Saxophonist Branford Marsalis, hailed as one of the best jazz players of his generation, helped orchestrate a renaissance of the genre in the early 1980s, rescuing the music from stagnancy, corruption, and, in the eyes of some critics, flat-out mediocrity. Before coming into his own as a bandleader and composer, Marsalis played second fiddle to some of the greats in the industry, including younger brother celebrity trumpeter Wynton Marsalis.
As one of the most versatile players in the business, Marsalis has lent his horn to music as far afield as traditional bebop and rock and roll. Some critics have lamented Marsalis’s musical wanderings, claiming that the talented saxman is spreading himself too thin. But Marsalis, taking mischievous glee in enraging these naysayers, has always eschewed the self-seriousness that might limit his musical range. His 1992 appointment as musical director of The Tonight Show With Jay Leno, while perhaps nettling jazz purists, reinforced for him the rich possibilities available to a virtuoso who eagerly travels between musical worlds.
Branford Marsalis was born August 26, 1960, in Breaux Bridge, Louisiana, the eldest of six sons, to Delores, a former jazz singer and substitute teacher who would become the strong-willed family manager, and Ellis Marsalis, a well-known bop pianist who, because he couldn’t make a living at jazz, taught music at a performing arts high school.
As part of the first generation to take part in the grand social experiment of school integration in Louisiana, Marsalis learned about the nature of racial conflict firsthand. But for the easy-going, conciliatory boy, the more practical lesson was the one he received from his parents about bottom-line accomplishment. “My father told me about race and society at an early age,” Marsalis told the New York Times in 1992. “When all these white kids in my high school were screwing up, he took me aside and said: ’Look, your friend, his father owns a car dealership. If he screws up, he still has a job. I’m a school teacher, son. You screw up, when you come out, you have nothing. It’s your choice.’”
Though music played a central role in the family’s orbit, Marsalis’s early ambitions cast him as a football player, lawyer, or historian. But when the doors to these professions began to close, Marsalis reexamined the path of music. He had started playing piano at the age of four, then moved to clarinet, and, at 15, picked up the alto saxophone, an instrument far more demanding than its tenor cousin. So natural and impressive was his musical
For the Record…
Born August 26, 1960, in Breaux Bridge, LA; son of Ellis (a jazz pianist and teacher) and Delores (a jazz singer and teacher) Marsalis; married Teresa Reese (an actress), 1985; children: Reese Ellis. Education: Attended Southern University; attended Berklee School of Music.
Member of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, 1980-81; member of Wynton Marsalis quintet, 1982-1985; toured and recorded with Sting, 1985-1989; performed with numerous artists, including Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Tina Turner, Public Enemy, and the Neville Brothers, beginning in 1984. Appeared in films Throw Momma From the Train, 1987, and School Daze, 1988. Musical director of The Tonight Show With Jay Leno, NBC, 1992—; host of Friday Night Videos, NBC, 1992—. Host of JazzSet, National Public Radio.
Selected awards: Grammy Award for best jazz instrumental by an individual or group, 1993.
Addresses: Record company —Columbia Records, P.O. Box 4450, New York, NY 10101-4450.
gift, that after only six months on the sax, Marsalis was named to the all-state band.
His earliest influences were not jazz—he has said that he despised jazz until he was 19—but the wildly variegated sounds of Led Zeppelin, Parliament/Funkadelic, Donna Summer, Aretha Franklin, and Elton John. From these multifaceted sources, Marsalis developed an appreciation for all types of music that would later explain his spirited sorties beyond traditional jazz.
After graduating from high school in 1978, Marsalis attended Southern University, a black college in Baton Rouge, where he studied under renowned jazz clarinetist Alvin Batiste. Bitten by the jazz bug, and encouraged by Batiste, Marsalis enrolled at the Berklee School of Music in Boston, where he honed his technical skills and landed gigs with Clark Terry and Lionel Hampton. He wasn’t convinced that jazz would be his career until 1980, when he saw Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, a legendary showcase for young hard-bop talent that Wynton Marsalis had joined in 1979, after leaving the Juilliard school in New York City. Branford was invited to join the group on baritone sax, and jumped at the chance.
“Finally jazz had a youth movement interested in learning how to play the music, instead of playing at it, or using it to veer into other music,” Peter Watrous wrote in the New York Times. “The brothers, working in one of jazz’s most important bands, led by a jazz patriarch, had been given the seal of approval, following behind other Blakey alumni Clifford Brown, Lee Morgan, Freddie Hubbard, Wayne Shorter, Cedar Walton and legions more.”
