A conversation with Branford Marsalis

Publication: Cincinnati.com
Author: Janelle Gelfand
Date: March 14, 2013

Yesterday, I sat down for a talk with saxophonist Branford Marsalis, who was backstage at Music Hall, getting ready to go to CCM to meet with students. He’s in a residency this week, and his activities include school visits and a performance in Friday’s “Classical Roots” concert in Music Hall. He was intellectual, thoughtful and pleasant as he talked.

Here are a few things that were on his mind:

Surprises about Cincinnati: Snow in mid-March was surprising and depressing.  I watch enough baseball to know that in April, they’re out there freezing to death. It was 60 degrees when I left N. Carolina.

I was surprised when I first got here about what a prominent role the arts play. In so many cities, the arts are things they are trying to expunge and slash. We live in an era where there is no differentiation between arts and entertainment. To actually see a city that is focusing on the arts and making it a major role in the development of their children, it’s amazing.

The former Tonight Show bandleader’s  return last month to the show:  It was a homecoming. It’s been four or five years. In TV, five seconds is long. For me, I don’t gain anything by going back. People who stay up and watch TV at 12:30 a.m. don’t run out the next day and buy a CD.  For me, it was a personal homecoming to see Jay and see friends, and I have a lot of friends.

Family genes:  Despite the myth in my family, we’re the second generation, so we’re really no dynasty to speak of. When you consider in New Orleans, I can think of 10 families where there are fourth and fifth generation musicians. Those are dynastic, to me. I don’t think any of our kids – Wynton’s kids don’t play, Delfeayo’s kids don’t play, Jason’s kids are too young – my 12-year-old daughter, she’s got the talent, she’s got the ear. If that’s what she wants to do she could probably be good at it.

On crossing over from classical to jazz: I think that it’s kind of like being a translator, someone who knows a lot of languages. The hard part is knowing the languages. … Translators just  flip the switch and do it. The hard part was acquiring the switch.

I had the advantage growing up in New Orleans that so many musicians played by ear there. So I was always around guys that weren’t reading (music), and then I was around guys that were reading, because I played in orchestras as well. But in order to be a successful musician, you have to kind of jettison that way of thinking.

The information is not the thing that moves the listener, or the musician. It is the thing that cannot be explained, and you have to find a way to get to that, because you’re using sound to create emotion. Which you won’t find in a book.

“Music is the ultimate spatial experience”:  My experience has taught me that all higher learning is spatial. We have different words for it — experience, intuition — but what we are talking about is what people do where they can solve a problem without consulting a manual, and that is spatial learning. From an early age, when you join an orchestra, you have to learn to play in tune…

Intonation, the concept of time, counting and playing along with others, all these things are spatial. Football players have developed a kind of spatial instinct.

I was reading a book by Walter Isaacson on Einstein. His point was that Einstein’s ideas were not revolutionary — he had the same information that other scientists had. But when he looked at the data, he saw things that other scientists had missed. And that’s the same thing as Michael Jordan, or other great players or musicians – you find things in the data that other people don’t hear and don’t see.

“Failure is the pathway to success”: I don’t really have generic career advice. Because what I would tell someone who is more talented is different from what I tell someone who is less talented — at this point in time.

The one thing I would say to kids is, only focus on the things you can control. … The only thing you can control is your work ethic and you living up to the best of your natural ability, and then pushing yourself beyond that.

Always work hard and don’t be afraid to fail, which is something that a lot of kids, their definition of success is not to fail. Which becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. What they would tend to do is stop trying things they were good at, so they wouldn’t fail. Well to me, the map of success is paved with failure. Don’t be afraid to fail. Failure is the pathway to success.