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Black Fire

Richmond’s pioneer of African liberation music provides a new soundtrack to another revolutionary summer.

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Every night, rain or shine, at precisely 7 o’clock during this lockdown season, James “Plunky” Branch performs on his front porch in the 2200 block of Rosewood Avenue in Byrd Park.

Sometimes he plays his tenor sax, sometimes the soprano. The set includes originals and covers, instrumentals and vocals, jazz standards and popular tunes.

Recently, on one perfect night, young parents socially distance in the grassy median while their kids alternately dance and play. It is precisely the sort of thing you would want to happen if you lived in a neighborhood with a famed musician in your midst.

One of the songs is Herbie Hancock’s iconic “Maiden Voyage,” a quiet recognition of the demonstrators a quarter-mile away who are working up to launching a statue of Christopher Columbus into nearby Fountain Lake.

James “Plunky” Branch plays Herbie Hancock’s “Maiden Voyage” for his Byrd Park neighbors June 9 in recognition of protests at the Christopher Columbus statue half a mile away. - PETER MCELHINNEY
  • Peter McElhinney
  • James “Plunky” Branch plays Herbie Hancock’s “Maiden Voyage” for his Byrd Park neighbors June 9 in recognition of protests at the Christopher Columbus statue half a mile away.

A half-century earlier, Branch might have been with them.

The musician once operated the radicals’ switchboard during the 1968 student takeover of Columbia University, an opening battle in the Vietnam protests. Already steeped in rhythm and blues, he found a new muse in African music while on the run as an AWOL fugitive in the Summer of Love-era, Haight-Ashbury counterculture of San Francisco.

He would build his pioneering, idiosyncratic career on the unifying foundation of the “oneness” of the blues, free jazz, R&B and African music. Branch played a pivotal role in helping define Washington’s go-go music genre. Hip-hop greats J. Cole and J. Dilla have sampled him and when “Black Panther” star Chadwick Boseman wailed on “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon,” the Roots played Branch’s 1975 hit “African Rhythms.” His memoir, “Plunky,” documents his journey as an artist, activist and businessman with poetry, surprise and self-deprecating humor.

Long a pillar on the Richmond scene, Branch is going through something of a renaissance this summer. The British record label Strut is releasing his Oneness of Juju compilation, “African Rhythms 1970-82,” on July 17 and several songs are on a Black Fire compilation due out in mid-August. There are plans to follow up with individual albums in 2021, a documentary about the Richmond Folk Festival concert and a comedy screenplay based on his travels in Africa, a kind of reverse “Coming to America.” Branch’s 40th annual summer Dogwood Dell concert, also scheduled for July 17, will now be streamed online, though details remain undetermined.

But in this moment on the front porch, as children play nearby, decades of joy and struggle are rendered into the polished melodies flowing out of his instrument and into a cooling evening, the sun glittering golden through the trees.

Branch left segregated Richmond in the 1960s with a scholarship and dreams of becoming a chemist at the South Side DuPont plant near his childhood home. He would return in the mid-’70s leading Juju, an Afro-centric free jazz band that dressed in face paint and traditional tribal garb.

Guitarist Ras Mel, later a member of great reggae bands such as the Wailers and Awareness Art Ensemble, joined the group in 1975. It was an adventure, traveling up and down the East Coast, crossing paths with other innovators of the era such as Gary Bartz, Jackie McLean, Roy Ayres and Pharaoh Sanders. Civil Rights Movement icon and Black Panther Kwame Ture, formerly Stokely Carmichael, called them his favorite band.

“It was enlightening,” Ras Mel recalls, “but it wasn’t financially rewarding.”

Branch with his group Oneness of Juju performs at Dogwood Dell in 1988. - COURTESY JAMES “PLUNKY” BRANCH
  • Courtesy James “Plunky” Branch
  • Branch with his group Oneness of Juju performs at Dogwood Dell in 1988.

