Reading

Songs of My City: Trumpeter Brandon Woody on the Love and Tradition that Shaped Him

Previous Story
Article Image

BmoreArt’s Picks: April 5-11

Next Story
Article Image

Baltimore News: Artscape Postponed, Creative Alli [...]

Baltimore trumpet player Brandon Woody was first touched by music while riding in his father’s car as a child. His parents had split when he was very young, and on the long drives between their houses, his father would play the Isley Brothers and the Temptations. “Those songs have lots of horns in them,” Woody recalls. “Even at four or five, they inspired me to be interested in the trumpet.” 

For Woody, music and community are one. Whether in his band UPENDO, his film scores, or in teaching, he strives to make music that “sounds like my city.” Born and raised in East Baltimore, Woody learned about the city’s rich musical traditions from a young age. After graduating from Baltimore School for the Arts in 2016, he branched out from the city, receiving scholarships for music schools and residencies across the country, and even touring with Solange. But the core of his art has always been in his collaborations within Baltimore. In everything he does, he channels his music back into the community whose love and tradition first formed it.

He started playing the trumpet in elementary school, choosing it over the saxophone because he thought it would be easier. Although he now knows this was far from the case, the difficulty hardly mattered. “As soon as I started getting into it, playing the trumpet gave me butterflies every time,” Woody says. “It was this weird, magical feeling.”

His mother immediately recognized her son’s passion and enrolled him in music programs such as the Peabody Preparatory and the Eubie Blake Jazz Summer Program. “Even if she didn’t have it on her financially, she would make sure that I was in all the programs,” Woody says. “I remember her dropping me off before going to work and picking me up after she got off work.” 

She also made sure that he could practice at home. The family was often moving, and new neighbors didn’t always take kindly to the kid practicing his trumpet. Woody recalls his mother fending off, sometimes even cursing out, these neighbors. “I’m very grateful to her,” he says. “Without that practice time at a very young age, who knows if I would be where I am today.”

 

At the Eubie Blake Jazz Summer Program, Woody studied under one of his earliest mentors, Craig Alston, the renowned Baltimore saxophonist. Alston instructed Woody about the city’s long lineage of Black musicians, including the saxophonist Mickey Fields, the drummer Chick Webb, and the pianist Eubie Blake himself. Alston and Woody share a birthday, which makes Woody think they were destined to meet. Their meeting proved to be pivotal: by the end of his time at Eubie Blake, at the age of twelve, Woody knew that he was going to be a musician.

Woody started gigging in Baltimore venues as a freshman in high school. His playing soon gained him attention, and after high school, he accepted a full-ride scholarship to the Manhattan School of Music. He went to school knowing that he wasn’t going for the degree, but to meet other artists and “just experience New York City.” Music was Woody’s sole focus, and when he stopped attending his humanities classes, the school withdrew his scholarship. Unable to pay tuition, Woody dropped out. But his playing had gained the attention of Solange through a friend-of-a-friend connection, he says. She invited him to play with her band on the Hamburg leg of her tour for When I Get Home. Woody had neither a passport nor the money to buy one, so again his mother helped him out. “It was an amazing experience,” recalls Woody. “Solange has a great spirit, and so much power to bring all these amazing Black folks together.” Woody took some of that spirit with him back to Baltimore where he played his own role in bringing people together.

When Woody moved back to Baltimore in 2018, he found himself down the street from his old friend Troy Long. They had first met in middle school and bonded over music, Long being a keyboardist. It was with Long that Woody had formed the group that he gigged with in high school. Woody now describes Long as his best friend and partner in music. As soon as they reconnected they started composing together, and Woody brought Long into the band he had first formed in college, UPENDO.

