Branford Marsalis: Insight and Chamber Music

Branford Marsalis: Insight and Chamber Music

From Triple Cities Carousel, October 2014.

Branford Marsalis is a remarkable man. An inimitable member of a family that has been deemed a living legacy of jazz music, he was Jay Leno’s bandleader, composed original music for the Tony-winning revival of “Fences” by August Wilson, and was even interviewed by Space Ghost. He is coming to the Anderson Center this month, and Carousel had the pleasure to speak with him, as he mused on cross-genre technique, civic responsibility, and why astrophysicists needn’t play football.

Have you ever been over to Binghamton before? Oh yeah. Played at the school. We were busing through, and it was freezing cold. We came in, played the concert, and left the next day.

Well, we’re really excited to have you. What’s this show going to be like? How has your quartet developed? You have a new drummer, yes? I do, but- could you tell me what date we’re going to be there? Let me take a look…

I’ve got it. You will be in Binghamton on October 28th. Yeah, that’s what I thought. We need to change the conversation, because I will not be coming to Binghamton with my quartet. I will be with-

The Chamber Orchestra! I’m sorry. So it’s going to be you and the- Philadelphia Chamber Orchestra, not to be confused with the Philadelphia Orchestra.

So, what kind of show is this going to be? It is a concert where we are going to be playing entirely 18th-century baroque music.

That’s incredible. So, have you played with them in the past? Nope. It starts on the third- we have a couple of rehearsals in Philadelphia before- but I’ve been spending the last year studying, listening to music, doing research, taking lessons, starting to prepare.

What’s that been like? It is only in the last two days that I’m actually hearing the music, and I’ve been listening to this music since last October. It’s like reading words or anything else. I guess a good metaphor would be: my English teacher in high school made us read Wuthering Heights. And I read the book the whole time, thinking: this is some of the stupidest shit that- you know- this is stupid. Then I reread the book in my thirties- which is kind of this thing I was talking to students about, about how long it takes to understand- to gain intuition- and that the key to intuition is cognition. So, I read it when I was in my thirties, and- you know- I was crying at the end, because I had the life experience that helped me understand what the book was really about. When I was a teenager, I was just reading the book, and there was no emotional message to the book at all to me. I didn’t understand how complicated life could be.

Decisions that people make… when you’re fifteen, your parents cover you- you can make all kinds of dumbass decisions, because you don’t have to really suffer the consequences of those decisions. So, when I listen to music, sometimes it takes a long time to develop a cognitive understanding of what the music is trying to accomplish, and when you finally understand that, you can play the music with a certain kind of emotion that you can’t when you’re just pressing down buttons that correspond to notes on a page.

And you have to approach it with the idea that you don’t know what the hell you’re listening to, in order to get to a place where you do. If you approach it thinking that everything you need to know is on the page, and if you’ve heard it once, you’ve heard it before- then you’re going to probably miss it. You have to be curious enough to put the music on without preconceptions and just listen to it on its own merit.

You started studying classical music a while ago, yes? I studied classical harmony in high school; I appreciated it about as much as I appreciated reading Wuthering Heights in high school.

But didn’t you delve into it again? Yeah, in my forties. I started taking lessons.

You play jazz; you’re played with such a variety of musicians- I can’t even wrap my head around the range of musicians- are you currently composing music? No, I’m just learning how to play music. Composition- to me- is a very different animal. It doesn’t mean that I won’t write a song or two, here or there, but I think songwriting is different from composition. It’s a lot more romantic- outside of popular music- to call your self a “composer.” You hear jazz guys say, “I’m a saxophonist; I’m a composer;” and in popular music you hear, ironically, guys call themselves “songwriters.”

