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.
Guest musicians include trumpeter Roy Hargrove, guitarists Nils Lofgren and Dave Barry, keyboardist Greg Phillinganes and regular band members Kenny Kirkland (piano), Bob Hurst (bass) and Jeff "Tain" Watts (drums). Buckshot LeFonque also marks the last recorded appearance of Houston blues guitar ace Albert Collins (on the funky "No Pain, No Gain").
"'De-ghetto music' cannot be defined by the usual list of categories. It is its own thing," says Marsalis. "It's a Fonque thing. It defies the limitations placed on music, ignores the rules that say that certain sounds appeal only to certain markets. It speaks to the soul."
Steve Berkowitz, senior director of A&R and marketing at Columbia Records, Marsalis' label, has worked with the mercurial performer for the past eight years. He acknowledges that the uniqueness of Buckshot LeFonque, the band, has been a marketing challenge. "Branford is an artist who creates his own music and his own direction," says Berkowitz. "He didn't think about radio formats or genres or marketplaces with this record.
"It's not that different than what Quincy Jones did on The Dude. He was the main artist, and because of his reputation and experience [in the industry], he was allowed to do that record. Branford went out and found these people and made this diverse record that was unique."
"Since this album was released [last summer], I've read a lot of things about it," Marsalis adds. "A lot of people talking about the album, trying to pin it down ... categorize it. Some guy in my record company was listening to the Buckshot record and he goes, 'What is this record trying to say to me? Is it saying I want to be jazz? Is it saying I want to be hip-hop? Is it saying I want to be R&B or pop ballads?' I said, 'I think it's saying I want to be music....' Musicians like me who listen to and play all kinds of music have to resist the urge to ghettoize music.
"Music is music, and my mission is to try my best to de-ghettoize it, to try to take the best from all genres and synthesize them into something different. You play the music that's in your heart, and that's what this is."
One album track that has gotten considerable attention is "Breakfast @ Denny's," which was inspired by the notorious incident outside Washington, D.C., a few years back involving the restaurant's refusal to seat six African-American Secret Service agents. The song features an intro by Tonight show host Jay Leno, samples of James Brown and an accompanying video directed by Spike Lee.
It's the sort of mix that few performers other than Marsalis could bring off, and Columbia Records' Berkowitz adds that the wide musical range on the album spills over into the audience that comes to see Marsalis' shows. "As diverse as the album is, that's the audience as well," he says. "Older people who are jazz fans, hip-hop kids with their hats on backward and rock fans from his work with the Dead. Seeing the audience makes you totally understand the record."
Buckshot LeFonque, featuring Branford Marsalis, plays at 8 p.m. Tuesday, May 9 at Rockefeller's. Tickets are $29.50, $25 and $17. Call 869-TICS for info.