From D.C.'s Kennedy Center to East Of Angel Town: Conversations with Branford Marsalis

Publication: The Huffington Post
Author: Mike Ragogna
Date: October 18, 2010

Legendary jazz pianist Ellis Marsalis has been accumulating a series of honors with the upcoming NEA’s Jazz Masters Award being one of the most prestigious yet. He and his brood of familial, musical superstars recently played D.C.’s Kennedy Center, and that recording has been released as the album Music Redeems that unites The Marsalis Family with guests such as honorary offspring, Harry Connick, Jr.

The project’s profits will fund The Ellis Marsalis Center for Music, a New Orleans-based organization dedicated to keeping the arts lively for young people. Speaking for the family is genre-versatile saxophonist Branford Marsalis who brings us up to date on the center, his father, the performance, and other topics including Miles Davis.

Conversation with Branford Marsalis

Mike Ragogna: Branford, you’re celebrating a certain important event that happened recently. Can you tell us about your live performance at The Kennedy Center?

Branford Marsalis: Oh yes, everybody was on tour. My dad wanted to do this concert, which was going to be a tribute to him at the Duke Ellington Jazz Festival in Washington, D.C., in June of last year, ‘09. Because we were all touring, all the conversations about what we were going to play and what we were going to do were going via email, and the concert was all over the place. Wynton and I got to town the night before the concert, and I just said, “Listen, we need to have a meeting because these emails are ridiculous.” So, Wynton comes in and says, “Look, this is what we should do. We know that there are a lot of people coming, and most of them won’t be jazz fans. The music part will be cool, but we need to tell stories about dad and mom, how they raised us, and all that other stuff. They would really like that stuff.” I said, “That’s the best idea that anyone has come up with.” So, we played the music, and we had a great time playing the music, but I think what really made the audience so buoyant in the performance is that we were kind of giving them stories about how we grew up as kids, where we grew up, and how that had an impact on the music.

MR: Right, and this is what became your new live album.

BM: Yeah, it’s released as The Marsalis Family: Live At The Kennedy Center, and Music Redeems is the name of the CD.

MR: And this is a live recording to benefit The Ellis Marsalis Center for Music, right?

BM: Indeed, it is.

MR: Can you go into the story of the new award for Ellis?

BM: Are you talking about the NEA Jazz Masters?

MR: Yeah.

BM: The NEA is the National Endowment of the Arts. It’s part of the government, and they try to use artists of note to bring an international awareness and a domestic awareness to culture. One of the awards that they have every year is called the Jazz Masters award, which is given to people who made outstanding contributions to jazz over an extended period of time, and they wanted to give one to my dad. Then someone came up with the idea of including all of us as a family. I thought it was a great idea because, in our country in particular, people in the media who cover the world for the people who live here tend to like the ideas of families doing things together.

So, there are a lot of people who live in North Carolina, where I live, who had never even heard of the Jazz Masters award. But when they announced that it was going to be the family, a lot of media outlets picked it up and said, “Hey, congratulations on that Jazz Masters award.” It’s ironic for me because I’m fifty years old, but I’m far from a Jazz Master, in my opinion. My youngest brother is thirty-two years old, and he’s definitely nowhere near a Jazz Master, but the honorarium is going directly to my dad, and I’m comfortable with that. We’re all going to be there together, and I guess we’re going to play some tunes, I’m not sure. It’s just going to be a fun night for my dad, it will be great for him.

MR: Nice. Now, the proceeds from the new album are going to benefit The Ellis Marsalis Center For Music in New Orleans, right?

BM: Uh huh. It’s an education center. There’s a constant discussion in urban environments about what you’re going to do with kids. If you live in a rural environment, some of them work on farms, some of them play on baseball teams, some of them do this, some do that, but it’s a problem that every city in our country has—what are you going to do with kids that aren’t athletically gifted? What are you going to do with cities where every school doesn’t have a chess club or a glee club?

One of the things that New Orleans has is a very strong musical presence, and it’s about kids and families in the neighborhood coming to take lessons. There are going to be all sorts of lessons given there—as a matter of fact, we have a unique blend of culture there. One of the interesting items is the tradition of what we call “The Black Indians,” where you have people who are the descendents of slaves who ran away from the plantations and joined Indian tribes, and their offspring often celebrates the marriage of those two cultures, particularly around Mardi Gras time, by making these elaborate feather costumes and using some of the combined chants that are partially African and partially Indian. Donald Harrison is a saxophone player who grew up in that tradition, and his sister Charice is going to be teaching young kids how to maintain that tradition. The same thing will be done for the traditional New Orleans music, for funky brass band, for string quartets, and for everything that reflects the music of New Orleans because it will be there. It’s not for the musicians who are professionals, it’s for the upcoming young people who aspire to it.