UPENDO, Swahili for love, is Woody’s “baby.” The band consists of a fluid lineup that draws prolifically from the Baltimore scene. One night Matthew Jamal may be on bass, Mike Gaddii the next; or Kweku Sumbry may play drums one night, Devron Dennis the next. Singers, guitarists, and saxophonists flow through the band, although Woody and Long remain its fixed center. A song that starts with a steady groove overlaid with hazy chords from Long’s keys may be cut through with blasts from Woody’s trumpet, followed by a passage of singing or spoken word. UPENDO has not yet released any recorded music, but their songs have already gained popularity through their frequent live shows. Woody says that audience members often request songs by humming their melodies to him.

 

Devron Dennis, Troy Long, Brandon Woody

The band’s songs combine jazz improvisation with hip-hop beats and melodies drawn from gospel and soul music, and Woody resists slotting it into one specific genre. “All of this is Black music. The stuff with rapping has just as much inspiration from folks like Miles Davis and John Coltrane, and the stuff with just trumpet from things that aren’t necessarily considered to be what people call jazz,” Woody says. “I can’t put these genres on things because that’s how people institutionalize them.”

For Woody, Black music comes from communities rather than institutions. “You can’t learn it from a computer or a book—that’s just not how it works. You learn it from jam sessions and being around elder musicians who pass it on to you. That’s how it is and how it always will be. And learning from people like Craig Alston has taught me that I must give it to the next generation and to my peers.”

Together with Long, Woody has brought his music past the stage. In 2019, Calvin Klein came across music they had recorded and asked to use it for an ad campaign. That began an ongoing series of film scoring projects. “I love seeing something on the screen, being inspired by it, and figuring out how I can portray it musically,” says Woody. He and Long scored music for Unwavering: The Power of Black Innovation, a documentary produced by the nonprofit Echoing Green about recipients of their Black Male Achievement Fellowship.

True to their nature, many of the duo’s scores have been collaborations with the Baltimore art scene, such as with performing artist Nia June and cinematographer Kirby Griffin. Woody and Long composed music for a film by June and Griffin called The Unveiling of God (2021), a visual tribute to the filmmakers’ forefathers and the Black men of Baltimore. The scoring work reflects Woody’s commitment to music that not only comes from a community but can also be used to serve it.

Woody has many new projects ahead of him. He and Long plan to continue film scoring together. He and another musician friend, Brandon “Buz” Donald, have a teaching and performing residency at the University of Maryland. UPENDO performs weekly at the City Winery in DC and plays weekly at other venues around Baltimore. The big event this year, however, will be the release of UPENDO’s first album, as yet untitled. The project is years in the making, subject to the trumpeter’s ever-high standards. He plans to release it in August, around the time of his (and Alston’s) birthday. 

Despite his many accomplishments, Woody locates his milestones at a more personal level. He cites meeting Long, forming UPENDO, and just being able to keep playing music. “I don’t want to talk about accolades too much because that’s not really what it’s all about,” Woody says. “My music is about celebrating life and love. Love often gets viewed as something one-dimensional, but there are so many different types of love and so many different ways to love. That’s what my music is about.” Woody is strongly aware of the different kinds of love that have nurtured his music—the love of a mother, of a teacher, of a friend, of the past keepers of a tradition—and through his music, he channels that love back into the community that first provided it.

 

Image credit: Curtis Wilson/Gold Street Agency

Related Stories
Curators Michael Young and Jia Le Ling transformed the basement of the James E. Hooper House into the chambers of Hell

"The different traditions are also not the only things coming together. There is also the integration of modern and traditional art forms."

After an award-winning trip to SXSW, Beats Not Bullets hosts a fundraiser concert tonight at Metro Gallery

Beats Not Bullets, the brainchild of Kevin “Ogun” Beasley, was started six years ago as a way to teach students in Baltimore how to produce and create music.

Amateurs and professionals, ages 4-81, compete in the athletic world of dancesport

In the 1990s, ballroom dance organizations adopted the term Dancesport in a global effort to be a part of the Olympic games.

A look back at 2021 releases from Baltimore/DC-affiliated artists in anticipation for 2022

Entering 2022, it is gratifying that this city's music is still full of such vitality.