In terms of your musical journey- you’ve played with the Jazz Messengers, the Grateful Dead; you played on Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power,” you played with Sting, you’ve played with the Philharmonia Brasileira- how have these experiences informed the way that you play and the way that you interact with the world? I grew up playing popular music first, which is a much easier entrée, I think, from popular music to jazz, because so much of the roots of jazz are in popular music. A lot of times jazz guys go to pop music the other way around- their approach to jazz is very intellectual and very methodical, with all these chord changes and all these rhythms, and suddenly they find themselves playing a song with maybe only one chord, and they don’t know what to do with that, but that’s the first thing I learned how to do.

Playing R&B and playing rock ‘n’ roll was really instrumental in my development as a jazz musician- and playing with Sting reinforced it- because when I got into jazz I had a little tunnel vision, because I had to catch up, so I stopped listening to everything else. And I got caught up in a lot of the intellectual possibilities and got away from the emotional aspect of the music. Because, what all music has in common is that it has to have some sort of emotional appeal in order to work. And playing with Sting- when I suddenly went from playing five-minute solos to playing thirty-second, one-minute solos- you have to make the solo count. It had to be melodic; it can’t be random, and it was very good discipline to do that for a year and a half and then go back and play jazz, and suddenly my solos were more melodic, and they got to the point much quicker, and they were played with a certain kind of intensity that I’d lost when I started studying jazz, because I was studying it from an intellectual point of view, which you have to do. What you have to do with really difficult music is you have to study it intellectually, but you have to deliver it emotionally- you can’t choose one over the other.

There are certain styles of music where you can rely mostly on emotion and technique is not that important. But in jazz, particularly, and in classical music, technique is super-important, but technique alone doesn’t get the job done.

I’m going to switch gears a little bit. You are from Louisiana, and post-Hurricane Katrina, you and Harry Connick Jr. put together an incredible effort and had a really successful relief project, with the creation of the New Orleans Habitat Musicians’ Village. Could you speak about how having a public voice can be used toward the greater good, and do you feel that a certain responsibility comes with fame? Well, I’m not really a famous person, but Harry is. I think that one of the biggest problems we have in our country, is that what is being disguised as an intellectual discussion is actually an emotional discussion. And emotional discussions feel good, but are oftentimes really unsuccessful. So when Katrina struck, I was very emotional, so, for a long time- for a month- I didn’t want to say anything. And the press kept calling, and I had nothing to say- well, I did have plenty to say, but it wouldn’t have been the right stuff.

So when my manager called and said we can’t keep dodging the press, I didn’t know what to do. I said, I’m not interested in getting out there like everybody else and blaming the president and blaming the mayor and blaming the governor and gnashing their teeth and howling, I mean- what will our response be? What are we going to do? And then Harry called me and said, look man, we should do this. And I said, well, man, I’m with you.

A lot of people responded because they knew who Harry was, and then there were the people who knew who I was tangentially, but together we were able to really raise a lot of money and get this thing done. I think the thing that I loved about it was that the focus was never on us; the focus was on the task at hand. I think that sometimes, in the world of celebrity, it’s kind of like a dual thing: like, you have a cause, but you’re also out in front of the cause. There’s that phrase that they use: “giving back.” It’s a strange phrase to me, when you hear people say, “Guess what I’m doing? Giving back.”

How do you give back to strangers who have never given you anything? I think it’s more that we have a civic responsibility to help when we can help, and it should focus on the help, and not so much on the spokespeople who are doing the helping. It’s kind of the way we grew up in New Orleans, because we grew up helping people when we could help.

You teach; you work with young people. Are you currently teaching? Yes, at North Carolina Central University.

How do you feel about people who are coming up today: what they can stand to learn, what they have to offer, what your experience with them has been like? There’s this big debate on Common Core that’s going on right now, and I have people whose opinion I respect who say that Common Core teachers are asked to teach curriculum for which the books do not exist, and that is problematic. But, in the popular cultural sense, what I gathered from parents who were complaining about it, was that, “last year, my daughter got an “A,” and this year, my daughter got a “C,” and my daughter is smart, so something’s wrong with these tests.” 