MR: It’s always amazing how one of the first things that are cut in schools are arts programs.

BM: Well, it makes sense, especially if you think about things in a larger context. My music teacher in high school used to say, “It’s almost a shame when you think about the fact that if America had been colonized by any European country in the world other than England, our appreciation of art and culture would be completely different; but alas, that was not to be.” (laughs) That’s what he always said. So, I think that, traditionally, culture is really low on the totem pole, as it were, in England, and ostensibly, so it is in the United States. A lot of people value math and science over music and don’t understand the correlation between music and a better understanding of math and science. If education to you is kind of like “No Child Left Behind” which is a zero sum game, and the entire crux of education is test scores, then music really can’t possibly help you.

MR: Right, it’s not surprising that in the context you just put it in, it just seems like we would have more of a heart value by this point.

BM: It’s unfortunate, but it’s really not surprising when you put it in context. I think that we can spend all our time hand-wringing about it, or we can just do what we can to change the environment.

MR: Well, there you go, very nicely said. Harry Connick Jr. joined you on this project too.

BM: Oh yeah, well Harry took lessons from my dad when he was ten. He’s been a part of the family for thirty years. So, every time we’ve done one of these concerts in the States, Harry’s been a part of it. It was cool that he could be there.

MR: Now, when you’re doing an album like this, how do you guys decide on the final track list? Was it a group effort?

BM: I stay out of that process. My job is to play the music. There were a lot of people who wanted certain songs to be in, and I didn’t really have a dog in that race at all. Whatever the song was, I was going to play the hell out of it. I thought that the songs should be fun songs, and it’s been a long time since I’ve written a fun song. My songs are…you know, it’s a different thing, and it’s taken on another kind of intellectual bent. It’s fun for me, but they go in directions. Sometimes casual listeners prefer things that sound like the old Blue Note Records, where it’s a catchy melody and it’s swinging. I thought that, given the venue, this would be a more appropriate direction for the music to go in than playing some of the crazy crap that I play for a living. I thought that with my dad being seventy-five, let’s play songs that dad can play, and let’s play songs that are fun and the audience will like. That’s what we did.

MR: Branford, you’re considered and I always have considered you, an innovator. That crazy crap is the stuff that I look forward to.

BM: Well, I’m glad. I like it too, but if you look at the music from a business standpoint…there are always articles that come around saying, “Jazz is dead.” They give reasons why, and all the reasons are wrong. Jazz struggles right now because of the musicians, and there’s no other reason. It’s not because we can’t attract eighteen to twenty-five year olds like those articles that you read (say) because the reality is that the average jazz fan is a forty year old, and I’m pretty sure that as long as I live and long after I live, there will always be forty year old people in our country. Those twenty-five years olds are magically going to turn into forty year olds, and they’re going to start listening sometimes to things other than the same pop music they’ve been listening to, and that’s where we come in. So, I just think that we’ve done a really bad job of delivering the music in terms that the average person can really understand.

MR: That’s really interesting, and in my opinion, it’s a generic, safe kind of music that gets perpetuated by shows like American Idol, and things like that. It just seems like we should be pushing a higher bar.

BM: Well, the thing that’s interesting about American Idol, when I’ve watched it a couple of time, is that they know their audience. America is a country that is high on fantasy—that’s why our political discussions denigrate so rapidly into accusations and one-word blandishments…because it’s convenient. When you look at a show like American Idol, for instance, you’re never going to see someone on there like Stevie Wonder, you’re never going to see somebody on there like James Taylor, and you’re never going to see somebody that’s so good that the show is basically over from the first week it comes on because what makes the show work is that people can sit on their couches, and the singers are just good enough to where the audience members can think, “S**t, I can do that.” And they’re right, they can. But if you get somebody coming on there like Luciano Pavarotti they can’t do that, and they don’t watch because the whole point of a lot of these shows is to perpetuate a certain kind of fantasy. Jazz music, at its best, ain’t about none of that stuff—it’s about a high level of musicianship and a high level of playing. We all are weened on popular culture, and we all are brought up on music that has, for instance, a static drumbeat, and jazz has a fluid drumbeat. When you go from a beat that goes (mimics standard, straight drum beat) and everybody knows what that is, to where the drummer goes (mimics jazz drum beat) and he’s all over the place, it’s hard for people to identify with that. You used to be able to get away with that when jazz musicians were brought up in dance culture because they would play that thing with a certain kind of invisible pulse where people would still shake their head to it and know where the beat is. But now that you have the second generation of jazz musicians who have been playing jazz since they were fifteen, which I find to be a communist plot—fifteen year old kids do not need to be playing jazz, they need to be playing rock ‘n’ roll, funk, or something. They don’t need to be playing jazz, it’s too top heavy and too left-brain as it is, you know what I mean?

