Branford Marsalis Talks Muffulettas, The Tonight Show, and Jazz
Author: Alexa Lyons
Date: March 27, 2013
We caught up with renowned jazz musician Branford Marsalis just before his current tour (his first stop being at Jazz at Lincoln Center next week), and subjected him to the same 10 questions we always ask everyone.
How did you first get into music?
When you grow up in a city where society values music as much as they value football, it’s easy to make that choice.
How did you get into playing the saxophone?
I was playing clarinet and piano in an R&B band that was doing a weekly talent show. I was really sick of carrying around a 110 lb. clarinet at the age of 14, so I talked a good friend of mine into becoming the piano player so I could switch to saxophone.
Who were your musical inspirations growing up?
Everybody was my music inspiration growing up. Earth Wind & Fire, Led Zeppelin, Elton John, Stevie Wonder. They wrote great tunes. Sometimes the songs that weren’t hits were better than the ones that were.
What about modern mainstream artists? Do any of them do it for you?
It serves a different purpose. The Beatles were the first band to make really, really large sums of money playing pop music, and that was in the late ‘60s. So when all of these bands were playing in the ‘50s, learning how to play music, The Beatles included, there was no template to say “we’re gonna go become stars and make piles of money.” They were doing it because they loved to do it. Now there is a template for using pop music as a vehicle to win the lotto. Now, it is the idea of being a pop star that is more important than the love of the music. The artist doesn’t really have the same artistic input nor do they seem to care that they don’t have it. It’s more of a business.
Is there anyone that you’d give credit to today strictly for their music?
It’s a hard question because I’m 52-years-old and the idea of listening to people 30 years younger than me…what would I listen to them for? When I hear the guys now, they’re good at what they do, but I listen to music all day. I don’t sing lyrics, I don’t like dance moves; the idea of listening to songs about partying and dancing…it’s just past me. How you look is more important than how you sound because they have machines to make you sound ok. Stevie Wonder wouldn’t stand a chance today, and just that reality for me – how everything skews towards the shamelessly superficial – it’s very difficult to enjoy the music.
You played on The Tonight Show for several years. What was that like?
The Tonight Show was my first experience in the purely, 100% entertainment business. While there was no real personal animist, it was very difficult for me to holistically embrace entertainment to that degree, which made me less effective for the show than I should have been. And that with a couple personal issues that were very difficult to resolve living in Los Angeles, it made it easier for me to make a decision to remove myself from that environment. But it was very, very instructional for me; I learned a lot about the business and there were a lot of great people around. I think that The Tonight Show was the moment I realized what I’d been running from is exactly the thing that I need to be.
Was there anyone in particular who had a significant impact on your career?
Everybody I meet has an impact on me personally, which ultimately affects my career. Art Blakey had an effect on my outlook on how to operate a band, how to hire personnel, but his personal lifestyle was a little much for me. So I learned two things from him: what to be attracted to and what to stay away from. And then there’s people that nobody knows, like Gil Friesen; he could see my struggles and he was really kind to me, and tried to help me negotiate the personal from the professional.
You received the NEA Jazz Master Award in 2011 along with your father and your brothers. What was that experience like?
I was happy for my dad because we were by far the youngest jazz masters. But we’re not really masters, that’s part of the problem. Now that we’re in this fiscal crisis, the arts is the first place to get cut. The NEA felt that if they could get a little buzz, a little mention in the media, they could save the jazz master program. As soon as they put my whole family together to get it, they got national attention. If that’s the thinking then yeah, it was great to receive the award. But the idea of me as a jazz master at 52, it was hard for me to swallow. Especially with my brother, who’s 32. They give a modest honorarium for winning, but all the money went to my dad. When I went up to accept the award I said, “now that this has all happened and my dad got all the money, when I’m actually good at it, can I get some money too?” And the guy chuckled, like, “no you’re not getting anything.”
AND NOW: THE SAME 10 QUESTIONS WE ALWAYS ASK EVERYONE!
What was the last thing you had to apologize for?
To my daughter for being a grouch this morning.
What’s your favorite curse word?
Fuck. It just sounds good. I’ve been growing up in New Orleans and that’s the word of choice.
What’s the worst hangover you’ve ever had?
I don’t really have hangovers, which is good and bad because it encourages you to drink more. But I guess the worst hangover I ever had was when I broke the cardinal rule of drinking: you don’t mix your grains with your grapes. Actually no, that’s not true. The worst hangover I ever had was this past January in Port-au-Prince because the Haitians, of course, like all Caribbean countries, say that they have the best and strongest rum in the world. And I said, “yeah I heard that shit before.” Four rum punches later we’re all stumbling around the bar and the next morning, I said “I’ll have a rum punch please!” It straightened out my system but I learned my lesson.
What was your first car?
A used Nissan 280G. It finally broke down on the Brooklyn/Queens Expressway and I just left it there. It was time to get a new one so I just left it there and walked away.
That’s awesome. Do you have a scar that tells a story?
I have a scar across my fingers on my right hand when a guy got me with a knife in high school over whose place in line it was in the lunch line.
You were knifed over that?!
Well, he pulled it out and it cut across my fingers and I had such an aversion to needles at that time that I just put my fingers on two popsicle sticks and taped them up until they healed. After they healed I chased this guy down and beat his ass.
Do you have a party trick?
I’ve never had a party trick. I’m the intellectual; the dweeb who sits in the corner and talks about the meaning of life. I was never really the life of the party.
What’s the biggest thing you’ve ever put in your mouth?
I forgot her name.
No, fuck, what a question. Probably a muffuletta from New Orleans.
What’s the one thing to remember in a fist fight?
They always evolve into melees. It never stays a fist fight, so just be prepared for the worst. And avoid the headlock. The headlock is bad.
Who was the last person to see you naked?
Good answer. Finish this sentence: If I ruled the world for the day I would…
I would force the democrats and republicans to make a deal…on the penalty of death.