Branford Marsalis: Program notes by Rick Mitchell

Branford Marsalis comes to Houston for a sold out show on January 25.

DACAMERA’s Rick Mitchell spoke to Marsalis and contributed these notes on the program:

It’s fair to say that Branford Marsalis has firm ideas about what should and should not be considered jazz. It’s not that he’s opposed to other styles of music or ways of improvising – indeed, he’s been sitting in with the Grateful Dead and subsequent Dead-spin-off bands for nearly 30 years – and he toured with Sting off-and-on from 1985 to 1999. He says he loved the plugged-in sound of Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters in the 1970s, and his own Buckshot LeFonque band was a Nineties fusion of jazz-based soloing and funk and hip-hop rhythms.

If it’s an honest attempt at creative music-making, he’s cool with it, whether he personally likes it or not. Just don’t try to call it jazz if it’s really not.

“Jazz is a funny word,” he says. “Everybody wants to be associated with it, even if they don’t play jazz or even like jazz…  I’m a fan of improvisation, but that doesn’t make it jazz. It just makes it improvisation. Jazz has a sound.”

And what would that sound be?

“Improvisation is not the most important thing to have emerged with jazz in the 20th Century,” Marsalis told me in an earlier interview.  “The flatted 3rd and 7th notes in the melodic context and the swing beat were what defined jazz and made it popular. Improvisation was not new. It already existed. The sound was new.

“When you listen to modern jazz now, the swing beat does not exist. Musicians can decide to be ethnomusicologists, or they can just keep doing what they’re doing. A lot of the people I came up with in New Orleans don’t know a lot about music, but they can hear music. A lot of the people in New York who think they know all about music, can’t hear it. There is a serious disconnect going on with stuff like [annual jazz critics’ polls].  They are trying to redefine what jazz is, but they ultimately will fail: Odd meters, long and rambling melodies — that music has a low rate of success. These guys who play this (expletive) allow me more work, because people won’t pay to hear them.”

To illustrate his point about the ignorance of jazz critics, Marsalis points to the example of John Coltrane’s “Impressions,” first recorded in 1961 at the Village Vanguard and again in 1963 as the title track of one of Coltrane’s most celebrated albums. While critics at the time proclaimed it a masterpiece, and noted that the 32-bar chord progression was the same as Miles Davis’ “So What,” a 1959 recording Coltrane had played on, fewer were aware that Davis had taken the inspiration for “So What” from Ahmad Jamal’s 1955 recording of a piece called “Pavanne,” written by light classical composer Morton Gould in 1939.  “Pavanne,” in turn, was a movement from a longer work called American Symphonette No. 2, and had been recorded not only by Gould but the big bands of Jimmie Lunceford and Glenn Miller, who put a danceable swing beat to the piece’s jaunty first theme. Coltrane, who was undoubtedly familiar with Jamal’s version and probably familiar with the earlier versions, borrowed the movement’s less familiar second theme for the melody of “Impressions” and laid it over the changes to “So What.”

Some older Swing Era critics must surely have remembered the versions of “Pavanne” by Miller and Lunceford, but none commented on it that I can find now. Maybe they weren’t listening to Coltrane.  As someone who has been writing about this music for four decades, I wish I could tell you that I was aware of this history before Branford Marsalis told me about it. Nope. Nor did the esteemed jazz critic Ashley Kahn mention the connection in his liner notes for the 2018 Coltrane album Both Directions at Once: The Lost Album, which contained four previously unreleased takes on Impressions. You can hear the various music clips for yourself if you google Deep Dive with Lewis Porter: The Inspiration Behind John Coltrane’s “Impressions,” on the website of WBGO-FM in Newark, New Jersey. They are identical.

But Marsalis doesn’t just criticize the critics; he also points the finger at his fellow musicians. “Most musicians playing jazz today know 20 years of music history when they should know 60,” he says. “When I started I knew 10 years. I knew Wayne Shorter, Sonny Rollins, Ornette Coleman.  But I had not heard the musicians that they listened to, jazz musicians in the 1920s and Thirties, classical music…  It takes a long time for that music to show up in your brain, which is why most musicians don’t do that. It can be a frustrating experience for those who lack patience.”

So what’s his opinion of a younger musician such as Kamasi Washington, a serious saxophonist who is taking jazz-based improvisation to hip-hop audiences and the jam band circuit?

“This is not something I want to go to war with,” he told David Fricke in a recent JazzTimes interview. “But I can listen to a Lester Young record, a Dexter Gordon or Wayne Shorter record, and ask, ‘Do you hear that lineage in his playing?’ If you don’t, what makes it jazz? Improv? We’re back to that illusion again. The success that Kamasi has had – it’s awesome. But the people defending him as a jazz player are not jazz players… He’s a sax player. But his vocabulary is not jazz. It’s some jazz.”

Marsalis’ insistence on a traditional definition of jazz is rooted at least in part in the advocacy of Albert Murray, who in books such as Stomping the Blues defined jazz as blues-based improvisation played on acoustic instruments over a swing dance beat.  Murray, a co-founder of Jazz at Lincoln Center with Branford’s brother, Wynton Marsalis, only reluctantly embraced bebop. A retired military officer, he did not start writing books until he was in his 50s. He passed away in 2013 at the age of 97.

