“You know, even assholes need some love.”

So said Jaimie Branch in a 2019 interview with Aquarium Drunkard. She was explaining “Love Song,” one of the tunes on her 2019 album Fly or Die II: Bird Dogs of Paradise. And without necessarily trying, Branch was also cluing folks in to the kind of connection that she made with people. Everyone needs some love, true, but not everyone has what it takes to keep the love coming even after they have an asshole’s number. It takes a lot of heart, and Branch had a lot of that. That’s one of the reasons why people loved playing with her and loved listening to her play—and why they were absolutely gutted to find out that she’d died at age 39 in her apartment in the Red Hook neighborhood of Brooklyn at 9:21 PM on Monday, August 22. No cause of death has been announced.

Jaimie Branch performs in free-jazz quartet !Mofaya! on the 2021 album Like One Long Dream.

Not everyone who plays free jazz projects that kind of big love—the music doesn’t necessarily require it. Total improvisation often trades in smaller-scale intimacies and epic energies, and Branch could deliver both of those too, with absolute technical and conceptual assurance. People noticed that right away when she began establishing herself in Chicago’s improvised-music community in 2006. But while Branch was particular about the music she embraced, she wasn’t exclusive. She grew up transcribing solos by Miles Davis and Chet Baker, and she fell hard for punk, ska, and hip-hop; she had a feel for abstract styles, and just as firm a grasp on music that communicated directly.

Jaimie Branch onstage with Fly or Die Credit: Peter Gannushkin

Branch also elicited care and loyalty from other musicians on a personal level. In a 2017 Reader profile, Peter Margasak reported that when Branch was entangled in addiction, they pulled for her and supported her. After she got clean and established herself in New York—she arrived there in 2015—she maintained her connections with Chicago. When she made her big break as a bandleader in 2017, it was with a group of fellow Chicagoans: Fly or Die began as Branch, bassist Jason Ajemian, drummer Chad Taylor, and cellist Tomeka Reid (later replaced by Lester St. Louis). The label that has released much of her music, International Anthem, is based in Chicago.

A selection of live and studio tracks from Jaimie Branch’s band Fly or Die

Fly or Die combined the sonics of free jazz with jubilant melodies, celebratory rhythms, and (beginning with their second album) Branch’s take-no-shit singing. When she sang, “This is a love song for assholes and clowns,” she was definitely calling people out. But she also made clear in her between-song banter that she understood that people who think they’re good guys can be assholes, and that even assholes need love. She got people, and people got her. They recognized the human complications that were as much a part of her music as her combo’s practiced rapport and exhilarating spontaneity. 

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The video for Fly or Die’s “Prayer for Amerikka Pt. 1 & 2,” which incorporates footage from a 2020 concert in Switzerland

I first learned about Branch’s death on Facebook. Of course, her fellow musicians shared fond memories and stunned grief. But I also saw fans weighing in—I read comment after comment by people who’d found sustenance listening to Branch’s records during the lockdown months, or who’d been moved by a concert in Tennessee or Iowa or Canada. Branch reached people not because she transcended the various radical musics that she played—she didn’t want to transcend them. She pulled those sounds together into something big and loving enough for even the assholes and clowns.

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Jaimie Branch introduces Fly or Die as they perform “Love Song” in Columbus, Ohio, in March 2022.