Branford Marsalis - American Jazz and Classical Saxophonist - 14
About Branford Marsalis
Branford Marsalis has stayed the course. From his early acclaim as a saxophonist bringing new energy and new audiences to the jazz art, he has refined and expanded his talents and his horizons as a musician, composer, bandleader and educator – a 21st-century mainstay of artistic excellence.
Growing up in the rich environment of New Orleans, 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 his brother 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 quartet in 1986 and, with a few minor interruptions in the early years, has sustained the unit as his primary means of expression.
Branford has not confined his music to the quartet context, however. Classical music inhabits a growing portion of Branford’s musical universe. A frequent soloist with classical ensembles, Branford has become increasingly sought after as a featured soloist with such acclaimed orchestras as the Chicago, Detroit, Düsseldorf, and North Carolina Symphonies and the New York Philharmonic.
Branford’s screen credits include the original music for Mo’ Better Blues and acting roles in School Daze and Throw Momma from the Train.
Branford has also shared his knowledge as an educator, forming extended teaching relationships at Michigan State, San Francisco State and North Carolina Central Universities and conducting workshops at sites throughout the United States and the world.
As for other public stages, Branford spent a period touring with Sting, collaborated with the Grateful Dead and Bruce Hornsby and served as musical director of the tonight show starring Jay Leno.
Some might gauge Branford Marsalis’s success by his numerous awards, including three Grammys and (together with his father and brothers) his citation as a jazz master by the national endowment for the arts. To Branford, however, these are only way stations along what continues to be one of the most fascinating and rewarding journeys in the world of music.
- Growing up in a musical family and a musical city.
- In New Orleans playing an instrument is cool for kids.
- There are ridiculous amounts of musicians in New Orleans and they all work.
- Studying at Berkeley College of Music.
- Organising musicians for the National Basketball Association half-time show.
- Building a massive sound vocabulary.
- Melody should be at the top of the list.
- The challenge of music was to be like a chameleon.
- It’s not music law, it’s music theory.
- Orchestral appearances were never really part of the plan.
- There’s only one way to get better at anything, go out and be really bad at it in front of people.
- I’m in it to play better.
- I believe that the only way to eliminate mistakes is by making them.
- I never met a man that improved by kissing his own ass.
- Children are more resilient than many adults, if they are allowed to be resilient.
- You learn how to create sounds that evoke an emotional effect.
- There’s a lot of music written for the saxophone, I would hesitate to call it great.
- I’m a nerd, so I’m all about technical mastery, but not at the expense of musical mastery.
- Everything you learn makes you better.
- In a niche, you have dedicated yourself to a very limited career.
- There’s certain things you have to practise do every day.
- Improvisation is supposed to feel like it’s happening right in front of you, not like it’s meticulously prepared.
- I was terrified when I played with the New York Philharmonic.
- Recording is documenting how I thought about music at a given point in time.
- Hearing is harder than knowing.
- You have to be willing to be bad at something for a long time to get good at it.
- My job is to prepare for all inevitabilities, and when they show up, we can do them or we can’t.
Transcript of Podcast Interview with Branford Marsalis.
Barry Cockcroft: I was a bit curious about how you got started inside of a musical family.
Branford Marsalis: I think the reason that we are musicians is because we grew up in a musical city, which superseded all of the stuff at home. In America, we make these coming of age movies, they’re usually high school, kids going to high school, kids going to football. They’re usually comedies. In the majority of those films, there’s a scene where somebody’s doing something to someone who plays in the marching band. There’s this perpetual perception in the United States that, other than an electric guitar, or drum set, playing an instrument is decidedly not cool, but in my city, it’s the coolest thing. It’s cooler than playing sports. New Orleans is an incredible musical town and when you’re ten years old and there are 75 kids who are your age who are playing instruments, it’s really cool to play an instrument.
Branford Marsalis: We have a funny accent. We have a funny way of talking down there because of the confluence of languages, Indian language, African languages, French, Spanish, so it’s just like a melting pot of all these sounds. So, when we talk down there the words get a little longer like that and we say, yeah, brah, which is short for brother. So they used to say, yeah, lil brah, I see you all out there playing that music. That’s great. You all keep that up. Now, in other cities, they say, well, what are you going to do for a living. It’s like a completely different mindset. When are you going to get a real job? But there are ridiculous amounts of musicians in New Orleans and they all work. They don’t get paid a lot. They don’t seem to care about that. I mean they love what they do.
Barry Cockcroft: It seems now, in a lot of places, music is an extra. It’s not part of the culture anymore. It’s something you go and see or you go and do.
Branford Marsalis: Well, what I like to say is most cultures do not differentiate between music that is considered entertainment and music that we would consider not entertainment. They just think of us all, entertainers are the same. So, Bruno Mars, and you and I are the same. And they’re like, why are you not as popular as Bruno Mars? You guys do the same thing. And when you have a culture like that, yeah, it’s hard to correct anything. Well, you’ve never been to New Orleans, when you get there, you’ll see. There’s a delineation in a way. We have a lot of musicians and a lot of good ones.
Barry Cockcroft: Do you think that’s something that you could replicate?
Branford Marsalis: No, it’s a weird place, it’s a weird place that way. In the United States, we’re the only city that has our own things. We have an American football team there, a gridiron team, called the Saints, and they were playing the Indianapolis Colts for the championship in 2009. And I had some friends from Indianapolis saying, what are you guys going to do when you lose the game because they were favoured to win. And I said, “Well, we’ll do the same thing that we do if we win the game. We’re going to go out. We’re going to hang at the bars. We’re going to drink our drinks. We’re going to eat our food. We’re going to sing our songs.” And I said, “Well, what songs do you have in Indianapolis? If the Colts win, what are you going to sing? We are the Champion by Queen? How original.” And he wrote back, man that was kind of harsh.
Branford Marsalis: Because we do, we have our own songs, we have our own rhythms, we have our own things. We have a culture that is truly unique. In most cities in America, I guess the original food is the hamburger, and it’s not even from the United States. But we have all sorts of cooking dishes, Creole dishes, drinks. We have animals that we consume that are only there and you don’t see them in other places. It’s an incredible city.
Barry Cockcroft: So you think the cultural aspect, it just bleeds into the music?
Branford Marsalis: Yeah, absolutely. Everything is intertwined there. A lot of people call it the birthplace of jazz. That’s probably true, it’s definitely true. But, New Orleanians are not jazz fanatics, it’s just over there somewhere. But if they’re having a party, they’ll hire a jazz band, a brass band. They’ll say, oh, let’s hire one of those brass bands to play at our event. Other people would say, let’s hire an 80s band or a 90s pop band, never a jazz band, a brass band, with guys soloing and that whole thing. At these professional sporting events, we have brass bands. We just have a different thing.
Branford Marsalis: The National Basketball Association, they play these all-star games in the middle of the season and they always go to different cities. They decided to go to New Orleans, and they hired me to put together a halftime show. He was so used to the pop music way, he said, I’d like to hear the music first. So what they usually do is send him one of their recordings from their record, and they say great, we like this, can you make it four minutes. So then they call the producers and they edit the song so that it’s four minutes. And they send a track over, and the singer sings to the track.
Branford Marsalis: So he says, well, I need music. I said there’s no music to send you. And he goes, this is how we did I when Beyonce did it in Houston. I said that has no bearing. These are real musicians. You’re talking about a singer who sings to a track. I mean, these are real musicians. I can send you their recordings, but you want a pre-programmed, edited version of the song, which you will not be getting because the musicians are going to show up and perform it live. And I was travelling. I was in Europe. I said, “I don’t have time for this.” And as the date neared, he became more and more manic. He says, “You know I’m going to lose my job for this.” I said, “You need to relax.”
Branford Marsalis: So we called a rehearsal. He says, “I set up a time for you guys to rehearse the show, three hours.” I said, “We won’t need three hours, we need 45 minutes. I have a tea time in two hours, so I’m not going to stay here for three hours.” So we get there at 9:00, the guys are late. “Ah, the guys are late.” I said, “They’ll be here, roll up in 15 minutes.” They roll up literally at 9:15. I said, “How long do you want this thing?” Three minutes here, we want this, there’s a break, there’s talking, two minutes there. I say great, map that out.
Branford Marsalis: I said, “Kermit Ruffins, do that song Going Back to New Orleans.” They had a hit record called Do What You Want to. Let’s do, Do What You Want to. There’s a young man, and a lot of people know him now, his name is Trombone Shorty. At the time, nobody knew who he was. I said, “Shorty, when they do the band for Do What You Want to, you come out, you play for eight bars or sixteen. We’ll time it out, we’ll figure it up.” And we talked about it for like 20, 25 minutes, and I told the guy, you ready. He goes, yeah. The music starts. It goes on from beginning to end without a hitch, and he’s gobsmacked. “I don’t believe what I just saw.” I said, “Man, this is real music. This is not produced. This is real musicians. They do this all the time. This is what they do for a living. They don’t go to the gym and hire somebody to write the music for them. These are real musicians.”
Branford Marsalis: It was really successful. It went off really well, and it’s just funny, the perception of the rest of the country when it comes to what music is. It never really involves people playing instruments live. I guess a lot of that is like the hip hop, and what it is, is guys reading poetry to tracks, to prerecorded tracks. So, a lot of people, they don’t even know what instruments are anymore. So, being from New Orleans is just a great thing, for me. I’m so grateful to have grown up there.
Barry Cockcroft: So, if culture influences music, what happens in a place where that culture is absent?
Branford Marsalis: Culture is a funny thing. I guess it’s like the American guy, this is a good example, the American guy who fell in love with Japan and he moved there. This was 30 years ago. And at that time, the Japanese were not allowing anybody who was not full-blooded Japanese to have a Japanese passport. It was this very rigorous and arduous process to become a Japanese citizen and included them spying in your house to make sure you’re speaking Japanese. And he was one of the first Americans to actually get a Japanese passport. And when he talks, when he speaks English, his English is flawless, but all of his mannerisms are Japanese, and he was not born there. So, if a person is keen and astute and aware, and actually uses their ears to hear, and uses their eyes to see, then it is possible to assimilate into cultures other than the one that you naturally come from.
Branford Marsalis: Too many times we prefer to try to invent a paradigm for that. That is why we have the phrasebook. That is why we have, in the United States, foreign languages taught through conjugation, which is gradable, which is why they do it. But it ultimately does not achieve the goal of learning how to speak any language at all, because language is an extension of a culture, in the ground, in the soil, in the people. So if you are really intent on having people learn a language, then you would just speak the language then until they figure it out. You would make them watch movies that are in the language that you’re dealing with, but we don’t, we teach conjugations. So, I walk, I am walking, He walks, he is walking, we are walking. Very good. I am on the steps, she is on the steps.
