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Branford & Ellis Marsalis: The Dawn of Marsalis Music

Mark Corroto By

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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?
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