Singer Emily Braden survived the tough crowds of Harlem with her self-esteem intact
By Adrian Chamberlain, Times ColonistJuly 25, 2009
Last May, one of Victoria's best singers was booed off the stage at Apollo Amateur Night.
We're talking about Emily Braden, who at 27 has emerged as a powerhouse soul-jazz singer. She has just recorded an excellent album, Soul Walk, in which she sounds like the illegitimate love-child of Aretha Franklin and Ella Fitzgerald . . . if such a thing were possible.
Don't believe me? Check out Braden at Hermann's Jazz Club on Monday and Tuesday night, where she'll be joined by a combo with pianist Misha Piatigorsky.
But let's return to Apollo Amateur Night, happening every Wednesday night in New York's Harlem district. The Apollo is one of America's legendary venues. The list of folk who've performed there is daunting: James Brown, Billie Holiday, Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder.
For an up-and-coming performer, the Apollo's amateur night is the scariest place in the world. If the audience doesn't like you, they will enthusiastically boo you off. And it's no level playing field. Competitors bring in their own cliques, who cheer for their pals and boo everyone else. If you're looking for the performing arts equivalent of a cock fight, it's the Apollo Amateur Night.
Enter Braden, who moved to Victoria eight years ago by way of Boise, Idaho. She was in New York to record her album and rustle up some club gigs. Most Apollo amateur-night vocalists sing Beyoncé-style R&B. Braden -- who auditioned for the privilege -- bravely decided to stick to her jazz roots by singing Bye Bye Blackbird, a standard from the 1920s.
"I should have sung Tell Me Something Good or something," she said, laughing.
Braden was nervous, but the crowd seemed to dig it. Then, halfway though the song, it started. She heard that ominous sound every performer loathes and fears.
"I thought to myself, 'Oh, that's not booing. That's not booing.' "
It was. Braden was escorted off stage. She asked to join her family (some of whom travelled from Boise) and friends (some of whom travelled from Victoria) in the audience. Nope. The security guard said she needed a ticket. So Braden found herself standing on 126th Street, commiserating with a "less than awesome" comedian who had also received the bum's rush.
Undaunted, Braden scored a ticket from someone who was leaving the theatre. She joined her friends. And she cheerfully chalked the whole thing up to experience. Besides, Braden notes the list of performers who have been booed at Apollo Amateur Night includes Prince and James Brown. So there.
How many jazz singers hold a master's degree in Latin American studies? Braden received hers from the University of Victoria last year. For her thesis, she analyzed contemporary lyrics in blues, soul and salsa. "My thesis was about representations of voluptuous women in music," said the singer, who wasn't joking.
Since graduating, Braden has been focusing on music full time. In Victoria, she's well known from gigs at Hermann's, the Superior and Pagliacci's. Her soulful timbre and hip phrasing make her stand out.
"She sounds like a black woman," says Piatigorsky, a New York City jazz pianist and Braden's friend. "When I play the recording for people, I tell them it's a white girl from Boise, Idaho, who's about 27. And they go, 'What?' "
It was Piatigorsky who insisted she record her first album, Soul Walk, which he volunteered to produce. A solid collection of originals and covers, the music spans straight-ahead jazz, percolating funk, Joni Mitchell-style pop and Latin.
The independently produced disc includes Evil Gal Blues. Braden sang that tune at a club during her first night in New York, about 18 months ago. She dropped into Showman's Bar on 125th Street, in Harlem. An organ trio was playing. Braden asked to sit in, but was refused.
After a time, the band relented. Her Evil Gal Blues went over well -- an impressive achievement for a white girl from Boise.
"It was killin'. It was pretty entertaining and hilarious. People were shocked; they didn't expect it to come from me," Braden said.
It was Louise Rose, the Victoria singer and pianist, who persuaded her to come here. They met at Mount Hood Community College in Portland, where Braden was studying music. Rose, giving a master class, was impressed by the young singer. She invited Braden to study with her -- and become a mentor.
Here's a final Emily Braden story. She once sang at the Treehouse Restaurant on Saltspring Island, where she noticed Raffi, the children's entertainer, in the audience.
Braden introduced herself, and revealed her dream of travelling to New York and recording an album. They exchanged addresses.
Raffi subsequently sent her a hefty cheque toward the recording of Soul Walk. "I was surprised. I was touched," she said.
Her grandmother also made a financial contribution, albeit on the understanding her granddaughter do the same for another young artist in the future.
Said Braden: "I love that idea."