MR: Nice, yes.

BM: So, they start playing music, and they don’t really have a dance sensibility when they play at all. You talk to them about what the music is about, and where a guy like Gustav Mahler would say that his music is about Springtime or death, you talk to a modern jazz musician about what music is about and they start reeling off chord changes, and that’s the wrong answer. If you’re trying to get regular people to listen to your music, it has to be about something that they can identify with—a boy or girl, a tree, a house, Spring, life.

It’s amazing how many young musicians are intellectually insulated in that way, where the music that they play is so personal and so introspective that it just leaves everybody else out. They barely like instrumental music as it is in English culture because English people didn’t like instrumental music. In Germany they like it a lot, and in France they like it, but you have to give them something more because they’re used to the idea that music and sound can create emotion. So, it’s a complicated thing. I’m trying to stay low on the nerd factor when I’m talking to you just for the sake of the listeners (and readers). But I guess one of the things you could say is that jazz has become really wonky, and it’s to the music’s detriment. The musicians need to rethink and start looking back to some of the older music, when it was more popular, and start figuring out elements of that that they can incorporate into their music.

MR: Beyond your father, who are some of the great musical influences on you?

BM: There’s so many of them man. Duke Ellington’s old bands, Sidney Bechet, Charlie Parker, Ornette Coleman, Louis Armstrong, Frankie Trumbauer, Keith Jarret, and that’s just a handful and just on the jazz side. Then, there’s the classical side, the rock bands—Parliament, Funkadelic, James Brown, King Crimson, Pink Floyd, Hendrix—I could keep going because that’s what I listened to when I was a kid—Led Zeppelin, Elton John, Commodores. Then, I started listening to classical music, and now it’s Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Mahler, Beethoven, Brahms, and it’s an amalgam of all this stuff that you keep listening to. There’s always something to listen to.

MR: In musical “categories,” Wynton is a little more associated with classical, and you’re associated with jazz. Do you consider yourself a jazz artist or something else that’s not in a category, sort of like the area Wynton falls in?

BM: I consider myself a jazz artist when I’m playing jazz. When I’m playing with Sting I don’t consider myself a jazz artist. Having played jazz, it gives me an edge that guys who try to play pop music and have never played jazz don’t have, and they can’t play what I can play. When I’m playing with New York Philharmonic I don’t consider myself a jazz musician because I push away a lot of the sounds and the approach; the jazz approach cannot be in that setting. But then, on the other hand, there’s a certain way I express the music that is definitely the embodiment of what you learn from playing jazz.

MR: What is your advice for someone who is coming on the music scene right now trying to figure out where they fit?

BM: I’ve never really spent any time thinking about where I fit. The whole thing is simple for me—I like being around musicians who like to play music because people play music for different reasons. Take, for instance, there are a couple of saxophone players in jazz who are really, really, unbelievable technical players, but you get the sense from them that they don’t even like jazz. Some people were talking about this one guy, and they said, “Man, he doesn’t even like jazz, why is he doing this?” And I said, “Well, if you’re a saxophone player, what other option do you have?” In the ’70s, you could have played in rock bands because they had horn sections, but now they use keyboards and samplers. So, you can play smooth jazz; a lot of guys want to at least play something that has some level of technical challenge. If you want to have some kind of technical challenge in the career, jazz is the only place they fit, even though technically, when you listen to them, they’re not really playing jazz at all, they’re playing the hell out of the saxophone.

The reason I think that I’m able to succeed in all different forms of music is that I always like the stuff that I’m playing. My first consideration when Sting asked me to play in his band was the musical consideration, not the financial consideration, and because I really do appreciate his songwriting and I really do love the way he approaches music, it’s easy for me to play with him.

MR: Though he kind of has a jazz background too, no?

