must say that I almost didn’t attend Princeton because of two previous summer jazz camp experiences I had at Towson State University in Maryland, where the head of jazz studies, Hank Levy, had developed an exciting college jazz program there. Added to this was the fact my two best friends in the jazz ensemble from high school were going to be at Towson, so I wanted to follow them there with the goal of majoring in both music and mathematics.”


“Everything changed,” he notes, “however, when my family was notified that I had received the kind of scholarship and financial aid necessary to be able to attend Princeton, so that’s where I went, and it was the best decision I could have made at the time.”


“One of my fondest memories as a student there,” he reminisces, “involved having the opportunity to perform in a campus band, Timepiece, with guitarist and fellow undergraduate Stanley Jordan. He was featured on my first-ever record titled, For the Children, which was my independent senior thesis project as a music major. I think this was Stanley’s first record date as well.”


He appends, “The For the Children album was later reissued by Sons of Sound Records in 2006 in digital format and by Guersen Records in Spain in 2018 as an LP.”


“I composed and arranged all the music for jazz small group,” he recollects about his time at Princeton, “performed on it and produced it, engaged a graphic artist and photographer to work on the album cover design. Both were dear friends and fellow students at Princeton. [I] worked in the studio with the engineer on mixing, old-school editing/splicing tape, and post-production and was responsible for selling the record. Almost all of the things that would become central to my musical life with most of the albums I have been involved with over the years.”


After graduating from Princeton, his studies took him to the University of Miami for a Master of Music in Jazz Pedagogy and later to Columbia University, Teachers College, where he received the degrees of Master of Education and Doctor of Education, both with specialties in Music and Music Education. He provides, “After I went to the University of Miami for my masters in jazz pedagogy and as time moved forward, I had a number of opportunities to lead a variety of ensembles as part of different teaching positions I held at Princeton, Rutgers University Mason Gross School of the Arts, Hunter College CUNY, Ursinus College, and the Estonian Academy of Music & Theatre.”


“Besides jazz big bands and small groups,” he cherishes, “I have conducted concert bands, orchestras, and choirs as part of collaborations with instrumental ensembles.”


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“I was blessed,” he regards, “to be able to conduct world premieres of commissioned works for big bands by Jimmy Heath, Bob Mintzer, Michael Philip Mossman, Ralph Bowen, and Conrad Herwig and have conducted extended works for large ensembles such as Terence Blanchard’s A Tale of God’s Will: A Requiem for Katrina featuring Terence and his Quintet with Fabian Almazan on piano plus Orchestra and collaborated with the Juilliard Jazz Orchestra and conductors Wycliffe Gordon, Loren Schoenberg, and Cecil Bridgewater on joint big band performances of Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn’s The Far East Suite and Ellington’s The New Orleans Suite.”


From 1989 to 2016, Dr. Branker worked at Princeton University as a faculty member, holding an endowed chair in jazz studies and serving as a founding director of the Program in Jazz Studies, in addition to being a director of the University’s jazz ensembles program and an associate director of the Program in Musical Performance. He shares about this experience, “Conducting and working as a musical director became an extremely important creative outlet for me once I was forced to give up the trumpet after health issues developed.”


“In September 1999,” he chronicles, “at the end of a big band rehearsal at Princeton, I was sitting behind the drum set playing with the bassist and pianist when I suddenly lost consciousness. The students later told me that I had stood up, muttered something incomprehensible, then fell over on the drum set and had experienced a seizure.”


“I was rushed to the hospital,” he remembers, “where it was discovered that I had two brain aneurysms. Further testing showed that I had something called an AVM, or arteriovenous malformation, which is an entangled collection of blood vessels in the brain that you could be born with but would never manifest itself unless a precipitating event would cause a seizure. This is what guitarist Pat Martino had.”


“So I took some time off from my two college teaching positions and performing,” he discloses, “and had a number of surgeries, including a craniotomy. I was very fortunate and blessed to come out on the other side of this okay but realized that my focus had to change as my young daughter was six years old at the time, and I needed to be there for her.”


He underscores, “This was when I started to concentrate more on composing, conducting, and teaching. I also wanted to have some kind of ensemble that would be my creative outlet for writing, so I established the groups Ascent in 2004, Word Play in 2010, and Imagine in 2016 with the idea of bringing together musicians with diverse backgrounds and musical personalities, write for them, and do a variety of projects together.”


Anthony Branker: Imaging the Possibilities with Imagine 4
His approach to composing music turned into a collective experience with three distinct projects: Ascent, Word Play, and Imagine. “The collective I was writing for just before the creation of the current Imagine group,” he addresses, “was known as Word Play. They recorded the albums Dialogic, Uppity, and The Forward (Towards Equality) Suite on Origin Records.”


