Branford & Ellis Marsalis: The Dawn of Marsalis Music

Mark Corroto By

Sign in to view read count
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.

AAJ: Oh, absolutely. So with respect to the timing of this label that you're starting. Why now? What conditions exist now? You're telling us this now that this is good timing.

BM: Are you talking externally or internally?

EM: I mean externally the conditions are always basically the same. You know, it's not that much of a change. I know Branford is right at where people would usually refer to as middle age.

AAJ: I'm the same age as he is.

EM: I'm on the other side of that, you see, so it's great. I mean, I just retired, you know, and it turns out to be a good time because everybody is of the same philosophical persuasion. And I don't think the times in and of itself, whatever we mean by that, have that much to do with it. If there's enough interest, if there's enough dedication, if there's enough understanding, and people with the skills to create a kind of an infrastructure that allows you to function... and there's good enough experience... Branford was with Columbia, how long?

BM: Twenty years.

EM: Okay, now I was with Columbia nearly seven. And to understand the mechanics of how all of that operates, you kind of have to go through that. You see, when you come out of it with some experience and then you make some decisions to say "I'm gonna start a record label..." you have the experience of having gone through this. Also, one thing, and I think it's great, is the fact that we live in a country that has a certain amount respect for entrepreneurship. You just got to figure out how to do it. (Laughs) Its not like you go around to the corner market and say "O.K. I'll take two pounds of entrepreneurship and I'll take twenty next week..." but to be here and to be able to do that!

AAJ: Are you taking any cues from some of these smaller jazz labels that are really getting a lot of note, at least in the jazz press? Basin Street, Atavistic, AUM?

BM: No.

AAJ: No?

EM: No. Well, Basin Street... it's interesting that you would mention it, because Basin Street was started by a kid who grew up with some of my kids. And what he's doing, I don't know what his capitalization is, but I don't think he's hurting. It's not so much that we would be taking cues from him. I think, essentially, there are some things that have to be done the same way. Now, he is Mark Samuels who's got Basin Street. Mark Samuels just signed Henry Butler, who is a pianist, rag blues, you know. He did a recording with my younger son, Jason; he's also working with Los Hombres Calientes. It doesn't seem to me that Mark is going in that-in a specific direction as far as jazz is concerned. But I think in the final analysis, Mark is signing or recording some people who may never really be heard, if it's going to be left up to Columbia, Warner Brothers, Capitol, you know. And I think it's always been like that.

I mean, one of the first jazz recordings I ever made was in 1962. It was on the AFO label, and this guy was a friend of ours. He had a pretty good hit off of a Rhythm and Blues recording called I Know. And as a result of that, he went into the studio and said, "Well man, you guys should be recorded." And there were some other people that he recorded singing, some people around New Orleans. At the time where we were still sitting behind screens in the buses, you know, we couldn't go downtown. And that was what he was doing. And there were a lot of other little labels. You know, they were doing a lot of things, like... Allen Toussaint was recording all kinds of stuff. You see, there's always been like, Imperial, or like the guy in Chicago, Chess was recording....

BM: So the way that we're different is that there will not be any sort of premium put on trying to get a hit record. You know, a hit record has... everybody has... there are several interpretations of that. Jazz guys are always trying to play pop tunes on their records. You know, always trying to get a song played on jazz radio. And, uh, I'm just not going to really try. You know, like, it was interesting when the Coltrane box came out. He recorded "My Favorite Things" and it was a hit. So Bob Thiele, in his infinite wisdom, decides that the trick is that, you know the reason the song was a success was because the song was in a minor key and it was in 6/8. So then, the next time, Coltrane records "Chim Chim Cheree" in a minor key in 6/8. And then he records one other thing, which one was it?

AAJ: "Greensleeves"?

BM: "Greensleeves" in a minor chord in 6/8. And they don't work as well. See the point is that you have to be really, really naive—or really an arrogant ass—to believe you have a formula for anything. Who knows why people buy what they buy? Anybody that says that they do is a liar. If the record companies of major labels really knew what people like, they wouldn't sign so many groups. They'd sign one group.

Like for instance, and one of things I was telling the guy, if Impulse really had their pulse on what was going on, they would have just signed Coltrane and sat on it. But instead what they did was signed him, and Keith Jarrett, and they signed McCoy Tyner, and they signed Charlie Haden. They signed all these people, they signed Archie Shepp, they signed all these people, and you know those records did really well for them. If they really knew what the hell they were doing, they would just sign one group and sit on it. And say "great, Coltrane's the guy." And people are going to forty years from now... you know, you don't know.