Barry Cockcroft: Who talks like that?
Branford Marsalis: In any language, I’ve never used that phrase, donde esta Susanna. Susanna es en la cocina. I learned that in 1975. I’ve been to Spanish speaking countries multiple times and no one has ever asked me where Susanna is. And if they did, I am certain she would not be in the kitchen. So, we made jokes about it in high school. Like, what is this? This is ridiculous. Nobody talks like this. I didn’t have any concept of what the solution would be for that until I started to travel and meet people who spoke Spanish. They’d say, man just hang around, man. This Puerto Rican guy named Ivan, when I was at the Berkeley College of Music, I started speaking. He goes, “Oh, man, you’ve got the gringo book. We don’t talk that way.” He says, “Look, I’ve got guys coming over to the room, man, you should just hang out and listen to us talk and then you’ll understand how we do it.” They brought drums. They started playing the drums and singing songs, and I was like that is like where I come from except it’s in the Caribbean.
Branford Marsalis: So I started to realise that what New Orleans actually is, is it’s not one of the southernmost cities in the United States, but one of the northernmost cities in the Caribbean, and it’s amazing how similar those cultures are. So, it’s possible. I mean I’ve done it. This is what I do. I regret not speaking another language, and the reason that I don’t is because I’ve always had kids at bad times, so I was never able to just pick up my things and move to a different place and sit there because, in two years, I’d have it because I understand. I like practising French and so I used to listen to radio broadcasts on the internet in French, and imitate words and watch French shows. You lose interest after a while because there’s no reward. It’s just an investment and you can’t speak it to anyone, or can’t speak it anywhere. So after about six, seven weeks, you’re like, why am I doing this, it’s pointless.
Branford Marsalis: But what I got from it is when I do speak French words, they always assume that my French is good because my accent is good. I don’t say words the way Americans … Yeah, well, you practise it and remember that ‘r’ sound like derriere. I practised that for weeks, walking around the house going, ‘er’, ‘er’, ‘er’, Pierre, not P-e-a-i-r. And it took a while, and when I do it if I’m around French, it comes back really quickly.
Barry Cockcroft: So, if you can assimilate some language, then you can possible assimilate some culture?
Branford Marsalis: Musically? Oh, absolutely. It’s easy. It’s hard as hell, but it’s easy. I mean the process is simple, and the process is arduous. When I decided in my early forties that I was really going to try to just start learning how to play classical music, the purpose of that was once you become good at something, like jazz, say like pop music, or whatever it is … When’s the last time you heard a pop musician say, oh I got two years off, I’m going to my singing coach? No, they’re going to go to a beach. They’re successful, they’re rich, they’re not going to practise. You hear these old bands from the 70s and they sound terrible. And the fans don’t mind because they’re not music people. They don’t hear those little minutia the way we hear it, they just want to revel in what their childhood was. The songs are all out of tune, they’re missing stuff. Nobody cares, but it drives me bananas. It drives me crazy.
Branford Marsalis: And in jazz, where you have far less popularity, you have these excellent old musicians who are in a decline. It starts in your 50s where the only time they pick up their instruments is when they have a gig because how long can you sit around, how many years can you sit around practising these vertical ideas that are really the antithesis of improvisation, but you hear musicians play them constantly. These linear patterns and scales that correspond, it’s like when you listen to jazz people who play like that in the practise room, they basically are playing the same things that they are going to play on stage.
Branford Marsalis: Right now, what I’m doing is I realise that if I’m going to double tongue well, I have to do this every day. So I get to a concert early, a jazz concert early, and I work on double tonguing for a half an hour. There’s no benefit for me unless I happen to play Tomassi, then there’s a great benefit.
Branford Marsalis: So, what classical music has done for me is forced me outside of whatever my comfort zone is and made me address inherent weaknesses that come from the style of music that you choose.
Barry Cockcroft: Because I guess if you’re improvising, you choose what to play if you’re–
Branford Marsalis: Well, theoretically. That’s not really what happens.
Barry Cockcroft: … if you’re playing a composed piece, you have to play what’s there.
Branford Marsalis: Well, the thing about the way that most jazz guys play, so much of it is already worked out in their minds before they play it, which is really not what improvisation is supposed to be, but it’s what human nature does.
Barry Cockcroft: So it’s the repetition of things you practised?
Branford Marsalis: And when you listen to it, it sounds meticulously prepared because it is. It’s not spontaneous at all.
Barry Cockcroft: So there must be a way, though, to practise, but not practise in a way that then dominates–
Branford Marsalis: Well, what you have to have is you have to have a massive sound vocabulary. What most modern musicians have are massive harmonic vocabularies, and harmony is all the same. I mean harmony should not be at the top of any list, melody should be at the top of the list. Harmony should be third, melody, rhythm, harmony. But in jazz studies, it’s harmony, harmony, and harmony. And all those things sound like each other. Harmony does not have tonal colour, tonal characteristics. It doesn’t play in front of a beat or behind a beat.
Branford Marsalis: So there’s all these things that you learn from like listening to Louis Armstrong, that you subconsciously learn the value of a repeated note in a certain situation, how to really create tension by playing behind the beat, how to hold a really long note going through a sequence of core changes. And if you listen to modern musicians, they don’t do any of those things. They play eighth notes or sixteenth notes that correspond to the system that is in front of them, and they play vertical chord scales or patterns that correspond. So the music is highly efficient, but it has no ability to persuade people who are not already enamoured with the system.
Barry Cockcroft: So how do those people develop their own identity then?
Branford Marsalis: Well, that’s their identity.
Barry Cockcroft: But it’s the same as everyone else’s identity–
Branford Marsalis: Precisely. And it’s funny how people how … The definition for genius in modern music, or innovation, is all these musicians who play music with a very vague backbeat. It’s like a very soft backbeat, ostinato baselines, odd metres, and vertical solos on those situations. And that music never really goes anywhere. If you listen to music in the 30s, jazz always had a propulsion a forward motion to it that is completely absent now. And the musicians have rejected that. I don’t know why. What they are rejecting it for is, ultimately, unsuccessful because you’re basically playing to other musicians. Audiences have walked away from it.
Branford Marsalis: So, I think what it is, is a kind of doubling down on one’s own personality or culture. Where I’ve always thought the challenge of music was to be like a chameleon, and to be multiple people the way actors, good actors, become multiple people. They don’t settle in and say, well, I’m only a cowboy. Oh, you want me to play a psychopath? Yeah, I’ve got to do some research on that, That’s cool, I can do that.
Barry Cockcroft: Just take my cowboy hat off.
Branford Marsalis: Yeah, take it off and put on a ski mask or whatever it is and develop a character. And I studied acting and theatre in high school, and that was one of the things that was important about the roles, was you had to try with whatever limited skills you have to develop a character. They tell you what your person is, they’re angry, they’re funny, they’re gregarious, they’re sinister, they’re licentious, it just depends on what it is. And you have to figure out what that means. What does it mean to be a liar? What does it mean to be disingenuous? At 15, how the hell do you know? But you’re still expected to create something, and usually what you create is a caricature of something.
Branford Marsalis: So, James Cagney as a villain, so you go, yeah, see. Yeah. But what it really did for me though, it presented me with the idea that in acting, you succeed by becoming someone else, while still being you. So it’s almost like you split your brain into thirds or fourths. And when I started playing music, I said, well, that’s kind of like the same thing, because the kind of tone I use when I’m playing R&B or popular music is not the tone you use when you play jazz, and certainly not the tone we use playing classical music. So I started thinking the best way for me to learn music is to just listen to recordings of people who do it well because the recordings are concrete.
Branford Marsalis: Music theory is theoretical. That’s why they don’t call it law. It’s not music law, it’s music theory, and it will always be music theory. It’s just purely theoretical. And the things that move human beings in their experience with music can’t be taught through harmony. I mean if you play a piece, and people become moved by the piece, there is something in the sound that reminded them of something of love, or a love lost, or melancholy, or a loved one and they come up and they tell you. You played this piece and I thought of my mother They don’t say, you played this piece and when you played that super low range scale, I suddenly thought of my mother, Can you play that scale again? I mean they don’t know music that way. They don’t care about any of that.
Barry Cockcroft: So, if you’ve got jazz musicians playing for other jazz musicians in the audience, do you find the same thing in classical music?
Branford Marsalis: Yeah, Oh, yeah.
Barry Cockcroft: I mean, we’re in an exceptional week because it is a meeting of saxophonists. But do you find, in classical saxophone, that we spend too much time playing for each other?
Branford Marsalis: I think that, much like in the jazz community, there are people where that’s the goal. Like the goal is to play at WSC [World Saxophone Congress] or at NASA, my whole year. And I find it different for teachers because they have dedicated their lives to instructing young people. They don’t get to go on the road, they don’t get to do these things, they’re teachers. And that’s one of the reasons why I always feel funny about playing at these conventions because there’s a finite amount of positions and every time I play, except for the role that I had this week, which is you have people who are established professors and players, and they asked me to join with their students, you’re bumping other people off. I would love to play on one of those opening shows with a concerto… But you’re always bumping off other people where this is the thing that they get to do. So, I’m really mindful of that, you know.
Barry Cockcroft: Your opportunities in classical music seem to be developing further and further, and I’ve seen lately you’re doing more and more orchestral appearances.
Branford Marsalis: Well, that was never really part of the plan. Other people used it for whatever reasons it could be beneficial to them. I think one of the reasons it started to happen in the United States was, in the United States for the first hundred and fifty years, which wasn’t that long actually, for the first ninety to a hundred years of classical music being in the United States, it was the providence of wealthy people, and corporations. Texaco was a big oil company and they sponsored the Metropolitan Opera, and they had monthly telecasts on the public broadcasting system. Texaco presents the New York Metropolitan Opera. Leonard Bernstein was a star, he was a corporate darling, and then some time, well, it was when the grandkids of the people who put that model together, they like rock music. They don’t like classical music. They don’t understand, they don’t think classical music adds any cultural value to their experience whatsoever.
Branford Marsalis: So suddenly, you have people 30, 40 years in working at these companies who say we get more traction putting our name on a football stadium than we would giving it to a company or an organisation that presents music that is liked by barely 5% of the population of the country. And as a business model, they’re absolutely correct. So the orchestras start scrambling and say we have to make up these funds, we have to do these things. So suddenly, the idea was we have to tailor these shows to appeal to people who ordinarily we wouldn’t even want within five feet of our doors.
