Branford & Ellis Marsalis: The Dawn of Marsalis Music

Mark Corroto By

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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.
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