Branford & Ellis Marsalis: The Dawn of Marsalis Music
“ I don't think any of us are going to sell 10,000 records this year. I mean, my music is getting... we're selling less and less as I get better and better as a musician. That's something that I always believed would happen based on what happened to Miles. ”
The first family of jazz, the Marsalis of New Orleans, have seemingly been in the eye of a musical hurricane for the past twenty years. With the news that Saxophonist Branford Marsalis and his father Ellis Marsalis had severed their ties with Sony music, comes the announcement that they have formed the independent label Marsalis Music.
Multiple-Grammy winner Branford Marsalis has recently recorded Footsteps Of Our Fathers, a tribute to John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, Sonny Rollins, and the Modern Jazz Quartet, to be released in late summer/early fall. This first release will set the tone for Marsalis' new musical adventure.
Mark Corroto and Gerard Cox recently sat down with Ellis and Branford to discuss music, life, and the status of jazz today.
All About Jazz: What is the significance of Jazz in the twenty-first century?
Branford Marsalis: How the hell do I knows. (laughter)
Well, Jazz is like anything else... it will only be as good as the musicians who play it. And one of the things that we lack is really, really good musicians. I was talking to this guy who teaches at Otterbein, where we are playing. He used to play professional football for the Cowboys, and he was saying that he just can't watch football anymore. One of the things I was saying to him is that the money changes everything... because when you have the kind of money that these guys are making... what I was saying is that we as a nation really like to believe in this "All men are created equal" thing, which is just kind of hogwash... I mean, there are people who are smarter, who are stronger, who are faster. And sometimes, much like the Amadeus movie, we like to believe that the greatness that people achieve is the byproduct of hard work... and sometimes they can just do it. They're better than you are, so they can do it. And if Jazz was in the environment where we were getting paid the same kind of money that professional basketball players were getting paid, you'd be amazed by the number of talented musicians that would come out of the woodwork... the problem is that they wouldn't have the kind of dedication you'd necessarily want them to have.
It's one of those things you see in sports all the time, and that is why people are becoming disenfranchised with sports. Because sports has a mythology in our country. We'd like to believe in certain things, you know, the solitary kid shooting the basketball off of the rim on his farm back in Indiana, and all that kind of shit. Man, these kids are just 17 years old. They are bigger, stronger, and faster. They get paid millions of dollars, and they can do things we can't do. And they don't have the dedication; they do it because of the money. And because jazz does not have that kind of money, people who could have the intelligence to be Jazz musicians simply do other things, because they want money more than they want to play music. So... I don't know whether it is relevant in the 21st century, because I don't think any of us can actually discuss that until the 22nd century. You know what I mean.
Everything that is great, that has been great musically, has often been decreed so after there is enough perspective and time goes by. I mean, we can look back in history books and see musicians who were declared great in 1700 and we don't even talk about those guys now. It's only through perspective and time that you're able to find out whether musicians live up to the hype, we should say. I don't know if that's a question... well, I know it's not a question that I can answer... I don't know if it's a question that can be answered honestly, without some generic sound byte. I don't think that it's possible. But I can say with certainty that if we can find a way to get people who have the intellect to play to choose jazz instead of other things, boy, it would really be something else... it would be like the 60s all over again.
AAJ: But they didn't choose, and of course your father didn't choose to play jazz for the money in the '60s, '50s.
Ellis Marsalis: Yeah but when you were black in '50s Jim Crow, there was very little that you chose. If you had a skillor had the potential for a skillyou would exploit that to whatever capabilities that existed. And there was always the mythology of "Well, we could move to New York or you could move to Los Angeles." And it was two steps better than where I was, just in terms of being able to make money. But from the creative standpoint, there was a small window of time where musicians like Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, and even musicians that didn't have as high profile were people that you could learn from, if you really were interested in music and wanted to learn. Well mostly that's gone. You know, there's no endless amount of that.
AAJ: Do you feel the academic institution is a bad replacement?
EM: It's not a replacement at all. You have to realize that academic institutions do the things that think to be in their best interest. When they have jazz programs, they have jazz programs because they perceive that it increases the enrollment in a segment of their program that looks good at the time when you have the negotiations for the funds for their institution. I just retired from a university. And being involved... I was kind of semi-administrative. I wasn't like the chairman or assistant or any of that. I was in a chair which had certain administrative responsibilities to it. But it gave me the opportunity to get to know, first hand, the people all the way from the chancellor down.
And I saw how they ran the school. I saw what the objectives were. I realized what the monetary situation was. And the school should have been called state-assisted, not state-supported... 'Cause the state's giving 25% and these guys have to raise 75%. So, when you present some idealistic situation, especially in a non-scientific arena, then it's extremely difficult to speculate because it's almost all about the money. Just about. And in a way, the NCAA and them are going to find out that they are no longer going to be able to continue to deny that. And it's all sort of in the same kind of pot, if you will.