Branford Marsalis: So, suddenly orchestras are playing Star Wars, they’re playing the movie, playing along. One of the things they did in cities like Chicago and Detroit is they started tailoring programmes to tailor to this burgeoning new black middle class of guys and gals who after decades of being excluded from universities were graduating and starting businesses and doing quite well.
Branford Marsalis: They call it different things, I can’t even remember the names, but we have this month in February, February is called black history month, so they play a series of concerts in black history month that features black artists and black conductors to lure the black people in under the hopes that they’ll actually like classical music and start to invest in the symphony. Yeah. And sometimes that actually works. It has actually worked.
Branford Marsalis: So I think that when they started hiring me, it was because it was appealing. You know, here’s this guy who comes from a musical family, Wynton is his brother. He’s played with Sting, the pop star. He was on the television show, the Tonight Show with Jay Leno, and now he’s playing classical music. The audience doesn’t know whether this is good or bad, they’re coming to see him, And it was clear to me when that started. Well, hey, you know, I can use this because my formula for getting better, which is frustrating to most of my students, there’s only one way to get better at anything, is to go out and be really bad at it in front of people.
Barry Cockcroft: Good incentive.
Branford Marsalis: You know, there’s no way else around it unless you’re 12. And it’s great when you’re 12 because you’re really bad, no one’s going to tell you you’re really bad, they all tell you you’re great, so you believe you’re great because you don’t have the kind of intellectual awareness to even hear how bad you sound. And by the time you start to develop that awareness, you’re not bad anymore, you’re pretty good. You’re 18, 19, you’ve been practising a couple of hours a day. Yeah, you’re okay now.
Branford Marsalis: But when you do this in your 30s or your 40s, you are acutely aware, or even in your 20s, you are acutely aware of how awful it is, but I saw no other way to get past it other than to suffer through it. So I used that to make myself better and then people started saying, hey, you want to do this gig. I’m like, man this is weird, but, yeah, of course, why wouldn’t I want to–
Barry Cockcroft: You wouldn’t turn down the New York Phil?
Branford Marsalis: No, I should’ve. When I played with the New York Phil, I was not happy because my manager … She’s not music fan, which is actually good. Most times it’s good. Her relationship with music is very transactional, and I couldn’t get her to understand that pushing for me to play with New York Philharmonic, the way I sound right now, does not get you the thing that you want. You’re getting me in a position where I’m playing mediocrely, or okay with this great symphony.
Branford Marsalis: It’s not like when Joshua Bell walks in there, or when Tim McAllister walks in there, or Arno Bornkamp walks in there and starts playing, and they go “Wow!” I said, “It didn’t suck, that was okay”. I think when it was over, I think I said, “Oh, now you understand.” The phone’s not going to start ringing off the hook. Her other client is Harry Connick. The entertainment standard is very different, because he’s funny, he’s brilliant, he’s gregarious, he’s charming, he’s charismatic, and he can play his butt off. He writes great songs, so he’s a singer/song writer. Making certain television appearances raises his profile, and in doing this, raises his profile.
Branford Marsalis: I kept trying to make her understand that symphonic music is being average, and playing with a great orchestra does not raise your profile. I was really not happy with the timing, but my agent booked the gig and there I was. I said, “Well I’m just going out here and suck in front of everybody.” It helped me. I mean, I was terrified, but to be in that situation automatically made me better once it was over. That’s fine, cause like I told you earlier I just love playing this stuff. I never had any kind of monster aspirations to redefine the instrument or redefine this.
Branford Marsalis: Because I started doing this and then I started coming to these conferences, I mean that’s how I met you. That’s how I met Claude Delangle, that’s how I met Arno, that’s how I met McAllister, and that’s how I met Cliff Leaman. I met all these people, and they all gave me little pointers and little tips. I met Otis Murphy here. I mean, this is the place where I met all these guys. I mean, I’m in it to play better.
Branford Marsalis: I’m not in it, in a transactional away. I’m not in it to try to get symphony gigs. If I was, then I would have learned two pieces, 15 years ago and just play just those two pieces everywhere. I would be able to play the hell out of those two pieces right now. I wouldn’t really be able to play well in general, but I would be really good on those two pieces.
Barry Cockcroft: You’re now tackling some huge repertoire.
Branford Marsalis: Yeah it’s tough.
Barry Cockcroft: Is that part of your development, to just keep pushing yourself?
Branford Marsalis: Well, it’s all an extension of the same thing at this point. It’s almost like sports training. You start lifting weights, and you want to bench press, want to get under the bar, and you think, “No, you’re not ready for that, you’re going to use dumb bells,” and then you get up to 20 pounds, then it’s 25, then it’s 35, then it’s 45. You’re feeling really good and you’re feeling strong. You’ve been doing this about four or five months, and your chest is starting to poke out a little, bit and, you’re pushing.
Branford Marsalis: He says, “Okay, decline push-ups”, which are basically you put your feet on a bench, so you’re elevated in a decline position and you do push-ups from there, which attacks the muscle from a different angle. All of that confidence goes out the window, because you can do 25 reps with 45 pounds, and you can’t do 10 decline push-ups. He goes, “Variety is good isn’t it?” Variety is good.
Branford Marsalis: Once you really start feeling good, now you have to attack the muscles from a different place, if you’re interested in really developing. If you’re interested in wearing tight shorts and have a swollen chest, no, it’s bigger, stronger, faster. Just push, push, push, push, push. Your chest expands, and you’re not interested in the inherent weaknesses in your musculature. With music, when you play a piece and you play it okay, then you play another piece, and it exposes a weakness. “Oh wow, I can’t double-tongue. Oh wow, maybe I really can’t play those altissimo. Oh wow, I can’t play the low notes.”
Branford Marsalis: Some of, the ways that many jazz musicians are doing it, they say, “Well, I’m never going to play this piece until I master all these things.” It never really occurs to them that they’re never going to master them until they start playing them, and messing them up. It is through the accidents, you get to the other side of it. You become better than you imagine that you are because you are so focused on the things that you don’t do well.
Barry Cockcroft: The mistakes give us an incentive to fix them, to improve?
Branford Marsalis: Well, I don’t know if they give you an incentive, but I believe that the only way to eliminate mistakes is by making them. There’s no way to avoid these kinds of roadblocks. They’re going to present themselves and you’ve got to work through them. They’re much easier when you’re younger.
Barry Cockcroft: I think that naivety, when the kids start, they don’t notice, they don’t care. They just keep going.
Branford Marsalis: Yeah, they’re not aware. I mean, young people aren’t aware.
Barry Cockcroft: That’s great.
Branford Marsalis: That was just funny raising them. They’re not aware of anything.
Barry Cockcroft: Maybe that’s what gives them the capacity to improve because they don’t get down on themselves as older.
Branford Marsalis: Oh they will when they’re older.
Barry Cockcroft: Yeah?
Branford Marsalis: I think that my parents did a good job. My father really did a good job of highlighting what our weaknesses were when we were young in referencing them to him, highlighting his weaknesses. He was of the firm belief that … I was a clarinettist and I won this all-city … There’s these, bands, the all-city band. I know they have the same in Australia. I won the all city band and I’m going to all-state, feeling good. Come home, I say, “Yeah dad, I’m in all-state. First year, second clarinet.”
Branford Marsalis: My dad says, “Well son, you know, in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is always king.” I went, “Wow, I can’t even get a, attaboy from you.” He said something very impression to me. He says, “Son, I never met a man that improved by kissing his own ass.” That was the end of the conversation, and I sat there and I went, “Yeah, that’s probably true.”
Branford Marsalis: As I got older, I remember going to Berkeley and these guys would get off the plane and they’d be like, “Well, here I am.” I was like, “Nice to meet you.” Yeah, man I’m that guy. As time goes on they realise they’re not that guy and some of them pack up and leave. If you’re come from a … If you’re a mama’s boy or daddy’s boy and everybody tells you how special you are, then you come to face-to-face with this reality that you’re as special, you can bear down, and you can go back to the place where they make you feel special. It’s a tricky thing.
Branford Marsalis: In the States we’re always talking about children’s self-esteem. I always find children are more resilient than many adults, if they are allowed to be resilient. My parents did a really good job of me, we were playing in bars at 14. There was an expectation that we were there to play music, and that if anything else happened, the bartenders would let him know, cause he’s a musician, he knows them, and then that privilege will be revoked.
Branford Marsalis: “We’re giving you the opportunity at 14 to see things that most 14 year olds don’t get to see, but you are not to participate in those things, and if you do, you will be removed.” I knew they were serious. I got to see drunk people. I got to see people who can handle alcohol, I got to see people who could not handle alcohol. I got to see men fighting with their women at the venues, and women punching guys out and all these things, and I was like “Whoa”.
Branford Marsalis: It’s almost like the actor. I have these impressions about behaviour, and I started to learn how to read people in terms of putting together a show. When does the show have a climax? You learn how to gauge audiences, because it’s a much easier read in an R&B club. In any kind of pop music club, the factors are very simple. The more people dance, the more they drink. The louder the music is the louder they talk. The louder they talk, the more they drink. You have to make them feel good, because if they feel good, the bar owner makes more money, which in turn, allows you to make money. If you abnegate anyone of these things, you make less money, you ultimately get fired.
Branford Marsalis: There was always the temptation to over-complicate the songs because we have all this harmony, we listen to all this classical music, “Let’s add things in, that will make the song sound hip.” The bartender comes over and says, “Hey man, do you want to get fired? Leave that crap in your little practise room. You don’t do that out here. This job is simple. Play funky music, make the people dance, I make money.” Like, “Whoa.” That experience … I mean, what is it that people like about jazz? They like jazz when it has a strong beat and good melody and when it’s exciting. Modern odd-metre explorations on harmonic devices, two chords to every bar, it’s not exciting.
Barry Cockcroft: Do you find that in classical music?
Branford Marsalis: It’s a constant battle.
Barry Cockcroft: Yeah.
Branford Marsalis: It’s a constant battle, the whole niche thing. When I did that, Romances for Saxophone record 33 years ago, when I had no understanding of what I was doing, it was one of these affirmations. It was like an R&B affirmation. People like songs with great melodies, and if you have a tone and you can play with a hint of melancholy even better.
Branford Marsalis: All the things that were wrong with that record, technical deficiencies, a lack of efficiency, mouthpiece too big, not really good on pitch. They don’t notice any of that. All they notice is how it feels, and it felt great to them. That was something I knew how to do. I knew how to milk a whole note, because of the music that I’d grown up listening to. You know, listening to Wayne Shorter play with Weather Report, listening to Marvin Gaye croon, you know singing “Let’s Get It On”.