Branch knew what he wanted and gave his players the freedom to contribute, but the budgets were threadbare. When they would play at John Coltrane drummer Rashid Ali’s loft up in New York, or with the Sun Ra Arkestra at a warehouse in Washington, the venue laid out cushions and blankets and the musicians slept on the floor. The experience of camping out with Sun Ra was, literally, priceless: “I’m rich,” Ras Mel says. “I just don’t have cash.”

Inspired in part by his time as curator of saxophone legend Ornette Coleman’s Artist House Gallery in New York, Branch’s activities quickly expanded beyond performance. He formed the foundation, Branches of the Arts, to support creative Black initiatives. That organization’s most visible legacy is the Richmond Jazz Society, now entering its fifth decade.

“We were one of the branches and we give Plunky all the kudos,” says Richmond Jazz Society secretary Beverly “B.J.” Brown. “He was the one who put an article in the newspaper back in 1979 asking if anyone wanted to start a support group for the music. Promoters were reluctant to bring jazz artists here because people were not showing up.”

The core group that met in Branch’s living room is still going strong 41 years later.

“He showed us how to be a proactive, 501 (c) (3), nonprofit organization. He taught us how to write grants, how to present music, to get the sound right, to be advocates for the artists.”

Brown compares Branch to legendary jazz drummer Art Blakey, whose bands were an incubator for up-and-coming talent, including Wayne Shorter and the Marsalis brothers.

“I am so happy to see young people discovering him today, to see his music being sampled, or played by the Roots on ‘The Tonight Show.’ That is a real bright moment,” Brown says. “And he deserves it all.”

Branch has had a ringside seat as the city has changed over the decades from the racism of massive resistance to coming to terms with the remaining Confederate statues.

“The most pronounced change is how progressive it has become,” he says. “Credit is due to organizations like the Jazz Society and the Elegba Folklore Society. But a lot of it is because of VCU graduating cadre of visual artists and jazz musicians out onto the streets.”

Branch cites longtime School of the Arts Dean Murry N. DePillars’ leadership, championing the adventurous and the avant-garde, as playing a pivotal role in making Richmond an arts town.

Oneness of Juju rehearses at Kahero Gallery, Branch’s home and art space in Church Hill, in late 1974 or early 1975. - LEW HARRISON
  • Lew Harrison
  • Oneness of Juju rehearses at Kahero Gallery, Branch’s home and art space in Church Hill, in late 1974 or early 1975.

“In the ’40s and ’50s, a young musician would learn by getting the chance to sit in with the masters. In my era, records from giants like Charlie Parker or Miles Davis played an extreme part in learning the vernacular. It was an aural tradition, listening to learn. Some people would take a 33 rpm record and slow it down to 16 ½ rpm, just to hear exactly what was going on.”

He notes that this is very different from Virginia Commonwealth University, Berkeley or Julliard, where a course of study breaks down and codifies the learning. “The good is that you can turn out an army of proficient musicians with lots of information and highly-trained muscle memory.” But the downside is standardization, the discipline of learning technique perfected by others.

“I reversed that method,” Branch explains. “I started with finding my own voice and then working back to the greats. Like a baby, I had to speak my own language before I could learn yours. It earned me some points. People sat up and took notice because we weren’t trying to sound like everyone else. It didn’t earn me any gold record or million fans, but what came out of the bell of my horn was mine.”

In the stereotypical separation of town and gown, Branch and the VCU music program seldom intersected.

When the jazz department went to South Africa to scout its 2012 exchange program with the University of KwaZulu-Natal, it met the saxophonist’s late-’60s San Francisco bandmate and mentor, Ndikho Xaba.

“You have to know Plunky and how important he’s been,” Xaba told them when he heard the visiting students were from Richmond.

Branch still jokes about it: “They only had to go 8,000 miles to get a reference on someone who lives three minutes away.”

