DOMO BRANCH: DRUMMING HIS WAY TO THE TOP
On his Facebook page, as one of his mentors points out, Dominick "Domo" Branch has written a short statement about himself.
It says everything you need to know about Branch, who's already a high-level drummer and not yet a high school graduate.
"I love jazz! Also I love jazz! What do I dream about ... hmm jazz! What's your favorite sport? Jazz!"
The mentor, Devin Phillips, who will lead Branch and other members of the American Music Program to the Monterey Next Generation Jazz Festival this week, says that his pupil could be on his way to big things. Branch has already played with adults, and he's way ahead of other drummers at his age. He's special, Phillips adds. And, he's a Portland inner-city youth looking to make it big.
"It's not only his dedication, but the talent level and drive," Phillips, a saxophonist, says. "They say that some people are lucky and some people say lucky is where preparation meets opportunity. I hope he gets all of that.
"Sometimes you can really be gifted, and the chips don't fall your way. We're trying to do everything we can to make him successful. ... He's extremely talented. He's a gifted young man."
Branch, who graduates from Grant High School in June, has already applied to and auditioned for Berklee College of Music in Boston, and The School of Jazz at The New School and Manhattan School of Music in New York City.
With the American Music Program, it'll be his third year going to the Monterey festival, the youth version of the Monterey Jazz Festival and basically a camp for the country's best jazz musicians. He learned under the guidance of the late Thara Memory with AMP, and now Phillips leads the program, from which eight musicians will play at Monterey. Branch and others finished second in the Conglomerate High School Combo Division last year; they want the big prize this year.
"If you win, you get to play at the Monterey Jazz Festival in September," Branch says. "Going to the camp (at Monterey) is fun — competing and watching other people your age." (Phillips will also take an AMP group, including Branch, to the Charles Mingus High School Competition and Festival in New York.)
A couple weekends ago, Branch, 17, thrilled Portland audiences as the Domo Branch Quintet played at the PDX Jazz Fest. He's become kind of a known young man in the jazz circles, through playing with adults, including Phillips and Memory.
"He's a little more advanced (than teenagers)," says Mel Brown, the great jazz drummer from Portland who taught Branch for two years at his jazz camp at Western Oregon University in Monmouth. "He grew up around musicians who are playing in the real world. He just didn't grow up in the classroom.
"That's where he's got a lot of attention. You get a lot of attention from a lot of older musicians who want to help you. That's how a lot of us grew up."
Indeed, several adults have been factors in Branch's life, along with his mother, Juanita Thomas, and relatives — Phillips, Memory, Brown, Brown's son Chris, band teachers, athletics coaches (he played football for awhile), guardians, drummer Alan Jones, another adult friend and pianist named Charlie Brown. Branch had a relationship with his father, at least with phone calls in recent years, until the father's death.
Branch has pushed on through some childhood adversity, which included a freak accident at age 8 when a train ran over his left foot. He had to have all five toes amputated. So, yes, he does play the hi-hat part of the drum set with a foot with no toes.
Thomas, quoted in the Grant High School newspaper, says she told her son to not be deterred by the disability. "You should still be able to do, you know, anything you want to do."
Although he had already banged on some drums by age 8, the accident served as the impetus for Branch to commit to play drums. "I knew I couldn't play sports at a high level," he says. "I had to find something that could work out." He actually says the accident was a blessing, because it forced him to pursue music.
Branch started taking drums seriously in the seventh grade, took lessons from Chris Brown in the eighth grade, joined Memory's program in the ninth grade and his career took off.
Branch also plays with fellows students, including Laz Glickman from Lake Oswego in the Innovation Project.
He has other interests in life, but "this is what I want to do, I've dedicated my career to music."
He is thankful for Phillips, who considers him part of his family. "Devin, man, I think I see him every day. He's like a big brother to me," Branch says. And Memory, who died in June 2017, "he taught me how to be a better person."
Mel Brown says Branch has spent a lot of time around the Brown family, including with son Chris.
"He's a sharp kid. Asks a lot of questions. My son Chris took him under his wing," Brown says. "He's worked hard.
"From the first time I met him, he was a young kid but mentally a lot older. He talked like an adult. A smart kid, a lot of street savvy."
Other than school, Branch's next step should be to learn the business side of music, Brown says. A lot of musicians, Brown says, don't know how to make a living with music.
Branch doesn't want to toot his horn. He still has things to learn, and college gives him another experience and a different scene to keep learning. As for career goals, it's simple.
"Honestly, my long-term goal is just to play beautiful music with great musicians," he says.