‘Jazz has never been popular’

Twenty-three years ago, saxophonist Branford Marsalis released his Columbia Records debut: Scenes in the City. The 46-year-old New Orleans native and the eldest son of the Marsalis jazz family has approached each of his following 23 discs with the same objectives as on the first: to make good music and to be authentic on every conceivable level. He is making some of the boldest music in jazz on such recent discs as Braggtown, Eternal and Footprints of Our Fathers. That those releases are on Marsalis Music, which he founded in 2002, is another sign of his evolution. We recently caught up with Marsalis and chatted via phone while he was at his home in Durham, N.C. The talk ranged from his band of the last nine years — pianist Joey Calderazzo, drummer Jeff "Tain" Watts, and bassist Eric Revis — to why he doesn't romanticize the stature of jazz.

Metro Times: Each of your albums has a decidedly different energy. When you are gathering music for a new project is that a conscious goal?

Branford Marsalis: I've never been interested in doing something different, or being different. I'm only interested in doing something authentic and good. I'm not sitting around thinking about how I can be different. That really is more of a pop culture thing. People come to hear us because we are good at what we do. For example, I didn't do an album like Buckshot LeFonque because I wanted to be different. I did Buckshot because I was curious about the technology. I wasn't trying to merge hip hop with jazz. I think that record companies and human beings become proficient in one narrow area, and they call that expertise, and if you present them with something outside of that narrow area they try to cram it into their narrow box. So they didn't know what to make of the album. So that is what this did. They called it a hip-hop album.

MT: Do you think that one of the reasons jazz isn't more popular and profitable is because companies don't know how to properly market it?

Marsalis: Jazz music has never been popular. I think that we need to get away from that lie. Jazz clubs back in the day, were considered places of counterculture. If you listen to records like John Coltrane Live at the Village Vanguard and Bill Evans Live at the Village Vanguard, what you will hear is a lot of people talking and treating the music with relative indifference. In the '50s, if you wanted to go to a cool place to hang out and have some drinks and talk, you went to a jazz club. Where were you going to go? Lawrence Welk didn't have a club where you could go to. Now they have all kinds of clubs that didn't exist back then. Whoever heard of a cigar bar or a wine bar?

MT: In those venues the music is secondary to the ambience and the socializing.

Marsalis: The music has always been secondary; that is why you hear people talking. Jazz has never been popular. I think that is just a common thing to say, and I don't know why. Just for research purposes, you should get the Time magazine with Thelonious Monk on the cover [from 1964] and read the entire article. What you'll notice is there's very little in that article about jazz music. It's more focused on the personality and jazz as a lifestyle. The American aesthetic has always viewed all music as a form of entertainment. Any idea of music as an art has always been something that America has rejected since we have had a country.

MT: So why do you and other musicians continue to subject yourselves to that? You could play a genre that was valued and appreciated instead of jazz.

Marsalis: It's the best way for me to express who I am in music. Of course, jazz is not growing to the degree that I like to see it in terms of musicians developing, but there is clearly something there that is worthwhile. You know poetry isn't popular, yet we still have poets.

MT: Have you ever had second thoughts about choosing jazz?

Marsalis: Nope. I chose this life. That is not why I play, man. I have friends from high school, who don't understand my taste, and they don't understand me, but they still like me, and I like them. I think that has been one of my strong points. I like baseball, football and basketball, and I can have a conversation with regular people about what they like, but we just can't talk about what I like. And I'm OK with that. In high school, my friends called me musically insane. I was the only kid in New Orleans who thought that Monty Python was funny, and I could tell you why I thought so.

MT: Another thing that has impressed me is that you have been able to keep the same band together for nine years, which these days is unheard of. Record companies are more focused on promoting a virtuoso than a super-hip band or ensemble.

Marsalis: Keeping the band together has been a personal choice, man. You can either have a band or not have one. I can make more money doing the European jazz circuit as an individual playing in a super band that promoters put together. But I don't want to do that.

MT: You started Marsalis Music back in 2002 when major record companies were closing jazz divisions. That seems like a bad time to start an independent record company.

Marsalis: We need a record label where jazz musicians were able to develop their philosophies without being subjected to market whims. I wanted to do it so I was stuck. I had to do it.

MT: What is the philosophy of Marsalis Music?

Marsalis: To identify the jazz musicians who are conceptualist as well as good players and give them the room to present their music as they see fit. You have to understand that once you are part of a major conglomerate you don't have a voice or choices. It's out of your hands at that point. For example, Columbia was a good record company when it was run by music people, and when there wasn't an expectation of profit for every division. But Columbia sold off to Sony and everything changed. That is just the world that we live in.

MT: That is a commendable philosophy, but at some point all businesses become bottom-line oriented to stay afloat. So do you think at some point you will have to be profit conscious?

Marsalis: Well, what we plan to do is keep investing in our artists and keep on doing what we are doing until we are faced with that. Then we will have to think of something else.


The Branford Marsalis Quartet performs at 8 p.m. Thursday, May 17 at the Max M. Fisher Music Center, 3711 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-576-5111. Tickets are $22.50 and up.

Charles L. Latimer writes about jazz for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]
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