With the addition of younger brother Delfeayo as producer, the Marsalis clan was fast becoming known as the “First Family of Jazz.” In 1982, when Wynton asked Branford to recruit a band under the trumpeter’s leadership, Branford brought in Berklee classmate Jeff Watts on drums, Kenny Kirkland on piano, and a succession of bassists. The group reinvigorated hard bop at a time when the commitment of young musicians to the traditions of jazz was thin, if not nonexistent.
At his brother’s request, Marsalis switched to tenor saxophone, cultivating a big, fast-driving sound in the spirit of Lester Young, John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, and, most obviously, Wayne Shorter. But the fame was dished out singularly to Wynton, whose virtuosic playing on both classical and jazz recordings, at a time when instrumental giants were scarce, brought the trumpeter the same legendary status that a generation earlier had been handed to Miles Davis.
Garnering huge performance fees and awards—Wynton became the first artist to win Grammy Awards in jazz and classical categories in the same year—the trum-peter-cum-celebrity became the point man on matters of musical taste, sermonizing on the superiority and purity of traditional jazz and relegating rock and roll to the back of the musical bus. Branford, who performed under Wynton on albums such as Think of One and Hot House Flowers, did not resent being overshadowed by his brother’s star status, as long as the music was good. In the same spirit, he also recorded behind Dizzy Gillespie, toured with pianist Herbie Hancock’s VSOP II quintet, and provided what some critics thought were the only redeeming tracks on Miles Davis’s 1984 electro-synth album Decoy.
Marsalis had less success striking out on his own. Although his 1984 quartet, featuring pianist Larry Willis, drummer Marvin Smith, and bassist Charnett Moffett, was praised for its dynamic concerts, his debut solo album that year, Scenes in the City, received a luke warm reception from the critics who contended that his playing lacked its own voice and that it relied too transparently on the phraseology of other saxophonists, particularly Coltrane. In time, Marsalis’s powerful, custom-tailored style would make such criticism anachronistic.
Less convinced than his brother of the exclusive nobility of the jazz world, Marsalis grew tired of the music that Wynton’s quintet had been playing and began to look around for the next direction he would follow. The answer was provided by rock star Sting, who had disbanded the Police and saw in Marsalis a rich musical sensibility that lent itself to cross-genre collaboration. “I’d been very excited by his playing,” Sting was quoted as saying in New York in 1991, “and talking to him, I realized he was a creature after my own heart— he didn’t have any prejudice about music. He saw it as a continuum. He could quote from Zeppelin or Bird. I said, ’Let’s work together.”’
Marsalis’s 1985 collaboration with Sting led some in the jazz world to bemoan the loss of a great talent. More important to some Marsalis devotees was the fact that Branford took pianist Kirkland with him on this pop/soul/bop exploration, fracturing Wynton’s quintet. Industry rumors described a brotherly falling-out of biblical proportions. But some, while regretting the acrimony, saw the move as an important maturation step for Branford, an opportunity for the sax-man to define himself and develop a voice independent of his brother.
Ultimately, even Wynton, the pillar of jazz purity, came to Branford’s defense, telling the New York Times: “What I don’t understand is why Branford should get questioned for doing what he’s doing. If XYZ pop star makes trashy music, nobody complains about his decision. But if Branford makes pop music, he’s compared to Coltrane, and told that he’s wasting his talent, which is obviously a double-standard.”
Considered one of the few bright spots in Sting’s project, Marsalis recorded and toured with the rock star off and on for three years, a period in which his pop currency blossomed, laying the foundation for appearances with Tina Turner, Public Enemy, the Neville Brothers, and the Grateful Dead, among many others. Not content to master one medium, Marsalis was the showstopper in the documentary project Bring on the Night, leading Sting, the nominal star, to confess to Vogue, “There was only one leading man in that film—and it wasn’t me.” Marsalis would continue with acting roles in movies such as Throw Momma From the Train and Spike Lee’s School Daze. He also penned the critically acclaimed score for Lee’s Mo’ Better Blues.
In 1986, determined not to let the rock/pop-culture experience get the best of him, Marsalis released two albums: Romances for Saxophone, a classical recording featuring Marsalis with the English Chamber Orchestra, and Royal Garden Blues, a Grammy-nominated album spotlighting the collaboration of Marsalis and his father, Ellis.
