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Trombonist and vocalist Hailey Brinnel: Sliding through life

Hailey Brinnel
Matt Baker
Hailey Brinnel

Trombonist and vocalist Hailey Brinnel learned about this music from her father, under the watchful eyes and ears of trumpeter Terell Stafford and working the jazz jam scene where she grew up in Philadelphia. As a vocalist, Hailey was one of the finalists in the 2021 Sarah Vaughan Vocal Competition. Her voice on the trombone easily navigates through the worlds of Disney, Donald Fagen, Youmans & Caesar, alongside some clever originals. It’s all on her new recording Beautiful Tomorrow. We talked about her process, inspiration and dedication to bring it all together.

Watch our conversation here:

Interview transcript:

Gary Walker: Currently, you call Philadelphia your home where you've done a lot of work with the Temple University jazz band and have had the chance to work with Terell Stafford, who leads the band. He returned the favor by appearing on your new recording. You've also played alongside trumpeter Sean Jones, tenor saxophonist and clarinetist, Ken Peplowski, one of my favorite trombone players as well as Luis Bonilla and with Wycliffe Gordon. You've gone on the road with Maurice Hines for the Off-Broadway production of Tapping Through Life. You're sliding through life though, aren't you? But it started for you up in New England playing with your father. Your father's a musician, right? Did you play trombone with your dad?

Hailey Brinnel: Eventually. I actually started with him on drums. I would play drums and sing. It was when I started high school and that I got more serious about trombone. I would play trombone and sing and my dad used a drum machine for a minute.

What was it that originally attracted you to the trombone? My son played trombone in primary school. The reason he gravitated toward the trombone and it gravitated toward him is that he had the longest arms in the class.

Well, that was definitely not the case for me. It's actually funny. Trombone was not my first choice. I wanted to play the French horn. My brother ended up convincing me that you can't be in jazz band, so you should play trombone, then you can be in jazz band in middle and high school. My brother's a saxophone and piano player. I sort of did it because of peer pressure, but it worked out.

That's fantastic. Did the vocal side of your life come along in parallel? How did you develop that?

Just a fan of tunes and things. I've been singing forever, longer than I've been playing the trombone because of my dad. He's a performer, does a lot of Sinatra Rat Pack sort of things so I grew up with a lot of Great American Songbook standards in the house. I listened to a lot of vocal groups like Jackie and Roy and Lambert, Hendricks and Ross and Manhattan Transfer. I grew up with that around me and we would drive in the car, sing along and harmonize. I really started singing with him.

I read that you get that entertainment feel from another one of your early favorites of your dad—Wayne Newton.

Oh my gosh. That's how I learned a good amount of jazz standards—from Mr. Wayne Newton.

I'm Forever Blowing Bubbles - Hailey Brinnel

You have this new recording which follows on the heels of I'm Forever Blowing Bubbles. If you go to Haley's website, she's got all this great merchandise and it's incredible. She's got a trombone with bubbles coming out. I mean, it's really hip. This recording, a lot of it was conceived during the pandemic.

Yes. That recording was conceived during the pandemic. Once things opened up, we got right in the studio.

You had a long time to conceive different things. Let's talk about the title, A Beautiful Tomorrow, which takes a turn on the very first track on the recording, which is associated for some reason with Walt Disney. Talk about that.

Yes. You can even hear this song today in the Carousel of Progress, which I believe debuted in the 1994 World's Fair before it was moved to Disney World. This was considered sort of Walt Disney's theme for a long time written by the famous songwriting duo, the Sherman Brothers.

It's not a jazz tune originally. What did you hear more importantly about that tune that you said to yourself, “Hmm, I could do something with this.”

That was something that popped in my head. I'm a big fan of Jeff Hamilton and the Jeff Hamilton Trio and he plays a mean samba. I was listening to one of my favorite records, Red Sparkle, at some point and I was on the internet or saw a YouTube video, and something about Disney popped up including something about the Carousel of Progress. The song popped into my head and I just had this moment of, “Wow that would make a killing samba.” And that's what happened.

This one was arranged by one of the special guests on the recording, the other trumpeter aside from Terell Stafford, named Andrew Carson. We should talk about the nucleus of your group. It's yourself on vocals and trombone. It's also Silas Irvine on piano. Dan Monaghan on drums and Joe Plowman on the bass. You and Joe have worked together for a long time, haven't you?

Yes, the whole quartet has been working together for a while. Fun fact. Silas was a member of my first ever gig as a band leader, when I was a sophomore in college. Silas is on piano. We have been playing together since we used to run a jam session in Philly that started a couple of years before the pandemic. We've been collaborating for a while but this record was really special because, as you can see in the credits, we rearranged a lot of different things on it. We are in that nice groove now having worked together for so long.

