Growing up in the rich environment of New Orleans as the oldest son of pianist and educator Ellis Marsalis, Branford was drawn to music along with siblings Wynton, Delfeayo and Jason. His first instrument, the clarinet, gave way to the alto and then the tenor and soprano saxophones when the teenage Branford began working in local bands. A growing fascination with jazz as he entered college gave him the basic tools to obtain his first major jobs, with trumpet legend Clark Terry and alongside Wynton in Art Blakey’s legendary Jazz Messengers. When the brothers left to form the Wynton Marsalis Quintet, the world of uncompromising acoustic jazz was invigorated. Branford formed his own quartet in 1986 and, with a few minor interruptions in the early years, has sustained the unit as his primary means of expression. Known for the telepathic communication among its uncommonly consistent personnel, its deep book of original music replete with expressive melodies and provocative forms, and an unrivaled spirit in both live and recorded performances, the Branford Marsalis Quartet has long been recognized as the standard to which other ensembles of its kind must be measured. Its most recent recording, Four MFs Playin’ Tunes, was named Best Instrumental Jazz Album in 2012 by iTunes.
Branford has not confined his music to the quartet context. In addition to guest turns with a legion of giants including Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Herbie Hancock and Sonny Rollins, he has excelled in duets with several major pianists, including his boyhood friend Harry Connick, Jr. and the longtime pianist in his quartet, Joey Calderazzo. Branford’s first solo concert, at San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral, is documented on his latest recording, In My Solitude.
Classical music inhabits a growing portion of Branford’s musical universe. With a repertoire including works by Copland, Debussy, Glazunov, Ibert, Mahler, Milhaud, Rorem, Vaughan Williams, Villa‐Lobos and Sally Beamish (who reconceived a work in progress, “Under the Wing of the Rock,” to feature Branford’s saxophone after hearing him perform one of her earlier pieces), Branford is frequently heard with leading symphony orchestras including those in Chicago, Detroit, Dusseldorf and North Carolina as well as the New York Philharmonic. He also served as Creative Director for the Cincinnati Symphony’s Ascent series in 2012‐13.
Broadway has also welcomed Branford’s contributions. His initial effort, original music for a revival of August Wilson’s Fences, garnered a Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Music in a Play and a Tony nomination for Best Original Score Written for the Theater. Branford also provided music for The Mountaintop, starring Samuel L. Jackson and Angela Bassett, and served as musical curator for the 2014 revival of A Raisin in the Sun. Branford’s screen credits include the original music for Mo’ Better Blues and acting roles in School Daze and Throw Momma from the Train.