Marsalis had left Sting’s band by 1989 and put together his own quartet featuring Kirkland and Watts, both of whom had been members of the first Wynton Marsalis band, along with Bob Hurst on bass. Although Marsalis rediscovered what he called the “philosophy of improvisation,” his 1989 Trio Jeepy, according to Down Beat critic Art Lange, was amateurish and lacked emotional intensity.
Marsalis bounced back with his 1990 Crazy People Music, about which J. D. Considine wrote in Rolling Stone, “Marsalis has been able to sort out his influences and been able to arrive at a sound of his own.... [His] phrasing, tone and improvisatory approach are clearly his own. Unlike his juniors on the jazz scene, Marsalis understands the crucial difference between merely following another’s footsteps across ground that has already been broken and blazing a new trail to a new destination.”
Answering criticism that his ballads lacked emotional power, Marsalis released The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born in 1991, an adventurous, piano-less album featuring Wynton dueling with his brother on a track ironically titled “Cain and Abel.” Jim Fusilli wrote in the Wall street Journal, “There’s an awful lot of invention in these almost 80 minutes of music, and perhaps a glimpse of genius as well.” On the other hand, the 1992 I Heard You Twice the First Time, a wild hodge-podge of blues and jazz, was over-ambitious, according to Entertainment Weekly writer Josef Woodard, and, as a result, suffered “a serious identity crisis.”
In 1992, as if to seal his status as crossover star and musical chameleon, Marsalis was tapped to lead the band on the new Tonight Show. Just as a youthful Jay Leno had replaced a silver-haired Johnny Carson, so did a hip Marsalis get the nod to fill the shoes of the musically staid Doc Severinsen. Again, he was criticized for forsaking jazz, but Marsalis took the barbs in stride and after signing a five-year contract with NBC told Esquire that “the only showcase for jazz is jazz, and that’s what we’ll be playing in the L.A. clubs after the show is over.” Asked to describe his television music menu, he reportedly answered, “We’re going to play prime time music on prime time.”
Marsalis continued to astound fans and confound critics with his musical meandering. A university town in Indiana provided the backdrop for his 1993 release, Bloomington. Recorded live at a 1991 performance and produced by brother Delfeayo, the album was hailed as a joyful jam session, with Down Beat declaring it “cheerful, well-paced and (above all) loose.”
Throughout his first year on the Tonight Show, Marsalis has displayed his amazing versatility in backing such diverse musical guests as Neil Diamond, Tori Amos, Peter Gabriel, and Vince Gill. He has also become something of a benefactor to an array of cutting-edge jazz artists, inviting them to sit in with his band for an evening and affording them the priceless opportunity of showcasing their talent to an audience of nearly eight million viewers.
Marsalis modestly dismisses his benevolence, claiming that he merely gives exceptional musicians the national exposure they deserve. But jazz pianist Geri Allen, who sat in with the Tonight Show band, spoke for many when she expressed gratitude for Marsalis’s generosity. “Branford has this wonderful opportunity to access the mainstream American audience,” she told Fred Shuster of Down Beat, “and this music is getting out there every night. And he’s being very gracious by including members of the musical community. That says a whole lot about him as a person.”
(With Ellis Marsalis) Fathers and Sons, Columbia, 1981.
Scenes in the City, Columbia, 1984.
(With Miles Davis) Decoy, Columbia, 1984.
(With the English Chamber Orchestra) Romances for Saxophone, 1986.
Royal Garden Blues, Columbia, 1986.
Renaissance, Columbia, 1987.
Random Abstract, Columbia, 1988.
Trio Jeepy, Columbia, 1989.
Crazy People Music, Columbia, 1990.
Music From Mo’ Better Blues, 1990.
The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born (includes “Cain and Abel”), Columbia, 1991.
I Heard You Twice the First Time, Columbia, 1992.
(Contributor) Weird Nightmare: Meditations on Mingus, Columbia, 1992.
Bloomington, Columbia, 1993.
With Dizzy Gillespie
Closer to the Source, Atlantic.
New Faces, GRP.
With the Jazz Messengers
Keystone 3, Concord, 1981.
Live at Montreux and Northsea, Timeless.
With Wynton Marsalis
Wynton Marsalis, Columbia, 1982.
Think of One, Columbia, 1983.
Hot House Flowers, Columbia, 1984.
Black Codes (From the Underground), Columbia, 1985.
Bring on the Night, A&M, 1985.
Dream of the Blue Turtles, A&M, 1985.