Branford Marsalis: You learn subconsciously when you do this enough, how to create sounds that evoke an emotional effect. They do it in church every Sunday, in Protestant churches. Even though I’m Catholic, most of my friends were Protestant. In Protestant churches, the organist is the man behind the curtain or the woman behind the curtain. When the preacher’s telling his sermon, as it builds up and it takes a while on purpose, the organ creeps in, and the organ gets louder. When he gets to the punch line, bam! The audience starts screaming and then the band joins, and it’s effect, it’s an incredible effect.
Branford Marsalis: What I was learning, throughout these experiences was how to make music, not necessarily how to play music, but how to make it? When I did that, Romances record, people said, “Well you know, that’s a transcription record.” I said, “It’s a what?” I said, “What’s a transcription record? None of these songs were written for the saxophone.” I said, “What’s wrong with that?”
Branford Marsalis: “Oh, it just shouldn’t be done. We have all this great music written for the saxophone.” I said, “Well, there’s a lot of music written for the saxophone, I would hesitate to call it great. It’s hard, but is that the arbiter? Is that the arbiter? Is it really … Is that in the best interest of the instrument, to dedicate your life to exploring the technical possibilities of the instrument?
Branford Marsalis: I’m a nerd, so I’m all about technical mastery, but not at the expense of musical mastery. If we are ever able to make this recurring leap out of the saxophone congress into recitals, you have to element of … Today, Claude Delangle played, Prelude To The Afternoon of a Faun, which I hadn’t heard in forever. His wife, Odile … Man, it was masterful, the way she played this thing. She was like the church organist in the Baptist church.
Branford Marsalis: She set this template because Claude is perfect, I mean, his technique is perfect. He can double tongue and slap tongue. What he chose to do here, he didn’t try to play with syrupy vibrato, he just played simple tone. “Dee, dah, dah, dah, dah, dah, dah, dah dee, dah, dah …” Odile was just … Man, the sound, I mean, I’m getting goosebumps just thinking about it. The sound of it was just … No one said a word in the entire … They weren’t even coughing. There was nothing, and there’s just this music.
Branford Marsalis: When it was over, I mean … When they went out to take bows again, Claude pushed her in front of him, and then he didn’t come out. It was just her. I think he knew that she … I mean, I’d never heard her play piano before. She’s stunning. Can she play Rachmaninoff? I don’t know. Can she play all of these … Can she play Beethoven Piano Concerto number … No idea. Can she make music? Oh yes.
Barry Cockcroft: 40 years playing together.
Branford Marsalis: She can make music. I heard it. I know she can make music. She moved me. Claude would say, “Yeah. Yeah.” I’d never really heard her. It was absolute … It was a gift. See, that’s music. You can take that piece out of this. You can take those two musicians and put them anywhere in the world, and for eight minutes, they will have that entire world eating out of their hand. The same cannot be said for these really high microtone or technical pieces, which it exists. One should play it. I believe that. It makes you better. Everything you learn makes you better. When you decide to make that your career, it’s like a lot of the stuff in Jazz. You have dedicated yourself to a very limited career.
Barry Cockcroft: The niche gets smaller.
Branford Marsalis: The niche is just a niche. It’s a niche.
Barry Cockcroft: The niche of a niche.
Branford Marsalis: That’s what it is. I don’t really know the intricacies of the classical saxophone world to that degree, because I’m in it, not of it. I’m in it. In jazz for instance, there’s the language of the niche. But my record, it got five stars in Downbeat. They put that on their website. Five stars in Downbeat.
Branford Marsalis: Regular people don’t read Downbeat. Never heard of the magazine. You are basically, constantly communicating to the people, who are already in your group. This is the thing. You get a song played on jazz radio. It’s the same people. It’s not expanding your base. There’s no way to expand the base, when your entire mechanism is built on impressing the niche.
Barry Cockcroft: You’re no stranger to receiving awards. I mean, what do they mean to you?
Branford Marsalis: Nothing.
Barry Cockcroft: It’s just recognition for something.
Branford Marsalis: It’s just nothing. I mean, if there was an award given out for a saxophonist from the World Saxophone Congress, it would have value. We are better, or for worse, colleagues, for people to appreciate you knowing, what it is that you do. And then, there’s this other side, where people just appreciate, they like the way it sounds. They like it. They like it, but the nature of the award … I mean, what is it?
Branford Marsalis: I remember when Sally Field won … She was an American actress, Sally Field. She started out as a television actress and then she went into movies. She won an academy award. It was really revealing. She ran onto the stage and she says, “You like me. You really like me.” I said, “Wow.” What’s that feel like? To be in a business, and wondering if people like you or not, not wondering if you’re good, just wanting people to like you. There’s a lot of people like that.
Branford Marsalis: Just because of my parents and people I was around, I just never really had that. I come from a friendly city. I’m friendly. I’m a hugger. I laugh. I make fun of myself. I just … The idea that … I don’t need that kind of validation. I mean, there’s certain, they’re musicians I know. I have three Grammy’s and they’re in boxes in the basement. My wife’s not a musician. My kids aren’t musicians. They play music, but they’re not musicians. Our house shouldn’t be covered in stuff that I’ve done.
Branford Marsalis: When people meet me, I’m more interested that they meet me, because who I am defines the outcome of my music, not the other way around. When you go into someone’s house and you walk through the front door and there are literally 18 Grammy’s, as soon as you walk in, it’s the makings of a shallow person, or a person who wants you to think that is them. Because of what they are, there’s not enough there, or they don’t feel there’s enough there. It’s like, the people who buy fancy cars, and then spend 20 minutes talking about their car. It’s the same kind of thing.
Branford Marsalis: It’s like, why would a person think that I would want to talk about their car? There are other people, who that’s what they do. They talk about cars. They talk about anything other than themselves. They talk about where they live, they talk about how they live, they talk about what member of the golf club they’re in, what kind of car they drive, where they went on vacation, all things that are designed to deflect. It’s like the worst possible for a musician to be. People want us to create a sound that shows that we’re bearing our soul. I mean, that’s what they want. Whether they know they want it or not, that’s the experience.
Branford Marsalis: The thing that happened today in the recital with the Delangle’s. That’s what I want, to do those hard, technical stuff. It’s hard. I appreciate the difficulty of it. I totally appreciate it. There’s a saxophone quartet, Zahir Quartet. Man, they were amazing. I mean, they did all of this stuff … I mean, it was really amazing. I was knocked out by them.
Branford Marsalis: Their instructor, Jean … I can never remember the middle name. It’s not Jean Michelle, it’s Jean … He was great soprano player. He’s great. I appreciate that. I would love to do that. I can’t slap tongue. I’m never going to learn how. I’m almost 60. I get that. I’m good. I’ll sleep at night. I’m always amazed at hearing this kind of, this beautiful perfection.
Branford Marsalis: That thing that Claude and Odile did was … We were privileged to be in that room. That’s the thing to me. If you can do both of those things, you’re a beast. I mean, that’s the thing. Say, “Okay this piece, we’re going to have this technical side. We’re going to beat your brains out. The next piece, we’re going to play with a sound that is so melancholy and so longing …” It’s the two-headed monster’s, better than either monster.
Barry Cockcroft: Yeah, I’ve got a few, kind of quick questions.
Branford Marsalis: Sure man. Look, I could sit here all night and do this. I’m good. Fine.
Barry Cockcroft: Is there anything that you really believe and other people really disagree with?
Branford Marsalis: Oh yeah.
Barry Cockcroft: Everything.
Branford Marsalis: Yes. Just about.
Barry Cockcroft: How do you deal with that? You’re a friendly guy. How do you deal with that in a, friendly way, when you have views that …
Branford Marsalis: Oh, I don’t really care. At the end, I don’t need to be right. I need to be right for me. I don’t need to be right to them. When I was going to Berkeley I heard all these absurd theories about what swing is. I didn’t know what it was, but I knew that wasn’t right. I would just say, “Well, that’s not swing.” Said, “Well, what makes you so sure?” I said, “I have records.
Branford Marsalis: When I put on the records, I do not hear drummers playing ride patterns based on triplet feel. That’s not what swing is.” Everybody else was like, “Man, why do you have to be so, you know, difficult?” I said, “How is that difficult? I am dissenting.” I guess, you know, the way I was talking about it, was harder to grasp than the way that they wanted to talk about it. It’s been like that ever since.
Branford Marsalis: What improvisation is … Improvisation … We’re doing more improvising, you and I right now, than what goes on, on most jazz band stages. You have some questions you wanted to ask me and then I would say something and then you would veer away from the question, because it would trigger another thing. That’s what improve is. It’s not, “I know the chord changes and I’m going to practise to have five options that I can play on every chord, on every song and just play them,” vomit them out. That’s where we are.
Branford Marsalis: When I make statements like that, I think 75%, 80% of the jazz world, completely disagrees with that, even though it’s true. They don’t like hearing that, because that’s what they chose to do. For me, if I were the king, I mean, everybody gets to do what they want to do. You’re like, this is the part where a guy in New York, about 10 years ago said, “Man. I read this article man. Why don’t you just let people do what they want to do?” I said, “When have I stopped anybody from doing what they want to do?”
Branford Marsalis: “Wait, but you so critical?” I said, “No. Oh, so you want me to just agree with what everybody wants to do. No. I’m never going to do that.” I wouldn’t stop anybody from doing … That’s what you want to do. Do that. To my ear, this is what that is. They say, “Well, I don’t think that’s it.” I said, “Then, knock it out man. Knock it out.” I have a jazz band. We play to hundreds of people and sometimes to thousands of people. We don’t play in little tiny jazz clubs anymore, unless we want to. You have this masterful, mathematical paradigm that is sheer genius and you’re playing to 55 people. Okay.
Barry Cockcroft: Do you think audience size is a sign of the effectiveness of music?
Branford Marsalis: No. Audience size … In most societies, the operative verb, is to see, not to hear. Germany is the exception. They go to hear music. If you can get Germans to keep coming back to hear you over a long period, of time, it’s because you’re playing something that … You’re playing it in a way, they’re not going to hear anybody else play it. That’s why they come back.
Branford Marsalis: Most people, they come to see. That’s why young people playing jazz, always sells better than old people playing jazz, because they’re young. Haven’t seen ’em before. Let’s go see those guys. With us, the promoters always say, “I really wish you would come here with a band other than your band, because people have already seen that.” I say, “Yeah, but they haven’t heard it. We sound different every year.” They’re like, “Yeah. I know man, but we just can’t … People don’t want that. They want to see new things.”
Branford Marsalis: In popular culture, people sustain that, with few exceptions. I mean, Sting was an exception. Springsteen was an exception. Most people sustain it with all of this off stage behaviour, to keep their name in the public eye, by saying outrageous things, doing outrageous things. “Oh, and then I have a record releasing.” It’s like, Kanye West had a little kerfuffle last month. Everybody say, “What do you think about Kanye?” I said, “I don’t. I don’t think about him ever.”