AAJ: Well, obviously for a smaller or independent label, will we hear more Branford Marsalis every year?

BM: No.

AAJ: Let me ask you in terms of this: we would get The Dark Keys, and then we would have to wait a whole year?

BM: Yes.

AAJ: But the smaller labels, Atavistic, or Ken Vandermark or other labels we may hear seven of his records coming out in a year.

BM: Who wants that? I mean people aren't going to buy seven of your records.

AAJ: Jazz nuts buy those records.

BM: I don't even think the jazz nuts buy them. That was my argument when Wynton put out twelve records. He put out twelve records in 2000. And I was working for Columbia at the time in a, whatever you want to call it, in an executive position but it wasn't really an executive-management position. I was against it. I said, "this is a mistake." This is a mistake. I mean, people are not going to buy twelve records. People are not going to buy four records—they might buy two. But he was determined...and you know, the first one sold okay, and then everything just, you know, jack-knifed after that. It just went right down the tubes.

So the whole point is really not to develop some massive catalog for myself. I mean, it's not a vanity label. It's to give creative musicians an opportunity to make musical statements. And when I say creative musicians, I don't subscribe to the notion that just because people call it "jazz" that it is automatically creative. I mean jazz has its boring middle line too, just like popular music does, and just like classical music does. You know, and when you listen to radio stations like the jazz station in New York City, the music that they play is very middle of the road-mainstream.

You know, you listen to those jazz tunes and see if you ever heard this formula before. It starts out with some sort of rhythmic vamp in the beginning of the song (singing "doo doo doo do do do do doo doo doo do do do do"), bang! And then they start the melody. And it's the trumpet playing the lead and the saxophone guy playing the little doodles underneath. Then they get to the bridge and the saxophone plays the melody and there's trumpet doodles underneath. Then the saxophonist plays a solo, the trumpet player plays a solo, and the pianist plays a solo. Then the bassist plays a solo—and when the bassist plays a solo the drummer's going' chik chicka chik chika (drum noises) on the side. And then they trade fours with the drums and then they take the head out-and every song sounds like that on the whole record. I mean that's like THE jazz formula. If you buy records, it's like, if you get a buck for every time you hear that formula, you're gonna be a rich man. You know, like, to me, that's not creative at all.

AAJ: So, when you're talking about creative, will your label be re-signing David S. Ware?

BM: Perhaps, yes. I see nothing wrong with that.

AAJ: And, uh, David S. Ware obviously is not going to sell 10,000 records this year.

BM: 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 and based on what happened to Coltrane. That was one of my hopes is—that you know, one day I'd get good enough to stop selling records! (Laughs)

AAJ: Well, how is it, though. And the reason I bring this up is that we're basically the same age. I've read interviews of you in the past, and when you were younger you listened to Led Zeppelin—on your fist album cover—and Parliament. And I've come up with a formula where people who are now 42 do James Brown, Led Zeppelin. Then they do Bob Marley, Jimmy Buffet, and Fleetwood Mac. And most people my age (you're different because you're a musician), then they stop. And then twenty years later, they listen to the oldies station.

BM: Uh huh.

AAJ: Some of us follow. They say: "Wow, I really like the saxophone line in 'Moondance'"—and say, "Wow!" Then they explore a little further. And they keep going. And obviously as a musician you didn't stick with just playing...

BM: Yeah, that was a terrible saxophone line in "Moondance," by the way. (Everyone laughs)

AAJ: But it hooks someone.

BM: But the point is, man, is that the problem that we have in the United States of America is that we are philosophically the descendants of the English. And if you look at the history of Europe, of music in Europe, they were easily the worst country in Europe when it comes to appreciation of music. They are just cretins when it comes to it. And the English and the Americans both see music as entertainment and nothing more.

And what music does for most people is it serves as background. It's like a soundtrack of all the shit going on in their lives. And that why you say, they get to a point and then they stop-it's because their lives stop. And then they start grabbing for the earlier parts of their lives that they actually liked better than maybe what they see right now. And that's why you find people, even in jazz guys, you find guys caught in a time warp. There was a guy heckling me at a jazz concert in Indianapolis, a guy just reminded me of this yesterday. Two years ago, and he had on a green leisure suit with white patent leather shoes, which was the popular dress in the fifties. And he had on this fifties thing, (background laughter) and he was telling me, you know, the music I play sucks.

