Marsalis, Branford (Contemporary Musicians)
Saxophonist Branford Marsalis, hailed as one of the best jazz players of his generation, helped orchestrate a renaissance of the genre in the early 1980s, rescuing the music from stagnancy, corruption, and, in the eyes of some critics, flat-out mediocrity. Before coming into his own as a bandleader and composer, Marsalis played second fiddle to some of the greats in the industry, including younger brother celebrity trumpeter Wynton Marsalis.
As one of the most versatile players in the business, Marsalis has lent his horn to music as far afield as traditional bebop and rock and roll. Some critics have lamented Marsalis's musical wanderings, claiming that the talented saxman is spreading himself too thin. But Marsalis, taking mischievous glee in enraging these naysayers, has always eschewed the self-seriousness that might limit his musical range. His 1992 appointment as musical director of The Tonight Show With Jay Leno, while perhaps nettling jazz purists, reinforced for him the rich possibilities available to a virtuoso who eagerly travels between musical worlds.
Branford Marsalis was born August 26, 1960, in Breaux Bridge, Louisiana, the eldest of six sons, to Delores, a former jazz singer and substitute teacher who would become the strong-willed family manager, and Ellis Marsalis, a well-known bop pianist who, because he couldn't make a living at jazz, taught music at a performing arts high school.
As part of the first generation to take part in the grand social experiment of school integration in Louisiana, Marsalis learned about the nature of racial conflict firsthand. But for the easy-going, conciliatory boy, the more practical lesson was the one he received from his parents about bottom-line accomplishment. "My father told me about race and society at an early age," Marsalis told the New York Times in 1992. "When all these white kids in my high school were screwing up, he took me aside and said: 'Look, your friend, his father owns a car dealership. If he screws up, he still has a job. I'm a school teacher, son. You screw up, when you come out, you have nothing. It's your choice.'"
Eclectic Musical Influences
Though music played a central role in the family's orbit, Marsalis's early ambitions cast him as a football player, lawyer, or historian. But when the doors to these professions began to close, Marsalis reexamined the path of music. He had started playing piano at the age of four, then moved to clarinet, and, at 15, picked up the alto saxophone, an instrument far more demanding than its tenor cousin. So natural and impressive was his musical gift, that after only six months on the sax, Marsalis was named to the all-state band.
His earliest influences were not jazze has said that he despised jazz until he was 19ut the wildly variegated sounds of Led Zeppelin, Parliament/Funkadelic, Donna Summer, Aretha Franklin, and Elton John. From these multifaceted sources, Marsalis developed an appreciation for all types of music that would later explain his spirited sorties beyond traditional jazz.
After graduating from high school in 1978, Marsalis attended Southern University, a black college in Baton Rouge, where he studied under renowned jazz clarinetist Alvin Batiste. Bitten by the jazz bug, and encouraged by Batiste, Marsalis enrolled at the Berklee School of Music in Boston, where he honed his technical skills and landed gigs with Clark Terry and Lionel Hampton. He wasn't convinced that jazz would be his career until 1980, when he saw Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers, a legendary showcase for young hard-bop talent that Wynton Marsalis had joined in 1979, after leaving the Juilliard school in New York City. Branford was invited to join the group on baritone sax, and jumped at the chance.
"Finally jazz had a youth movement interested in learning how to play the music, instead of playing at it, or using it to veer into other music," Peter Watrous wrote in the New York Times. "The brothers, working in one of jazz's most important bands, led by a jazz patriarch, had been given the seal of approval, following behind other Blakey alumni Clifford Brown, Lee Morgan, Freddie Hubbard, Wayne Shorter, Cedar Walton and legions more."
Trained Under Brother's Wing
With the addition of younger brother Delfeayo as producer, the Marsalis clan was fast becoming known as the "First Family of Jazz." In 1982, when Wynton asked Branford to recruit a band under the trumpeter's leadership, Branford brought in Berklee classmate Jeff Watts on drums, Kenny Kirkland on piano, and a succession of bassists. The group reinvigorated hard bop at a time when the commitment of young musicians to the traditions of jazz was thin, if not nonexistent.
At his brother's request, Marsalis switched to tenor saxophone, cultivating a big, fast-driving sound in the spirit of Lester Young, John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, and, most obviously, Wayne Shorter. But the fame was dished out singularly to Wynton, whose virtuosic playing on both classical and jazz recordings, at a time when instrumental giants were scarce, brought the trumpeter the same legendary status that a generation earlier had been handed to Miles Davis.