Branford Marsalis: “Do you think what he said …” I said, “I barely know what he said. I just don’t care. I just don’t.” I’m not going to feed this machine.
Barry Cockcroft: It’s a stunt.
Branford Marsalis: To me, yeah. It works.
Barry Cockcroft: It’s effective.
Branford Marsalis: It works. Everybody talks about him. We’ve been talking about him since he went on the stage with Katie Perry and cut her off and said she was lousy and that it should have gone to, whomever he said it should have gone to. He understands the nature of people. People like side shows and freak shows and circus shows.
Branford Marsalis: There was this thing, where Lang Lang was successful, very young. Nobody had ever seen anything like it. I mean, Yo-Yo Ma, I’m pretty sure, is of Chinese descent, but not from China. Lang Lang is from China. He’s 19, 20. He’s out there killing it. It just became this event. Suddenly, Chinese people from China, not Chinese Americans, not asian Americans, Chinese people with considerable sums of money in this new economy that they have are putting their chips behind Lang Lang. The concerts are selling out. It’s like a much grander version of the thing that happened to me.
Branford Marsalis: All the while, he’s getting better. He’s not falling for the trap. He’s like, “This is a great thing, as long as I keep focused on what is …” He continues to work on things. He continues to get better. The writer for the New York Times, just went on a tear against … “This guy is awful. He’s horrible.” It’s a funny thing. Lang Lang at …
Branford Marsalis: at a very tender age understand what our president does not understand right now is that people in positions of power should never punch down. They just shouldn’t. So he just ignored all of that and continued to work. And after about five years, people started writing articles about why Anthony Tommasini was being so critical of Lang Lang. It seemed personal. And that was brilliant for him to not take that bait and validate that argument but continue to work on his craft. Now, Yuja Wang is also from China. And she’s quite the incredible pianist. But it doesn’t end … She plays with orchestras, they love her, she’s this artist in residence, she’s an incredibly gifted pianist. But it didn’t have that right spark, magic explosion thing that happened when Lang Lang showed up. Sometimes people show up, it’s not necessarily for the right reasons. So you’re grateful that it happens to you. And as long as you continue to play for the right reasons, it’s all okay.
Branford Marsalis: But when you start becoming a sideshow character, singing with the Spice Girls, yeah it’s destructive. When you start suddenly singing, It’s a Man’s World with James Brown, it’s a strange thing to see Luciano Pavarotti on the stage with James Brown. I mean, clearly he got paid a lot of money but it’s like, “Are you serious? Really? Are you serious?” And that hasn’t happened. I mean Lang Lang is just doing his thing. Yuja is just doing her thing.
Branford Marsalis: Sometimes success occurs and it’s a mystery why it does and when it doesn’t. But as long as you understand what it is and you continue to work on your craft, that’s the only part you can control. Because sometimes as quickly as it comes, it disappears. So then if you suddenly decide that being famous is more important than being a good musician, then you’re going to take a different path and you’ll do that.
Barry Cockcroft: So what’s your motivation to get up every day and practise?
Branford Marsalis: I’ve spent a lot of time in my younger years playing jazz but not really dedicating myself to it. Always hedging my bets, kind of just flirting around. And I’d join a pop band, join a TV show, do all these things because I had this kind of personality and the kind of brain where I could adapt to surroundings in ways that a lot of other people can’t. So when I finally decided to leave the television show, I really thought that it was time for me to grow up and figure out how good I could be. I don’t have a lot of time left on this planet, I need to make the most of it. And I was 36 and now I’m 58. And I’m getting better. And it’s pretty unusual for old people to get better.
Branford Marsalis: Because, like my friends, I went to college, I moved to New York. They stayed and went to college. They went to Louisiana, went to different places. And then they got jobs. So we’re 25, 26 and we all have jobs. Except by the time they were 30, they were already talking about retirement because their job is transactional. I got to make money, I got this job. And I’m marking down the day when I’m going to buy my house and such and such. I’ve got my 401(k) set up. So for the next 20 years you are not dedicating yourself to improve at this job because you don’t like this job. You can’t wait to quit this job. And that’s just one of those … I’m lucky. I’m very fortunate.
Barry Cockcroft: Maybe that’s why we choose music. Maybe because it gives us those freedoms not to be in something that’s the same over and over again.
Branford Marsalis: In a lot of ways music is the same over and over again. You get up in the morning you start practising. It sounds like crap. You get up the next day start practising . Okay, this sounds good. That sounds like crap. It’s like the same kind of battle. It’s just … I’ve actually met musicians and I said just a simple question, why are you a musician? And they’re like, “Man can you imagine having a nine to five?” And I’m like, “Well yeah, I could. I could imagine having a nine to five.” So I mean I’ve heard all kinds of things. It’s really great when you go to a club and they tell you you don’t have to pay to get in, it makes you feel like you belong. And I said well I’d rather pay. Because if I play in that club, I’m not going to give them a discount. So when I go to clubs, I pay to get in. I pay to hear the musicians. I don’t have a problem with that. But sometimes these musicians just want to feel like they’re in the inner circle. That’s more important to them than practising .
Branford Marsalis: I get up, I don’t mind getting up and beating it. I mean it’s like a golfer. I don’t mind getting up and beating balls all day. You have to like to do that.
Barry Cockcroft: So what would you do if you had, just say, an hour? Just an hour? What would you do in your practise?
Branford Marsalis: I mean, I’m playing this Gabriel Prokofiev Concerto so I’d probably practise that. It’s really hard. I hadn’t played it in a year and I’m recording it next month. So I would do that. One of the things I would do, is something I’ve learned from the saxophonist, who’s a young man, quite talented. He played here. I would do a lot of soft practise, play a lot of soft tones. I would do that for 15-20 minutes. And then I would double tongue for 15-20 minutes.
Barry Cockcroft: Because you’d want to keep working on it?
Branford Marsalis: Yeah because it’s awful. It really is. And I thought it was better and I played the first movement of Tomasi in a recital last week and it was like, “Oh my God, this is so awful.” And then I started thinking about it and I said, “Well when do you practise double tonguing? Only when you practise Tomasi.” You’ve got to do this every day. All the old lessons started coming back, the clarinet lessons. There’s certain things you have to do every day. And with my schedule and my kids and all this other stuff, I stopped doing those things every day because the practise window was so narrow I’d just get to whatever the task is. And I kind of ignored the process. But that was a good lesson. And I said, “Yeah, this needs to be a part of it every day.”
Branford Marsalis: And since I’ve been here I’ve been battling jetlag and I had this day where I played three performances in one day with three rehearsals before the performances and a fourth rehearsal after the third performance for a concert the following night and my brain just said, “Yeah, I’m going to sleep now.” But I’m going home on Sunday? Yeah, I get home on Sunday so Monday morning I’ll be beating it, man. Getting up, doing the double tonguing, doing the soft practise because I don’t have any … I’ve got five free days so I don’t have all these other things. And I have one piece to practise, not several.
Branford Marsalis: Because this is the first time in two or three years where I didn’t have to practise five or six pieces at one time. And at one point at the beginning of this year it was 15. I had to practise 15 pieces at the same time because I had … The entire month of February was classical gigs but it was different rep for each gig. I told my agent, I said, “Man that’s really thanks, man.” That was real brilliant. He goes, “Okay, I’m sorry. It’ll never happen again.”
Barry Cockcroft: So you’re travelling six months a year. I mean there’s days when you can really practise, there’s days where you can’t practise at all. You must be pretty efficient at using your time.
Branford Marsalis: I always … If my practise load is heavy, we have a concert at eight, I’ll be at the venue at four. And from four to six I’m practising . I take a break at six, iron my suit, eat dinner and if I finish in 45 minutes, then I’ll practise some more until 7:30. And at 7:30 I’ll be ready, playing some jazz things and getting ready for the show.
Barry Cockcroft: Do you think there’s a connection between improvisation and composition? Or are they two separate things?
Branford Marsalis: Yeah, they’re … Well there is a connection actually. Well it depends. It depends. Music in the romantic period, you have to be a bit of an improviser to make it work. To play Brahms you have to know when to stretch the tone, because this is all improv. When to play soft, when to play loud, when to make it syrupy, when to make it angry. Modern composition is kind of like Debussy, Debussy, as beautiful as the music is, you don’t have to do anything to it, it’s designed to be beautiful. Just play it, it’ll be beautiful.
Branford Marsalis: And in modern composition, there’s all this stuff going on. You don’t have time to interpret, you just have to play your part. And if you get the slightest bit off, you might not find your way back to it for a while. But when you have a person who writes music similar to the romantic period, yes. There’s a lot of improv in that. That’s why with all of the pianists in the world, there’s always a few like Glenn Gould or Arthur Rubenstein or Martha Argerich who just were able to create this sound that endures with playing that kind of music that requires that kind of stretching and contraction.
Branford Marsalis: That’s kind of what improvisation is supposed to be. It’s supposed to feel like it’s happening right in front of you, not like it’s meticulously prepared. But since people’s listening skills aren’t as good in general, it’s like it’s the quote. How can you really deal with the awesome discipline of classical music when you’re choosing the freedom of jazz and improvisation? I said almost all the improvisation today is rehearsed. Really? They can’t hear that. Because to really hear it you would have to spend years listening to people who didn’t do that. And then if you spent years listening to people who didn’t do that and you can sing along with the solos of the musicians who didn’t do that, then suddenly you would be acutely aware of how rigid and imminently logical and linear all this stuff is now. It all fits in a box, everything fits in a box. It doesn’t stretch. Everything is, bam, right on the money. And it’s flawless in it’s execution.
Barry Cockcroft: So how do you go about your own writing?
Branford Marsalis: I never did subscribe to that half baked notion that you should just write a tune a day. It’s like having a photo session. The reason I hate photo session is that the photographers don’t think that they’re good so they shoot for hours to find one photo. Mathematically one of them is bound to be good. So what I do is the same thing I did when I learned how to play, I listen to music and I listen to music with great melodies. And I allow my brain to absorb that information and then I just start writing. And sometimes nothing comes out and that’s fine and then other times things come out. Sometimes in the horn, sometimes on the piano, sometimes in my head. Sometimes I’ll sing it, write it down, sing it into one of those, even into your phone now. Used to be a little dictaphone, now you can sing it into the voice memo app on your phone. And I always put the chords on at the end.
Barry Cockcroft: Harmony last?