Nothing Like the Sun, A&M, 1987.
Down Beat, October 1989; November 1991; January 1992; May 1992; November 1992; September 1992; June 1993; July 1993.
Ebony, February 1989.
Entertainment Weekly, January 17, 1992; September 18, 1992.
Esquire, June 1992.
Interview, May 1992.
New York, October 14, 1991.
New York Times, May 3, 1992.
People, November 25, 1991.
Rolling Stone, September 6, 1990; February 20, 1992.
Schwann Spectrum, Summer 1993.
Vogue, November 1990.
Wall street Journal, December 16, 1991.
Additional information for this profile was obtained from Columbia Records press materials, 1993.
Marsalis, Branford 1960–
Branford Marsalis 1960–
Grammy award winning saxophonist Branford Marsalis was born into one of America’s most distinguished musical families. He is best known as a jazz musician, but is as comfortable in a classical music hall as he is in a jazz club. He won a Grammy award for his 12th jazz recording, Contemporary Jazz, but also has released pop, blues, and classical music recordings. “Marsalis may be the most eclectic musician of any time period,” critic Tom Erdmann wrote in Saxophone Journal. Many credit Marsalis for reviving the popularity of contemporary jazz in the early 1980s, but some critics lament that he has spread his musical talents in too many directions. Late-night television viewers know him for his turn as the leader of Jay Leno’s Tonight Show band, a position he held for two years in the early 1990s.
Branford Marsalis was born August 26, 1960, in Breaux Bridge, Louisiana, the eldest of six sons to Dolores, a former jazz singer and teacher, and Ellis Marsalis, a jazz pianist who supported his family as a music teacher at a performing arts high school. He started playing piano at the age of four, but rejected his father’s teaching methods. He experimented some with the clarinet, and began playing alto saxophone at 15. Ellis Marsalis avoided any competition between his children by insisting they play different instruments; Wynton picked up the trumpet, Delfeayo played trombone, and Jason played drums.
Branford had natural talent and earned a spot on the all-state band after playing the sax only six months. His father wanted his children to follow in his musical footsteps, but did not push them. “The pride factor wanted us to be musicians, but there was no taciturn expectation,” Branford said in an interview online at the ASCAP website. “We lived in New Orleans. Everybody played instruments.” Marsalis claimed that teenage rebellion was not part of the household dynamic. “We didn’t have the kind of house where, as a 15 year old kid, you would lock your door and put a Keep Out sign on it, because you’d be dead. Forget it. We were a family and we all lived together,” he said in the ASCAP interview.
Naturally, considering his parents’ musical background, music was a central part of the Marsalis household, but music was not what Branford aspired to. He wanted to become a football player, lawyer, or historian. It was only when these professions started to seem unlikely
At a Glance…
Born August 26, 1960, in Breaux Bridge, LA; son of Ellis (a jazz pianist and teacher) and Dolores (a jazz singer and teacher) Marsalis; married Teresa Reese (an actress), 1985 (divorced); married Nicole; children: Reese Ellis, Peyton. Education: Attended Southern University; attended Berklee School of Music.
Career; Jazz saxophonist. Member of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, 1980-81; member of Wynton Marsalis quintet, 1982-85; toured with Herbie Hancock’s V.S.O.P. II., 1983; recorded with Miles Davis on Decoy, 1984; formed own quartet, released Scenes in the City, 1984; performed with numerous artists, including Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Tina Turner, Public Enemy, and the Neville Brothers, 1984-; toured and recorded with Sting, 1985-89; released Romances for Saxophone and Royal Garden Blues, 1986; formed own group, released Trio Jeepy, 1989; The Beautiful Ones Are Not Yet Born, 1991; I Heard You Twice the First Time, 1992; formed Buckshot LeFonque, 1994; released The Dark Keys, 1996; Music Evolution with Buckshot LeFonque, 1997; appeared in films: Throw Momma From the Train, 1987; School Daze, 1988; musical director, The Tonight Show With Jay Leno, NBC, 1992-94; professor of Music, Michigan State University, San Francisco State University, c. 2000-; launched Marsalis Music, 2002; host, JazzSet, National Public Radio.