EM: I missed that, man—I didn't see that.

BM: (smiles) No, you weren't paying attention then.

EM: That's right. (more laughter all around)

BM: You weren't paying attention, but if you see those guys, man... those dudes that used to listen to, like a, Dinah Washington, and hang out at them bars, with them big, long bars and they had the juke box in the corner. They all had on them white patent leather shoes and that look. And my man was just like, you know, "Your music sucks! Why don't you play something we know!" and blah blah blah. And I finally told the guy. I said, "Man, it's not my job to sit here and recreate for you a time in your life when you thought, you know, was the best time in your life. That's not what I'm doing here." And he shut up for a second when I said that. So I said, "Well, I guess I got him." And then he left.

And I think that with people in music... For instance, I was talking with some friends and we were having the same discussion about music. We were arguing about music, and "Betcha By Golly Wow" came on. And they started saying, "Man! Boy, now that's my song." Cause the song, I think the Delphonics did it, back in the day. You know, this is an R&B song. "Man, that was my song, man...I remember the first time I heard that song. I was going with blah, blah, blah." You know, and another one: "Yeah, I was on my first date, that song was on the radio." And you know, they all had stories about the first time they heard "Betcha By Golly Wow." Then they got to me and I said, "yeah I remember that song. Soon as I heard it I said man, that's a great song." I didn't relate it to anything. I didn't relate it to any other activity, other than listening to the song.

And that's the difference between lay people and musicians.... for them, the song is always associated with something else... which is why you do a movie in the seventies, or a movie in the sixties, they pull out all this sixties music and stick it on the soundtrack. You know what I mean, if you're going to do a war movie, you're going to hear Hendrix, you know, you're going to hear "California Dreaming.'" In every war movie, cause that's about Vietnam, you're going to hear these songs...."C'mon Baby Light My Fire." Because to them the music is endemic of a certain point in history. Whereas with musicians, great music is just great music.

I mean, when I'm listening to Bach or when I'm listening to Beethoven, I'm not thinking about what life was like in the 18th century or the 19th century. I'm just listening to the music. This shit could've been written yesterday for me. And that's what separates musicians from lay people.

AAJ: But with respect to a label and where you're going. Just a quick example... I brought a friend to see you and your trio in Akron about ten years ago. And he's not a jazz fan. But he jumped out of his skin. He was so excited. I mean he didn't really know what this was about. He sat through the show. We came back stage. He was so excited. In my experience with students—we used to have a lot of young employees working for us—we exposed them to jazz, and they loved it.

BM: I don't find that to be with most people. He's an exception to the rule. He's not the rule. And our band is different than most jazz bands, because we don't really play in a style that allows you to do all the other shit that you do. You know what I mean? Like when you play at a club like Ronnie Scott's. Ronnie Scott's is a club in London. And the whole point of a club like Ronnie Scott's is that people join the club. You pay your dues for a year and they let you in for five pounds. And people join because it's... if you've ever spent any time in London... London shuts down. Ronnie Scotts is open 'til 3:30. It's the only club open, so people can come in. Jazz is usually playing in the background, and they can talk. And have a good time and talk and the music is on.

But when we're playing, you can't talk. It's just that the style of the music that we play, it stops at unpredictable points. Or you're out there talking, and the music gets real soft. We play this really soft ballad and they can't talk during the ballads without looking like pigs. Or we play this music that's so aggressive that they have to shout over it. And that's not what they come to jazz clubs for. They come so they can have some nice dinner music in the background and they can talk, you know. And most guys will oblige to them. They play like that. Like (sings makes music songs). Not like, you know, bang! Not like the way Elvin Jones and those guys play. Just hittin' the drums. And playing real loud.

So we have a certain kind of energy that's more affiliated to rock & roll.

AAJ: Jazz has gotten stigmatized as being background music, like pop music.

BM: It is off in the background. But I think that's why I often feel that I don't really like high school kids who don't listen to pop music, who only listen to jazz. I find them to be very suspicious people, you know. Because one of the things that our music has is a certain kind of emotional immediacy that I think comes from listening to popular music when you're a kid. When you just have guys that sit around learn how to read all the fake books and learn theory, when they play... it has a light sound to it—a light, feathery kind of sound to it, you know. And a lot of people like that light shit.

