Branford & Ellis Marsalis: The Dawn of Marsalis Music

Mark Corroto By

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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 skill—or had the potential for a skill—you 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.

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 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 today or a Herbie Nichols, for that matter?

BM: Hell, I'll sign a Herbie Nichols. I'll sign Thelonious Monk!

EM: First of all, the chance of you even getting a Thelonious Monk 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 in Benny Goodman'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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