Awards: Grammy Award, Best Jazz Instrumental Performance by an Individual or Group for I Heard You Twice the First Time, 1993; Grammy Award, Best Pop Instrumental Performance for “Barcelona Mona” with Bruce Horsby, 1994–; Grammy Award, Best Jazz Instrumental Album for Contemporary Jazz, 2001.
that he considered a future in music. Though his parents came from a jazz background—his father was a well known bop pianist—Marsalis could not stand jazz until his late teens. Instead, he preferred the sound of 1970s rock, funk, and disco. He was a fan of Led Zeppelin, Parliament/Funkadelic, Donna Summer, Aretha Franklin, and Elton John. It may have been these diverse beginnings that gave Marsalis the flexibility to later crossover and push the envelope of conventional jazz.
After high school graduation in 1978, Marsalis studied under jazz clarinetist Alvin Batiste at Southern University, a black college in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. By then, Marsalis had developed a passion and talent for jazz, and Batiste pushed him to enroll at the prestigious Berklee School of Music in Boston. He refined his technical chops at Berklee and got jobs playing with Clark Terry and Lionel Hampton. It wasn’t until 1980, when he saw Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers play, that he committed to a career in jazz. Younger brother Wynton had joined the Jazz Messengers a year before, after leaving the Juilliard School in New York City. As revered as the Juilliard School is for music, the Jazz Messengers was renown as a training ground for thriving up-and-comers in jazz. Branford didn’t hesitate when he was asked to play baritone sax in the band, which he did for five months. Younger brother Delfeayo was honing his skills as a producer, and the Marsalis family was becoming known as the “First Family of Jazz.”
In 1982 Wynton formed his own quintet with Branford and Branford’s Berklee classmate Jeff Watts on drums, Kenny Kirkland on piano, and a series of bassists. At a time when few young musicians were playing hard bop, the quartet revived interest in the sound. When Branford switched to playing alto sax, comparisons to Lester Young, John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, and Wayne Shorter began. He also played tenor and soprano sax with his brother’s group. But the spotlight remained firmly focused on Wynton, who, outspoken about his commitment to traditional jazz, was fast becoming the most popular jazz trumpeter since Miles Davis. He became a celebrity and was the first artist to win a Grammy award for both jazz and classical works in the same year. As long as he felt the music they were making was strong, Branford was happy to let his brother bask in the spotlight. He toured with Herbie Hancock’s V.S.O.P. II. in 1983 and recorded with Miles Davis on Decoy, released in 1984.
Branford Marsalis struck out on his own, forming his own quartet in 1984, to little success. His group, with pianist Larry Willis, drummer Marvin Smith, and bassist Charnett Moffett, was noted for its live shows, but critics were unimpressed by their 1984 release, Scenes in the City. Unlike his brother, Branford was curious to look beyond the realm of pure jazz, and explore other forms of music. He found the perfect opportunity to experiment when rock musician Sting asked him to collaborate on his 1985 release, Bring on the Night, and later on Dream of the Blue Turtles. Sting was impressed as much by Marsalis’ literacy of jazz as he was his fluency beyond the traditional constricts of it.
Jazz purists lamented that Marsalis, by working with Sting, was lost to jazz forever. Even Marsalis’ father criticized the decision. Branford believed the move was sound. “Anybody can get a saxophone and get a jazz band, but the music won’t sound like mine,” he told ASCAP. “And not anybody can pick up the saxophone and play with Sting and have that kind of sound.” Marsalis’ crossover also fueled rumors of an epic falling out between the Marsalis brothers—not only had Bran-ford flaunted his brother’s belief in the superiority of traditional jazz over other music forms, he had taken pianist Kirkland with him when he did it. “He’s my brother. I love him unconditionally,” Branford told Ebony. “It was time [to leave]. I had played in Wynton’s band longer than I had done anything in my life.”
Marsalis’ contribution to Bring on the Night was considered by some critics one of the album’s few strengths, and the saxophonist continued to work and tour with the rock star for the next three years. He even stole the show in Sting’s documentary film Bring on the Night Tina Turner, Public Enemy, the Neville Brothers, the Grateful Dead, and many others began to call on Marsalis, who was fast becoming well known as a pop star. He branched out even further with acting roles in the movies Throw Momma From the Train, Spike Lee’s School Daze, and he wrote the score for Lee’s Mo’ Better Blues. He has also worked as soloist or composer on the soundtracks for Malcolm X. Clockers, Sneakers, Mr. & Mrs. Loving, Single Dad, Once In the Life, and The Russia House.
