Branford Marsalis: ‘Most people don’t hear music, they see it’
He may have kept faith with the masters of classic jazz, but what he plays is cutting edge, says the New Orleans saxophonist
Some might say that Branford Marsalis was born with a silver saxophone in his mouth. Scion of a New Orleans jazz dynasty that includes his father Ellis and younger brother Wynton, and schooled every weekend in the jazz band at the local Baptist church, it’s a back story straight out of central casting. But the young saxophonist at first rejected the music invented in his home town.
“I just didn’t like the sh*t,” he says in a matter-of-fact way. “Wynton liked it. He was into it, but a lot of the jazz I heard then was incredibly average to me. But when I turned 19 a funny thing happened. I was listening to one of my favourite pop records – I think it was Parliament-Funkadelic – and my brain said to me, Oh my God, I know this! Can you find me something else please! If you play that tune one more time, I think I’m going to haemorrhage!”
The year was 1980, and his younger brother was already a rising star, playing trumpet in Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers. One fateful night, Branford went to a New York club to hear Wynton play, and the penny dropped. A few months later, there were two Marsalises in the Jazz Messengers.
“Blakey never really wanted me in his band,” says Marsalis, whose conversation is a subtle blend of self-effacement and self-assurance. “And I don’t blame him – I wasn’t very good. But Art figured that if he got me in the band, then Wynton would probably stay a little longer.”
The ploy worked for only eight months before both brothers left to follow their own paths. For Branford, it was the beginning of a long journey, studying the music of his new-found idols – Lester Young, Charlie Parker, Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane – although it wasn’t necessarily their technique that interested him.
“I was always drawn to sound. If someone hears a piece of music and starts crying, it’s not because of the technical proficiency of the player; its because there is a quality in that sound that creates an emotional resonance in the listener.”
The journey has taken a few twists and turns along the way, notably in 1985 when Sting invited Marsalis to join the new group he was forming after the break-up of The Police. The Blue Turtles, which also included Marsalis’s friend, the late Kenny Kirkland, on keyboards, would tour the world to huge acclaim and raise the profile of its members to heights undreamt of by most jazz musician, even if it didn’t always seem like it at the time.