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Branford Marsalis toots his horn in Napa
Author: Rich Freedman
Date: March 11, 2012
Yes, Branford Marsalis toured with Sting . Yes, he did two years on “The Tonight Show” with Jay Leno.
But, while it might make a good line or two in a lengthy biography, it’s far from who the brilliant saxophonist is. One may as well have found the credits on a cave wall.
For the record, performing with Sting was a good experience. And Leno was a decent chap. But Marsalis, 51, was never the guy to lure the former Police front man onto a recording merely to put “featuring Sting.” Nor was it ever his intention to forever be “that guy who once led the Tonight Show band.”
“One thing I did learn from ‘The Tonight Show’ is that unless you’re on TV, people don’t know who you are,” Marsalis said.
Most folks who have picked up a horn — or even have a mere passive interest in jazz — in the last 30 years likely know of Marsalis. And if it’s not Branford, it’s brother Wynton or the patriarch of the jazz-playing family, Ellis Marsalis.
It’s been a life of jazz — and, more recently, classical — that keeps the father of three motivated. Not that the scene, the industry or his own body haven’t change through nearly 30 recordings as The Lead Guy and more than 50 recordings as a sideman.
Still, touring — including a March 29 date at the Napa Valley Opera House — is “the same as always,” Marsalis said, “the airlines is more of a drag.”
But he continues. The Marsalis Music label he founded in 2002. He won the 2010 Drama Desk Award for “Best Music in a Advertisement Play” in the Broadway revival of “Fences.” And he released, “The Songs of Mirth and Melancholy” duo with Joey Calderazzo in 2011.
These days Marsalis listens to his kids — a 26-year-old son and daughters 11 and 7 — and realizes perhaps it’s good to be 51.
“I don’t want to be 30 again. I don’t want to go through that,” he said.
Besides, Branford Marsalis the musician at 30 is nothing like the man a couple of decades later.
“I hear a recording of me in my 30s. I never want to sound like that again,” he said.
With Marsalis, it’s all about substance. Take your sizzle. He’ll take the steak.
“Americans believe that to make something of yourself is always centered around being rich,” Marsalis said. “It’s not about being good at it.”
When it comes to performing quality jazz, there’s no way around it: “Jazz is hard,” Marsalis said. And leaning on radio to play one of your tunes is futile.
“Through the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s, you would hear these little radio stations say ‘I broke this band.’ Now, radio stations don’t break bands. Corporations break bands.”
Marsalis pointed out that when the Dixie Chicks denigrated former President George W. Bush, 10,000 stations overnight refused to play their songs.
“What they didn’t tell you is that all 10,000 stations were owned by the same company,” Marsalis said.
Those making the decisions today basically have two questions, Marsalis said: “How old are the singers and what do they look like?”
With Marsalis, it was always more than how he looked in a suit.
“My motivation was always to make the best music I can possibly make,” he said.
Even as the big name in his band, it’s a team game, Marsalis said.
“It’s my band but all of us play together,” he said. “There’s no star quotient to it.”
At home in Durham, N.C., Marsalis had just returned from a relaxing break in Mexico where he did everything enjoyable he could outside of improving his golf game.
“It sucks,” said Marsalis.
Now it’s back to work where there’s always room for improvement.
“You hone in on stuff you don’t do well at and try to eliminate it,” he said, unhappy with “a system that promotes resting on your laurels.”
That he won’t do. And when it’s time to again to record, he’ll do it at the Ellis Marsalis Center for Music in New Orleans, named after pops Marsalis, a legendary jazz pianist and teacher for more than 40 years.
The facility is the centerpiece of the Musicians’ Village, conceived by Branford, Harry Connick Jr., and New Orleans Habitat for Humanity after Hurricane Katrina.
It’s more than merely having a building named after his dad, Branford said.
“Having a name on the building doesn’t mean anything to me,” he said. “It’s what happens inside the building. There are a lot of decaying buildings named after someone.”
Far more importantly is what it means to the elder Marsalis, his son said.
“I’m happy for him. I’m happy that he’s intellectually engaged again. He’s excited,” Marsalis said. “That’s awesome.”