You know, a lot of folks hear the word jam session and a lot of musicians gravitate toward the jam session. What do you learn from a jam session?

So many different things. One of the things on a surface level is you learn what tunes people are playing around your city. You learn who you like to play with. Some of the best jazz musicians in Philly regularly host and attend jam sessions. It's learning that synergy in how to play and interact with a variety of different players. You can learn what direction you want to go in, what players you like, and stage etiquette.

You're also a lyricist. Listening to you and just being in a room with your spirit, it's hard to imagine that someone like Hailey Brinnel would come up with a tune called, “I Might Be Evil.” Where did that come from?

It's funny, I never saw myself as a lyricist or a songwriter. I had written some jazz instrumentals and over the shutdown, I started getting that bug to want to write more. My brother writes a lot of music and he gave me a tip. If you don't have an idea from your own experience, try making a character or someone else that is not yourself and write a song about them so that's where “I Might be Evil” came from.

It's not just a song about evil, but it's a song about survival because there's a line in that tune, and correct me if I'm wrong, but there's a line in that tune that says “You gotta eat or you're gonna be eaten.”

Yes. Gotta eat or you'll become a meal.

Your new recording has come out, called Beautiful Tomorrow, on the heels of I'm Forever Blowing Bubbles. I think it was on that first recording where you did “Easy to Love,” which is one of the tunes you did in the competition at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center.

Correct. That was with Andrew Carson, the same trumpet player.

Hailey Brinnel - 2021 Sarah Vaughan Competition Performance

Tell me, what kind of experience was it for you at the Sarah Vaughan International Vocal Competition? How do you balance the life of an instrumentalist and the life of a vocalist together?

They influence each other so much, and that's why it was so special and surprising at the moment to have been accepted into the finals of that competition. I always was viewed in Philadelphia as more of an instrumentalist than a vocalist. That's how I started viewing myself when vocals and singing has always been a huge part of what I've done. That competition was just such a wonderful experience to be able to explore that side of myself, more detached from the trombone, but they influence each other so much. It's really hard to have one without the other. How I sing influences how I play and solo and vice versa.

They also influence other people. Case in point, there's a recording that came out in the 1950s called Four Freshmen and Five Trombones.

I know the record well. I have it framed on my wall actually.

One of the trombonists, who's the legendary Frank Rosolino. I didn't know this. This was the very first recording that a young Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys purchased. He would sit at home and listen to this album. He's told many folks over the years that it was this recording that inspired him when he wrote for the Beach Boys.

Oh wow. That's wonderful. That's one of my favorite records of all time with George Roberts on bass trombone.

When you were coming through school, who did you work with that guided you in different directions and said, “You need to check out this bone player. You need to check out this individual. Well, you're singing too.  You need to check out Jack Teagarden. You need to check out some of these other people.” Did you have a mentor of sorts that worked with you or were there a few people?

I was lucky. At Temple, the music school has such a diverse array of teachers from Philadelphia, New York, and beyond so I had a lot of different mentors. Two that stand out especially were Greg Kettinger, who's a guitarist in the city. When I came into Temple, he had played in big bands on trombone. I didn't really improvise much so in addition to my private lessons, I was getting lessons with him. He's the person that really guided me and kicked my butt to make sure I was listening to the right things, and conceptualizing music in a productive way.

Mark Patterson, one of my main trombone instructors, was another person that took a multi multifaceted approach to jazz and improvising through bebop. Those older bone players thinking about melody and rhythm in different ways really affected me in how I play.

Do you know Mike Davis, the trombonist? Did Mike ever tell you the story about when he joined The Rolling Stones? When he toured with The Rolling Stones, his very first gig was at Giants Stadium. He's standing backstage and there's like 80,000 people out there, and he turns to Keith Richards and says, “Wow, man. You guys must have a hell of a mailing list.”

That's awesome.

That's something only a jazz musician could appreciate. We're chatting with Hailey Brinnel about A Beautiful Tomorrow on a beautiful day on WBGO. The sound is something that reminded me of a Betty Carter scat where different ideas and sounds can be wonderful, but sometimes they can be overwhelming too. I think there's a line that I picked up out of the tune that says, “My head's got all these sounds, but my heart's not ready.”

Yeah, “My head's a great composer, but my heart isn't ready for the sound.” I was new to writing lyrics and I was thinking I'm in a wonderful relationship that is just beginning. It was this feeling of comparing all these sounds. Then there is that composition factor capturing getting into a relationship and being so overwhelmed by all these emotions you're feeling and reconciling all of that.