I am of the background that the “C” is more empowering than the “A.” The “A” kind of affirms that you are at the top of the game and there’s not a lot that you need to learn. And if you spent any time at universities, and you spent any time talking to people who graduated from universities, there’s not a lot of top-of-the-game out in the work force right now, and I think this is a reflection of the desire to go to school… the one positive, I think, that came out of the economic catastrophe- you know, the “downturn” as they call it, but it’s a catastrophe- in 2008, is that the template that you can go to school and get a degree and there’s a job waiting for you, is completely blown up. Now, you have to actually be good at something, and it requires you to approach school in a very, very different way.

The thing I struggle most with, with my students, is that there is not the desire to learn. They would prefer that I cut open the tops of their heads and dump in- you know what it’s like?

What? You ever see the original Wizard of Oz?

Yes. The Scarecrow always wanted a brain. So the Wizard gave him a degree, and as soon as he gave him a degree, he started reeling off the theory of relativity. Because, like, that’s the thing: “I need the degree. The degree will solve everything.” And the idea that learning is a continual process… I’m amazed by the number of students who think that learning has to stop when they are 25 or 26. For a lot of people, it’s that way: like, you learn until you get your job, then you do your job and then you look forward to retirement. That is not really an approach that I would applaud.

One of the reasons I’m doing all of these things, like learning Baroque music, is that I’m at this age where the learning curve shuts down. I’m at this age where you know what you do really well, and you can kind of hone in on that, and make a pretty decent living. And then, every year that you don’t practice, don’t challenge yourself, you get a little less good, so that by the time you’re 70, you’re shot.

I choose not to be that person. And, my students are very- at first- frustrated with my teaching style, because it’s more Socratic than anything else. So, when they play for me, I ask them, “What did you think about that?” And it drives them crazy, because no one’s ever asked them that before. My philosophy is that, if you’re going to have good musicians out there, they are going to have to be able to problem-solve on their own and self-correct, so my job is to force them to engage their brains, and force them to do things that are counter to the traditional academic way that music is approached in our country.

I always equate music to sports, because it’s difficult to find kids who play basketball, who don’t watch basketball. It’s really difficult to find kids who play football or baseball, who don’t watch baseball- as a matter of fact, watching the Little League World Series this year, it’s amazing how these kids look and play like pros. In music schools, you’d be amazed at the number of music students who don’t listen to music: and when I say listen, I mean listen constantly, listen religiously, listen the way that other kids watch television and watch these baseball games and emulate these players. They don’t do it. So, my job is to force them to listen to music, and force them to identify their problems, and fix these problems on their own.

I’ve had friends who were music school graduates, who had a very narrow musical schema- despite the fact that they were very skilled- they didn’t know the pop or rock canon. That can be okay. Most people I know have a very narrow point of view, because all they know is pop music, and nothing else. One of the running debates, when I was doing these interviews, was about my brother (Wynton) and I, and the take of these interviewers was that my brother was a stodgy old curmudgeon, and that I was incredibly cool, and the rationale was that I played with musicians that they liked.

And was this because your brother is more of a traditional jazz musician? Well, they called him a jazz purist, when, in fact, my brother played in a pop band with me, but that just wasn’t his strongest suit. He was never really good at doing that naturally. The expectation that he should just play pop music because it makes everybody else feel better, is the expectation that astrophysicists should play football. But it stopped them from rendering an opinion of him that he has a preference of complex over simple- and they would be enraged by that- because the simple music is the music they prefer. Is there a requirement that Justin Timberlake sing opera, or does that only apply to opera singers, that, in order to be cool, they have to sing pop? And it’s clear that- in most cases, the majority of the people- they like popular music and that kind of stuff and they don’t have the curiosity or the tolerance for anything else. I know a lot of people who play classical music, who don’t know anything about pop music, and it doesn’t really hurt them. But, musicians will always benefit from learning all forms of music. Regardless of the genre, I think, the more music you listen to, the better you’ll be.

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