SFJAZZ.org | Brandee Younger Representation is Everything

March 01, 2024

Brandee Younger: Representation is Everything

By Evan Haga

Guest writer Evan Haga speaks to the harpist and SFJAZZ Resident Artistic Director about her career and her upcoming performances that celebrate her greatest inspirations, Alice Coltrane and Dorothy Ashby.

Brandee Younger

As a young Black woman studying classical harp, SFJAZZ Resident Artistic Director Brandee Younger found herself immersed in a subculture that didn’t reflect the richness of who she was. Raised on Long Island, she certainly took her studies of French Impressionism and the Baroque seriously, but she also sang gospel in church and had fallen in love with soul and hip-hop. “I did as I was supposed to do for years and years, but I needed to find a way to make (the harp) feel natural for me,” Younger says. “I also wanted it to be respected.”

When Younger was in her mid-teens, her father gave her a CD that redefined any notion she held of what was possible, for herself and her instrument. It was an Alice Coltrane compilation, she recalls, “and the first two tracks — (1970’s) ‘Blue Nile’ and ‘Turiya and Ramakrishna’ — those are my favorite Alice Coltrane compositions. With ‘Blue Nile,’ it was like, ‘What is she doing with this harp? How is she making these glissandi sound so soulful?’ For me, it wasn’t about anything technical, it was more or less the sound that she was creating … a sound and a feeling.” Though Younger wasn’t able to meet Coltrane, a purposeful obsession with her work followed throughout high school and into college, understandably so: Like Younger, Coltrane, née Alice McLeod, was a Black woman who pursued improvised music with a foundation in both the church and classical training, in Coltrane’s case on piano.

Alice Coltrane

Alice Coltrane's final performance, Masonic Auditorium, San Francisco, 11/06 (photo by Sun Lee)

Alice, the widow of the jazz immortal John Coltrane, who encouraged her on harp, has experienced a fascinating reappreciation over the past two decades. When Alice died in 2007, at age 69, she’d secured a sterling and variegated legacy — as the pianist who replaced McCoy Tyner alongside her husband during his final years, urging on his spiritual strivings; as the founder of a California ashram that refocused her away from jazz in the 1980s and ’90s; and as the auteur of a distinctive devotional sound melding bop, modal jazz and the avant-garde with Indian classical music and simmering gospel fervor. On piano, harp and organ alike, she cultivated a perpetually cascading touch, a glistening approach to harmonic texture that has allowed Younger to perform Coltrane’s keyboard-based music as well.

But in recent years, as “spiritual jazz” has become a popular aesthetic for au courant young improvisers whose music appeals to fans and critics tuned in to hip-hop, R&B, indie rock and experimental music, Alice Coltrane has reemerged as something like a major jazz figure — less a record collector’s namecheck than a crucial influence on the state of jazz and pop in the 21st century. No doubt swayed by that momentum, Impulse! Records and the Verve Label Group, in cooperation with the John and Alice Coltrane Home, have branded 2024 the “Year of Alice,” to be marked by live events and special releases, including Coltrane’s 1971 Carnegie Hall concert in its entirety.

Not incidentally, Younger records for Impulse!, the label the Coltranes all but defined, and will be integral to this year’s festivities. Both a catalyst and a beneficiary of Alice Coltrane’s elevated stature, Younger has earned renown as one of the most gifted and committed carriers of her torch, able to pay homage with ingenuity and the utmost integrity, on record and onstage. When Younger was still a master’s student at New York University, she performed in Coltrane’s memorial service at the behest of the saxophonist Ravi Coltrane, John and Alice’s son. (John died before Ravi was 2, and he was raised by his mother.) Ravi and flutist Nicole Mitchell will accompany Younger at SFJAZZ on March 9 and 10, celebrating Alice’s music with an extraordinary band including keyboardist Marc Cary, bassist Rashaan Carter and drummer Makaya McCraven, plus strings arranged and conducted by the composer De’Sean Jones, like Alice a Detroit native who developed in the gospel tradition. “SFJAZZ mentioned strings and I was like, ‘Sold — say no more,’” Younger chuckles. “It’s so beautiful. It just really opens up the sound.” On LPs including 1971’s Universal Consciousness, with string transcriptions by Ornette Coleman, and ’72’s Lord of Lords and World Galaxy, Coltrane’s deployment of strings could be surreal and monumental, a score fit for Kubrick.

