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.

“I learnt a lot playing with Sting. That was the first time that it really dawned on me that most people don’t hear music, they see it. People say I’m going to see Sting; they don’t say I’m going to hear him. So even if the music is slightly off, people still come home and say, ‘What a great show.’

“Sting knew what was going on, and he was cool about it, putting the spotlight on us and announcing our names all the time. But really, I could have slaughtered a sheep stage left, and everyone in the audience would still have been fixated on centre stage.”

His association with Sting would continue on and off for the next 15 years, and there would be other high-profile gigs – like leading the Tonight Show band and writing the music for Spike Lee’s film Mo Better Blues – Marsalis began leading his own bands in the early 1990s, and the quartet that he brings to the National Concert Hall on Wednesday has been the focus of his creative energies ever since.

Along with the global fame and the blizzard of Grammys, the two Marsalis brothers have also become poster boys for what some call the “neocon” movement in jazz. In the 1980s and 1990s, while most downtown New York musicians were dressing down and embracing a rock sensibility, the Marsalis brothers kept their suits on and kept faith with the style of music established by the masters of jazz’s classic period.

He protests that he is wary of talking about it, because he feels he is frequently misrepresented, but he so clearly relishes the argument that one senses the saxophonist doth protest too much.

“You have a bunch of people who prefer rock’n’roll music – music with backbeats – and they say this is the ‘new jazz’ and the stuff that we play is the ‘old jazz’, but when I hear it, their stuff is far more predictable than ours, and I don’t consider it jazz. It has become this thing, which is why I’m usually loathe to discuss it, because it comes out that I’m angry and upset about the existence of these guys, when I’m really not. I would be angry and upset if I sounded like them, but I don’t.

“But I don’t lose any sleep over it. And I certainly don’t lose any gigs because of these guys. I get more gigs . . . Musically I’m saddened by what I hear, but professionally, I’m very grateful.”