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Branford Marsalis: It's All About the Band

By Published: January 12, 2005

AAJ: How does a Branford Marsalis record on Marsalis Music sell compared to one on Sony?

BM: About the same.

AAJ: About the same. So basically that great big corporate publicity machine at Sony didn't bring you any more listeners than you have on your own?

BM: We'd do the record. Put an ad in Downbeat; put an ad in Jazz Times; service the radio stations and that was it. Now I do a record. Put an ad in Downbeat; put an ad in Jazz Times; service the jazz radio stations and try to get ourselves into more mainstream publications. Sony says, "why should we spend the money to get you into a mainstream publication and then there's no return?" And they're right. They're right based on their business philosophy. I can understand why they wouldn't want to invest in us.

AAJ: You basically share the same philosophy that I have, which is that the jazz community is a lock already, so you do what you have to do and then focus on trying to get into the mainstream because if one person out of a thousand reading Newsweek checks you out that's more than every person reading Downbeat.

BM: It 's hard to get into Newsweek because, as more of our former intellectual magazines take on a pop focus, if there's no buzz, there's no interest.

AAJ: And they don't know how to create the buzz.

BM: Well it's hard to create a buzz unless you... the way to create a buzz is to have these external factors that are almost antithetical to what jazz represents. You have to have all these external factors based on... what's the word... on a certain level superficialities.

AAJ: Like clothes, fashion.

BM: Yeah or doing sensational things. Like last week Wynton was in Newsweek. Newsweek and the Sunday Times Magazine. And if you look at the Arts section in the New York Times you can tell that they're becoming more... it's like the baby boomers have spoken and they're more about elevating pop music to the status of art than anything now. And if that's what they want to do then fine, but...

Because Wynton is opening this building he was everywhere... because there was this building... if there was no building, then... So that's kind of how the business works, so to get in Newsweek you need to have some kind of buzz. Like you're selling piles of records and nobody thought you would—it's all temporary stuff. But magazines like The Nation or Mother Jones... magazines like the Atlantic Monthly—that are still really intellectual magazines and are not just going for the pursuit of the superficial to sell more copies. Those are still possibilities. It's hard to get into them and it's expensive to get into them, but I think that's where we would be best served—that our artists would be best served in the long run.

AAJ: How hands-on are you in the company?

BM: I'm not.

AAJ: You're just basically the A&R director and the face of Marsalis Music?

BM: If something really irks me I'm going to speak on it, but I think that where a lot of companies go wrong is the inability to delegate. They want to take over everything; they want to control every facet. How can I be a musician if I'm doing all of this other shit? Like you hear people "I don't want a manager. I'm going to do it myself." So instead of practicing, you're on the phone negotiating deals.

AAJ: What about the future? I read somewhere a while ago that you were going to do a Brian Blade record. Is that still happening?

BM: That's a two way street (laughs).

AAJ: You mean Brian has to do the record for you to release it?

BM: Brian has to... he showed the interest. But you know how Brian is. He's an enigmatic cat. One day he'll get around to it. Or maybe he won't. It's cool either way.

AAJ: What about Tain? Now that he's not recording for Sony.

BM: Believe me. It's on my mind. It's just that all the musical and political dynamics have to come together at the same time.

AAJ: Do you see anything out there outside of the typical realm? Like Doug Wamble . Actually, tell how you "discovered" Wamble. How is it that he came to records for Marsalis Music?

BM: He's a friend of (my brother) Jason and when Jason would come to New York he'd come by my house and Doug would be with him. We'd just talk about music and I was impressed. First of all I was impressed with his knowledge of the blues, which is... I think that one of the great disservices that has happened to jazz, the music in general, is the removal of the anthropological component in the study of it, so there's fewer skull and bones analytical aspects of it. The blues, and I don't just mean the twelve bar form, but the Mississippi delta blues and the Piedmont blues; those things are essential to us in understanding the development of jazz. We'd just talk on the phone. He's a funny guy. He was telling me a story about the dealings he had with a quote-unquote A&R guy at Columbia where he said "we like your music, who are you looking for in the band?" And he said, "Well I have a band." You know, these cats I've been playing with on and off whenever I'd get a gig." And the A&R guy said "No, no, no. We need names. We need names." I was impressed with the fact that Doug told him "I don't want to make a record that's not mine." I said, "Go ahead, man. That's cool." And I just said in an offhand way, cause the record company hadn't started yet, "Send me some shit, man. Let me hear it." Nobody knew about the company. So he sent me the disc just for me to hear it and I put it on and said to myself, "Damn! This ain't bad."

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