The saxophonist Branford Marsalis jawed with Jay Leno and led the “Tonight Show" band for three seasons, he was featured with Sting for years, he played the soprano saxophone for Sean Connery on the soundtrack of “The Russia House," he’s on the soundtrack of Spike Lee’s “Mo’ Better Blues," and he led Buckshot LeFonque, a well publicized band that combined jazz with rhythm and blues, rock, and hip-hop.
At the age of 38 (he turns 46 on August 26th), he “realized that my life was, like, half over, and I decided that it would be a drag if I didn’t at least try to find out how good I could be."
So he reigned in his renowned charisma and retired from the hurly-burly of the big-time to play music that interested him, to teach, to study classical music, and to start his boutique label Marsalis Music, which releases albums by himself, his sidemen, his pianist father Ellis, and a few carefully chosen others.
I thought of Marsalis when I recently read that after Igor Stravinsky died in 1971, somebody said that the world was without a great composer for the first time in 600 years. That seemed to me to be a misread of reality. Musical composition was in fact flourishing in 1971.
“Great" composers were to be found in new places, that’s all, and wearing new attire. For example, Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On," and Jimi Hendrix’s “The Cry Of Love" were released in 1971. Ornette Coleman’s “Skies of America" would come out the following year. Stan Getz and Bill Evans were at the peak of their powers. John McLaughlin’s “My Goal’s Beyond" came on the market in 1970 - the Beatles’s “Abbey Road," Bob Dylan’s “Nashville Skyline," and Miles Davis’s “Bitches Brew" in 1969.
The eccentrics Thelonious Monk and Erik Satie are comparable. The recordings of Billie Holiday are as essential to the history of music as Mozart’s operas. Like music changed after the tempering of the scale, it changed after the invention of jazz, and multi-track recording. What does it matter if great music is written down on score paper, improvised, or mixed in recording studios so long as it is really “great"?
Branford Marsalis, who grew up in New Orleans as the eldest brother of the “first family of jazz," is one good example of the improviser as composer. He does not deal with written music when he teaches jazz courses at North Carolina Central University in Durham, and he never writes on a blackboard. Instead, he distributes his hand-made recorded collections to his students, and tells them: “Here’s music that was made between 1930 and 1940. I want you to learn all of these tunes. Don’t write them down – learn them by ear, just like those guys did. If you’re playing jazz because you like it, then you should listen to 100 years of it, not just the last twenty."
Marsalis’s new quartet album “Braggtown," the name of the neighborhood where he lives in Durham, will be released in September. It churns with sensitive heat, collective intensity, and its dancing modernity is an elegant reflection of our times. His soprano sound on ballads is richer and more precisely articulated than ever.
Promoting the new album with a string of deft interviews in a small Left-Bank hotel, he said: “I still hold firm to my belief that playing an instrument is not the same thing as playing music. If you can play music you can get your point across better than some guy who may play the instrument better than you do.
“The problem with jazz today in the United States is that it only appeals to those who play music. In the past there was one side that could appeal to musicians, and then there was the other side that could pull in other people. There’s a significant difference between jazz musicians who grew up with the notion that jazz was dance music and those who didn’t. The music has become too insular."
When I suggested that some people might find “Braggtown" too insular, he replied: “People like to listen to music loud now. You turn this record up real loud, you’ll like it, I guarantee it, even if you don’t play an instrument. Good jazz does not make good background music.
“One reason I like living in Durham is that it’s a university town and I meet all sorts of people, not just musicians. My friends are doctors, lawyers, teachers, and farmers. One of my ‘normal’ friends in Durham listened to the album and he said: ‘I don’t really understand what you’re doing, but it’s grooving.’
“This guy admits he has a tin ear, but he likes grooves, and as long as our music is grooving, and as long as the ballads are played so that women will dig them, everybody will be happy."