Branford & Ellis Marsalis: The Dawn of Marsalis Music

Mark Corroto By

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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.
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