The day I sat down to talk with London Branch, 67, he was dressed in a kelly green and old gold retro-style knit shirt with a collar, tucked neatly into his slacks.
Branch came to Jackson 20 years ago as an associate professor of music at Jackson State and retired in May after accomplishing what he'd been hired to do—build a symphony orchestra, "the best-kept secret in Jackson." In fact, he says, "Jackson State is the best-kept secret in town."
Student after student benefited from Branch, not only as an instructor but as a mentor. Branch humbly says that, in classes like jazz piano and strings, "my students seemed to feel they were learning something." He always taught more than just the subject matter, though, explaining the importance of being a gentleman, of handling finances wisely, as well as teaching students to respect their music and their audiences. Branch says teachers can motivate students to believe in themselves, to not settle for mediocrity. "I believe when a person realizes they've done their best, there's a sense of accomplishment so that their best becomes better and better and better."
Steeped in jazz growing up in Chicago at 55th and Shields, guided by family members who made sure he heard plenty of live music, Branch told me his first job playing was when he was a senior in high school; his instrument of choice was the trumpet. After college, "I wanted to learn how to play the bass, and people started hiring me, so I put away the trumpet." Ten years later, he was thinking of making the trumpet into a lamp but decided to play it again for old times' sake—it joined the stand-up bass in his repertoire.
When he came to Jackson, Branch thought "my playing days were over. I figured there'd be country and blues here." He found a "bustlin', hustlin'" music scene, one he has played in professionally. Today, Branch says, the bright spot in Jackson for live jazz is Charles Hooker, sponsor of Jazz, Art and Friends at the Mississippi Museum of Art. "He puts his money where his mouth is," Branch says, "because he believes in jazz and finds a way to make it happen, working to create the right atmosphere in Jackson for jazz."
Having a healthy jazz scene in Jackson makes Branch's wish for all musicians—to find places to play where they're appreciated and to make enough money so they could do only that if they wanted to—seem like it could come true.