“That ensemble,” he proclaims, “came about as a result of me wanting to have a group of musicians that would allow me to explore another aspect of my approach to writing. One that was grounded in free exploration and took more advantage of the notion of conversational interplay.”


He ascertains, “My composing for Word Play was then, as it is now with Imagine, about exploring musical dialogue, the kind of dialogues and conversations musicians have with the listener as well as each other while performing; the inner dialogues they have within themselves to determine how their individual contributions will influence the soundscape; the dialogue they have with the tradition and the music that has shaped who they are.”


“While in some instances,” he assesses, “I might present more prescriptive compositional settings, I still greatly value this notion of musical exploration on the bandstand through risk-taking and conversational interaction, where the musicians have the freedom to interpret and take the music where they hear it going in the moment.”


“With Imagine,” he illustrates, “I get to build upon all of this and move the music into some other areas that I am interested in exploring right now. For me, the choice of Imagine as the ensemble name is related to the idea that when we engage our imaginations, we allow ourselves to reach beyond and, as educational philosopher Maxine Greene has stated, ‘look at things as if they could be otherwise.’ In doing so, we can now begin to enjoy and appreciate what our original preconceptions had once closed off to us.”


“No longer bound to those characteristic ways of thinking, feeling, perceiving, and knowing,” he discerns, “we are now encouraged to embark on a journey to explore and, in the process, gain a deeper understanding through our encounters with the unexpected. While traveling in this way, we search for openings, for new paths, for breakthroughs so that we can escape from the kind of thinking and practices that tend to be inflexible and complete. We can now begin to ‘imagine the possibilities.'”


His Imagine collective offers Dr. Branker the tool to imagine and explore a vast array of musical possibilities as he discusses his inspiration for the collective’s 2023 recording What Place Can Be For Us? A Suite in Ten Movements. He explains, “The actual commitment to write this suit came after a period of seeing some incredibly disturbing images on television of the horrific suffering the citizens of Syria were experiencing during the country’s ongoing civil war (2011-2017). This was when many were seeking refuge in a number of countries.”


“Interestingly though,” he delves deeper, “I had been thinking about a number of issues associated with the concept of ‘place,’ such as what does place mean or represent, and how it is a universal concept that all of us can relate to on some level. So with all of this swirling around in my mind, I was sort of driven to develop this extended work, which would allow me to offer my own creative responses to a number of historical and social occurrences. In doing so, I could begin to unpack such overarching issues as inclusion and belonging while also addressing what I have described as circumstances of exploitation and zones of refuge experienced by people of color and other global citizens.


He elaborates, “While the suite does deal with socio-historical instances related to the African American experience, such as in ‘The Door of No Return,’ the notion of Sundown Towns, and what Academy Award-winning filmmaker Jordan Peele refers to as the ‘sunken place’ and what that represents. It should not be lost that the suite also sheds light on how these universal notions of belonging and inclusion relate to the experiences of other historically disparaged groups, such as Indigenous peoples who were subjected to a legacy of genocidal treatment, the global citizens of Syrian, and the recent refugee crisis at the Texas-Mexico border where immigrants from Mexico, Honduras, Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela were seeking asylum.”


The track “Indivisible” from the recording keeps in Branker’s theme of shedding light on the socio-historical instances found in world affairs, putting the spotlight on America. He imparts, “‘Indivisible’ is a word and concept that comes from The Pledge of Allegiance, originally written in 1892 by Francis Bellamy that many of us had to recite as students in grade school while standing at attention with our right hands over our hearts. The passage’ One nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all originates from the version the U.S. Congress amended in 1954 that I remember saying in school.”


“However,” he cites, “even as a child, I would question how true that statement was, especially after watching television and noticing the visible violence against Civil Rights advocates, non-violent protesters, African Americans, and people of color that were so prevalent while growing up in the 1960s.”


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“While it was not necessarily my intention,” he prefaces, “the more I listen to ‘Indivisible’ now, it conjures up images of a different kind of anthem, one that has been influenced by the sounds and spirit of the times we have lived through. If you think about it in that way, one might say that Pete McCann’s guitar solo seems imbued with the spirit of Jimi Hendrix, especially when Jimi transformed the ‘Star Spangled Banner’ through his unique musical sensibility and performance back in 1969 at Woodstock. Interestingly, I really didn’t give any specific instructions to the musicians outside of mentioning where the title came from. The wonderful performance you hear was all them!!!”


What Place Can Be For Us? A Suite in Ten Movements features vocalist Alison Crockett, whom Branker reveals, “Alison and I met back in the late 1990’s when I was performing with the Spirit of Life Ensemble, which had a Monday night residency at Sweet Basil jazz club in Greenwich Village [New York City] for 5-years. Alison would occasionally stop by and sit in with the band, and I was really moved by her musicianship, soulfulness, and beautiful spirit.”