In 1986 Marsalis proved he was not lost to pop by releasing two non-pop albums. The first, Romances for Saxophone, was a classical album that featured Marsalis playing with the English Chamber Orchestra. The second, Royal Garden Blues, was a collaboration between Marsalis and his father, and was nominated for a Grammy award. He formed his own quartet with Kirkland, Watts, and bassist Bob Hurst. The 1989 release from the group, Trio Jeepy, failed to wow critics, some of whom felt that it was not a fully realized recording.
Critics felt Marsalis came into his own in 1990, after the release of Crazy People Music. He followed it up with The Beautiful Ones Are Not Yet Born in 1991, which featured him dueling with brother Wynton on a song called “Cain and Abel.” Marsalis’ 1992 release, I Heard You Twice the First Time, earned him a Grammy award for Best Jazz Instrumental Performance, Individual or Group, in 1993. He continued in a jazz vein with his 1993 trio album, Bloomington. He earned another Grammy the next year for Best Pop Instrumental Performance for “Barcelona Mona,” a single he recorded with Bruce Hornsby for the 1994 Summer Olympics in Spain. In 1994 he unveiled Buckshot LeFonque, but some critics found the group’s fusion of jazz and hip-hop sound confusing. Again, they just could not understand where the elder Marsalis was headed. “Somewhere along the way it became very uncool in certain alternative jazz circles to like Branford Marsalis,” Ezra Gale of the San Francisco Weekly noted.
For all of his experimentation, critics often accused Marsalis of not having his own sound. When he was younger, he was seen as copying Coltrane, Rollins, and Shorter. Later, he was seen as going off the musical deep end in search of himself. Early in his career, Marsalis agreed with his critics. “I don’t have my own sound,” he recalled saying in the ASCAP interview. “There’s nothing I can do about it. I’m going to listen to the music that I listen to, keep imitating the guys that I imitate, and I figure by the time I’m 30 or 31, I’ll have a sound.” Herbie Hancock and Dizzie Gillespie told Marsalis he had the right idea; great jazz musicians start by imitating others, then go on to find themselves. The challenge for Marsalis was that he had received so much attention so early in his career. “One of the great things about jazz is that it pays reverence to its legacy,” he told ASCAP. “In order to excel, there is a certain body of work that you must absorb.”
The saxophonist became a bonafide celebrity in 1992, when he signed a five year deal to lead Jay Leno’s Tonight Show band. Again, he was railed for forsaking jazz, but countered his critics by assuring them they could come hear him play pure jazz in Los Angeles jazz clubs after the taping of each show. On the show, he and his band backed musical guests such as Tori Amos, Neil Diamond, Peter Gabriel, and Vince Gill. He capitalized on his position by regularly asking musicians from the jazz community to sit in with the band. He earned another Grammy nomination in 1995 for his rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner” which he recorded with Bruce Hornsby for Ken Burns’ PBS series, Baseball. The Dark Keys, released in 1996, was a further step forward in jazz, while a second Buckshot album, Music Evolution, was released in 1997.
Following in his father’s footsteps, Marsalis took jazz into the classroom. He taught at Michigan State University, first as a visiting scholar, and then as a part-time faculty member through the spring of 2000. He also held a part-time position at San Francisco State University as part of the music faculty. In 2002 he announced the launch of his independent record company, Marsalis Music. “The consolidation of the record industry into major conglomerates had turned the business into a mega-hit pop music machine with a very short-term focus,” he said in a press release. “Artists who want to be musicians, not marketing creations, have very few places to record anymore.”
Contemporary Jazz, a straight-ahead jazz album which won the Grammy Award for Best Jazz Instrumental Album in 2001, seemed to clear up any confusion about Marsalis’ direction. “During the past couple of years, Marsalis has been recommitting himself to a music that places considerable demands on himself and his audience,” Howard Reich wrote in the Chicago Tribune. “Recent performances have shown him working hard to regain his focus, sharpen his technique, and expand his repertoire.” Marsalis admitted he had become more focused. “My career is back where I like it,” he told the New York Post. “I’m just playing music now.”
(With Ellis Marsalis) Fathers and Sons, Columbia, 1981.
(With the Jazz Messengers) Keystone 3, Concord,1981.