Branch dismisses the idea that the resurgence of interest in his past music marks a late-career victory lap. He’s not finished running yet.

“If there is one windmill I tilt against,” the saxophonist says, “it is the idea that I am done. I have a long past, but I am as contemporary as any person. I am creating daily content, streaming from the porch, thinking of releasing two live albums. That is the glory and the dilemma of a long career. This is the second go-round for ‘African Rhythms,’ but if someone asks me about it, I pivot to the more recent albums.”

One upside of modest fame is that your art can continue to grow, unimpeded.

“Success can be a trap. That is the great conundrum,” Branch says. “If you want to sell out a 20,000-seat stadium, you don’t do it sounding totally new. People are there to hear what they have heard before. If you are Frankie Beverley and Maze, you are going to play ‘Before I Let Go,’ or people will feel cheated. That’s what they like and it’s the price that you pay.”

“He’s resilient,” says fellow saxophonist James “Saxsmo” Gates, who viewed Branch as a supporter since having him as a long-term substitute band director at Richmond’s John F. Kennedy – now Armstrong – High School in 1977. “He just keeps on ticking. And there is such purity in his music.”

The two saxophonists have seldom shared a stage, but they’ve bonded as highly competitive tennis players.

Branch closes out the 2019 Richmond Folk Festival by leading a big band Oneness of Juju reunion - PETER MCELHINNEY
  • Peter McElhinney
  • Branch closes out the 2019 Richmond Folk Festival by leading a big band Oneness of Juju reunion

“A lot of times, it’s not just what someone plays that matters but the wisdom they impart,” Gates says. “He taught me about business, how to maintain yourself as a solo artist. Plunky gave me the opportunity to be involved in the Virginia Commission of the Arts, first as an artist and then on the board. He will call or text and ask, ‘Has anything happened? Is there anything you need me to do?’ Anything to help you in your own journey. It’s a blessing. You don’t even have to ask.”

One point of difference: Gates, channeling the attitudes of generations of Richmond jazz musicians, bridles at being dismissed as local. Branch sees it differently.
“I understand his point, but things have changed. Now you can stream and broadcast. Someone can do something from their living room and blow up to be an international star.”

“If I had to write what my formula was, it is for me to be intensely local and intensely international,” Branch continues. “National U.S. promotion, without a major label or marketing budget, is prohibitive because of the scale it takes to distribute and the money to promote. So, I concentrate on Richmond to D.C., and at the same time on London, Paris, Germany and Japan.”

As for the young protesters who are once again changing the face of the city, the youthful septuagenarian readily admits he was “once them.”

“This feels like a continuation of the same cycle. I was on the campus during the [1968] student takeover at Columbia University when the police came in on their horses to break it up. I was in Chicago two weeks after the riots at the Democratic Convention,” he says.

“It feels like there is progress in the diversity of the crowd. Maybe there is finally enough empathy to bring new insight into an old problem. But you have to keep it specific, and that’s hard when there are so many other issues: the climate, LGBTQ+, DACA and now the pandemic as a new frontier. Society makes these lurches forward, followed by backsliding.”

One thing missing in this reborn civil rights movement are the spirituals and folk anthems that united the marches of the ’60s and ’70s. It is a crucial silence that Branch is more than willing to fill.

He played several concerts on Juneteenth and is working on a plan to play at the Confederate statues. Given that the New York Times, on June 17, named his “African Rhythms” one of 15 essential African liberation jazz tracks, his music may be a perfect addition to a soundtrack to close a half-century loop.

Until then, there is the daily discipline of the front porch.

On weekends he often has a full band, but most nights it is just Branch with his horn and a bit of prerecorded accompaniment. “Glorified karaoke,” he jokes.

But the music is streaming on the internet and reaching an invisible, international audience in the vast, virtual neighborhood. Whatever happens next, Branch has been preparing his whole life to handle it.

“I’m happy that my music is finding its place,” he says. “And I am looking forward more than back.”

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