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Outspoken Branford Marsalis loyal to music
Publication: Toledo Blade
Author: Rod Lockwood
Date: October 6, 2010
Famed musician to interact with students, play at BGSU
By 2000 Branford Marsalis had played with Art Blakey, Miles Davis, his brother Wynton Marsalis, Clark Terry, the Grateful Dead, and Sting, among countless other musical luminaries.
He had led The Tonight Show band for Jay Leno, attended the Berklee College of Music, and recorded seven albums. Marsalis, a three-time Grammy winner who by then was a household name — at least in homes where people sit around talking about jazz — was 40 years old and already had accomplished more musically than someone far older.
All of which added up to just one thing for Marsalis and it had nothing to do with congratulating himself for being so good.
It was time for a new challenge, in this case making a major foray into the world of classical music, which is obviously a lot different than the jazz and pop genres where he was most comfortable. The move meant learning an entirely new form of music and taking the chance on failing.
“When I started playing classical music in 2000 I was immediately confronted with what a lousy saxophone player I was,” Marsalis said in a phone interview last week. “I had all these things that worked in jazz and suddenly they just didn’t work at all, man. And it’s beautiful. It was shocking, but it was beautiful.”
He’s in Bowling Green Wednesday talking to students as part of BGSU’s Dorothy E. and DuWayne H. Hansen Musical Arts Series and Festival Series. Thursday night he performs with his jazz quartet on the campus.
Marsalis is a contrarian (wait until you hear what he has to say about Toledo’s Art Tatum) with a fearless streak. He’s outspoken and his loyalty is to the music, not to a fan base or hidebound traditions.
“I’m 50 now and I question things and probe things, including myself, and I see the world very differently now than I did when I was 30 whatever,” he said.
For example, the decision to play classical music was born from a fierce desire to play music that meant something to him and if that involved stepping far outside his comfort zone, so be it.
“I am not afraid to sound bad if that’s what it takes for me to get better. Basically I played a lot of bad concerts for about 10 years and then I played a couple last year and people said, ‘Hey man, that’s pretty good,’” he said.
“You have to weather the storm. Kids weather that storm in high school and playing recitals and crapping their pants and getting nervous. They go to Juilliard, they play a recital every year. That wasn’t my world. I had to do it in a tuxedo in front of a whole bunch of people and an orchestra.”
Marsalis, the oldest brother in a family of musicians that includes his father, Ellis and brothers Wynton, Delfeayo, and Jason, is not happy with the state of jazz music now, calling it “very insular, very technocratic, and very think-tank like.”
His problem is that he feels the modern form places too much of an emphasis on soloing and technique and not enough on melody and the song itself.
“They don’t play ballads very well and when they play ballads they make the solo parts faster,” he said, noting that he could give a longer, more “wonky” answer. “I think the simplified version is that the modern performer pays no attention to the melody at all and is astutely focused on his or her solo.”
He also thinks the musicians don’t listen to each other enough when they’re playing, so instead of the music being a “conversation” between the artists, it’s a lot of squawking. Marsalis advised checking the body language of jazz musicians. Are they looking at each other and communicating or are they in their own worlds?
He sees too much of the latter.
“They look down at the music stand like they’re watching a bug crawling slowly to devour another bug or something,” he said, laughing.
Without being asked, he brought up Tatum — who he said was a great soloist, but not so adept at playing with other musicians — as an example of someone other musicians feel is great, but the public never quite understood.
“For instance, Art Tatum is revered among jazz pianists. I mean he was one of those guys who was a real brilliant genius guy and he didn’t play well with others at all. His best work was solo piano work. And his work with groups was absolutely horrid. Because he couldn’t get that thing.”
That “thing” is what Marsalis plans to discuss with students during his stay in Bowling Green this week. It’s an emphasis on songs, on melodies, and on staying true to the music. And, kids, don’t think you’re going to argue him away from his positions.
He said he looks forward to the give and take with young musicians, but sees them much as Blakey and Davis and others must have seen him when he was younger and sparring with them.
“You’ve got to understand something, you’re trying to win an argument right now. I’m doing the thing that you aspire to do. I’m doing it. So if you want to argue, then go to a Web site and go with those other nerds. I have an answer for everything and it’s not like I just have a strong opinion that I can’t back up. I can back it up with recordings.”
In addition to his ongoing educational work, classical playing and his quartet, Marsalis is on a new album with his father and siblings called “Music Redeems.” He also manages his own record label, Marsalis Music.
“An Evening with Branford Marsalis” will be at 8 p.m. Thursday at Kobacker Hall of the Moore Musical Arts Center. Tickets are $47, $40 and $32 for adults and $25 for students. Information: call the box office from noon to 6 p.m. at 1-800-589-2224 or 419-372-8171.