Branford Marsalis: Of course. As harmony, one thing that classical music proves time and again is that harmony can be anything that you need it to be to make the melody work. That’s what every score has ever … Any score you choose to look at proves that. There’s no chord structures on the chord. There’s no chord symbols, there’s no blocks, it’s just notes. It’s just notes that are indicative of sound. Because the whole thing, our thing is sound. It’s a sound thing. Sound is what moves people. Sound is what affects human beings, not data. That’s our job. We have to learn the data and we have to translate it into a sound.
Branford Marsalis: I always, for my students, I use the microwave. I say imagine if you went into a store to buy a microwave and he says, “I can’t sell you this because you don’t know anything about the physical properties of microwave technology.” You’re not hip enough to own this machine. You’d go somewhere else and you find somebody and say, “I just want a microwave. I don’t want to hear this.” So when you tell me that the problem in music is that the audiences aren’t sophisticated enough to understand your music, do you realise that you’re signing your own death warrant? Because they’re never going to be hip enough, that’s not their job. Their job is to like it or not like it, it’s a very simple job. Your job is to convince them that it’s worthy of being liked. And by looking down on the audience as though they’re peasants and not knowing how to enjoy yourself on stage, you’re going to lose.
Barry Cockcroft: I’ve seen you play a few times now. Actually you do enjoy yourself on stage.
Branford Marsalis: Hell yes, I enjoy myself on stage.
Barry Cockcroft: Does that help with, you’re talking about the New York Phil, does that help with being anxious about something? Just enjoying it?
Branford Marsalis: No I was terrified when I played with the New York Phil. The first seven or eight years when I played classical music people would say, “You just look like you’re having more fun when you’re playing jazz.” I’d say I am. They’d say, “Well why are you doing this?” I said, “Because one day I’ll have fun doing this. You have no understanding of how hard this is. I’m using a part of my brain I’ve never used before. My brain’s not happy with me. It’s freaking out. And when it freaks out it freaks me out and my legs start to shake and I start to sweat and I can’t be myself.” But if I just suffer through this, one day the brain’s going to say, “I have enough code, I’m cool now.” And then I can just be. And it was eight, nine years into the process and I was like, “Oh I’m not freaking out anymore, great.” But you have to believe in the process.
Branford Marsalis: History was my favourite subject in school. I only had two subjects I excelled in and those were the ones I liked, it was history and english. The rest of them it was just C’s and D’s. I didn’t care, drove my mother crazy. I said, math? For what? My trigonometry teacher, “This is very important.” I said, “Yeah, if I’m going to go to NASA it’s super important. But for buying groceries, I’m good. I can add. I don’t need this. I’m not going to go home and beat myself to death learning geometry. I don’t like it. The state’s making me take it, all I have to do is pass it.” Oh you’re an underachiever. That’s not really what this is. I’m not underachieving. This is not something I want to achieve. Look at my history grades, look at my english grades. Straight A’s.
Branford Marsalis: That’s what I like, and the history part has been great for me. Because when the history teacher is good, you’re not just learning useless dates, you know? 1492, 1776, 1802, whatever. 1944, 1945, you know, December 7, 1941, a day which will live in infamy. The story behind how these things happen, how history repeats itself over and over again in different languages and in different locations. How the entire balance of the world is based on something as innocuous as a leader who has a very deep dislike of his own mother. Just little things like that like you’re kidding me? We went to war because of that? How fine things are and you always take the long view. History take the long view because when you’re in the middle of something and it’s happening, very similar to the political shenanigans going on in the United States. And people say, “Oh the country will never recover from this.” I say really? “Oh we’ll never recover, this is awful.” I said, “Yeah, I know how Germany feels when I go there. I can just feel the weight of Nazi-ism.” Oh that’s right, I don’t feel the weight of Nazi-ism.
Branford Marsalis: You’re taking a posture. If you understood anything about the history of Nazi-ism and totalitarianism and the Soviet Union, we’re fine. It’s not what you want. But it’s not the end of the world and we will recover from this. And history always takes the long view from this and this will be one of those times, very similar to the McCarthy period in the 1950s when all these people were like, “Man, what the hell were we thinking?” I know that because history says that. With my friends, they say this is the worst president I’ve ever seen. I say, “That’s because you don’t know anything about the other presidents.” So what I suggest you do is go buy a book on Andrew Johnson. And go buy a book on Grover Cleveland. And go buy a book on James Phillimore. Go buy these books, they were pretty lousy. Go buy a book on Calvin Coolidge. And then the statement has some context.
Branford Marsalis: But because most of my friends and most people aren’t interested in doing that kind of research, they like the way it feels to say that this person whom I don’t agree with is the worst person ever in the history of X. And that kind of thought process makes for really bad musicianship.
Barry Cockcroft: That’s repeating the exact same thing they’re criticising. Absolute opinions.
Branford Marsalis: That’s the irony of it all. That’s the irony of it is that when Obama was elected, 30% of Americans freaked out because a black guy was president and they started these movements like the Tea Party. And then you have now, Trump is in and it’s the resist movement. And they say, “Man, what do you think about the resist movement?” I said, “They’re just like the Tea Party, they’re just on the left.” It’s the same thing. You know? They’re outraged and mad and angry and what are we going to get from that? The Tea Party, they were going to be here for a thousand years, kind of like the third reich. We’re here to stay. They’re gone. They were gone as soon as Obama was re-elected. Gone. So you’re sitting here, I’m just taking the long view on all of this.
Barry Cockcroft: Has the politics had any affect on the life of a musician?
Branford Marsalis: No. That’s what I tell them. I said I’m working 20 days a month and he got elected and I’m working 20 days a month.
Barry Cockcroft: There obviously have been regimes in history where there have been big effects.
Branford Marsalis: Yeah that’s my point to these ridiculous people who are trying to compare him. I mean, Trump might want to ban certain music but the United States is a weird place. It actually works. There’s not going to be the thing like what just happened in Poland where a guy comes in and he’s able to clear out the entire judiciary and replace them with his friends. Or what Viktor Orbán is doing in Hungary. It’s not going to happen in the United States. We have 200 years of these institutions and the institutions are fighting back. And it’s there for everyone to see.
Branford Marsalis: But most people’s understanding of politics in our country is superficial at best anyway, which is why it’s so easy for people like Trump to get elected. People don’t really dedicate themselves to being true citizens of the country and understanding civics. Civics used to be taught when we were kids. Civics is no longer taught in the United States. So students don’t even have an understanding of how the government runs or what it is or what their obligation is as citizens in a republic. They would rather watch a music video and listen to a news channel, help you clarify your choice in 30 seconds or less. Tastes great, less filling, tastes great, less filling. I’m voting for that guy. He looks like he tastes great. You know?
Branford Marsalis: I have a lot of friends who are like that. And I say you can’t really be mad at the outcome, you didn’t invest any time. You didn’t invest any time. Some of you didn’t even vote. This is where we are, we’re fine. My passport isn’t revoked, my citizenship isn’t in question. There are some people who are catching hell. They’re not citizens and they have been treated with a level of disrespect. That’s a long, complicated story but what I call it is, I use the metaphor of the extinction burst. If you think about a star, if you think about an idea or an ideology in a country that a group of people believe in, whether it is outward, or in most cases it’s just a kind of inward belief that makes them feel secure at night. And then they look up one day and they realise that this star is about to go nova. And as a star begins to explode, the density of the star creates a situation where the star literally starts to collapse in on itself. And as it contracts, it creates brighter and brighter and brighter energy. It becomes more and more ferocious. And then it gets to a place and then … It’s a nova.
Branford Marsalis: We’re in an extinction burst right now. There’s an ideology that has been around since before 1950 and the citizens who grew up in that period strongly believe in what the country should represent to them. The country has changed, they don’t like it.
Barry Cockcroft: Do you think with your travelling your perspectives are a little broader, let’s say? Would you encourage travel to anyone?
Branford Marsalis: It just depends. Travel can help. I am in Keyoto, Japan. And as it always is, you land, you go to bed at ten, you’re up at four and it’s going to be like that for days. In Keyoto there’s only one shop that opens early and it opened at six. It was a donut shop called Mr. Donut. I said, “Well, it’s time for my date with Mr. Donut.” I get up, the streets are completely empty at six. No one out there. I’m standing next to an American and I have on a Michigan State shirt. And she says, “Are you American?” No. The real me, I always kind of pause and give the second answer. My first answer is black guy, Michigan State Tshirt in Japan, yeah it kind of fits the criteria. But I just went, “Yes.” Are you kidding me? That’s the first thing …
Branford Marsalis: She says, “How long have you been here?” I said, “Well I just got here.” She goes, “This place sure is weird.” And I said, “No it’s not weird, it’s just different.” And she says, “That’s the same thing.” I said, “No, weird and different are not the same thing. Weird implies that where you are from is better than where you are now. And what I’m saying is that it’s just slightly different.” No, you can’t go anywhere and get a hamburger, but you can get a lot of fish. The food here is cleaner. They don’t sell french fries in a restaurant except at McDonald’s. Yeah, they drive on the left side of the road, yeah they bow a lot, yeah they speak in certain terms, but there’s context to this. And if you don’t want to learn the context, then you shouldn’t travel. Or you should just go to places that affirm what it is.
Branford Marsalis: That’s why a lot of Americans love going to Australia and specifically to Queensland. Because it reminds them of home. They say, “Boy, Australia was great. I went to Brisbane, I went to Adelaide,” that’s what they want to see. They want to see things that remind them of themselves. And then there’s always American all over the world who live in Mayamar and Burma and Thailand and they’re just amazing people because they can’t live there and be who they were. So they become someone else and they see the world with other people’s eyes. And that’s with musicians. That’s what we do. That’s what we’re supposed to do. We’re supposed to see the world with other people’s eyes. Through sound.
Barry Cockcroft: Would that mean if we’re playing a piece, we’re seeing music through the composer’s eyes? As one of our jobs?
Branford Marsalis: Well the composers are dead. And if they are alive, the composers can talk to me, but I have my own approach to sound. And I have a sense of how to affect an audience with a piece or how to create tension in a piece with the orchestra that I have honed. So I will always respect the composer’s opinion. As a matter of fact modern composers write a piece for you, they say, “I’m going to send you some of these bits and tell me what you think about it.” I’ll say, “What are you sending it to me for? I’m not composing it. If I wanted to do that I’d be writing it. Write your piece.” “Oh no, I just wanted to know what you think about it.” “I think it’s great. Write your piece. Just make sure it’s playable.” Make sure it’s playable and then you would get the piece and it’s not playable. And I said, “You know, you could have just hired a saxophone player for $50 or $100 and said, ‘Here, read this piece,’ and they could have told you what I’m telling you now, three days before the premiere. It’s not playable.”