“I can’t dance worth (expletive),” Branford told Fricke. “But I can tap my foot, shake my booty in my seat. Charlie Parker understood that. Coleman Hawkins understood that. The next generation, right after Parker, ceased to be enamored with whether a song was good or bad. They fell in love with structure. Parker’s music bounced. The next guys fell in love with complication. Everybody wanted to play the break in ‘Night in Tunisia’ as fast as possible.

“The trick is to write hard (expletive) but make it sound simple. When regular people listen to Stravinsky, they don’t think Petrushka is hard – they don’t have to play it. In jazz, we’ve gone the other way: ‘Ya’ll gotta be smart to deal with what we’re doing!’ That’s not a winning formula…”

Branford Marsalis was born in 1960 in Breaux Bridge, Louisiana, the eldest of six brothers. His father, Ellis Marsalis, was and is a respected jazz pianist and educator in New Orleans, where Branford grew up. In addition to Wynton, two other brothers, Delfeayo, a trombonist and producer, and Jason, a drummer and vibraphonist, also play music professionally.

According to his mother, Dolores, Branford early on demonstrated the most musical aptitude of any of the brothers, including Wynton, who by the age of 12 was performing as a guest soloist with the New Orleans Symphony. Branford was, by his own account, an “adolescent knucklehead,” more interested in sports than music and reluctant to practice.  Branford and Wynton played together in an R&B/funk band in high school, and Branford studied with the late clarinetist Alvin Batiste at Southern University in Baton Rouge, who encouraged him to transfer to the Berklee College of Music in Boston for his sophomore year.

It wasn’t until Wynton – on summer sabbatical from classical studies at the Julliard School in New York — came through Boston with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers that Branford fully committed to the discipline that is required to play jazz at the highest level.

“I was so proud, so happy,” Branford told People magazine in 1988. “When I saw him, I got fired up and thought, ‘Man, I want to do this too…’ I called him up and said, ‘Man, I am going to practice.’ He laughed and said, ‘Don’t b.s. me.’ I said, ‘I am, I am.’ If it wasn’t for Wynton, I’d probably be a plumber now.”

Be that as it may, Wynton helped Branford get the gig as an alto saxophonist with the Jazz Messengers, which included Bill Pierce on tenor sax, Donald Brown on piano, Charles Fambrough on bass and the master drummer Art Blakey, who was at the time in his early 60s and commanding a band of musicians who could have been his children, or his grandchildren.

“I’m an R&B saxophone player; I have no (expletive) idea how to play jazz,” Branford told Bill Milkowski in a 2012 JazzTimes interview, recalling his initiation to the major leagues. “Before that, I’m at Berklee and I’m listening to all these guys playing all this fast stuff, and the question I had was, ‘If all this (expletive) is so good, then how come it doesn’t sound as good as the stuff from 30 years ago?’”

He elaborated on this point with me. “I had the pentatonic scale, and the way Wayne Shorter played with Miles in the Sixties. That was all I had, so I used it, over and over again. Nobody else in the band was playing that way, so people thought I was doing something original. But that is not the way to play with Art Blakey. Wayne didn’t play that way with Art Blakey…”

According to Marsalis, Blakey could be merciless in his instructions to his young charges. He told Milkowski about the time he tried to change the chords in a George Gershwin ballad. When Blakey asked him what he was doing, Branford replied, ‘You making me play it, I’m gonna do what I can to make it hip.’ He said, ‘Let me explain something to you, (expletive). George Gershwin does not need your sorry ass to make him hip. He’s already hip. The only thing you are doing is masking the fact that you don’t know what the (expletive) you are doing. So you’re going to play the song the way it’s written…

“I thank God every day that Art Blakey put me in that hostile environment. He made me into a musician by forcing me to confront my weaknesses.”

When Wynton left the Jazz Messengers to form his own band, Branford went with him, switching from alto to tenor and soprano sax.  Both brothers, though barely out of their teens, carried themselves with an outspoken Crescent City swagger that ruffled some feathers among older musicians, but that swagger generally translated well into the music. Listen to Branford’s elegantly melodic, rhythmically insistent solo on “Sister Cheryl,” a Tony Williams composition from Wynton’s self-titled 1982 debut album as a leader. The other musicians on the date are Herbie Hancock on piano and Ron Carter on bass – with Williams on drums, Miles Davis’ incomparable 1965 to 1968 rhythm section — yet if either brother was intimidated in the slightest, it does not show.

Branford acknowledges the compliment, then demurs. “Those records had some good moments, but my playing is so much more consistent now. I could sit there with you and show you. I was commiserating with Herbie the other day, and he said, ‘Man, you’ve grown so much.’  A bunch of people have watched me learn how to play on records.”

