Branford Marsalis: It's All About the Band


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I'm always thinking of ways to enhance the music and the way we think about it. I think that one of the problems that jazz has is that it's so incestuous that it's starting to kill itself.
Branford Marsalis is one of this music's most recognizable figures. The eldest brother of jazz's first family, he's been an honored constituent of the community since first joining Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers in 1980. As a member of the Wynton Marsalis Quintet, saxophonist with Sting and director of the Tonight Show band he has been at the center of much media controversy, but it is as a leader of his own quartet that he has truly made his mark. Now he has a record company.

All About Jazz: Is it fun having your own record label?

Branford Marsalis: If I were like a lot of other people, then it wouldn't be fun; but since I'm like me, it's okay.

AAJ: Is it anything like you'd thought it would be?

BM: It's exactly like I thought it would be. I suspect that we might actually start selling some records with these artists in about ten years. Some the people who invested, they're a little tight - because it's a lot of money to start up a company, but I tell them "Look I told you guys this is how the shit was going to be when we started. This is what jazz is." You know, we'll be fine.

AAJ: Do you approach making records for Marsalis Music any differently than you did when you were at Columbia (Sony)?

BM: No it's the same attitude.

AAJ: You plan to make the same kind of records?

BM: The same records. The difference being that we expect ... we have more faith in the music than the people at major labels have. I'm always thinking of ways to enhance the music and the way we think about it. I think that one of the problems that jazz has is that it's so incestuous that it's starting to kill itself.

When you think about jazz in the sixties and jazz in the seventies, or jazz in the fifties and jazz in the sixties, one of the things that's clear to me from interviews that I've read is that the more popular successful jazz musicians had audiences above and beyond the music community. But now we have an environment where record companies and the musicians that they employ all gear themselves towards playing for the jazz community and playing to impress other musicians and people who hang around this music all the time, and people who play this music, we have this nerd factor, because we know all the little intricacies of the music that lay people generally don't know and when you start championing the intricacies you basically alienate everybody else.

So the idea that we came up with is to get cats who love to play music and have the sense of a band ... they want to get a good band ... I think that that's really the key, not being really interested in their own self-aggrandizement, you know, but that they're interested in getting a band sound and developing a band. Then it's the company's job to try to essentially get them into avenues that are not traditionally reserved for jazz. Not to separate ourselves from the - you know - like Jazz Times and Jazziz and all of those jazz publications, but the idea is that you have to start looking to expand the exposure of your artists somewhere beyond that.

AAJ: Do you think that you are able to do that because you (personally) already have a base in popular culture?

BM: No, I gave up my base in popular culture when I left the Tonight Show. We can't do it so easily. It's hard.

AAJ: You don't feel that you still carry an audience with you from Sting and Leno?

BM: No. There are a handful of people, which is what I always thought it would be. Twenty times a year I meet people who say 'yeah I got turned on to jazz with you from Sting, and in their minds what they're thinking is that those records that I did with Sting were jazz records. But two or three times a year I meet people who say "I'd never heard you until I heard you with Sting", and then they start talking about Ornette and Sonny Rollins and Coltrane, and I say "Wow, so that was cool."

AAJ: In the seventies, Grover Washington would record Inner City Blues and maybe one in a hundred or thousand people who listened to the record because they liked Marvin Gaye would go on to get into Trane one day, but by attracting that person to jazz that record was doing its job?

BM: That's true, but the whole pop music (scene)... like it started to change. I've changed and our music started to change, and our music is just not user friendly any more in the general sense of the word. So when I was in my twenties playing with Sting was great. But when I came back to jazz the overall level of musicianship that the band exhibited was so low it made our music palatable to people who weren't hard core jazz fans. Now that we've actually stepped it up to the point where we're playing really sophisticated music, it's very difficult for people to follow. We just did a string of gigs that ended in Newark where people were just staring at us like we had three heads. They didn't know what to make of us and we weren't even playing hard shit. We were playing ballads and stuff, but it didn't come out the way they were used to it or whatever it was, so the whole pop culture cache is done and it's hard for us to get our artists, including myself, into those (general circulation) publications. But I think that if you keep banging at the door all you need is a little, a little foothold, a little tiny foothold and then the rest will take care of itself.

AAJ: Doug Wamble. Is he managing to slip through a crack in the door yet?

BM: No. No. He's not selling yet. But I believe in his music.

AAJ: Although he's the least known artist on the label, it would seem that he has the best shot at breaking through the barriers?