With Jones helming the strings, Younger explains, the audience can expect the vitality of the Black American church experience — a heritage as powerful as it is indefinable. “It’s almost like when you make a biscuit with no butter, or when there’s just no Crisco in something,” Younger says. “You need this element that you can’t put on paper. … It’s passed on.” Younger is also especially excited by the prospect of Mitchell, who cut her teeth in the fertile Chicago avant-garde, in musical conversation with Ravi, a saxophonist who can, remarkably, invoke his father’s fortitude while asserting his own personal and generational identity.

On harp Alice had a forebear, Dorothy Ashby, also a Black woman from Detroit who trained on piano; Ashby was five years older than Alice, and debuted as a bandleader on record in 1957, more than a decade before Coltrane. Though the two harpists shared, at times, a sound tilted toward Eastern reverie and zealous strings, Ashby blazed a singular trail — first as a consummate modern-jazz stylist, on fine swinging dates that eclipsed the novelty factor of her instrument; and later by combining jazz, coasting R&B rhythms and early global music, on recordings that retain their funky modernity. (On 1970’s otherworldly The Rubaiyat of Dorothy Ashby, where producer Richard Evans’ arrangements can evoke a psychedelic-era pop musical, she also showcased her regal singing voice.) Ashby participated in sessions for ’70s soul greats like Bill Withers and Stevie Wonder, and became a favored sampling source among hip-hop’s finest producers. It was in these situations — Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life, on which Ashby replaced Coltrane; the Pete Rock-produced beat for Inl’s “Fakin’ Jax” — where Younger first heard Ashby, without even realizing it.

Dorothy Ashby

Dorothy Ashby

“As an artist, I’ve had this triple life where I’m doing the orchestral stuff, I’m doing the jazz stuff, I’m playing on these hip-hop and Top 40 tracks,” says Younger, a GRAMMY nominee whose harp can be heard alongside Common, John Legend and Ms. Lauryn Hill, and in Beyoncé’s Homecoming film. “I like this triple life,” she continues, “and I know Dorothy Ashby never really wanted to be pigeonholed into one genre. She was always playing the pop music of her time. (And) she was sampled so heavily by hip-hop producers, and hip-hop was such a big part of my upbringing (in) New York that I wanted that to come through.”

Younger’s SFJAZZ concerts on March 7-8 honor Ashby, who died in 1986 of cancer, just 53, and take their title and program from Younger’s most recent album, Brand New Life. On the LP Younger interprets Ashby’s music — including previously unrecorded compositions — with a blend of groove-savvy jazz, hip-hop production and neo-soul that connects to Ashby’s signature ambiance, remodeling it with tasteful contemporary strokes. “It’s Dorothy, but it’s through my lens and style,” says Younger, who has recorded Ashby’s music often on previous efforts.

Brandee Younger Trio

Brandee Younger Trio at SFJAZZ, 6/13/22 (photo by Rick Swig)

At the SFJAZZ Center Younger will, for the first time, reassemble a momentous lineup comprising most of her album’s personnel and high-profile special guests: Carter, McCraven and Jones’ strings, plus Pete Rock on turntables, the singer-songwriter and MC Mumu Fresh and, on March 8, Meshell Ndegeocello (broadcast at sfjazz.org as part of the Fridays Live series). On Brand New Life, Ndegeocello contributes hushed vocals to a dubby arrangement of Ashby’s “Dust” that stands as an album highlight.

With her residency, impeccably timed to Women’s History Month, Younger will further the mission she’s pursued in honoring Coltrane and Ashby throughout her career: To free the harp from the limitations and misunderstandings of its general reputation — which is too often “orchestra and naked baby angels,” Younger says — in the process proving that creative passion eliminates cultural barriers. That is, of course, the path Younger’s heroines began clearing decades ago. “Big-picture-wise, seeing both of these women,” Younger explains, “they were one, women; two, Black; three, putting this instrument in this (fresh and exciting) context. You know how they always say, ‘Representation is everything’? It’s so true.”

Brandee Younger performs 3/7-10 for her week as SFJAZZ Resident Artistic Director, and participates in a Listening Party on 3/6. Tickets and more information available here. The 3/8 performance will be broadcast live at sfjazz.org as part of our Fridays Live series. More information here

Evan Haga is a writer and editor based in Brooklyn. He was previously the editor-in-chief of JazzTimes magazine and an editor and curator at the music-streaming platform TIDAL.

We use cookies on our site to improve your experience. To find out more, view our Terms of Use and Privacy Policy for more details.