Branford Marsalis Discusses the Genre, Teaching Music and Getting Up Early


The Braford Marsalis Quartet’s latest album, The Secret Between The Shadow And The Soul, features compositions by the bandleader, pianist Joey Calderazzo and bassist Eric Revis. Drummer Justin Faulkner rounds out the ensemble.

(Photo: Scott Chernis)

When you talk to other people: “Miles had the vision and the forward thinking and he hired these guys and he taught them.” He didn’t teach them anything. Nothing. Because he didn’t know it. So, to say that, people go, “This is heresy!” It’s really not. It’s on the record. It’s right there. You can check it out if you’re listening. Most people think that I’m a contrarian because I don’t agree. I don’t agree not because it’s cool to not agree. I put on this record: It doesn’t matter how many hundreds of you can’t hear it. I hear what this shit is. I’m saying it’s this because it is that. Not because I want to make a name for myself by going against the grain. Hell, in modern jazz, aural scholarship is against the grain. You start talking about hearing and they start talking about knowing.

How is the Musicians’ Village in New Orleans doing?

It’s doing great. Harry [Connick Jr.] and I did two fundraisers. All across the country, when it comes to poor neighborhoods, they’ve got basketball programs and all these other things—which is good for basketball and football teams because they’re always looking for talent. It’s great for us to be able to get the kids who aren’t physically gifted but intellectually gifted and have them do something other than watch cartoons until their parents get home from work.

One year in, the parents asked us, “How come y’all don’t teach adults?” So, the parents forced us to start adult classes, and now you’ve got parents and kids playing together. It doesn’t matter if they become musicians or not. New Orleans proved that. Musicians become musicians. You don’t have to get a school to create musicians. They just show up. It’s just a matter of giving them information that can make them better. The whole idea is to teach a kid to self-correct, identify problems, solve it though logic.

When you tour outside of the U.S., do you have a sense of being regarded as representative of jazz, America and African Americans?

I don’t think they put that much thought in it. Why should they? I got off a plane: There are some musicians from Dresden with traditional instruments playing Bach’s St. John Passion.

I sat in the audience and I fucking loved it. And not one time did I think they are representing the German people; they are representing Dresden. It’s either good or it’s not. They either like it or they don’t.

I was thinking of the State Department’s jazz diplomacy campaigns.

Back then? Yeah, they did that. It was mostly in Communist and African countries. Louis Armstrong going to Africa. It was done to improve the image of the United States, which was starting to be known around the world as a racist place. The Soviets were more than willing to exploit Jim Crow for their own purposes. But there was no fervent belief in the United States that we had to represent African Americans in a better light in 1952. It was to create a valuable counter-narrative to what the Soviets were putting out. And it was pretty easy to do: Just grab films of Bull Conner spraying pregnant women with water hoses, dogs biting people, and beating them with truncheons. The State Department’s idea wasn’t pure, but it was awesome. Politically, it makes perfect sense. Musically, it makes sense.

We did State Department tours. The gig is on YouTube. It’s Wynton in Warsaw, 1983. They didn’t want the musicians to fraternize with us. We met these musicians and stayed up almost all night and we talked about music in America and they talked about music in Poland. They said, “We can’t get records here. Can you send us tapes?” The list was so long it took us weeks to buy these TDK cassette tapes and record all this music, put it in a box, and send it to these guys. The State Department didn’t plan on that.

[Calderazzo and Revis approach Marsalis, and the bandmates exchange greetings.]

Sleepy, huh? I’ve been up since 6. I went and washed clothes.

I was going to ask you about the earliness of the hour.

They don’t get up. I do. My son was born in 1985, and that was it for me. I was up at 6. “But you’re a jazz musician, you must sleep in late.” No. My entire life is a series of stereotypes. Sure, I’ll be up at 6, but you come around at noon, so you can feel better about your stereotypes. I got into it with a jazz writer a couple of days ago. We were talking about styles of music, and I kept talking about [how] you have to find a way to communicate with people in the music you play. Modern musicians are more interested in communicating with other musicians, which is useless. And he said, “A lot of people don’t agree with you.” People respond to sound. It’s just that simple. If you play a ballad and somebody’s affected by it, they’re not going to come to you and say, “When you just played that super lydian scale, I just lost it.” It’s never going to happen. If it’s real, it’s unexplained, it’s just a sound.

What pieces take you there?

“A Love Supreme” does it. The Billie Holiday record Lady In Satin. The Sinatra record Only The Lonely. Mahler’s Ninth. Glenn Gould, Brahms’ Intermezzo In A Major. I heard that once, and Glenn Gould plays it so exceptionally well that when they went back to the recapitulation, I was driving with my wife and I just started crying and she said, “What happened?” And I said, “Didn’t you hear it? It’s so beautiful.” Peter Lieberson and his wife, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, Neruda Songs [2006]. She was dying of cancer, and he wrote these songs, and she sang them with the Boston Symphony just before she died. You can hear the joy in her voice amidst the pathos, very similar to what Neruda writes about, anyway. The duality. It’s never one or the other. It’s not happy or sad. It’s like the blues: Yes, it has a flatted third and, yes, it has a flatted seventh, but it is not a minor sound. You have to make the minor sound major. And that’s the trick. It’s a mixolydian scale, I think they call it.

The sound of the blues is happy. Louis Armstrong sits on the flatted third and it makes you want to jump up in church and scream from the mountain. Tchaikovsky did this really funny thing where he would write things in a major [key] and make you want to slit your wrist. It’s about how it sounds.

If you listen to Carnival Of The Animals by Camille Saint-Saëns, he names all the pieces after animals. ... It sounds like ... animals. Then he does this one called “Aquarium,” and it sounds like somebody swimming. It sounds aquatic. That’s the power of sound. How are you going to talk about that technically, to get that to happen? You have to have a great musical imagination to make that happen.

What do you think is going to happen to jazz in the future?

Look, I’ve got three dudes in my band. I only need three. I don’t need a 100; I don’t need 300. The world doesn’t need 300. Those kinds of discussions are silly—not with you, because you listen to jazz. I’m being interviewed perpetually by people who don’t listen to jazz, who are asking me if jazz is going to survive. What kind of question is that? [They say,] “Fewer and fewer people like jazz. ... Jazz is dying; people aren’t listening.” Yet it still exists. We are still here. There will always be one-half of a percent of the country that will like it. And one-half of a percent of the country is like 1.5 million people. We’re good. We’ll be all right. We don’t need 300 guys. We just need five really, really good ones. DB

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