BM: (He has) more accessibility, but because he loves jazz so much and he's influenced by jazz music, he's determined to play jazz tunes and because we live in such a fragmented society—if every song on the record was like "Baby If You Love Me," people would like it but then they'd also say "Why the hell is he on Marsalis Music?" And then you have a situation where you have a swinging song like "Sweet Magnolia Tree," but the jazz stations say we ain't going to play this record because it's not a jazz record. There's like these built-in biases. And... that's okay because I think in some ways jazz needs to be more biased rather than musicians allowing a lot of mediocre music to masquerade as jazz. So I'm not really against that per se, I just believe that guys like Miguel and guys like Doug are going to have to go out and hit the road and develop their own clientele. I think that is ultimately within the best interest of every artist—that they really believe in themselves and understand that sometimes you must go and play a club where you're not going to make no money and take a hit in order to enhance your profile among the people who frequent those places. And to just develop your clientele. And the amount of money that musicians waste on shit like demos and photographs and press clippings... I mean I'm not going to hire a musician because I like his resume. I'm going to hire a musician because I like the way he sounds.

AAJ: Okay, lets get to that part. Are you going crazy? Are hundreds of people sending you demo tapes? Are all of your friends hitting on you for record dates?

BM: Thousands. Thousands. Yeah, but it doesn't matter; that's fine. I mean I understand the power of "no" and no real friend would try to pressure me to do some stuff like that. And if they do then I know they're not a real friend, so it's okay because you learn either way.

AAJ: Do you do a lot of listening to demo tapes?

BM: Yeah. Bob Blumenthal listens to a lot more than I do and narrows it down. We'll sit down then and listen to them together or play them and talk on the phone about it. I mean the group thing is crucial. The whole idea that like... My dad told me a really cool story. Coltrane came to New Orleans one day and he was talking about the jazz scene. And Coltrane mentions that the problem with jazz was that there were too few groups and that all the club owners he'd talk to talk about that. And my dad said, "Well I loved Trane, but I thought he was crazy." And the reason he thought he was crazy was that because he lived in Louisiana, whenever he bought a Lee Morgan record he saw four names on it and he thought that was a group. He didn't think of it as just a session. He thought that because in New Orleans he had his group. He had his boys and they all played together, but that was out of necessity because there ain't but five dudes in New Orleans who wanted to play jazz and they all played together. But in New York you see it now where guys go out and they call cats and everybody does sessions. It has this general kind of functionality, but they don't have that spark that the music that Mingus had or that Miles had or Trane had. Because the group—there's no groups like Buhaina's group.

AAJ: The Messengers are the prime example of that because Art tried to keep a group together. Even though a lot of those editions of the Messengers were really just sessions, when you listen to the records by the real groups like Freddie, Wayne, Curtis, Cedar and Reggie, you can hear the difference.

BM: That's right. And I think that that's our focus. That's our primary focus.

AAJ: Well you have a band. Miguel has a band. Wamble definitely has a band. There are so few real bands out here, so I guess that that focus makes it a little easier for you to find what you're looking for.

BM: Yeah, we don't have to... we don't have market expectations; we don't have people... we don't have to make records with people. We don't have to do it. You know what I mean? Like I told them that (when they ask) "How many records do you want to release a year?" I said "Well that depends on the people who are playing. If there ain't no good shit out there, then we ain't going to release no records. There's no emphasis on... Like you could do a formula like GRP did, where you release twenty records a year, amass a catalogue and then sell it off for sixteen million dollars. That's a smart business model because the people who decide to purchase record companies don't really listen to music so they cannot evaluate taste. All they can evaluate is volume, so it doesn't even matter whether the record is good or whether the record is bad. It's just the volume of it. It's just the catalogue. The "catalogue" is the thing that they focus on.

We're not in that business. I don't plan on selling the company. I mean, I'm not trying to amass a catalogue so I can sell it off. So we can wait until something comes along.

AAJ: How does a Branford Marsalis record on Marsalis Music sell compared to one on Sony?

BM: About the same.

AAJ: About the same. So basically that great big corporate publicity machine at Sony didn't bring you any more listeners than you have on your own?

BM: We'd do the record. Put an ad in Downbeat; put an ad in Jazz Times; service the radio stations and that was it. Now I do a record. Put an ad in Downbeat; put an ad in Jazz Times; service the jazz radio stations and try to get ourselves into more mainstream publications. Sony says, "why should we spend the money to get you into a mainstream publication and then there's no return?" And they're right. They're right based on their business philosophy. I can understand why they wouldn't want to invest in us.

AAJ: You basically share the same philosophy that I have, which is that the jazz community is a lock already, so you do what you have to do and then focus on trying to get into the mainstream because if one person out of a thousand reading Newsweek checks you out that's more than every person reading Downbeat.