Garnering huge performance fees and awardsynton became the first artist to win Grammy Awards in jazz and classical categories in the same yearhe trumpeter-cum-celebrity became the point man on matters of musical taste, sermonizing on the superiority and purity of traditional jazz and relegating rock and roll to the back of the musical bus. Branford, who performed under Wynton on albums such as Think of One and Hot House Flowers, did not resent being overshadowed by his brother's star status, as long as the music was good. In the same spirit, he also recorded behind Dizzy Gillespie, toured with pianist Herbie Hancock's VSOPII quintet, and provided what some critics thought were the only redeeming tracks on Miles Davis's 1984 electro-synth album Decoy.
Marsalis had less success striking out on his own. Although his 1984 quartet, featuring pianist Larry Willis, drummer Marvin Smith, and bassist Charnett Moffett, was praised for its dynamic concerts, his debut solo album that year, Scenes in the City, received a lukewarm reception from the critics who contended that his playing lacked its own voice and that it relied too transparently on the phraseology of other saxophonists, particularly Coltrane. In time, Marsalis's powerful, custom-tailored style would make such criticism anachronistic.
Less convinced than his brother of the exclusive nobility of the jazz world, Marsalis grew tired of the music that Wynton's quintet had been playing and began to look around for the next direction he would follow. The answer was provided by rock star Sting, who had disbanded the Police and saw in Marsalis a rich musical sensibility that lent itself to cross-genre collaboration. "I'd been very excited by his playing," Sting was quoted as saying in New York in 1991, "and talking to him, I realized he was a creature after my own hearte didn't have any prejudice about music. He saw it as a continuum. He could quote from Zeppelin or Bird. I said, 'Let's work together.'"
Marsalis's 1985 collaboration with Sting led some in the jazz world to bemoan the loss of a great talent. More important to some Marsalis devotees was the fact that Branford took pianist Kirkland with him on this pop/soul/bop exploration, fracturing Wynton's quintet. Industry rumors described a brotherly falling-out of biblical proportions. But some, while regretting the acrimony, saw the move as an important maturation step for Branford, an opportunity for the sax-man to define himself and develop a voice independent of his brother.
Ultimately, even Wynton, the pillar of jazz purity, came to Branford's defense, telling the New York Times: "What I don't understand is why Branford should get questioned for doing what he's doing. If XYZ pop star makes trashy music, nobody complains about his decision. But if Branford makes pop music, he's compared to Coltrane, and told that he's wasting his talent, which is obviously a double-standard."
Considered one of the few bright spots in Sting's project, Marsalis recorded and toured with the rock star off and on for three years, a period in which his pop currency blossomed, laying the foundation for appearances with Tina Turner, Public Enemy, the Neville Brothers, and the Grateful Dead, among many others. Not content to master one medium, Marsalis was the show-stopper in the documentary project Bring on the Night, leading Sting, the nominal star, to confess to Vogue, "There was only one leading man in that filmnd it wasn't me." Marsalis would continue with acting roles in movies such as Throw Momma From the Train and Spike Lee's School Daze. He also penned the critically acclaimed score for Lee's Mo' Better Blues.
In 1986, determined not to let the rock/pop-culture experience get the best of him, Marsalis released two albums: Romances for Saxophone, a classical recording featuring Marsalis with the English Chamber Orchestra, and Royal Garden Blues, a Grammy-nominated album spotlighting the collaboration of Marsalis and his father, Ellis.
Marsalis had left Sting's band by 1989 and put together his own quartet featuring Kirkland and Watts, both of whom had been members of the first Wynton Marsalis band, along with Bob Hurst on bass. Although Marsalis rediscovered what he called the "philosophy of improvisation," his 1989 Trio Jeepy, according to Down Beat critic Art Lange, was amateurish and lacked emotional intensity.
Marsalis bounced back with his 1990 Crazy People Music, about which J. D. Considine wrote in Rolling Stone, "Marsalis has been able to sort out his influences and been able to arrive at a sound of his own.... [His] phrasing, tone and improvisatory approach are clearly his own. Unlike his juniors on the jazz scene, Marsalis understands the crucial difference between merely following another's footsteps across ground that has already been broken and blazing a new trail to a new destination."
