Branford Marsalis talks about his famous family, stardom and playing with Westchester Philharmonic

Author: Latoya West
Date: May 17, 2012

Branford Marsalis has accomplished great things since he first picked up the saxophone. He has played with some of the world’s greatest musicians, led the “Tonight Show” band, won Grammy Awards and composed music for Broadway shows.

Now, one of the shining stars of “jazz’s first family,” is coming to Westchester to play with the Westchester Philharmonic as they close out their 2011-2012 season at The Performing Arts Center at Purchase College this weekend.

“I have a couple pieces I am going to play,” he tells us. “I’m going to learn a lot and I’m going to have a good time.”

Before you go to the show, here are six things you might not have known about the man behind the saxophone.

1. In Branford’s opinion, he didn’t really grow up in a musical family.
Sure, his older brother Wynton Marsalis is a superstar in the world of jazz. And yes, music seems to be in his family’s DNA. But Marsalis says he didn’t grow up in a “musical family” as most people would assume. “That’s the myth and you can’t stop the myth sometimes,” he says. “I grew up in a regular family with too many kids arguing and fighting, driving mom crazy…with fraternal football games that often turned bloody. Our memories as kids weren’t about us sitting around practicing all day. I mean Wynton practiced a lot, starting when he was 13. But that was his choice.”

2. Contrary to media reports, there was never any sibling rivalry between him and Wynton.
“As far as music goes, we don’t play the same instrument, so what would be the reason for the rivalry?” Marsalis says. But that doesn’t mean the brothers never had tension as they defined their individual career paths. “ Wynton was upset when I left his band to join Sting’s band and then the media started talking about a rivalry,” Marsalis recalls. “But it was less of a rivalry and more of a profound ideological disagreement, which over time resolved itself as those things often do among family members.”

3. He wanted to be a history teacher.
“I was going to school majoring in history. I wanted to be a school teacher,” Marsalis says. But he credits his father for talking him into pursuing his music dream at age 19. “He said when you’re married with kids, you don’t want to be sitting around wondering if you could have done it,” Marsalis recalls. “So I moved to Boston for 1 1/2 years and went to the Berklee School of Music and then I went to New York after that.

4. He believes he made it big because he was prepared.
“It was never my goal be on Jay’s show. It was never my goal to play with Sting. It was never my goal to play with Miles Davis or Dizzy Gillespie. These weren’t goals of mine,” he says. “It was just that the opportunities came and I had prepared enough to succeed at them to a degree,” he says.

5. He doesn’t miss being on ‘The Tonight Show.’
“What I learned from that show is that I don’t have the kind of personality for normal television. I am more of a cable TV guy,” he says. “There’s a certain level of superficiality that I have to embrace with a bigger audience and I was never able to successfully do that. I miss my friendships from the show. I have a lot of people whom I grew very close with on the show, but the idea of smiling on cue and doing everything that was necessary to be on a network television show … no, I don’t miss any of that. I’m a musician and not an entertainer.”

6. His proudest moments have nothing to do with accolades.
“If I could beam you into my house right now you wouldn’t see any statues,” Marsalis says. “My proudest moments? I guess when my children were born; my first gig with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers; and my first gig with Wynton because we were these two country bumpkins who had moved to New York City and we were about to embark on this adventure.”

And what an adventure it has been.