I mean, I don't like light sound. I like to have a very dense sound to the music. And I think that people that do respond to that that aren't jazz fans they will respond to the energy that we have on stage. Cause we have a lot of energy. And a lot of jazz groups do not have energy on stage. They're technically great, and they can play up and down. But they do a lot of wiggling and dancing kind of sometimes, and that'll get people going. They give 'em eye candy. I mean we just, we have a lot of energy coming off the stage when we play.

AAJ: So that may explain why my friend jumped out of his skin...

BM: Perhaps. Or he can just be a guy who is exceptionally in tune to music.

AAJ: But is that what your philosophy is for this new label?

BM: Man, my philosophy is just to put out good records. I'm not looking for an audience. And I think that's where those guys wrong. It's like they don't believe in the music. They don't have faith in the music. So they always think, we got to find an audience for this music. Man, it's hard enough to make good music. If you sit around and worrying about the audience, I mean, you're gonna suck.

AAJ: How will the audience find your music?

BM: They'll find it. It's there. How do they find anything? I mean, they'll find it!

AAJ: For a lot of younger audiences, it's from touring bands.

BM: Well, they'll tour.

AAJ: You were here last time and there was a buzz. And you came back and there's more of a buzz. And the third time you came back...

BM: They'll tour. Our musicians will tour. But they can also buy the records off the internet, they'll be able to buy the records in the stores, and this is the most crucial part, they will be able to buy the records at the venue. Because jazz audiences are not the types that are going to camp out at 3:00 o'clock in the morning and wait to say that they were the first in line to buy a record, you know. And most of them are adults, and they have real jobs. And they're not going to say, "Let me swing over to Tower Records and pick up that record." So you have to make the record available to them in a manner that is convenient for them.

EM: You know, I managed to convince Columbia to that once. I understood why they didn't do it. Because I had a meeting and I was telling them, I said that because of the nature... I was on tour at the time with Marcus Roberts. It's the two pianos. And I'd say like if we could get somebody in the area we going in to come out to the venue and set up a table, you know. And sell the records. I tell you it would be a whole lot better than trying to do it the way it's done. Well, I understand why they couldn't do that. But first of all, they're not in the position to be picking somebody. I mean if they, you know, picked Tower, then there is the little record shops and stuff over there, that's going to be upset. So, I could understand that. "So," I say, "Look, why don't you just present it as the means of an opportunity for somebody to do it." We were in Chicago, Illinois, and one guy did. I remember it wasn't a big store. He came out and Marcus, I think, sold about eighty. And I sold... I forgot what the number was, but it was worth him coming out to do that. You know what I'm saying?

So the creative aspect of what is taking place here is not only at the level of the music and the musicians, but also creative from the standpoint of marketing, you see. And there's any number of things that you can do, but to really try to find people... like I met a kid yesterday. Youngster, and from what I understand by the general definition he's like a middle-class kid who studies, starting to play jazz and it looks like he is really interested in jazz. But he's also good with classical music, man, he played one of Chopin's etudes very well. Now....

BM: (interrupts) and he doesn't listen to pop music, so I don't like him. (laughs)

EM: Well, a lot of times you never know, some of that'll change.

BM: (more laughter) I'm kidding, Dad.

EM: Well they got people like that, man, you know they do. He's right. They do have people like that, cause, like, see... I was fortunate in a strange way. In the later years of my life, my wife and I had a son who became a musician. So as he was growing up I was sort of able to peep off the antenna and see where a lot of these kids were, through him. Cause otherwise than that, I would've been lost out there. I don't know what these kids are doing and there were kids exactly like what Branford would describe. They were going to the high schools that he had gone to. And listened to one jazz record after the next jazz record and they don't listen to no pop music and all that. Whereas he was different. Boy, was he different! At ten years old he was a huge fan of the Monkees, from the TV shows, and sent for records and all that. So, I was able to tune in on that. And like basically, what he said is true.

But what ultimately, I think, can happen is that a label—which is a business, OK—can ultimately affect people. Like throwing a pebble in the water, and the things go out like that. There's ways in which labels can actually do that. Right now, there are some things I think about theoretically, but until such time as everything is online and going, some ideas that I'm thinking about may work, and some may not. You know, they just become another one of my ideas. But the way things... For example, there is a way to sponsor things in schools, you know, so kids can be exposed to that kind. I remember one situation, which I thought was a surprise. Freddie Green played guitar with the Basie Band. The Basie Band came into New Orleans and the Jazz and Heritage Festival does an outreach. They reach out to kids in public school and they'll sponsor workshops and what have you.