I'll tell you, having many years of experience, you'll learn to temper a lot of that. The thoughts will come and go and they'll be rather orderly, perhaps too orderly from time to time. The sound does get quieter and more palatable over the years so hang in there. There's a couple of tunes here that are from old musicals: “No, No, Nanette,”” Tea for Two” and “I Want To be Happy.” How did you gravitate toward those pieces of music?

Well, “Tea for Two” has always been a song that I love performing. I love singing it so that was an obvious choice for me. As soon as I knew I wanted Terell on the record, it was this concept of this duo “Tea for Two.” He even plays a line that's usually sung. That was the concept. To be honest, I didn’t even know they were the same composer or that they were from the same musical until I started researching.

I love “I Want to be Happy” because it's one of those Great American Songbook standards. It’s a love story, but compared to modern day love stories using a modern lens, it's pretty codependent and a little unhealthy. I love our twist on that song. I try to sing it in a way that brings maybe a darker or even an anger at times. If I want to be happy, I can't because you're not happy.

There's a gorgeous, almost a duet, between yourself and Joe Plowman on “Candy.”

Yeah. That is a duet with just Joe and I. That tune was on the Manhattan Transfer album I listened to a lot as a kid. But I always skipped that track because I didn't want to listen to slow songs and ballads when I was young but that's where I knew it from originally.

Then Terrell Stafford has a wonderful recording in his tribute to Lee Morgan, Brotherlee Love, that I fell in love with, sort of at that tempo and that pacing. Joe and I were going to do something with a full band, and then we realized, “Wow, this, this is really great as a duo.” So we kept on with it.

It's even a simpler tune on the surface when you think of “Tea for Two” and then you watch Anita O’Day sing it at the Newport Jazz Festival and it's like a primer in phrasing. We've talked about a couple of originals. We've talked about some of the standards, we've even talked about that Walt Disney tune. I don't know. I grew up with the Mickey Mouse Club, and I don't remember that tune. Maybe it came along in the ‘60s after I was all grown up.

Yeah, it debuted in 1964.

Okay so I have an excuse. But I have no excuse if I look at a tune called “Walk Between Raindrops” from Donald Fagan's first recording as a solo artist breaking away from Steely Dan, on the album Nightfly. What attracted you to the tune “Walk Between Raindrops”?

I love recording stuff that I grew up with that has stuck with me. That album is my father's favorite album. I was actually almost named Ruby after one track, but my mom vetoed it. I listened to that album forever and I remember listening to it right before deciding to arrange this song. Plus, when you take all the production out of it, and if you change the feel, it’s really written like a really wonderful jazz standard. I don't know if Donald Fagan would like hearing that or not.

I think he would love hearing that because he is a huge jazz fan. If you listen to “Rikki, Don't Lose that Number” you’ve got that Horace Silver intro there. As for your dad, well they didn't name you Ruby and thank God they didn't name you Peg either.

Hailey Brinnel’s A Beautiful Tomorrow, the new recording, is on the label, Outside in Music. She has a website too that you can visit with some really hip merchandise. I even like the coffee mugs with the little bubbles on them or the coffee mugs with the trombone. That's a really great idea. You're marketing yourself full circle. You got it all going on.

This record possesses so much straight ahead and funky, and the duet on “Candy,” which we talked about is just really special. But you also take a trip of sorts to New Orleans with the piece entitled “Wayfaring Stranger.” How did you discover that?

To be honest, that was one of the first arrangements that I made in college. I have a hard time remembering what drew me to it because I probably arranged it in 2013 or 2014. I was doing a research project where I went down to New Orleans and I talked to a bunch of musicians like David Torkanowsky and Stanton Moore. I really fell in love especially with how Stanton Moore reconceptualizes New Orleans styles, like street beats and dirges. Herlin Riley is another great example. I love New Orleans drumming and on my first record I had done a little bit with a street beat section on a couple of tunes. I wanted to bring more of that dirge, that other style into this record.

We should also mention that on the saxophone is Chris Oatts. And if that name means something to anyone that's aware of the world of jazz, yes, he is related to another Oatts, and that would be Dick Oatts. He's his nephew. I would imagine like yourself, he grew up in a household just full of music, but I think it was his father, not his uncle that gave him his first instrument.

Yeah, his dad's a great trumpet player. Jim Oatts. So yeah, a very musical family from Iowa.

Another one of your incarnations of which there are many. Let’s talk about your involvement and your work as a clinician. Now, a clinician is usually for the older kids, but you also work with real young kids too who are in grade school, even kindergarten, right?

Yeah, my undergrad major was music education with a jazz emphasis and when I first graduated from college I taught general music, K through grade 4. I have this real love for that age group, especially connecting jazz music and improvisation. It's wonderful to work with kids that age because they're so willing to try new things. There isn't that sort of ego or that fear.