BM: It 's hard to get into Newsweek because, as more of our former intellectual magazines take on a pop focus, if there's no buzz, there's no interest.

AAJ: And they don't know how to create the buzz.

BM: Well it's hard to create a buzz unless you... the way to create a buzz is to have these external factors that are almost antithetical to what jazz represents. You have to have all these external factors based on... what's the word... on a certain level superficialities.

AAJ: Like clothes, fashion.

BM: Yeah or doing sensational things. Like last week Wynton was in Newsweek. Newsweek and the Sunday Times Magazine. And if you look at the Arts section in the New York Times you can tell that they're becoming more... it's like the baby boomers have spoken and they're more about elevating pop music to the status of art than anything now. And if that's what they want to do then fine, but...

Because Wynton is opening this building he was everywhere... because there was this building... if there was no building, then... So that's kind of how the business works, so to get in Newsweek you need to have some kind of buzz. Like you're selling piles of records and nobody thought you would—it's all temporary stuff. But magazines like The Nation or Mother Jones... magazines like the Atlantic Monthly—that are still really intellectual magazines and are not just going for the pursuit of the superficial to sell more copies. Those are still possibilities. It's hard to get into them and it's expensive to get into them, but I think that's where we would be best served—that our artists would be best served in the long run.

AAJ: How hands-on are you in the company?

BM: I'm not.

AAJ: You're just basically the A&R director and the face of Marsalis Music?

BM: If something really irks me I'm going to speak on it, but I think that where a lot of companies go wrong is the inability to delegate. They want to take over everything; they want to control every facet. How can I be a musician if I'm doing all of this other shit? Like you hear people "I don't want a manager. I'm going to do it myself." So instead of practicing, you're on the phone negotiating deals.

AAJ: What about the future? I read somewhere a while ago that you were going to do a Brian Blade record. Is that still happening?

BM: That's a two way street (laughs).

AAJ: You mean Brian has to do the record for you to release it?

BM: Brian has to... he showed the interest. But you know how Brian is. He's an enigmatic cat. One day he'll get around to it. Or maybe he won't. It's cool either way.

AAJ: What about Tain? Now that he's not recording for Sony.

BM: Believe me. It's on my mind. It's just that all the musical and political dynamics have to come together at the same time.

AAJ: Do you see anything out there outside of the typical realm? Like Doug Wamble . Actually, tell how you "discovered" Wamble. How is it that he came to records for Marsalis Music?

BM: He's a friend of (my brother) Jason and when Jason would come to New York he'd come by my house and Doug would be with him. We'd just talk about music and I was impressed. First of all I was impressed with his knowledge of the blues, which is... I think that one of the great disservices that has happened to jazz, the music in general, is the removal of the anthropological component in the study of it, so there's fewer skull and bones analytical aspects of it. The blues, and I don't just mean the twelve bar form, but the Mississippi delta blues and the Piedmont blues; those things are essential to us in understanding the development of jazz. We'd just talk on the phone. He's a funny guy. He was telling me a story about the dealings he had with a quote-unquote A&R guy at Columbia where he said "we like your music, who are you looking for in the band?" And he said, "Well I have a band." You know, these cats I've been playing with on and off whenever I'd get a gig." And the A&R guy said "No, no, no. We need names. We need names." I was impressed with the fact that Doug told him "I don't want to make a record that's not mine." I said, "Go ahead, man. That's cool." And I just said in an offhand way, cause the record company hadn't started yet, "Send me some shit, man. Let me hear it." Nobody knew about the company. So he sent me the disc just for me to hear it and I put it on and said to myself, "Damn! This ain't bad."

AAJ: Yeah he's got personality. And he's lucky to have found you because otherwise he'd probably have banged around for ten years before somebody decided to give him a chance. It's funny, the cat he reminds me of the most is Olu Dara.

BM: There you go.

AAJ: And Olu was around doing his thing for years before they would let him just make a record of himself without trying to mold him into some category. At first it was what "What do we do with this cat? Who's in your band?"

BM: It's the same shit, man. The whole idea for Doug and them, and I told him that from day one when he said "What's the marketing strategy;" I told him, "You're the marketing strategy. Now get your ass on the road and go develop your clientele."

AAJ: You had a little Marsalis Music tour this summer. You got on the bus and went out like old times. Doug, Miguel, Harry Connick, Joey Calderazzo, your band. Everybody on the same concert bill.

BM: A couple of cities.

AAJ: I saw you up in Tanglewood .

BM: Yeah, that was cool.

AAJ: And you did your thing at Birdland during JVC. Do you plan on doing more of that? Taking the whole Marsalis music family on the road?

