During an extreme, first-of-the-year cold front in mid-November, Brandon Woody is soaking up every ounce of heat in his Southwest Baltimore living room. He’s in a white T-shirt, sweats and black Crocs lounging with his homie, musician Briley Harris, and Woody’s dog, Marley, but confesses that he should be spending this idle time working at his craft.
You may or may not have seen Woody around town on festival stages, on a Calvin Klein billboard shot by SHAN Wallace or entertaining a wine glass-gripping crowd at the Eubie Blake’s courtyard. That’s because over the past couple of years, the 24-year-old trumpeter has made some significant strides in his career.
In February, he was booked to provide the music for a Nike sneaker release in New York City’s SoHo district. In September he and his band, UPENDO, had a weeklong residency at the University of Maryland, College Park’s performing arts center, The Clarice, for their Visiting Artist Series. And, maybe most glossy of all, he was cast as a musician in the upcoming Apple TV Baltimore-based series, ”Lady in the Lake.”
“I’m in a really interesting space right now because I am full,” he tells me after taking a drag from his joint. “I do have my community. I got my family. I have all I need to get to the top, or to what I think is the top. So I am full but I’m still hungry.”
Woody was raised in Northeast Baltimore’s Ramblewood area and picked up trumpet as a small child, falling in love with it almost instantly. By his teen years, he was accepted into the Baltimore School for the Arts, where he continued to develop his skill. At BSA, he found his tribe with people like frequent collaborator, pianist Troy Long. And when Woody was in college, he founded UPENDO, a jazz band of like-minded and equally focused young musicians that’s named after a Swahili word for love.
He had been accepted with a full ride into the Manhattan School of Music — a premier music conservatory for classical music, jazz and musical theater. But after losing his scholarship for not attending his humanities classes, he decided to drop out and recalibrate.
But he discovered that the benefit of going to college in New York City is that, if you play your cards right as an artist, there are fruitful connections to make outside of the campus. And that’s what happened for Woody. No longer enrolled at the Manhattan School of Music, a musical acquaintance got him in contact with Solange Knowles, who was impressed enough with Woody’s trumpeting that she brought him along for the Hamburg leg of her 2019 tour for her ”When I Get Home” album.
After the tour, Woody returned to Baltimore. He was 20, fresh off performing with a global superstar and eager to find his new post-school footing. His first move was teaching music at Highlandtown Elementary/Middle School in East Baltimore, which fed him in a way that’s had a lasting impression, even though the gig only lasted for three months. He found the challenges too daunting.
“I was teaching brass class all day for six hours. It was four days a week and before that four months ended, I recognized that I’m not able,” he confessed. “And I don’t even want to say that this is just a flaw in the Baltimore City public school system because it’s not. But I felt I wasn’t able to get to each of them students like I really wanted to and really relate to them and for them to really relate to me, it was a lot of barriers for me to do that. It was a Spanish-speaking neighborhood, so maybe two or three of my students spoke English. So that was also a barrier.”
Opportunities continued to roll in, though. Although there is an emphasis placed on formal education in classical music and jazz, luckily for Woody the only important measuring stick is one’s ability to play. So, being out of school — and now out of his short stint as a full-time educator — wasn’t a serious blow. The way he sees it is: “There’s a classical trumpet language then it’s a jazz trumpet language. But it’s just a language to play trumpet that we all must have.” That was his biggest takeaway after his residency at College Park.
Right now, Woody’s source of inspiration is in the local community that he’s fostered over the years. It’s been commonplace over time for Baltimore artists of various disciplines to eventually get the urge to leave the nest in order to branch out beyond the city’s infrastructural deficiencies. Living in a digital world has curtailed that tradition a bit, but for Woody, he makes his best work at home. And his band — which plays all over the Baltimore/D.C., Maryland and Virginia region every week — is here. It’s all he feels that he needs.
Before we part ways, he promises that he and UPENDO’s debut album will for sure be coming out next year, even though he’d mentioned in earlier press from this year that it’d be out by the end of 2022. “Top of December we’re about to get back into the studio,” he urged. “Definitely got gigs and definitely busy. But the winter and fall just have some type of slower motion. Let me really dial in. Let me really have some days where I just get lost in it.”
Whether the album reaches its finished stage in the coming months or not, Woody feels planted in the fact that, regardless of what’s going on, he’s gonna make sure that his music touches the people in some sort of way. And it’s that dedication to be out in the field that’s helping spread his vibrations all over.
“I don’t think that Black music really lives in an institution. It can’t,” he said. “How can Black music even be taught? It’s not really taught and this thing, it’s life experience, it’s struggle, it’s success, it’s in the streets, it’s a social experience. It’s social music. "