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When you're talking with Branford Marsalis, a man considered by many to be one of the preeminent saxophonists on the jazz scene today, one thing quickly becomes apparent: talking with the media is not one of Marsalis' favorite activities. The cynical, often confrontational, Grammy-winning musician is clearly on his own path, musically and otherwise, and he seldom has time for interruptions.
As the eldest of six sons and a member of Jazz's First Family -- father Ellis is a well-known pianist and educator, while his brothers include trumpeter Wynton, trombonist and jazz producer Delfeayo, and drummer Jason -- music is clearly in Marsalis' blood. "Growing up in New Orleans, I listened to all types of music. The Neville Brothers are friends of my father's, and were always over. Although my dad is a jazz musician, he also played with [pop trumpeter] Al Hirt. Jazz is something we chose to play; we were not forced to play."
Nor has Marsalis felt forced to stay within the musical boundaries of jazz. He has played with Sting, the Grateful Dead, Bruce Hornsby and rap group Public Enemy, all in addition to his solo albums, which have covered blues (I Heard You Twice the First Time), classical (Romances for Saxophone) and straight-ahead jazz (Random Abstract, Trio Jeepy, The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born). He's also recorded the scores for two Spike Lee films, Mo' Better Blues and Do the Right Thing.
Despite all this, until he surfaced on the Tonight show, taking over for Doc Severinsen when Jay Leno replaced Johnny Carson, Branford operated in the shadow of younger brother Wynton. It was Wynton who first made the Marsalis name as well known outside of jazz circles as it was inside. Though a year Branford's junior, Wynton was the first to join Art Blakey's seminal Jazz Messengers; Branford followed. When Wynton left to form his own band, Branford followed again, touring in support of his sibling until he broke out on his own to play on Miles Davis' Decoy, and really went out on his own to join Sting's band for The Dream of the Blue Turtles and follow-up world tour. Wynton, known for his rigid adherence to classical jazz and classical music -- an adherence that has made him widely admired by many, and widely derided by others -- was quoted as questioning Branford's judgment in turning his talent over to "pop" music. Branford, though, countered his brother's sometimes sour public persona with a sweet, humorous attitude that made him a standout character in Bring On the Night, a documentary about the making of Blue Turtles.
That attitude was also evident on the Tonight show, which ratcheted Branford Marsalis' recognizability up to a level matching, if not exceeding, that of his brother's. But while he was all smiles and jokes on air, behind the scenes things were apparently less than perfect. Now, Marsalis' high profile spot as musical director of the show is apparently over, and it's one subject that he's reluctant to talk about. His publicist asks that the subject not even be brought up. "It's the only thing he really doesn't want to talk about," she says. "It's done and over with."
Marsalis has said, however, that it was Jay Leno who lobbied to get him on the show, against the advice of the powers-that-be at NBC. And while he maintains a good relationship with Leno, and says he harbors no bitterness toward the Tonight show, in Musician magazine last year he described some of his former colleagues as "ass-licking, two-timing, back-stabbing sons of bitches."
Still, if Marsalis' foray into that particular part of pop culture turned sour, it apparently hasn't dampened his enthusiasm for trying new things. Continuing on his genre-bending musical journey, Marsalis has chosen to name his current touring band, and his latest album, Buckshot LeFonque. The name is borrowed from legendary saxophonist Julian "Cannonball" Adderley. In the 1950s, restrictive recording contracts prevented jazz artists from doing separate solo or group projects, so when Adderley moonlighted on pop and R&B records he identified himself through the pseudonym Buckshot LeFonque.
Many in the music press have called Buckshot LeFonque a pop breakthrough, or an experiment in hip-hop/jazz, both labels Marsalis adamantly refuses. "I don't associate with the hip-hop/jazz movement," he says, sounding curiously like brother Wynton. "I am a jazz musician. While it's hard to call it a pop project, it is an experimentation with pop elements. I like to think it has a chance to reach as many people as are open to it."
Predictably, he's not thrilled with the media's constant need to categorize music. "It's a shame that the printed and TV media have to put everything in a category. People want things in quick, digestible bits; they don't want to take time to think about anything. With all of my records, you have to live with it for awhile and decide if you like it."
Buckshot LeFonque, the album, was conceived as "de-ghetto music" by Marsalis and hip-hop producer DJ Premier (also a member of Gangstarr). It features instrumentals, inspired samples, spirited vocal ensembles and a masterful spoken word reading from America's poet laureate, Maya Angelou (reciting parts of her I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings). Marsalis served as chief producer, writer, arranger and soloist on Buckshot LeFonque, seamlessly blending rock, hip-hop, jazz, reggae and African musical elements.
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