BM: He doesn’t really have a jazz background. He played acoustic bass in a trad band in Newcastle, but he’s a student of music and I appreciate that. Miles Davis made this record, Bitches Brew, which I never really liked, and he really helped me understand why I should like it.

MR: That’s interesting. What are some of the keys to unlocking …Brew that people should be looking at?

BM: Well, he came at it from a rock and roll guy’s perspective, and how it bridged the gap for him and made jazz not so terrifying to him, once he heard Bitches Brew. I have my reasons for not liking it, but it’s a really interesting record because here you have this giant of jazz, who is suddenly a side man on his own records because he is playing this music and he has no idea what it is, which is why you listen to the solos and the solos aren’t really solos at all because he doesn’t know what it is. When you hear him on his early jazz records in the ’50s, he’s in charge, Miles Davis is in charge. Now, they have released basically the original recording in its actual sequence, and they would go in the studio and record one groove for like forty-five minutes, and then Teo Macero would come in and edit it. So, that’s kind of how the music was put together. When I listen to it, it sounds that way, it’s piecemeal to me, but on the other hand, it’s really an interesting style of music, and it would take someone like Miles to put that group together. It’s not something that I would ever envision myself doing.

MR: So, looking at that body of work, with electric Miles Davis, was the rub due to the genre itself?

BM: Well, the electric Miles Davis was some of the weakest Miles Davis on record, as far as his trumpet playing goes. But Miles was one of those people who always felt that being culturally relevant in terms of pop culture—was more important than just about anything else. That’s why I find him to be such an impressive figure. When Miles got to New York, you can listen to the recordings, he wasn’t a very good trumpet player at all, and he was a lousy jazz musician. But because jazz was the music that was in and because Charlie Parker was his hero, he willed himself to become a phenomenal jazz musician—he did it on his own. He didn’t come with any great natural ability other than his really high intelligence, and he did it. You listen to him in ‘47 and he’s horrible, and by ‘55 he’s amazing. He found out what worked and what didn’t, and when I listen to all those electric records, I like the groove because the musicians are great on those records, but Miles is not really in charge of that, the project was in charge of him because Miles was in over his head. Miles was born in the twenties, man, and Miles was an old dude trying to stay hip. But because of his jazz background, there’s something kind of cool about it that I didn’t appreciate in my younger years, when I was mostly just studying jazz in a clinical fashion.

When I played with him, he and I had a long conversation about it, and the thing that I was trying to make him understand is that when I was eight years old, I was listening to Otis Redding and James Brown, but when he was eight years old, he was listening to Louis Armstrong. So, the last thing I needed was a sixty year old man trying to lecture me about pop music—that’s the s**t I come from. I don’t need him to tell me about pop music, and he kind of backed off after I said that. I said, “I don’t need you to lecture me about pop music, man. You can’t tell me anything about it I don’t already know.”

MR: Let’s go back to your youth a little bit. When you were doing the concert, you were telling stories about your family. Do you have a family story you’d like to share?

BM: Wynton has the best family story, and you should just get somebody to send you the story so you can play it. Nothing I say can top that story.

MR: What about Branford’s story?

BM: I wasn’t as confrontational as he was, so my stories aren’t as good as his. His stories are legendary. I have stories, let me think of one—no man, my stories are boring.

MR: (laughs) Give one anyway, come on.

BM: I’m trying to think of one that’s good. Okay, here’s a good one. We’re ten years old, and me, my boy Fedo, and Eric are throwing rocks at an old depot in Kenner, Louisiana. My dad drives by and sees us throwing rocks, and he says, “What the hell are y’all doing?” I said, “We’re throwing rocks at this old depot,” and he said, “Man, that’s federal property. That’s against the law.” I said, “It’s not even being used,” because that place hadn’t been used in forty years, and it was all falling apart. So, he said, “Look, I’m not going to sit here and jaw with you all day, alright? Do not have the cops bring you home because you know what’s going to happen if they do.”

Cops brought me home. The cops stopped me and said, “What are y’all doing, defacing government property? Get in the car.” I’m crying, and they say, “What’s wrong with you?” and I say, “My dad’s going to kill me. He told me not to…” So, now the cops are loving that. He gets out of the car and goes to talk to my dad first. He says, “Don’t you move.” I’m pretty sure he looked and said, “Hey man, let’s scare the hell out of him. Let’s have some fun with him.” So, he brings me over there and my dad’s staring at me and says, “Well?” I said, “What?” He said, “What did we talk about?” and I said, “I know, I was wrong.” He said, “Now, you’re going to have to go to jail.” I cried, “No, I don’t want to go to jail!” The cop said, “Sorry son, you broke the rules.” I was crying and bawling, and then he comes over to me and says, “Well, I’m going to let you go since you really seem like you’re sorry, but your dad is not happy with you.” I knew the whooping was coming, so my dad played this smart game and basically I walked on eggshells for six days waiting for the whooping, and the whooping never came. I knew it was coming—I had messed up, and I’d have to pay for it. I was saying things like, “Can I wash the dishes? Can I do this? Can I do that?” all trying to avoid that whooping.