Branford Marsalis: This happened two years ago. He said, “What am I going to do?” I said, “I’m going to play the piece so you can sit there and hear that it’s not playable.” And he heard it and he was like, “Yeah, all of that is kind of off the instrument, isn’t it?” “Yeah. Kind of is.” You know? So it just depends on who the composer is. I mean, yeah, the composer has a voice but I have to make it mine.
Barry Cockcroft: If there was just one piece that you could play now forever, what would that be?
Branford Marsalis: I would really not like to do that. I don’t think that piece has been written yet. I don’t think it has. I play songs that are beautiful. And I’m going to make it okay for saxophone players to play pretty stuff. Like, “Yeah, let’s play pretty stuff, man. Let’s just play pretty stuff. Let’s play songs. I love playing songs.” We didn’t have the benefit of having an instrument old enough to have people with great talent write great songs for us. Okay. Let’s go grab those songs and adapt them and play them. And people love them. I played this concert, I played a Tomasi, 80% well. That’s hard on an audience. So I said, “Let’s just play movement one. Because movement two doubles down in a way that the audience is like, ‘Oh, when is it going to stop?'” So we played movement one and then we followed it with-
Branford Marsalis: … we played Movement One, and then we followed it with … What did we play? I can’t … I see the music, but … It wasn’t Sam Barber. We did play a lot of Barber. It was either Du Bist Die Ruh by Schubert, or something like that. And you follow up the hammer with a nice crème brûlée, and they were like, “Oh, that was so beautiful.” I say, “Yeah, well, the hammer’s coming back now.” And they laugh, and you play another tough piece, and you say, “Okay, now, this one’s for you.” And it worked, they stayed. They didn’t leave. They were encouraging, and they gravitated to the things that they like, and they tolerated the things that they didn’t necessarily like.
Barry Cockcroft: And they may have learned something along the way, possibly exposed to something-
Branford Marsalis: Oh, I don’t know. You’re asking a lot there with learning something. I mean, people come to shows to be entertained. They don’t come to learn. I’m okay with that. I think that sometimes it’s a trap for us when we start thinking that … This is like a conversation I had earlier. The audience needs to step their game up. The audience will never step their game up. The audience is an audience. I mean, they don’t know anything about Ravel, but what they do know about Ravel is that he wrote Bolero. They don’t know any of his other music. And if they heard it, they’d go, “Ah, just put on Bolero.”
Branford Marsalis: So, it’s like this … It’s not really a game, it’s just a push and a pull. There’s a woman named Lorraine Gordon who ran the Village Vanguard Club in New York. I would always play there. I was in my late twenties, and we were selling out because of movies and all this other stuff. We weren’t really good jazz players, yet, but we were playing jazz, and we were young, and people would come in. It would sell out. Six nights sold out. People around the corner. And then this guy from another club said, “Why do you always play the Vanguard? Because you could make more money playing at my club.” He pulls out a pen, and he goes, “The numbers don’t add up. Why do you play there?”
Branford Marsalis: I said, “Well, when you have a transactional relationship with the club and the music like you do, yeah, it wouldn’t make any sense.” I said, “The reason I play here is because the week after we play there, there’s a pianist named Horace Tapscott who’s going to play here. And Horace Tapscott’s music is brilliant and complicated, and no one will show up. So, I am happy to play here for six nights to subsidise the amount of money that Lorraine’s going to lose by bringing Horace, and I respect the fact that she brings Horace. You would never bring Horace Tapscott to your place. That’s why I play at the Vanguard.”
Branford Marsalis: I don’t think that the situation has really changed that much. I mean, the reality is that audiences generally like what they like. There are certain places, like I say, the old Austro-Hungarian empire, there was so much incredible music going on there. They have different ears than most people in the world, and they can actually hear what you’re trying to do. And they hear when you suck, too. I mean, I got ripped a couple of times in my early 30s, and when I read what people were saying, I was like, “Yeah, that’s kind of true, actually. Okay. Yeah, well.”
Barry Cockcroft: But they say it.
Branford Marsalis: Yeah. I’ll grow out of that. There’s nothing I can do about it now. It’s not like a light switch, “Oh, I’ll never do that again.” You’ve got to grow out of it. But it was an interesting perspective, about how our music sounded to them. It was too much the same. It didn’t have any variety. A modern musician would say, “There’s tonnes of variety.” Harmonic variety but not sonic variety, and that’s what they were talking about. It all started to sound the same after a while. And I said, “Well, boys, we got to go do some work. More work for us.”
Branford Marsalis: And we did. We started listening to … Well, I started listening to a lot of chamber music, because we had to get … I mean, jazz is kind of like popular music. I mean, there’s two volumes, loud and louder. And when I started listening to a lot more chamber music, and the guys … Joey started listening to Chopin, suddenly the songs were taking on shapes and colours that you wouldn’t have if you don’t listen to that music. And it took five years or so, but yeah, it changed the way that we played the music. And we still benefit from that now.
Barry Cockcroft: How is it that your lineup is so stable?
Branford Marsalis: I pay ’em well. That’s really a big thing. And every time that they go to play with other people, which I encourage, and with their own groups, they know they’re going to be challenged. They know we’re going to make a great record. We’re a great band. We’re going to make a great record, and we’re going to challenge each other. And we’re going to have fun doing it. We’re never going to sit around and make the same record that we made in the last one, and it’s exciting to play every night.
Barry Cockcroft: How important has recording been?
Branford Marsalis: It’s not important at all.
Barry Cockcroft: So, you do a lot of recording?
Branford Marsalis: No.
Barry Cockcroft: You don’t?
Branford Marsalis: Every two years, every three years. If we have something to say, we make a record. No one’s going to buy them, so the whole thing is … Recordings are like a musician’s CV.
Barry Cockcroft: Right.
Branford Marsalis: I’ll be dead in 50 years if I’m lucky, you know? Or less than that. Who knows? But the point is, is that, you leave behind this evidence of your existence, and musicians can listen to it, other people can listen to it. You know? Students and scholars and compare and listen and analyse. This is our record. This is our scores. These are the scores that we leave behind. Do they exhibit growth? Do they exhibit consistency? Do they exhibit repetition? These are the questions. And it’s always a relative question, because some people think that repetition is the same as consistency. So, there are all these varying opinions.
Branford Marsalis: There will always be varying opinions, but these records are, as my father said, he says, “Records are actually documents. They are documents that signify a growth, or a lack of growth.” Yeah. Okay. Yeah. That’s why we make them. But we’re not … You know, people always say, “Well, you’re in the record business.” I’ve never been in the record business. I’m in the music business. I make records, I’m not in the record business. I will not say that … We don’t have a tour that is the name of the record. We’re not in that business, you know?
Barry Cockcroft: Does this tie in with your love of history? I mean, are you documenting?
Branford Marsalis: Hmm?
Barry Cockcroft: Are you documenting music through recording, like a lot of history?
Branford Marsalis: Yeah. I’m documenting how I thought about music at a given point in time. And I’m either right or I’m wrong, and history will bear that out. What’s really funny to me is that when it comes to my recorded music, everybody always goes to the ’80s. All these people, “Man, those records you did in the ’80s.” Those records are terrible. So, it’s really great for me in a way. Because, the guys in the band, I said, “Man, look at how far we’ve come.” Right? “These guys are listening to records, man, we wouldn’t spit on those records now.” So, it’s just really interesting that … Because those records were more in that post-bop school, with the linear mindset that we were really consciously trying to break away from.
Branford Marsalis: And now that it seems that we’ve appeared to have done it, the musicians that are coming behind us are just very linear, and they like the linear stuff. So, whatever we did in the ’90s, or we did in the ’00s, in the oughts, they don’t want anything to do with that. They go, “Oh, man, that record you did in ’88,” and I’ll just say, “Yeah, thanks, kid.” I’m not going to give them the speech, because you cannot talk someone into a mindset. They have to arrive there on their own.
Branford Marsalis: My dad was very Socratic in that way. He would ask you a series of questions that are allowing you to question your own existence. No, not your existence, but your own existence as a musician, and giving you the room to figure out where you are. And it’s the way I teach. I mean, some kids, they really don’t like that way of teaching, because they want to come in and they want you to teach them. They want to walk in and say, “Okay, here are these skills. Go learn these. Come back next week.”
Branford Marsalis: But I have two simple questions when I get a student. I say, “Well, why are you here?” And they never have an answer. And I say, “Well, play a C scale, two octaves.” I say, “Okay, what did that sound like?” They say, “Well, what do you mean?” I say, “Well, we’ve been here about three minutes, and we’ve established two things. You have no earthly idea why you’re here, and you have no understanding of what you sound like. So, the lesson’s pretty much over, so, thanks for coming. I won’t charge you, and if you ever figure out one of those two questions, come back.”
Branford Marsalis: Most don’t come back, because they just want that transaction. They want to say they studied with me. They don’t want to get better. They don’t want to be challenged. They just want to put it on their CV, and I hate to break the news to them, it’s like the World Cup. No one ever asks for a footballer’s CV, because it’s either you can play, or you can’t. And that’s music. A university will ask for a CV, but a promoter will not. So, you have these kids thinking that they’re going to study with somebody that has a name and that saying that they studied will be advantageous to them. It really won’t.
Barry Cockcroft: Is this the idea of collecting awards? Is it a similar mindset?
Branford Marsalis: Yes. It’s completely transactional. So, when we play a concert, they will always say, “Multiple Grammy award winner.” Right? What does that even mean? I mean, they say it every time. It’s like, “Three-time Grammy award winner.” If I just said that to them, a very Socratic thing, say, “When you say that, what does that mean to you?” Wouldn’t even know. It’s just something you do. It’s just something to do. “I got to say something about them. They’ll be impressed by that.” But they won’t. I mean, you could ask any person that is going to the concert for the first time, say, “What is one of the things that the promoter said about them that you remembered?” They would never remember that. It’s a throwaway line.
Barry Cockcroft: What would you like them to say?
Branford Marsalis: That they heard the music. That’s what I want them to remember. How it sounded. How they felt when we played. That’s the only thing that matters.
Barry Cockcroft: What would you put on the promotional bill, then? If it’s not “Three-time Grammy award winner”?
Branford Marsalis: I wouldn’t put anything. I mean, the promotional bill …
Barry Cockcroft: What would you like people to see about you in three words?
Branford Marsalis: I wouldn’t want them to see anything. I want them to hear. I want them to know that they’re not going to hear anything like what we do from anybody else. It’s just us. We do it. You know? We’ve decided that we’re going to play jazz by learning how the old, dead people do it, and we’re going to emulate that.
