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Author: Rodger Mullen
Date: March 19, 2012
Saxophonist Branford Marsalis has enjoyed a career as one of jazz’s more visible musicians, thanks to gigs as a sideman for Sting, Jay Leno’s sidekick as leader of “The Tonight Show” band and roles in movies including Spike Lee’s “School Daze.”
But Marsalis said he’s never really sought the spotlight.
“A lot of popular culture is counter to my nature,” he said. “In order for it to work, there’s a certain level of superficiality that you have to blatantly embrace. I was never that guy.”
Marsalis, 51, is scheduled to perform Thursday in Southern Pines for the opening night of the Palustris Festival. He will be joined by pianist Joey Calderazzo.
A native of Louisiana, Marsalis grew up in a musical family. His father, Ellis Marsalis Jr.; and brothers Wynton, Jason and Delfeayo are all jazz musicians.
In 1980, while still a student at Berklee College of Music, Marsalis toured Europe in an ensemble led by drummer Art Blakey. He went on to play with Lionel Hampton and Clark Terry before joining brother Wynton in Blakey’s Jazz Messengers.
In 1985, Marsalis began an association with Sting, playing on his “The Dream of the Blue Turtles” album. From 1992 to ‘95, the saxophonist was the leader of “The Tonight Show” band.
Since leaving “The Tonight Show,” Marsalis has kept busy recording albums and performing live. Last year, he and Calderazzo released their first album as a duo, “Songs of Mirth and Melancholy.”
Marsalis recently spoke with the Observer from his home in Durham. Following are excerpts from that conversation:
Observer: What was it like growing up in such a musical family? Was there a lot of competition?
Marsalis: It’s hard to compete when you all play different instruments. My competition was with guys who played my instrument and I loved them so much that there wasn’t really a competition. I mean, to my left was a guy named John McGarry, he’s a doctor now in San Francisco, he was incredible and I really looked up to him. And to my left was David Vitter, who’s now the senator from Louisiana.
Observer: How did your association with Sting come about?
Marsalis: He called me. I don’t know why he called me but that was cool. I met him once for about 15minutes two years earlier.
Observer: What was that like? I imagine that was your highest profile gig to that date.
Marsalis: It really wasn’t high-profile at all. It was high profile for Sting. I think that one of the things I learned in New Orleans is that when you play saxophone behind a singer, you’re the supporting cast. Sting sort of made it more high profile than it should have been because he would mention our names six, seven, eight times a night. After every solo, he’d say the name.
Observer: Do you still keep in touch with Sting?
Marsalis: Yeah, he’s a good friend.
Observer: What was it like leading the house band on the Tonight Show? Was that an unusual gig?
Marsalis: No, it was a gig. And it was kind of like a mutual parting of the ways. I didn’t want my career to be ultimately defined by not playing music. I wanted to be defined by playing music. But I wasn’t really sure of that until you try it.
And so much of the notes from the executives and higher-ups and the advertisers and the people who really matter in that world, none of it really had to do with music. So at that point you have to make a decision: Do I want to be a musician or do I want to be in show business? Because the two … don’t work well together.
Observer: You’ve been involved with the efforts to restore New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Are you still involved with that and is there still a lot of work there to be done?
Marsalis: There’s still a lot of work to be done but our part is done. We have 82 homes built and a music education center that is on-line.
Observer: What takes up most of your playing time these days, studio work or live gigs?
Marsalis: There’s no such thing as studio work anymore. Studio work is guys with keyboards using samples of instruments. There’s definitely no studio work in North Carolina, which is fine with me. I want to be a musician, not a studio musician. A lot of my time when I’m home, I’m practicing, preparing for gigs. I perform, I play live concerts.
Observer: You’ve done some acting in the past. Do you think you’ll explore that more?
Marsalis: No. Again, it’s basically like a mirror image of “The Tonight Show” discussion. The idea of relocating to Los Angeles and going through the arduous audition process for the possibility of work when I’ve already established a career, when I have actual work, it didn’t really seem like it was a smart choice for me. But sometimes people call and ask me to play a small role and if my schedule allows, then sure, I’ll do it. There were even a couple of calls after Jay’s show about doing television shows. I said, that’s not going to happen, I’m not going to move to Los Angeles.
Observer: What brought you to Durham?
Marsalis: I got sick of New York. There’s always a battle between New York and L.A. New York people say we have the culture and you guys are vacuous and vice versa. On basic levels there are significant differences, but at the top of it the only difference is weather. It’s the same damn place. And I just wanted out. So I told my Yankee wife I wanted to relocate to the South, and North Carolina was as far as she would go. Which was fine with me, because Durham’s a great town. There’s a lot of cultural curiosity here. There’s more intellectual and cultural curiosity here than you’d find in bigger cities. I was more than satisfied to be here.
Observer: Can you point to a single aspect of your career that you’re most proud of?
Marsalis: No, because one year informs the other year. Everything that happens for good or ill puts you in the place where you are at this point. But lately, I’ve become a much better musician, by far. I think George Foreman said it best: Boxing is just like jazz, the better it is, the less people like it.