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Branford Marsalis: Confident MF Playin’ Tunes

By Published: December 10, 2012
"You can take a golf lesson, and the guy can show you seven points of the golf swing, and you can take that and swing like a robot. Step one, step two, step three, step four ... which is like: Here's a pattern you can play on this chord. Here's a pattern you can play on that. At some point, something in your head has to tell you, 'There's got to be a better way of doing this shit than the way I'm doing it.' That's when cognition kicks in because you have to figure it out, because nobody can really teach it to you. I can point a student in the general direction, but they have to go get it. You have a lot of guys, the way their mind works, they don't want to go get it. They want you to tell them what it is and practice it and repeat it, which is not improvisation. It's more like regurgitation. But hey, whatever works. Whatever floats their boat. ... That's how I feel about a lot of this shit. If people think it's great—there's no evidence of record sales or ticket sales that the shit is great—but if that's what they think is great, more power to them."

Marsalis himself has been through a lot of changes since his Young Lion days. He took advantage of many opportunities in the music business. And he admits that one high-profile situation eventually led him to a place where he refocused even harder on his career as an improvising musician.

Marsalis moved to NBC television and the Tonight Show gig, where he was based from 1992-1995. The money was sweet, and Marsalis was influential in getting some jazz bands booked with Jay Leno. Many a musician has settled in such a situation and lived the good—i.e., financially safe—life. It was a cool lifestyle. But for Marsalis, who was raised in the cradle of diverse improvisational music—New Orleans—and who made his bones successfully on the New York City scene, there was more of a calling. It came to a head during that time when he was summoned to play a concert with the San Francisco Symphony under the baton of Bobby McFerrin. He pulled it off, but not to his satisfaction. His chops were far from his own standards.

"It was just horrible," he recalls. "There are certain types of music where you can't just practice in the practice room, show up and do it. You can't do it with anything that's serious. ... It was one of those things where I had to decide if I wanted to be an entertainer or be a musician. I had to decide. It was two months after that, I decided to be a musician, so I made preparations to leave the show. The great thing about being on the show is you learn what you are. When you just play music, and if I had just done that, there would always be this thing: 'I wonder if I would have enjoyed this more? I wonder if I would have enjoyed that more?' When you get down to it, the idea of playing music poorly for a grateful audience that doesn't really know the difference—I couldn't square it in my head. So I made my exit because I had to. It's not a pejorative on other people or anything. It's because I had to."

He's not looked back. "Once you walk away from that kind of money, you got no fucking excuse. I made the decision. Abide by the decision," he says unabashedly. It's brought him appropriate acclaim as one of the top saxophonists in the music. His band, as he notes, never stops pushing. His underlying goal is to get better, to keep developing. The band is tight as hell and can move in different directions according to the mood of its members or the dictates of the audience. That kind of success, and those kinds of goals, are enough for Marsalis. There's a lot that goes into it and a lot that goes to sustaining it. It's hard work—a life's work.

Things like the NEA Jazz Masters award presented to the entire musical family—father and pianist Ellis, drummer Jason, trombonist Delfeayo, trumpeter Wynton and Branford—is not paramount. It's without ego that he explains it all.

"There was all this consternation: 'Those guys aren't masters. They don't deserve that award. Jason's 32. Delfeayo's this.' I was talking to a friend of mine who brought it up to me. He asked what I thought about [the controversy]. I said, 'Do you believe that a rising tide lifts all boats?' He said, 'Yeah.'" It's Marsalis' feeling that because of the notoriety of his family, the award got coverage in media outlets like CNN and Fox News, heretofore unheard of for jazz. People who never heard of the NEA award were suddenly aware of it.

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