Barry Cockcroft: Have you found, now, that others are emulating what you have done?
Branford Marsalis: No.
Barry Cockcroft: No.
Branford Marsalis: Most are not. Some. Most are not, because it requires a different skill. Hearing is harder than knowing. So, again, you have to be willing to be bad at something for a long time to get good at it. Transactional humans aren’t comfortable with that, with the idea that they’re going to be bad at something for a long … I have a student, I told him to learn a solo by ear. And I told him all the reasons. When you learn a solo by ear, you are teaching yourself how to hear sound, through the voice of a great musician, like Lester Young. It’s not about the notes. I tell you to learn it, and you analyse the notes. The notes are pointless. There’s only 12 of them. There’s no magic to that. Magic is where he places the note. That’s the magic. No book can show you that. You have to hear that.
Branford Marsalis: He’s really bad at it. So, after three weeks, we’re in the class, and he says, “Yeah, you keep talking about this learning it by ear, man. I can’t do it. You know, some people aren’t meant to have that.” And I cut him off and I said, “How the hell would you know?” I didn’t use the word “hell”, but you have an imagination. “How the hell would you know? You’re going to sit here at 21, try to tell me what people are like and people are not like? How long does it take a baby to learn how to walk? You know? Probably not. I think the average is eight months before the brain finishes the code that allows the baby to walk. And if you’ve ever been around kids, the really bright ones can’t wait to start walking, and they’re just frustrated as hell. They’re crying, they’re moving around, they’re trying to get up, they can’t get up. It’s not time. If they had your sensibility, they’d just give up and say, “Carry me. This thing’s not working.”
Branford Marsalis: I said, “It takes a baby eight months to learn how to walk. You’ve been trying this for 21 days. Who do you think you are? Your brain is writing a code for something you’ve never done in your life. You’ve been doing it wrong for 21 years, and you think it’s going to fix itself in 21 days, and then it doesn’t happen, so you quit? All right. Good luck with that.” “Yeah, I never thought about it that way.” I said, “You never thought at all. That’s one thing you haven’t done. You haven’t thought. I’ve been telling you all this since school started. You have to be willing to sound bad for a long time to get good, and you can’t take it. So, what you’re going to do is go back to what you know, even though it sucks, because it makes you feel better about you. Feel free. I get paid either way.”
Branford Marsalis: So, this idea that you can get people to do that, it’s hard for a lot of people. It’s hard for a lot of people. It’s hard for a lot of musicians, because you go to school and all they do is teach harmony, and they talk about music in a very mathematical way. And in the stuff we do, the math doesn’t apply. I mean, if you’re one of those people, you don’t know how to get to what it is that we do. So, you create these barriers, and say, “Well,” you know, “Those guys are good at what they do. We’re part of the new movement, here. There’s a new jazz sound.”
Branford Marsalis: According to whom? If there’s a new jazz sound, that can’t be declared from the people who can’t do the old jazz sound. They have a vested interest in the new sound being the new sound. They’re not qualified to say that this is a new sound. It’s just a bad version of the old sound. It’s not new. There’s nothing new about that. People would play like that since the ’40s.
Barry Cockcroft: If you’re looking back at your younger self, when you’re starting out, is there a bit of advice you’d like to give yourself?
Branford Marsalis: Yes and no. I’d say, you know, “Take it more seriously and practise.” But if I had, then I probably wouldn’t be practising now. My brother took it very seriously, and he’s bogged down with a lot of composition work, and all these other things. He used to practise three hours a day, rain or shine, from the time he was 12 to the time he was about 26 or 27. There’s an attrition to that after a while. It wears you out. And I don’t have any young people distractions any more. What else would I be doing? Playing golf? I’m too old to run. Too old to play sports, physical contact sports. I practise an instrument and I play golf, and I hang out with my kids. So, I wouldn’t want a 21-year-old kid doing that.
Branford Marsalis: I think that all of the things that I did, some of it was stupid and reckless, some of it was just … It led me to this point. I get that, that if you’re going to go back in time, then you have to go back with that wild, 21-year-old kinetic energy, that craziness. I had a good run as a kid. I did things that was never part of my playbook. Playing with pop stars and doing TV shows and all that stuff. That was fun. It was great stuff. And it led me here, and now that I’m an old man, I don’t look back and say, “Oh,” you know. You know, old people really hate young people. I like young people. I know how clueless they are. I was them once. You know? This is the way it goes. You know? This is the way it goes. But I’m really happy with what I’m doing. I wake up every morning and there’s a purpose there, and it’s not sidetracked by youth.
Barry Cockcroft: Is there someone in the saxophone world who you consider to be a great contributor to the development of the saxophone?
Branford Marsalis: I don’t think in those terms. I mean, that’s a hindsight question. I don’t think it’s a current question, because, I mean … I’m not really about the instrument that way. The sound of the instrument. But when I come to these competitions, these conventions, it’s a convention, really, I mean, even hearing the students play, hearing those young kids at the end, the Zahir Quartet, man, it was brilliant. That’s inspiring, to hear that. And their professor, whose name escapes me right now, but I’ve said hello to him a couple of times. I mean, his soprano saxophone playing is brilliant, and then when I see him I’m telling him it was great to hear him play.
Barry Cockcroft: Jean-Denis.
New Speaker: Jean-Denis. That’s him. Thank you. That’s it. Jean-Denis. And he was incredible. I mean, it was great to listen to. And I think that Carrie Koffman is great. Debra Richtmeyer’s great. I mean, Jackie Lamar, people dedicate their lives to helping kids. I mean, there’s a mission out there. Through the instrument, you’re teaching these kids. Some of them will not even become musicians. Some of them won’t be teachers. They’ll go do something else. You know?
Branford Marsalis: My God, Harvey Pittel really took good care of me, and then some of the guys, like Arno Bornkamp has been really good with hearing little technical problems and saying, “You should try this.” I mean, all kinds of people come up and give me little tidbits of advice, because they know I want to learn this stuff. You know? Otis Murphy’s been great. And there’s all these great players. I played with Prism. Those guys are awesome. It’s just a blast to … I’m just having a great time. I’m having a great time, and it’s nice to be around a bunch of musicians when it’s not really about me, I’m just hanging out.
Barry Cockcroft: You seem to be doing these little chamber projects. Is that something where you can join into an established group and participate?
Branford Marsalis: Yeah, and not take somebody else’s slot. Yeah. But they ask me to do it.
Barry Cockcroft: I’m actually seeing more and more pieces where it will be a quartet, or an existing, established group, plus one.
Branford Marsalis: Right. I mean, I like it. And like I said, they asked me to do it. I wouldn’t say, “Hey,” you know, “I want to do a song,” because I would come here and just … I would be content to be here and just listen. Because in the preparation for this, I mean, there’s all this music that I don’t get to hear, because I’m doing these other things. I mean, Arno was playing at 8:15, on the night of the semifinal World Cup match between Croatia and England, so, the place was manic. And I finished the three performances, and the plan was for me to play, to rehearse from 7:00 to 7:15, 7:30, get back, hear Arno.
Branford Marsalis: By the time we finished with Connie Frigo’s concert, another great saxophone player with a beautiful sound and is doing great things at the University of Georgia, people talking and handshakes, I didn’t get out of the building ’til 7:15, and at 7:15, all these people were rushing to the square because the match was starting at 8:00. Not a taxi in sight. My brain’s tired, my body’s tired, my back hurts. I’ve been standing up for nine hours. By the time I get to the venue, it’s 8:00, 8:10. We rehearse two songs. It’s 8:30. By the time I get back to the hotel, it’s 8:45. I’m like, “I’m going to bed.” I really wanted to hear Arno.
Branford Marsalis: And then my friend, Victor Goins, was in town. He said, “Man, let’s just go to this Selmer party, for watch the end of the game.” And then I’m walking this way, and then I see Arno and I say, “Yeah, man, how was the concert? I wanted to make it. My life sucks right now, but I love coming here and hearing great players play.”
Branford Marsalis: One of the things I learned, growing up in the Southern United States is very similar to being around Australians. You answer questions by using stories as metaphors, to answer the question. It’s a very Southern American thing, and it’s a very English thing, in certain parts of England. And it’s definitely a thing in Australia, the simile, in Australia. “Oh, that’s like a …” It’s like, yeah, okay. I’m going to love this place.
Barry Cockcroft: You were in Australia a couple of months ago?
Branford Marsalis: Yeah. Not even. Six weeks, maybe.
Barry Cockcroft: Obviously a while ago since I saw you, but I remember you saying, with the travel, when it’s so far-
Barry Cockcroft: … it’s really difficult.
Branford Marsalis: It’s rough.
Barry Cockcroft: But you came.
Branford Marsalis: We had an anomaly. We actually recorded in Melbourne.
Barry Cockcroft: Right.
Branford Marsalis: Because we had five days off. We had a tour in Japan that went belly-up, so we went Korea. We were supposed to go Korea, Japan, Melbourne. Japan disappeared, and I said, “Well, hell, let’s just go to Melbourne. Let’s make a record.” And the guys were like, “Well,” you know, “Sydney’s warm.” I said, “Sydney’s not where you make records. Sydney’s where you just hang out. We’re going to make the record in Melbourne, where the art is. We’re going to Melbourne.” And everybody was like, “Yeah, Melbourne.” Melbourne was happening. It was cold, unfortunately, but musicians playing all over town, local bands, little clubs. And we were all over the place. It was great. We had a good time.
Barry Cockcroft: So, you’ve made an enormous contribution to music in all sorts of different ways, and in a chameleon-like way, different fields. What do you see for yourself over the next couple of decades?
Branford Marsalis: I never saw any of this coming. I never really … Because even if they were to ask me that in the ’80s, when it was a pop topic. “So, what’s next for you?” I say, “Well, if you were to ask me this question in ’84,” I said, “Look, certainly would not have said that in 1985 I’ll be doing a world tour and recording with an internationally-renowned pop star.” So, that’s why I kind of leave that one alone. My job is to prepare for all inevitabilities, and when they show up, we can do them or we can’t. But I’m at that age where those kinds of things are done. You know? Almost 60.
Branford Marsalis: The popular culture thing is a young person thing, and that’s fine. So I’m just playing music, playing with whomever intrigues me or whatever shows up. And there are people out there, there are composers and players that are out there, and I don’t know them, and they don’t know me, and we’ll bump into each other. That’s kind of what happened here. I mean, this has been a great gift to me. Hanging out with all these saxophonists and meeting composers. It’s been awesome.
Barry Cockcroft: Good on you.
Branford Marsalis: Good on you, mate.
Barry Cockcroft: It’s good. Thanks very much.
Branford Marsalis: Thank you.