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Interviews

Branford & Ellis Marsalis: The Dawn of Marsalis Music

By Published: May 1, 2002
AAJ: This follow the money thread began with Branford's opening and then as you've carried on how does that relate to Columbia, Sony Music, large record companies. Did they have a jazz division for sentimental reasons? (BM laughs) or did they...?

BM: There was a time when Columbia was its own place. It was a big company, but it was its own company, it was a part of the Columbia system. You know, CBS, television, radio and it was just like over there. It was just over there, and they were doing their own thing. They had rock stars and they had this.

But there was always a little corner, because the people who ran the company were music guys. They were music guys. They loved music; they were working in the music business. They started out as hustlers. They started out selling 45s, whatever it is. They worked in radio. They worked in this. They were promoters. They were music guys. Some of them had law degrees, some of them didn't. And they always left a little corner for creative music, because maybe it's because they had a soft spot in their heart or maybe it's because they realized that record companies could not survive on mega-hits alone.

For every guy like Michael Jackson
Michael Jackson
Michael Jackson
1958 - 2009
vocalist
or Billy Joel there was some strange group. You know, like Colonel Bruce Hampton and the Aquarian Rescue Unit or Return to Forever, or Weather Report. Or all these things that were on Columbia records that you would never, you know, you wouldn't consider mainstay groups. And sometimes they actually kept the company afloat. They sold just enough records collectively to make a nice little tidy sum there. Once Columbia became a part of Sony it was this huge, huge company. And stocks are so much more popular with the average working person now than they were 30 years ago or even 20 years ago, when I first joined the company. Now you have to have people running these companies who are good at keeping the bottom line. I mean, there's a lot at stake. They can't afford to sit around and say well, you know this guy's a really creative musician and 25 years from now he might turn us a profit or he might sell a lot of records for us, because if he's not careful he'll be gone in 25 days.

AAJ: Right, you have to answer to the shareholders.

BM: That's right, quickly—by quarter. So they really don't have time or inclination to be concerned with some off the road, off the beaten path music—on any level, not just in jazz. In popular music as well. You don't see these really cool, hip groups. I mean somebody like Bjork, for instance. You're not going to see people like Bjork on a major label. You know, it's fringe music. It's vanity music in a way. Mariah Carey just got dumped for some two million records. I mean, I can't believe we live in a time when 2 million records is a flop.

EM: They started that with TV years ago. Because Steve Allen had a real hip TV show. But see, he only had ten million viewers and the opposition had twenty.

BM: So that's that.

AAJ: So all of this parallels all of—I don't want to say popular culture, but—all of culture. It's the same with book publishing. There used to be small houses that put out things that they wanted on the shelves for 30 years. Maybe you won't get it today, but in twenty years someone's going to recognize this author. Are you saying that nobody's going to sign a Thelonious Monk
Thelonious Monk
Thelonious Monk
1917 - 1982
piano
today or a Herbie Nichols
Herbie Nichols
Herbie Nichols
1919 - 1963
piano
, for that matter?

BM: Hell, I'll sign a Herbie Nichols
Herbie Nichols
Herbie Nichols
1919 - 1963
piano
. I'll sign Thelonious Monk
Thelonious Monk
Thelonious Monk
1917 - 1982
piano
!

EM: First of all, the chance of you even getting a Thelonious Monk
Thelonious Monk
Thelonious Monk
1917 - 1982
piano
is slim to none. But I do think if we really look back at it and examine it closely, you find out that what Branford is talking about now... it's not unlike with Musicraft and Dial and Bluebird and some of the ones that I don't even remember. Columbia was around at that time. What they had was a John Hammond, who was a really wealthy guy, who could get his way with things. Consequently, he could sign Billie Holiday. Now there might not have been anybody else at Columbia Records that could have done that. I don't know.

I heard the story of what he had to do to get Charlie Christian
Charlie Christian
Charlie Christian
1916 - 1942
guitar, electric
in Benny Goodman
Benny Goodman
Benny Goodman
1909 - 1986
clarinet
's band. Benny didn't even want him. He flew him in, or brought him, when the Goodman band was on a break, and put him on the bandstand to play. So there was no way Benny could avoid hearing him. And once he heard him, you see, eventually he became part of the unit. But the thing is, there's so many combinations of circumstances that exist within the framework of the way things are at different times, so when you start looking at bottom line, when you see where there are people who are still promoting the myth. You see, we are looking at a great example of that right now, day by day, with Enron. And now it's peeling away, you know, so we going see the emperor in his bare, you see, but for the most part...there may be twenty other ones out there, just like that.


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