So Freddie Green was asked to do a workshop, and I was asked to host this workshop. Now, to me, that's impossibility. I mean, Freddie Green's whole thing is rhythm guitar, acoustic rhythm guitar. So we got this audience full of kids, high school kids, from one school is John F. Kennedy and another one's McDonough 35. You know, public schools. So, I'm thinking to myself, this is going to be a disaster. I don't have a clue as to how to proceed with it. Freddie Green was glib in the sense that he could talk about some things. And that we'd play and he'd do his thing. The "we" I'm talking about at that time: Victor Goines was playing saxophone, Reginald Veal was the bassist.

But to make a long story short... towards the end of it, about five or six kids in the middle of the audience stood up and said "Hey, man! Where can we get tickets to hear this? I ain't never heard of Count Basie. Who is Count Basie?" And it floored me, you know. I was standing there saying, "Wow. Where is this coming from?" You know, the overall audience was nothing like one would think inner-city kids... and this is inner-city kids, however you want to define that. So, what I'm saying is that a label like this can affect things that happen this way... not just in a little cloister kind of situation where the whole objective is just to, "Well, lets see if we can get a jazz hit, whatever that is." You see. So I'm optimistic about it.

AAJ: Well it sounds as if you're going to use the stock of the family name, obviously. Because everyone will take note you're in town.

EM: (interrupts) That can be kind of tricky.

AAJ: ...or this is one of your projects.

BM: No we're not going to do that.

EM: That can be very tricky. And the reason why I say that is because a lot of times it becomes like preaching to the choir, when you are serious about doing anything at all. I mean your name could be Joseph Einstein and everybody knows the name Albert Einstein. But when you cut below the surface of that and say, "OK. Now we got this physics lab over here, and this is what we going to begin to do." Then you start to find out what a difference that Einstein name means. The name in and of itself is not going to cause this to be successful.

BM: No. If we tried that, it would be disastrous.

EM: Yeah. It's not something that will hurt, but at the same time...

BM: (interrupts) I think it will hurt.

EM: ...you can't be delusional....

BM: (interrupts again) I think it'll hurt. I think it puts the artists in a position where the artists are secondary to the name.

EM: Well, that can happen.

BM: The whole point is: if you believe in artists, and you believe in their work, then you give them an opportunity to be heard. And it's not going to say, "Marsalis Music presents..." That just doesn't...that's just stupid! It's almost like, you know, Robert Flack's first record was a hit. And it was such a hit that no one remembers that they was so afraid that no one would know who she was that they hired Les McCann to oversee the record, and the record says actually "Les McCann presents Robert Flack."

AAJ: Right, Duke Ellington presents Dollar Brand.

BM: Exactly.

EM: Or Stan Kenton presented a whole boatload. It was a label.

BM: It doesn't really work. It doesn't really help. I mean, either the artist is good enough, or the artist is not good enough. But, that's—once again—one of those record company inventions to try to force an audience that they assume is gullible. Because you have to assume that an audience is gullible to believe that he'll buy something just because a guy's name is on it.

AAJ: Well, I don't think we're naive enough to assume that just because you found the next Herbie Nichols and you put out his record that people are just going to come to it. There has to be some way to get them there, yes? I'll restate that. There might be some fantastic musician, I mean...

BM: (interrupts) no there isn't. Name one fantastic musician who you found out about after the person had died, you know, who was alive at the time and no one talked about him.

AAJ: Name one?

BM: I mean like, Thelonious Monk. People talked about Thelonious Monk. He didn't get world—like Michael Jackson—recognition. But he never will anyway. The point is that when you start traveling—it's like a running joke to me...

There's always some dude in Chicago who knew a dude, who knew a dude, who was just as good as Bird. But somehow miraculously that guy never showed up. He never materialized. He decided to stay home and take care of his family and work in the welding shop. I mean, the reality is, man, you don't play like Bird and not get heard. It just doesn't happen. It's never happened in our history, and it's not about to happen. It's more likely in sports than it is in music.

EM: (interjects) Oh yeah.

BM: Music, I just can't see it happening. I mean, 'cause a cat would basically have to play in his closet. Like no one, he would just never play out publicly. Because any time you have a guy who is playing in a town, everybody knows about it in 24 hours. "Man! I heard about this cat, man! He lives in Sheboygan. He's playing his ass off!"

