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WHEN jazz saxophonist Branford Marsalis and his friend Harry Connick Jr heard about the devastation of New Orleans in 2005, their reaction was heartfelt and practical. They organised the building of a Musicians’ Village.
“We have a great love for New Orleans. Without the musicians in the city, it would have been impossible for us to achieve any success,” says Marsalis, speaking from his home in Durham, North Carolina.
Hurricane Katrina hit Marsalis hard personally. As he told Britain’s Sunday Times: “My personal history was destroyed; it’s still standing, but it has to be torn down because you can’t live in it.
“Recently, I went to the house I grew up in, in Lakeview, only a few blocks from where the levee broke. The door was open and I walked in. It is all there, but it is covered in mould and it stank.”
He and Connick Jr saw an opportunity.
“Harry had a relationship with Habitat for Humanity, which specialises in building homes for low-income families,” Marsalis says.
Both contributed funds to building the Musicians’ Village, which will incorporate the Ellis Marsalis School of Music, named after Marsalis’s jazz-musician father, who was Connick Jr’s mentor.
The Musicians Village has borne artistic fruit, with some unusual collaborations.
“The style of music was not a qualification, so there are some people in salsa bands, jazz players and even a string quartet,” Marsalis says.
Marsalis lives 2000km away, but remains close to his musical roots. As well as his famous father, his younger brothers Jason, Wynton and Delfeayo Marsalis are also jazz musicians.
“Everybody I knew played, so it was a cool thing to do. You live in a city where everybody plays and you play. I started playing piano when I was five,” he says.
Marsalis’s first public performance was at the age of 10, with the Fairview Baptist Church Jazz Band.
“It was run by Danny Barker, who was a banjo player. He was a friend of Louis Armstrong,” he says.
“But I didn’t like jazz at all until I was 19. I was an R & B guy.
“As I got older, my brain developed and I realised some of my musical choices were simplistic and I craved something more challenging.”
Having toured extensively in the early 1980s, initially playing alto and baritone saxophone with a big band, Marsalis teamed with his brother Wynton to form a quintet.
Since the mid 1990s, Marsalis has been involved with his own group, the Branford Marsalis Quartet, as well as classical performances, music education and founding a recording label, Marsalis Music.
This year a critic from The Times said of the quartet: “Marsalis’s fearsomely talented band create a group sound veering from playful whimsy to blowtorch intensity that demands your attention.”
Marsalis is rueful about the changes technology is bringing to the wider music scene.
“I could envisage a time when the instruments would be gone, which is pretty much now all keyboards and sampling and turntables,” he says.
“There is no horn section any more. I feel bad for my kids. My son is 24, and I regret he was not able to experience a truly dynamic concert. The likes of U2 are an exception.”