MR: Look what he got out of you for six days.

BM: Oh man, it took me six days to realize, “Oh, he’s not going to kick my ass today. Alright.” But I never defaced federal property anymore, you know? Most parents would say, “Get over here right now and get in that car!” But what he would say was, “Okay, here are the options: You can do this, then this will happen. There are repercussions for your behavior, and if you’re willing to risk the repercussions, that’s great man, go ahead and don’t get caught.”

MR: Being in a family atmosphere, it’s really interesting when you turn that corner, become an adult, and deal with your parents as an adult. What’s your adult relationship with your dad like these days?

BM: We never really had the archetypal father and son thing. We never had the “You’re stupid, you don’t know anything, I hate you.” So, our relationship was actually funnier—every time I hear a good dirty joke, I call and tell him and he dies laughing. It’s really not that kind of “Dad, you were so right and I was so wrong, and I was stubborn.” But I didn’t get high, I didn’t grow my hair long, and I just didn’t do the stuff that people tended to do because my dad was so different. I tried that when I was sixteen, and he says, “I don’t think that we understand each other really well. I think I need to make you understand something.” He says, “Man, see this house here? This is the house that I paid for. All of the stuff that you have in here? This is stuff that I paid for.” He says, “You’re about to be a man and go out on your own, and then you will pay for all this shit. But understand one thing; I did not have you so I could use you as a metaphor for my success or failure as an adult. So, if you want to make F’s, make F’s, it brings no shame on me. This brings shame on you, and you will find that out in the coming years if that’s the avenue you choose.” He kind of ripped that whole teenage rationale right out from under me. My mother was like that. “If you make an F, you’re going to embarrass me.” That gives you power because you can kind of negotiate with them, “Well, if you want me to study, then you have to give me this or that.” My father said, “Man, I don’t give a damn, you’re leaving this house in two years. Choose wisely.” It just shuts it down in a way that you go, “Man, that’s cold.” But that whole stereotypical adolescence thing that you see on television?

MR: Yeah?

BM: It’s impossible to have that with my dad. I moved to New York and I’d talk to him, he’d be like, “Yeah, what’s happening out there?” The only thing that was really shocking to me was when we started doing records together, my brother Delfeayo played a tape of me talking to my dad in a session, and I was like, “What the hell are you doing, man? Don’t play it that way,” and my father says, “Well, how should I play it?” I said, “Check this out, try this man. Come on dad, you ain’t thinking.” He played that tape and I said, “Man, can you believe that?” Delfeayo said, “Yeah, what other circumstance in our lives would you dream of speaking to our father like that without having a fist in your mouth?” Even at that age, because I was like thirty-four years old, I wouldn’t talk to my dad like that because you still remember that you get a fist in your mouth. But when the music starts—this is a thing that he sort of taught me intuitively—when the music starts he’s not my father, he’s the piano player, and when we’re trying to make a good record the job takes precedent over rank. He didn’t say, “Mind your tone with me, boy. I’m still your father,” because he’s trying to make a good record too. So, on the bandstand, we’re equals, and that was a strange, but kind of cool feeling.

MR: What a cool family to have grown up in, Branford. Do you have any other additional thoughts on your new album, Music Redeems, the live record whose profits are going to go to The Ellis Marsalis Center For Music in New Orleans?

BM: Nope. It’s a good record, a lot of fun. It’s a very fun record. It’s a lot more fun than records with my name on it even though my records are enjoyable in a different kind of way. This record is a fun record, and my brother Ellis III, who doesn’t play music, wrote a poem in honor of my dad that is absolutely beautiful.

1. Introducing…The Marsalis Family
2. Donna Lee
3. Wynton And Branford Speak
4. Monkey Puzzle
5. After
6. Syndrome
7. Sweet Georgia Brown
8. Harry Speaks
9. Teo
10. The Man And The Ocean
11. At The House, In Da Pocket
12. The 2nd Line