I mean, you live in New York long enough, man, everybody knows where everybody is. This cat's going to be coming to town in a little bit.

I'll give you a perfect example, bro. My bassist comes down with appendicitis, all right, in Europe. So we're driving in a bus from some small town in Italy to the airport, and then we fly to Istanbul—no, Athens—to do a gig. He's like, "Man, I don't feel good." The doctors check him and say, "You have appendicitis, brother." So we don't have a bassist. Tain says, "Man, I heard this cat in London, man. Bad dude, man. Name's Orlando. We should get him." This cat lives in London. Tain heard him once. But Tain is a great musician. He knows when he hears it. I call this cat... "Hey man, you want to come do some gigs?" He's like, "Sure!" So we get him a ticket, he comes over, just nails the gig. Tears the shit up. So now we go back to New York and were like, "Man I heard this cat Orlando. This motherfucker can play, man. This cat is bad, you know what I mean?" So now cats in New York know about a dude in London who... they don't even know what he looks like... one day, the dude's going to come to New York.

And he came to New York two weeks ago. You know, he says, "Hey, man. I'm in town." I said, "Call this guy; call this guy; call this guy." The guy says, "Yeah, yeah. Branford gave me your number. My name is Orlando." They say, "Yeah, man. I heard about you. Man, what are you doing? You want a gig?" Now, he doesn't have a label. He doesn't have a contract. But I betcha he will in about two years. The musicians, we all know who the cats are, man.

EM: You know what, I'll tell you another thing, especially with the sports thing. That brother who's playing quarterback for the Saints... he was sitting over there in Green Bay underneath Brett Favre, you see. And when one of the, either coach or whatever,

BM: (interjects) The quarterbacks coach became the official coordinator of the Saints...

EM: Yeah, came there. And he said, "Look, we..." Brooks...

BM: (interjects) "We need to go get him."

EM: And that's what they did...

BM: And he was third string, so they gave him to them. But the part that's ironic is that the exact same thing that happened with Brett Favre. The quarterback coach from the Falcons came over to the Packers and said, "There's a guy sitting' at the end of the bench that's the greatest quarterback I've seen. Let's get him." That's the way music is, man.

AAJ: So the fans missed it. The sports writers missed it.

BM: The fans didn't miss it cause they didn't see it. How, they can't miss something they don't see.

AAJ: Well then, how do you relate it to music fans missing this bassist from London?

BM: Well, they're not supposed to know. They ain't supposed to know. I mean, he's playing in clubs. People—they're not trying to listen to the music—they're sitting there talking and bull-shitting, you know. He's playing in a band and the lead guy's there, so they're looking at the lead guy. They're not going to, you know... People like Led Zeppelin, for instance. You like Led Zeppelin. You know the bassist's name? You know the lead guitarist's name? (general laugher) Ah, there you go. Thank you for proving my point. The bassist's name is John Paul Jones. He was the rock of the band. That's one of the reasons that the two best musicians in the band were the bassist and Bonham. And all the shit on top was just icing. But people love icing. So they always know the singer's name and the guitarist's name. They never know the bassist's name.

AAJ: But icing sells. I mean, if you look at pop music today...

BM: But I'm not playing pop music, so why should I give a shit? I'm not interested in icing. I am not playing pop music. I don't have to be interested in icing. I'm interested in jazz. I'm interested in meat.

AAJ: So the meat which is, from what we understand, two or three percent of all record sales.

BM: Two or three percent of all the musicians who play the music that represent two ore three percent of the record sales. That's how small it is.

EM: Boy, that's really small.

AAJ: But is that just an accepted thing, or is that just the comfort zone you're working in.

BM: That's an accepted thing. That's not a comfort zone. That's a reality.

Man, I play with pop stars, dude. I've played with pop stars. I was on the Tonight Show. I have seen what the average person likes. We aren't even in the same ballpark.

And I am not willing to tell musicians to do the things that are required to get the average person to like you, because it has nothing to do with music. Because if it had anything to do with music... you know, I'll give you a perfect example. Some friends of mine were sitting around. We weren't sitting. We were playing golf. These three guys I play golf with, and they were talking about Jim Carey having this relationship with Renee Zellweger. "Man, I can't believe he's hitting that! You know, guys, that's some fine shit, man." I said, "Man, are you guys stupid or what?" Goes, "What'd you mean?" I says, "Alright, man. Let me break it down to you. All right, the movie just came out two weeks ago. How long do you think it takes to make a movie?"—"Oh, six months."—"Yeah, six months to a year. And then after you make the movie, you have to edit the movie. Then after the movie, you have to make the copies. And then you have to send it to the people. So the entire process is about a year after you finish. So it's a 2-year project."

