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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.

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