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Branford & Ellis Marsalis: The Dawn of Marsalis Music

Mark Corroto By

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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!

(Laughter)

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...

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