And they were talking on television. Renee Zellweger says that "I wasn't going to mess with Jim until the movie was over, and then we'd know if it was serious or not." Which means that when you do it when the movie's over, that was a year ago. So we just hear about this relationship two weeks ago, which just coincidentally coincides with the release of the movie. What are the odds? Like, wake up, fellows! Y'all are part of the damn problem. You know what I mean? There's a system in place, you know.

And they told Renee... "Hey, you know, we don't want you to put your shit out there with Jim, but it will really help sell the movie." And they go, "Well, we want to sell the movie, so OK. We'll just take our relationship and toss it out there to the masses." And they eat it up and they talk about Renee and Jim, Renee and Jim. And then they go see the movie. And they either like the movie or they don't like the movie. And, see, I'm not going have a musician do any of that. I'm not going to say, "Hey, man. You know, I heard you did a record with a pop star last year. So maybe we can get that pop star to do a song on your record, and then we can promote the record." And everybody wins. Everybody wins except the music. The music loses.

AAJ: So you've seen that whole thing, from Sting to the Tonight Show to the Dead to...

BM: (interrupts) Well the Dead were different. They weren't pop stars.

AAJ: But you've seen the whole marketing...

BM: (interrupted) the Dead were anti all that. They had a light show from the '70s. I mean, they.. you noticed on any pop star.

Like you could play with Sting, and there are pop star rows. Rows of people that will go 'cause it's the in-thing to do. Dead shows were not "in." You never saw any limos at Dead shows.

EM: They were interesting, man.

BM: They had these old lights. They didn't talk to the audience. They didn't have dancing girls. They didn't have dance routines. They didn't have light shows and extravaganzas on stage. It was just a big, flat stage with some amps on it. Dudes walked out wearing, you know, fucked up T-shirts. And they say, "Whatch ya'all want to play, man? Hey man, lets play. Cool." And they start playing. The audience was there because they loved the music. See, that's my point. That's ultimately... that's the ultimate gig.

EM: And they never said, "Don't tape our music."

BM: They say, "Tape whatever you want. Film whatever you want. It's all for you'all." This is great. They sold out every show. And when you get a place like that, they didn't need anybody. They didn't need record companies. They didn't need ticket sales people. They sold their own tickets. They would rent out the Garden. They didn't need Madison Square Garden Promotions to rent them out. They destroyed the concept of the middleman entirely. They were probably the biggest nightmare in the history of the business of rock music.... because if everybody starting thinking like them, the entire middle would be crushed. Radio wouldn't exist. Madison Square Garden Promotions wouldn't exist. That whole thing would be cut out. Because they would just go on the web and say, "We got a concert coming." And they'd sell it out every time.

EM: That's what they'd do.

BM: And they would show up. So they are like a model for me. They are a model for me. What the hell are we doing out here! And we don't even stand a chance of getting 18,000 people. Nor should we, cause jazz is not the kind of music that should be played in front of 18,000 people.

It's kind of like watching Pavarotti sing in Dodger Stadium. It doesn't work. It might work for the people who would never... who would rather lose a limb than go to an opera hall. But it just doesn't work. You know, it doesn't work. So, I'm saying, if the Dead can do this... and it's a lot more difficult for them to do it than for us to do it, because the expectation in popular music is so high and all of those rules are so entrenched. In jazz, they don't even pay attention to us. So I think it's a brilliant idea. Let the music speak for itself, and accept the audience that exists, rather then trying to invent an audience.

EM: Which you can't do anyway.

AAJ: Which would entail—if you were going to use the model of the Dead—you tour and tour and tour and tour. Will we see that from your band?

BM: My band... we tour all the time. We constantly tour.

AAJ: Let's get back to the timing of your new project and possible signings.

EM: It's hard to really describe who one would sign or not...this is probably a great time for this kind of a label.

BM: The timing. It's like meeting your wife, you know what I mean? When it happens, you know. It's a great time cause it's a great time. Was it a great time to meet your wife? How did you know it was the right thing? How did you know it was the time? Did you say, "A year from now I'm going to meet this girl. She's going to rock my world, and two years after that I'm going to be hitched."? Hell no! You're walking down the street minding your business. One day, bam! You meet this chick and you start thinking about shit you never thought you would ever be thinking about.