Answering criticism that his ballads lacked emotional power, Marsalis released The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born in 1991, an adventurous, piano-less album featuring Wynton dueling with his brother on a track ironically titled "Cain and Abel." Jim Fusilli wrote in the Wall Street Journal, "There's an awful lot of invention in these almost 80 minutes of music, and perhaps a glimpse of genius as well." On the other hand, the 1992 I Heard You Twice the First Time, a wild hodge-podge of blues and jazz, was over-ambitious, according to Entertainment Weekly writer Josef Woodard, and, as a result, suffered "a serious identity crisis."
In 1992, as if to seal his status as crossover star and musical chameleon, Marsalis was tapped to lead the band on the new Tonight Show. Just as a youthful Jay Leno had replaced a silver-haired Johnny Carson, so did a hip Marsalis get the nod to fill the shoes of the musically staid Doc Severinsen. Again, he was criticized for forsaking jazz, but Marsalis took the barbs in stride and after signing a five-year contract with NBC told Esquire that "the only showcase for jazz is jazz, and that's what we'll be playing in the L.A. clubs after the show is over." Asked to describe his television music menu, he reportedly answered, "We're going to play prime time music on prime time."
Marsalis continued to astound fans and confound critics with his musical meandering. A university town in Indiana provided the backdrop for his 1993 release, Bloomington. Recorded live at a 1991 performance and produced by brother Delfeayo, the album was hailed as a joyful jam session, with Down Beat declaring it "cheerful, well-paced and (above all) loose."
Throughout his first year on the Tonight Show, Marsalis has displayed his amazing versatility in backing such diverse musical guests as Neil Diamond, Tori Amos, Peter Gabriel, and Vince Gill. He has also become something of a benefactor to an array of cutting-edge jazz artists, inviting them to sit in with his band for an evening and affording them the priceless opportunity of showcasing their talent to an audience of nearly eight million viewers.
Marsalis modestly dismisses his benevolence, claiming that he merely gives exceptional musicians the national exposure they deserve. But jazz pianist Geri Allen, who sat in with the Tonight Show band, spoke for many when she expressed gratitude for Marsalis's generosity. "Branford has this wonderful opportunity to access the mainstream American audience," she told Fred Shuster of Down Beat, "and this music is getting out there every night. And he's being very gracious by including members of the musical community. That says a whole lot about him as a person."
(With Ellis Marsalis) Fathers and Sons, Columbia, 1981.
Scenes in the City, Columbia, 1984.
(With Miles Davis) Decoy, Columbia, 1984.
(With the English Chamber Orchestra) Romances for Saxophone, 1986.
Royal Garden Blues, Columbia, 1986.
Renaissance, Columbia, 1987.
Random Abstract, Columbia, 1988.
Trio Jeepy, Columbia, 1989.
Crazy People Music, Columbia, 1990.
Music From Mo' Better Blues, 1990.
The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born (includes "Cain and Abel"), Columbia, 1991.
I Heard You Twice the First Time, Columbia, 1992.
(Contributor) Weird Nightmare: Meditations on Mingus, Columbia, 1992.
Bloomington, Columbia, 1993.
With Dizzy Gillespie
Closer to the Source, Atlantic.
New Faces, GRP.
With the Jazz Messengers
Keystone 3, Concord, 1981.
Live at Montreux and Northsea, Timeless.
With Wynton Marsalis
Wynton Marsalis, Columbia, 1982.
Think of One, Columbia, 1983.
Hot House Rowers, Columbia, 1984.
Black Codes (From the Underground), Columbia, 1985.
Bring on the Night, A&M, 1985.
Dream of the Blue Turtles, A&M, 1985.
Nothing Like the Sun, A&M, 1987.
Down Beat, October 1989; November 1991; January 1992; May 1992; November 1992; September 1992; June 1993; July 1993.
Ebony, February 1989.
Entertainment Weekly, January 17, 1992; September 18, 1992.
Esquire, June 1992.
Interview, May 1992.
New York, October 14, 1991.
New York Times, May 3, 1992.
People, November 25, 1991.
Rolling Stone, September 6, 1990; February 20, 1992.
Schwann Spectrum, Summer 1993.
Vogue, November 1990.
Wall Street Journal, December 16, 1991.
Additional information for this profile was obtained from Columbia Records press materials, 1993.