He raves, “I later worked with her on an earlier album of mine in 2014 titled The Forward (Towards Equality) Suite on Origin Records, where she was featured on a number of compositions as a vocalist and spoken word artist. I also had Alison as a guest artist in concert with the big band at Princeton University and had her give a master class for students in our Jazz Vocal Collective, which was very impactful for the students. Why did I want her to perform on this recording? Well, the answer is she is a brilliant artist who can bring text and music to life in ways that speak to the core of the listener’s soul and understanding.”


Another artist featured on the recording is tenor saxophonist Walter Smith III, whom Branker supplies, “I actually met Walter, pianist Fabian Almazan, saxophonist Remy Le Boeuf, and trumpeter Philip Dizack when they were students in the jazz history seminars I taught when I was on faculty at the Manhattan School of Music some 18-20 years ago. Walter was a graduate student at MSM at the time.”


He asserts, “I have been following their careers for some time now and am so proud of the artists and educators they have become. In addition, they all share a similar sensibility about the way they approach music making and are definitely risk takers, with creative concepts that are very engaging and in line with how I think about writing music at this point in my life. As far as Walter goes, he is truly one of the most exciting musicians on the planet with a crazy creative mind and beautiful concept, in addition to being a fantastic composer!!”


Over the course of Dr. Branker’s live performance experience, he has taught and played to audiences around the world. Some of those venues have been in Estonia, Poland, Denmark, Finland, and Germany, to name a few. He champions, “I will definitely continue to bring my music overseas as an educator, composer, and bandleader as those opportunities present themselves. I would love to be out on the road with Imagine and this project at some point and hope that can become a reality.”


In response to bringing jazz to the nations of the European Union, he sustains, “I might have to disagree with part of that statement. The countries you mentioned where I have brought my music and thoughts on music-making in the past all have wonderfully creative artists that find ways of performing jazz or improvised music in ways that are authentic to their particular cultural or geographic locales.”


“Unfortunately,” he remarks, “we in the U.S. might not be so aware of who they are or what they bring to the music. Or we may not consider them to be ‘jazz artists’ in the traditional sense because they approach the music in ways that we may not consider to be authentic to our ears.”


“In other words,” he observes, “our expectation might be that they must perform jazz with complete reverence to the tradition and respect the original approaches to stylistic performance practice. That could be taken to mean that an artist would have to develop a style of playing that imitates or copies as closely as possible the original source material. In other words, they have to sound like our iconic artists such as Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Max Roach, and Freddie Hubbard, or how other ‘keepers of the flame’ sound for them to be thought of as playing jazz in authentic ways.”


“For me,” he avows, “imitating or creating derivatively as the end goal would be as inauthentic as it gets since one is not being true to one’s own authentic self.”


He attests, “I believe one’s unique experiences should influence their music, and one’s cultural background is one of those influencing factors. If you think about it, there will undoubtedly be something distinctive and significant within one’s own culture that will emerge when conceptualizing and playing this music.”


“Rather than playing a style or genre of jazz as tradition has dictated,” he demonstrates, “musicians from around the world embrace jazz as well as their cultural backgrounds and use it to create music that more deeply reflects the individual. This is what is happening in the countries you mentioned above,” such as the European Union nations of Estonia, Poland, Denmark, Finland, and Germany.


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“Currently,” he broaches, “I don’t have a manager to handle this aspect of things, so I know it will take a minute before this comes to pass. This summer, I will be traveling to the Baltic States of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia as part of an international conference program organized by the College Music Society and will be offering a workshop for musicians and teachers titled ‘Creating with the Spirit of We: Reimagining Music Making by Crossing Borders, Celebrating Difference, and Collaborating.'”


He surmises, “This is all related to the idea I mentioned earlier that when we engage our imaginations and consider other possibilities or other ways of knowing, we can allow ourselves to reach beyond and look at things as if they could be otherwise.”


Opening his mind to musical possibilities, Dr. Branker reflects, “I think I have grown quite a bit in my conceptual thinking, but I’m always trying to find new ways to continue this process of growth. I mean, there is so much that inspires me as a composer, and I feel so incredibly energized and driven right now!!”


He proffers, “I’ve already begun work on conceptualizing a new eight-movement work for the group Imagine that will focus on concepts of perception, identity, and self-image while examining issues of social justice within that framework, sort of following from the ideas related to perception and sense of self that Langston Hughes and W.E.B. Du Bois wrote about.”


“I feel as though I am just beginning to come into my own as a composer,” he muses, “so I just want to keep writing, learning, growing, and sharing. There are so many stories that still need to be told.”