At the same time that Branford was touring and recording with Sting and directing The Tonight Show band with Jay Leno in Los Angeles from 1992 to 1995, he maintained his acoustic jazz quartet with pianist Kenny Kirkland, bassist Robert Hurst, and drummer Jeff “Tain” Watts.   Over the past three decades, Branford has released an impressive catalogue of albums – he now has more than thirty as a leader, including three Grammy-winners – that have documented his still-expanding technical facility as a jazz saxophone player and composer, as well as the occasional classical release.

Marsalis has often declared his preference for working with stable bands, sometimes citing long-lived rock and R&B bands such as the Rolling Stones, the Who and Earth, Wind and Fire as his role models. He told me, “I would never want to make a career playing with pick-up musicians,” as has been the case in days gone by with numerous horn players in the latter part of their careers. His favorite format for the past 35 years has been the quartet. His current band includes two musicians – pianist Joey Calderazzo and bassist Eric Revis – who have been with him for more than 20 years.  Calderazzo joined following Kirkland’s death in 1998. Drummer Jason Faulkner came on board about a decade later, replacing Watts, who had been with Branford since they left Wynton’s band in the mid-1980s. This quartet has made three albums together: 2012’s wryly-titled Four MF’s Playing Tunes; Upward Spiral, a 2016 collaboration with vocalist Kurt Elling; and 2019’s The Secret Between the Shadow and the Soul, which takes its title from a poem by Pablo Neruda.

Recorded while the band was on tour in Australia, the album includes two originals apiece from Revis and Calderazzo, one by Marsalis dedicated to his mother, who passed away in 2017, and covers of Andrew Hill’s “Snake Hip Waltz” and Keith Jarrett’s “The Windup.” The latter tune, the album closer, is a rollicking 12-minute workout that puts a New Orleans beat to Jarrett’s Ornette Coleman-inspired melody. The emotions that come through in the compositions range from happy to sad and angry, expressions Marsalis says they were able to access more freely because the band members have been playing together for so long. Given his comments about musicians being at least partly responsible for jazz’s diminished audience share, the album – like virtually all of Marsalis’ recorded output for the last 20 years or so – makes a decidedly uncompromising statement about what he thinks jazz is and should be, ranging from delicate solo piano interludes to thundering drums and commanding saxophone cadenzas.

While he declines to rate The Secret Between the Shadow and the Soul in the context of his overall body of work, Marsalis says, “I think it is a very good representation of how we think as musicians, and what we think about music… All of the songs, we focused on the emotional angle, not just that all of the solos were good. Each song is like a chapter in a book.”

For what little it’s worth, the critics seem to agree.  Jazziz magazine proclaimed, “Branford Marsalis’ quartet has been a model of daring, unapologetic artistry for the past three decades. On their new album, The Secret Between the Shadow and the Soul, they reach a new peak, addressing a kaleidoscope of moods with inspiration and group commitment.” The online All Music review noted, “2019’s The Secret Between the Shadow and the Soul finds the saxophonist balancing an expressive maturity with a continued sense of fun… Together they play with a deft abandon that borders on focused chaos.”  For his part, Marsalis says the reviews mean little to him, good or bad. He told Rachel Olding of the Sydney Morning Herald, “I grew up with Dolores Marsalis! What the hell do I care about a bad review.”

Ten years ago, weary of the New York lifestyle and increasingly less enamored of the music scene, Branford and his family moved to Durham, North Carolina, where he has a teaching job at North Carolina Central University. He’s also traveled all over the world exploring the limited but intriguing repertoire for classical saxophone with symphony orchestras. At first, he says, “I was terrible, as I should have been.” In 2004, he took lessons from Harvey Pittel, a saxophone professor at the University of Texas in Austin, which he says opened up new possibilities.  In 2017, Gabriel Prokofiev, the grandson of the great Russian composer Serge Prokofiev, wrote a saxophone concerto for him that was recorded in Russia with the Ural Philharmonic. Last spring, he performed a Latin American program with the Australian Chamber Orchestra.  Marsalis says the classical performances have improved his jazz playing: “All those little things, suddenly I had to be very precise. I started paying attention to the sound of things because you can’t have a one-emotion-fits-all like you can in your own music.”

He’s also remained active as a composer for theater. In 2018, he scored director Kenny Leon’s Broadway revival of the play Children of a Lesser God. He previously was nominated for a Tony award for the score to the 2010 revival of August Wilson’s Fences.

But Marsalis’ first calling is as a jazz musician, and he promises to come out swinging in Houston. “Ultimately, I don’t care what color you are or where you came from,” he told me in an earlier interview. “I just want you to play jazz and sound like a jazz musician. The only requirement for Jessye Norman was that it had to sound like opera. She didn’t come out singing opera like James Brown or Dinah Washington. And whoever is playing with me, they have to sound like a jazz musician.”

Wherever Branford goes, the Marsalis name is recognized as the first family of jazz, though with so many siblings and their father all still working, there is sometimes a bit of confusion as to who’s who. Branford recently posted this exchange on his Twitter account:

“Just before landing…

FA:  I looked at the manifest and saw the name Marsalis! No wonder you’re carrying a saxophone. Is he your father?

Me: Which one?

FA: Wynton.

Me: Yes.

FA: Wow! Tell him I’m a big fan.”