(With Wynton Marsalis) Wynton Marsalis, Columbia, 1982
Think of One, Columbia, 1983
Hot House Flowers, Columbia, 1984
Scenes in the City, Columbia, 1984
(With Miles Davis) Decoy, Columbia, 1984
Black Codes (From the Underground), Columbia, 1985
(With Sting) Bring on the Night, A&M, 1985
(With Sting) Dream of the Blue Turtles, A&M, 1985
(With the English Chamber Orchestra) Romances for Saxophone, 1986
Royal Garden Blues, Columbia, 1986
Nothing Like the Sun, A&M, 1987
Renaissance, Columbia, 1987
Random Abstract, Columbia, 1988
Trio Jeepy, Columbia, 1989
Crazy People Music, Columbia, 1990
Music From Mo’ Better Blues, 1990
The Beautiful Ones Are Not Yet Born, Columbia, 1991
I Heard You Twice the First Time, Columbia, 1992
(Contributor) Weird Nightmare: Meditations on Mingus, Columbia, 1992
Bloomington, Columbia, 1993
Dark Keys, Sony, 1996
Requiem, Columbia, 1999
Contemporary Jazz, Columbia, 2000
Creation, Sony, 2001
Buckshot LeFonque, Phantom
(With Dizzy Gillespie) Closer to the Source, Atlantic
New Faces, GRP
Live at Montreux and Northsea, Timeless.
Billboard, October 19, 1991, p. 29.
Boston Globe, October 20, 2000.
Chicago Tribune, November 3, 2000.
Down Beat, February 1994, p. 42.
Ebony, February 1989, p. 66.
New York Post, August 19, 2001.
San Francisco Weekly, October 4, 2000.
Saxophone Journal, September/October 2001, p. 16.
All Music Guide Online, http://www.allmusic.com (March 13, 2002).
ASCAP Homepage, http://www.ascap.com/playback/1996/summer/branford.html (March 13, 2002).
Branford Marsalis Homepage, http://www.branfordmarsalis.com (March 13, 2002).
Sony Classical Online, http://www.sonyclassical.com/artists/marsalis_branford/bio.html (March 13, 2002).
Additional material was provided by Annie Ohayon Media Relations, 2002.
Born: Beaux Bridge, Louisiana, 26 August 1960
Best-selling album since 1990: Mo' Better Blues (1990)
The early 1990s witnessed the emergence of a new generation of jazz talent steeped in jazz history. Among the most inventive and talented members of this sophisticated generation, Branford Marsalis won recognition in the 1990s for his soprano and tenor saxophone playing. Among his peers, he is the most recognizable jazz saxophonist in the world, having led a house band on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno in the early- to mid-1990s.
The sons of Ellis Marsalis, a jazz pianist, Branford and his brothers, Delfeayo and Wynton, who also became distinguished jazzmen, began playing music as children. Unlike Wynton, whose taste in music is rather formal, Branford has always been interested in rock, R&B, and blues. Branford first played alto saxophone, studying it and other instruments at Berklee College of Music. In 1981 he joined Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers but soon moved to a small band led by brother Wynton. Branford then switched to tenor and soprano saxophone. He appeared on recordings by Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie and toured with Wynton's group in the United States, Japan, and Europe. He also appeared on two of Sting's albums, The Dream of the Blue Turtles (1985) and . . . Nothing Like the Sun (1987). He toured with Sting and later with Herbie Hancock. Like other members of his generation, such as Wynton and the saxophonist Joshua Redman, Marsalis's early playing drew on classic jazz sax players such as John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, and Charlie Parker. Some critics commented that Marsalis's style was too steeped in these influences and that his early recordings—such as the classic format of Romances for Saxophone (1986) and the hard bebop of Trio Jeepy (1988)—broke no new ground.
Branford Marsalis's recordings of the 1990s answered these critics with fresh creative energy. In 1992 he began a three-year stint as musical director on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, a nightly gig that made him the most recognized member of his jazz generation. During his time on The Tonight Show, Marsalis recorded some of his most memorable music, though he left the show after reportedly tiring of playing second fiddle to Leno. He won a Grammy Award for Best Instrumental Performance, Individual or Group, in 1993 for I Heard You Twice the First Time, an album that pays homage to blues-jazz fusion. It won wide audiences and critical accolades. The following year he won another Grammy for his performance on Bruce Hornsby's single "Barcelona Mona."
His most inventive album of the 1990s, however, was a rap-jazz fusion project, Buckshot LeFonque (1994), recorded with Gang Starr's DJ Premier. Buckshot LeFonque was, in many ways, the culmination of Marsalis's experiments and appearances with hip-hop and popular music artists such as Public Enemy, the Neville Brothers, and even the Grateful Dead. Fame and recognition led Marsalis to do soundtrack work throughout the decade, first on Spike Lee's Mo' Better Blues (1990) and Ken Burns's PBS documentary Baseball (1994). For that massive series, Marsalis collaborated again with Bruce Hornsby on a version of "The Star-Spangled Banner" (1995) that was nominated for a Grammy.