He unveils, “I am also looking to record a project this year dedicated to my Mom that would be a reimagining of compositions of mine, most of which have been recorded before on earlier Origin projects, but this time performed by musicians that have never addressed them before. Mom’s cognitive health has been in advanced stages of decline, so the one thing that has been uplifting during this difficult time is to see her face brighten and her body start to dance and move while listening to some of the earlier music I wrote that she used to enjoy. This music has also served to dramatically change her mood in positive ways when experiencing extremely challenging episodes.”


Jazz music makes an impact on one’s lifestyle, evoking positive sensations; as Dr. Branker postulates, “Jazz is a musical tradition that has long been recognized by our global society for its historical significance, artistic innovation, and far-reaching influence. So there is no doubt in my mind that the music of the masters that established the vocabulary, stylistic directions, and performance practices for this music will never be forgotten as new generations emerge with their own voices and approaches.”


“With that said,” he endorses, “it is imperative that the growth and dissemination of this important contribution to American and world culture be embraced as an essential undertaking by institutions committed to jazz education.”


“One very important aspect of teaching jazz in an academic setting,” he advocates, “should be focused on presenting opportunities to expose students to the artistic and historical significance of jazz by presenting music that is representative of the wide spectrum of styles and conceptual approaches found throughout the music’s evolution.”


He stipulates, “One way of doing this from a performance standpoint is having students take part in certain kinds of repertory ensembles or groups that do a deep dive into the compositions, conceptual thinking, and performance practices of artists and ensembles that have helped to establish the variety of sensibilities and aesthetics of jazz. Groups such as a Wayne Shorter Ensemble, Avant Garde Ensemble, Monk-Mingus Ensemble, Fusion Ensemble, John Coltrane Ensemble, Pat Metheny Ensemble, Ellington/Strayhorn Ensemble, Afro-Latin Ensemble, New Orleans Ensemble, Weather Report Ensemble, just as a few examples.”


“These groups,” he articulates, “can also offer students the opportunity to engage directly with the tradition in creative ways by having them write or create original music that has been inspired by the particular sensibility of the composer or style of the group they are performing in. This was a concept I was exposed to many years ago during my graduate studies at the University of Miami and which I have utilized in the development of the jazz programs I have created and in my own teaching for well over 30 years now.”


Anthony Branker: Imaging the Possibilities with Imagine 7
“At the same time,” he supports, “I strongly believe that an evolution in pedagogical thinking and practices must be as central to the growth of jazz education as thinking outside of the box and risk-taking have always been to the development of the music itself. The fact is, we have a lot of blind spots in jazz education. We need to reexamine things as they currently exist and be open to creating alternative kinds of classroom spaces that are not just driven by the approaches to pedagogy that are associated with the ‘this is how it has always been done’ mindset, especially when it comes to the teaching of improvisation, composition, history, and performance.”


He prescribes, “We need to place priority on developing approaches that strive to help students develop an awareness of other ways of knowing; unleash their imaginations; allow the intellectual and the emotional ways of experiencing to co-exist; place emphasis on collaborative experiences where students are learning and creating in and from relationships with others; and spaces that value and encourage musical risk-taking.”


“I have no doubt that the idea of jazz being in the academy is a wonderful thing,” he purports, “but we also have to be mindful of not simply presenting the music as a museum piece or something to be revered through a ‘this is how it was’ perspective. We must also allow the space necessary to figure out; what it can still become.”


He highlights his achievements in the jazz arena have included “19 albums as a composer, producer, bandleader, and/or performer; and 15 albums as conductor/producer for university ensembles.” The breadth of his work is comparable to the depth in the annals of Shakespeare, Spielberg, and James Earl Jones.


Alongside amassing a catalog as deep as these luminaries, Dr. Branker’s material aims to raise mass awareness of historical social events found on a global scale to a level that transcends people’s differences and their conflicting beliefs. An objective that continues to motivate Dr. Branker and keep him driven.

About Susan Frances:

Anthony Branker: Imaging the Possibilities with Imagine 8
Born in Brooklyn, New York and raised in eastern Long Island, I always enjoyed writing and made several contributions to my high school literary magazine, The Lion’s Pen. Influenced by writers of epic novels including Colleen McCullough and James Clavell, I gravitated to creative writing. After graduating from New York University with a BA in Liberal Arts, I tried my hand at conventional jobs but always returned to creative writing. Since 1998, I have been a freelance writer and have over three thousand articles to various e-zines including: Jazz Times, Blogcritics, Yahoo Voices,, Authors and Books (,,,,,, BTS emag,,,, Hybrid Magazine, and In 2013 and 2014, I was a judge in the Orange Rose Writing Competition sponsored by the Orange County chapter of the Romance Writers of America located in Brea, California.

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