BM: It's not a plan on my list. I mean a couple of times a year in places, sure. The whole idea is to expand the brand name. Because there were a lot of people there (at Tanglewood). I don't know if they liked everything they heard, but the fact that they were there was cool. I think that, my manager told me that we had the largest jazz crowd ever there. Something like 3500 people. Yeah it was a cool thing. I'm happy for the guys. Miguel's band sounded great. We're getting ready to do his new record in December. He played a gig with me in Newport last week and the new music is killing.

AAJ: He's got something. He needs to be thought of outside of the category of a Latin jazz musician.

BM: I don't think that it really matters. If he just plays the music that he really plays, all that other bullshit just melts away. All those labels and that stuff just melt away because you make it irrelevant by your actions rather than wasting (your time). Because he's not the kind of guy that's even going to stop to talk about it. He's going to let the music do his talking and the music gets better and better.

He's a very serious student and I think that he's been able to take, I call it the nerd style for the lack of a better term, but the whole idea of associating patterns and scales and chords, that whole thing. I think that because he came from a very bona fide and viable folk tradition that he's able to incorporate that and come out with something that a lot of other guys who don't have any kind of folk tradition, it makes them sound real mathematical in the approach. So I'm impressed. The sky's the limit for the kid.

AAJ: What's on the horizon? You're making a new record with Miguel. You have your DVD of A Love Supreme coming out. Anything else?

BM: Doug's new record is already recorded. Same band. We're mixing it next week. It's amazing, I ain't got a fucking break nowhere. Yeah we're mixing next week during my ten days off before I go to Europe for a month with stop in Brazil for a day (laughs). And then we got Miguel's recording in December and we got some other things we're trying to do.

AAJ: Are you a hands on producer for these records?

BM: I'm happy and honored that they ask me to produce them, but there's no requirement that I produce them.

AAJ: Are you in the studio when they're recorded?

BM: Yeah I've got to be. But my whole thing is if there's nothing to say, then I ain't going to say it. I'll just sit there.

AAJ: I always say that when things are going well a good record producer goes for coffee.

BM: Exactly. I'll just sit there. I have little things. If you talk to Miguel and those guys, they can probably tell you "Well he made this suggestion at this point and that was cool." But for the most part the artists on the label are self-contained. They bring their concept with them, which is ultimately what I want. I don't want to be sitting in a room making the guy's record good, you know.

Like Delfayo came to me talking about a guy saying, "What about him?" I said, "No." He said, "Why not?" I told him, "Number one, he's got no band. Number two, he has no idea what he wants to play." Then Delfayo says, the curse of the producer, you know because Delfayo's a producer, "Well you know, with the right direction..." I said, "No-no-no-no. It's not like that."

AAJ: So you're kind of on the opposite end of the spectrum from Delfayo when it comes to being a producer.

BM: Well I think I understand the process, but I have a different approach to it. Like Delfayo likes to produce. I like to make records sound good. You know I mean I'm not that... I'm more like a reducer than a producer. And if an artist cannot produce themselves than I just... what's the point. It says Miguel Zenon on the record. It's like in pop music there's a joke amongst engineers that my engineer likes to use all the time. When we put on a Britney Spears record and say "Boy that song sounds great" and the engineer says, "Yeah, it does now." (laughs)

You know what I mean. We're like the opposite of that. We don't want to be in a situation where you take an artist who has no fucking idea of what they want to do and we just package them and create them and make them sound like they know what they want to do and then we go and get awards and talk about how great we are. Like "I told them to use those flamenco guitar players." I'm not interested in that. I'm like "What do you want to do, man?"

I remember Miguel called me. He called me when he was doing his first record and said, "Look man, I want to send you tunes." I said, "Okay." He says, "But I want to know what you think." I said, "I'll tell you right now. They're great." And he says, "Yeah, but aren't you going to give me any feedback?" I said, "Yeah, I'll see you in the studio."

AAJ: That must make your life a lot easier.

BM: It's not about my life. It's their life.

AAJ: I mean by having the real work going into choosing who's going to be on the label rather than choosing someone and having to go in and make them into something.

BM: Oh, you know I can do that. I've done it. I've done it; I don't have any problems doing that. That's one of those things that... one of the things that I loved about listening to Miles Davis is that Miles always had an instinct for which musicians were great for what situations. He could always pick a band and that was the thing that separated him from everybody else. I used to check out Quincy Jones records for the same reason. You listen to a Michael Jackson record that Quincy Jones produced, there'd be like twenty-five musicians on it, but every musician that he used was perfect for the songs he used them for. I kind of have that instinct, but in jazz I don't think that that really helps. I don't think that that should be the goal. I think that the musicians should have a sense of what they want to do.

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