AAJ: So it wasn't a conscious thing at all, that you've seen that indie jazz labels are doing better...

BM: No. Because what I want to do is different that what the indie jazz labels do. The indie jazz labels do the same stuff. They get guys and they make them do standards... "You got to do a standard on your record!" They have all these ridiculous rules.

AAJ: There's no indie jazz label that you respect?

BM: It's not that I disrespect them. I respectfully disagree with them. It's not that I disrespect them. I mean, the fact that they're out there busting their ass. Labels like Justin Time. I mean, I'm glad they exist.

AAJ: Well when you were in your position at Sony—the A&R position—you signed David S. Ware. With respect to musicians playing now, who do you believe are the innovators of this age?

BM: (interrupts) I ain't telling you that, man! Because if I try to sign them, then they're going to want more money!


BM: Once you put out there that you're interested in somebody, then they're going to say, "OK. The price just went up." So I can't, you know...But most of the cats that I find innovative... there's not a lot out there that I actually find innovative. And some of the stuff is innovative, but it's just not impressive to me. It's kind of like, you know, doing a record with a koto player. It's innovative, but why? What's the point of that exactly? I just don't like... there are a lot of popular piano players and they play so light. I don't like light-playing musicians. I don't like anything light. You know what I mean?

I have a really strong idea about the kind of musicians I like to be around. They're not people who are interested in breaking rules. They just break the rules. But to them, it seems normal. You have some musicians who are so interested in calling themselves innovators that they spend all their time detailing how they broke the rules. But then there is this other kind of thing where they way that they naturally hear the music is just odd. They hear the music differently than other people do. Those are the guys I want to be around. Where it is completely natural, completely logical in their mind, and it's just some strange shit.

EM: That's the way Ornette was.

BM: Yeah. You know what I mean, like they try to make it look like Ornette, "Well, here's Bird, and here's this, and I'm just going..." He just heard it that way, man!

EM: He sure did.

BM: That's what made it work. It's like he studied the blues. It's obvious he's a blues man. All great jazz musicians to me come out of the blues.

There are jazz musicians who everybody seems to be wowed out by their technical ability. There are a bunch of them out there now. "Unbelievable technical player! What great players!" they call them. "Man, that guy's a great player, great player." You hear people saying that all the time. And they have this amazing technical facility, but the music they're playing... I mean, it's... I mean, every great jazz musician that I know of, you know, prior to 1970, they find a way to make an innovative expression on a blues-based music. And now there's just a bunch of musicians out there, that they have avoided the blues completely. The blues to them is a 12-bar form. And they have avoided the whole blues tradition completely, which is why when they try to play Coltrane's music it comes out as a series of patterns. And it doesn't have the same kind of emotional impact. All the notes are right, but it's just.... that's what it sounds like. It sounds like a flat line, for me.

AAJ: We were having a discussion this morning about your recording of "A Love Supreme" for Impulse!

BM: Oh, that one.

AAJ: We were trying to figure out why nobody will touch "A Love Supreme" now.

BM: Because they're scared.

EM: A lot of people don't really understand what that is, too. So it's coupled with a certain fear.

BM: They're scared. It's the blues. It's the one thing they don't know how to do. See you can't... That's the whole point, my whole point... One of the things I always tell young students is that, I talk about, "Who's your favorite saxophonist?" They say, "this guy." (Names aren't really important.) I say, "Well, man, if a guy can play a song and move his fingers where the chords are changing two chords per bar, and every bar a different set of chord changes... How come they can't play on songs that only have one chord?" And you look at something like A Love Supreme is basically one chord.

The reason, the X-factor, is the blues. All the technique in the world will not serve you when have to play on one chord and the songs going (making musical sounds) they start moving their fingers then they get high notes (more sounds). They don't know... they can't get to that. Check this one out. There's that blues form that everybody likes. You know the song by Muddy Waters, "The Seventh Son." Well, it's not his song, but he recorded it. Willie Dixon wrote it. (Sings) "On the seventh hour, seventh day." Slow it down and give the line to Jimmy Garrison instead of going (sings) you go (do dah do duh, do dah do duh). It's the blues baby, the motherfucking blues...



Shop for Music

Start your music shopping from All About Jazz and you'll support us in the process. Learn how.

Related Articles