Interview: Richmond Saxophonist James "Plunky" Branch on His Overseas Following and New Memoir 

click to enlarge James “Plunky” Branch is a veteran Richmond musician.

James “Plunky” Branch is a veteran Richmond musician.

Around here, local James “Plunky” Branch is known as the leader of a top-notch R&B band and for performing at nightclubs, special events and an annual concert at Dogwood Dell. Plunky & Oneness, his band, delivers the hits with a funk and jazz edge, giving the people what they want: a steady groove and no big surprises.

But away from home, overseas, he’s seen in a different light.

Internationally, the saxophonist is revered as a high priest of avant-garde, African-influenced jazz, as heard on his two recordings for Strata East: “Message from Mozambique” and “Chapter Two: Nia,” both released in the early 1970s.

In addition to his local shows, Plunky and his band have toured internationally for years, visiting countries in Africa and Europe, a place where Plunky’s early vinyl records are so valuable, he jokes that he can’t afford them.

The 68-year-old musician, who celebrated 40 years in the music business last year, has plenty of stories to tell about the places he’s been and things he’s seen. “My life has been very, very interesting,” he says.

Plunky’s worked as a musician, educator, activist and cultural specialist. And now you can add to that list his latest job as author with a new memoir, “Plunky — Juju Jazz Funk & Oneness,” which comes out this month.

Style: Why did you decide to write a book now?

Branch: I think I’ve had an interesting life. The idea crystallized when I did my 40th anniversary concert in 2014. [Getting] ready for that concert caused me to review old pictures, old videos and take a look at my 40 years. Last year, I was selected to be one of the strong men and women in Virginia history [a black history month program sponsored by Dominion Power and the Library of Virginia]. Once again it caused me to look back at my life. Because the library sponsored it, I said well, maybe a book might be a good thing.

You’ve said this book is your life remembered in events, photographs and music. There are a lot of words in there too, right?

Well, there are a lot of words. It’s actually quite a lengthy book. It’s 466 pages. While it did take me several months and then more months of editing and revising, about half the book was already written. By that I mean, when I’ve gone on tours and when I’ve traveled internationally, I always kept a diary, a blog. Every day I would log in, either in longhand and later years, laptop. So having a collection of those gave me about half that book.

You have a large following overseas. How are those fans different?

That’s such a great question: I do cover some of that in the book. In Europe, I’m seen as a classic musician. Exotic, because I come from somewhere else, and sort of intellectual, because I talk about it. There are people who know sidemen from my albums and all these details — sometimes more than I do, you know? They are very much more intellectual about the music, it’s not just some pastime thing.

There’s a typical arc to stories of entertainers. Usually, there is hard work, a break, success, addiction, rehab and then some kind of redemption, if they’re lucky. Is that your story?

In some ways, it’s quite typical. It is some of all of that. So I would say yes. Along the way, there were drugs [during the 1960s], there was political activism, not a whole lot of legal problems or addiction. My life was a lot straighter than some people who got dragged down into the drug scene very deeply, or went to jail, or had a whole lot of intrigue with extramarital affairs. While there was a lot of intrigue and lot of negativism, I didn’t cover that in my book [laughs]. I tell people that’s another book. I’ll make it fiction. S

James “Plunky” Branch will speak about his memoir and perform a short set at the Library of Virginia on June 23 at 5:30 p.m., followed by a book signing. Plunky’s annual concert at Dogwood Dell is rescheduled for Aug. 19 at 8 p.m.



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