There are other initiatives in Philadelphia. I work right now doing some jazz educational programming at the Kimmel Center. I run a program called Kinder Jazz, which brings jazz education to kindergarten classrooms in the city of Philadelphia.

You know, the thing that I like about the real young kids is they are fearless. There's a fearlessness that comes with teaching or being in a session with real young people. I'm sure Maurice Hines talked about that too when you worked with him on Tapping Through Life, what kind of experience was that?

Working with Maurice, that was wonderful. That was one of my most formative musical experiences working with Maurice Hines and of course Sherri Maricle from the Diva Jazz Orchestra. Maurice's life story is just so inspiring. Hearing how he came up with his brother and his father performing in seven shows a week. I got to hear Maurice Hines' life story and connect it with music and see him perform. It really just kind of showed this connection between showmanship and performing for an audience outside of just playing music. A big part of that is because of playing that show with Maurice Hines.

You see, I'm of the age group that remembers Hines, Hines and Dads when they were little kids and they were dancing either on The Tonight Show or The Ed Sullivan Show. Later on, Gregory Hines would become a friend of WBGO when he made a couple of really important records and also starred in a movie loosely based on the life of pianist Michael Wolff. It's called The Tic Code. Gregory had the lead role in that film, much of which was shot at the Village Vanguard in New York City. A very talented team of brothers, and as far as I know, they were friends till the very end.

The life story of Hailey Brinnel may be a little too early to take it on the road. It can be an instrument of solitude in a way, isn't it? People gravitate toward guitar players and saxophone players but you never see anybody walking up to a trombonist and saying, “Sir, your limousine is right over here.” That gives you the opportunity at the same time to shed and come up with ideas, many of which are on this new recording.

Yeah, one of my favorite things about being a trombone player is I love playing in big bands which is one of my first loves. Being in a trombone section in a big band is one of my favorite feelings in the world.

Do you still work with the Diva Big Band?

Yeah. I just played with them this past Sunday at Dizzy's for their 30th anniversary.

Speaking of anniversaries, they're also going to be on hand the first part of June, the 9th of June at the Sony performance space in New York City, celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Manhattan Transfer. So that's going to be something exciting.

Unfortunately, I won’t be there on that date, but I have heard just wonderful things about working with Manhattan Transfer. I grew up listening to them, so it's been lovely hearing all these stories. Hopefully I'll get to meet them soon.

The thing too about the vocal side of who they are and what they are has to be appealing to someone like yourself.

Yes. That's part of how I learned how to harmonize as a kid. My dad and I would drive around listening and singing along to Manhattan Transfer recordings, and I'd try to catch all the little harmonies in between their parts. They're very near and dear to me.

What plans do you have? What are you thinking about now in terms of music and things that you would like to do?

I have some new arrangements in the works with my band. Some new conceptions of standards. I've also been delving more into the musical theater space, such as Sondheim recordings. That's definitely on the docket. I also have some big band arrangements in the works.

Cover of Hailey Brinnel's album 'A Beautiful Tomorrow'
Emilie Krause
Cover of Hailey Brinnel's album 'A Beautiful Tomorrow'

Fingers crossed for the Hailey Brinnel Big Band soon. You know, maybe one night when Terell’s not working, you can just borrow the band and stand out front and make it happen. The new recording came out March 17. It's Hailey Brinnel with Silas Irvine on piano, Dan Monaghan on drums, Joe Plowman on bass along with two guest trumpeters, Terell Stafford and Andrew Carson. Also Chris Oatts on both alto and soprano saxophone. I love this cover. Did you come up with that idea for the cover?

The photographer Emilie Krause came up with that pose with me and it worked really well. Then I did the album design and everything just kind of came together. It wasn't as planned as I want. I wish I could take more credit.

Finally, I ask this of almost everybody that I chat with. You're in a car of your choosing. Where are you going and what are you listening to in the car?

Ideally that I'm on my way to a gig, but honestly, I'm probably on my way to HomeGoods or T.J. Maxx to make some impulsive purchases. Lately I have been listening to ‘70s pop and pop rock. I've been listening to a lot of Harry Nilsson again. One of his songs is on the album. I have a lot of stuff from that era and am a big Beatles fan so in addition to jazz, that's some of my car ride music.

This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

In jazz radio, great announcers are distinguished by their ability to convey the spontaneity and passion of the music. Gary Walker is such an announcer, and his enthusiasm for this music greets WBGO listeners every morning. This winner of the 1996 Gavin Magazine Jazz Radio Personality of the Year award has hosts the morning show each weekday from 6:00am -12:00pm. And, by his own admission, he's truly having a great time.