Throughout the 1990s, Marsalis produced compelling jazz. His highly acclaimed album Requiem (1998) is notable on several levels. The album was the last recording by pianist Kenny Kirkland, a brilliant musician who died before the record was completed. Requiem also contains seven Marsalis compositions that are both experimental and melodic. Because of Kirkland's death before completion of the album—Marsalis felt his friend and ally could not be replaced—the album sounds rough and unfinished. That less polished sound, ironically, brings Marsalis's vibrant sax playing to life on the album, making the record one of his best.
The late 1990s found Marsalis moving somewhat out of the spotlight and into academic circles. He was awarded an honorary doctorate at Beloit College and teaches in the Jazz Studies department at Michigan State University. Teaching has given Marsalis the opportunity to pursue his wide range of intellectual and artistic interests, including Shakespeare and acting. His recordings continue his exploration of various modes of music. Creation (2000), for instance, finds Marsalis playing with the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra on classical works by Debussy and Ravel; the album was released the same year Marsalis made recording appearances on albums with Harry Connick Jr., Sting, and Terence Blanchard.
Footsteps of Our Fathers (2002) finds Marsalis again mining the jazz tradition, though he takes risks with startling reinterpretations, some of jazz's most demanding songs. It is a bold album in which Marsalis works through signature tracks forever associated with jazz legends—including Sonny Rollins's "Freedom Suite," John Coltrane's "A Love Supreme," and Ornette Coleman's "Giggin." On the album and on the less interesting A Jazz Celebration (2002), recorded with his brothers and father, Marsalis breathes new life into difficult compositions, making them accessible for contemporary audiences.
Once overshadowed by his brother Wynton, Branford Marsalis became the most recognizable jazz instrumentalist of the 1990s. His eclectic range of interests, his attempts to fuse hip-hop and jazz, and his exuberant style have made him one of the most important contemporary jazz talents.
Scenes in the City (Columbia, 1984); Royal Garden Blues (Columbia, 1986); Romances for Saxophone (Columbia, 1986); Renaissance (Columbia 1987); Random Abstract (Columbia, 1987); Trio Jeepy (Columbia, 1989); Crazy People Music (Columbia, 1990); The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born (Columbia, 1991); I Heard You Twice the First Time (Columbia, 1992); Bloomington (Columbia, 1993); Buckshot LeFonque (1994); Dark Keys (Sony, 1996); Music Evolution: Requiem (Sony, 1999); Footsteps of Our Fathers (Rounder, 2002); A Jazz Celebration (Rounder, 2002). Soundtrack: Mo' Better Blues (Columbia, 1990).
Marsalis, Branford, tenor, alto, and soprano saxophonist; b. Breaux Bridge, La., Aug. 26, 1960. The oldest child of Ellis Marsalis , he attended Berklee. Branford and his brother, Wynton Marsalis , and Danny House played in Europe with Clark Terry’s youth band in 1980. Branford replaced Bobby Watson on alto in Blakey’s Jazz Messengers in 1981. He switched to tenor and soprano, then joined his brother’s band in 1982, staying until 1985. The group toured extensively nationally and internationally and won critical applause, while selling vast numbers of records for jazz releases. But an alleged dispute over stylistic direction and Branford’s decision to join rocker Sting’s tour purportedly led to the brothers’ split in 1985–86. He toured and recorded with Sting and is seen in the Sting documentary Bring on the Night. Since then he has led his own bands, both in jazz and as Buckshot LeFonque, a fusion of hip hop and hard funk. He was the leader of the new “Tonight Show” band, but quit (at first announced as a leave) when the job turned out to be uncomfortable for him. He accidentally dedicated a number to the “late” Buddy Tate, leading him to perform and record with Tate as an apology. Marsalis is the host of the NPR series Jazzset. He has an endearing modesty and humor in interviews and host roles.
Scenes in the City (1983); Renaissance (1986); Romances for Saxophone (1986); Royal Garden Blues (1986); Random Abstract (1987); Steep (1988); Trio Jeepy (1988); Crazy People Music (1990); Beautiful Ones Are Not Yet Born (1991); Bloomington (1991); I Heard You Twice the First Time (1992). A. Kidjo: Oremi (1998).