DATE October 21, 2002 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Branford Marsalis discusses his musical career and his
new CD, "Footsteps of Our Fathers"
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
As you might suspect of someone who spent a couple of years as the bandleader
on "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno," my guest, Branford Marsalis, is funny as
well as being a great musician. The saxophonist and composer has several
different public identities as a musician. He's recorded many jazz albums as
a leader. His group, Buckshot Lefonque, combined jazz and hip-hop. In the
pop world, he's performed with Sting, The Grateful Dead and Bruce Hornsby.
Branford is from one of the best-known families in jazz. One of his brothers
is the trumpeter and composer, Wynton Marsalis; his father is pianist Ellis
Now Branford has launched his own record label called Marsalis Music, on which
he plans to record great musicians who would be unlikely to find a home on
major labels. His first release is his own new CD "Footsteps of Our Fathers,"
in which he interprets compositions by Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane, John
Lewis and Ornette Coleman. Let's start with the Ornette Coleman composition,
(Soundbite of "Giggin'")
GROSS: Branford Marsalis, from his new CD "Footsteps of Our Fathers."
Branford Marsalis, welcome to FRESH AIR.
Mr. BRANFORD MARSALIS (Musician): It's a pleasure to be here, Terry.
GROSS: This new CD is the first CD on your new record label. Now when you're
looking for musicians you want to sign here, are you just saying to yourself,
`Whose music do I really love?' Or are you also saying, `Whose music do I
really love that I think I can sell?'
Mr. MARSALIS: No, whose music do I really love. It's the same philosophy I
use for my records.
Mr. MARSALIS: So, no, it's about the artists. And if the artists do things
that are great, I think they will sell. I think if the artists do really
creative records, the records will eventually sell down the road. It doesn't
have to sell tomorrow and I don't believe that it will, and I wouldn't try to
put pressure on an artist. But we just try to stay away from the cliche as
much as we can. And all of the artists will not be jazz musicians, as well,
which is why the Marsalis Music and not Marsalis Jazz.
GROSS: Do you feel that you have enough money that you can afford to do
something that won't be terribly profitable?
Mr. MARSALIS: Yeah. Yeah, because if we can find a way to make the records
as cheaply as possible but with the highest level of quality, so we're not
going to do any $2,500 records, where you record in a room this size, you
know, the size of a radio studio and you just--we're going to try to make the
records as great as we can make them and as inexpensively as we can. And, you
know, I'm not going to be able to buy a new car every year, but I never bought
a new car every year, anyway. So it's not, you know--you make conscious
decisions to, like, spend less money so you can put the money towards other
GROSS: On your new CD "Footsteps of Our Fathers," you play Sonny Rollins'
"Freedom Now Suite." Sonny Rollins is one of your influences who is still
alive. You've met him, I think.
Mr. MARSALIS: Mm-hmm. Yeah. I played on a concert with him. He killed me.
It was great. He wiped the floor with me.
GROSS: What do you mean? I mean, what happened?
Mr. MARSALIS: He just outplayed me.
GROSS: Uh-huh. Uh-huh.
Mr. MARSALIS: He just wiped the floor with me. He just played a ton of
saxophone, and it was a marvelous lesson for me.
GROSS: In what?
Mr. MARSALIS: Hmm?
GROSS: In what, in being humbled?
Mr. MARSALIS: No. Well, it was just to learn what great musicians do. I
think that it's a shame that more young musicians don't get the opportunity to
be within such close proximity...
Mr. MARSALIS: ...to great musicians, to watch them.
GROSS: Of all the things that you could have chosen that Sonny Rollins has
played, why did you choose the "Freedom Suite"?
Mr. MARSALIS: Because that's the one that people avoid. You know, everybody
plays "Doxie" or "St. Thomas," but the "Freedom Suite" is the one that people
avoid. And I don't know why they avoid it, whether it's fear or, you know,
cowardice, reverence or whatever it is, but great music should be played, and
I wasn't good enough to play it until now. So I said, `Well, now that we're
actually good enough to play it, let's play it, and let's go for it.' I never
really got a chance to go on the road and play it, so it wasn't as personal as
it could have been, like "A Love Supreme" was real personal. "Freedom Suite"
could have been more personal, but I just felt uncomfortable asking Joey to
not play in the show for 25 minutes every night while we worked this out,
because we only play for an hour and 15 minutes. And we didn't get to play it
as much, and that I regret, but I'm genuinely proud of what we did on the
GROSS: Well, I thought we could hear the ballad-like movement from it. Do
you want to say anything about this?
Mr. MARSALIS: When Sonny did it, the way he--to my ear, what it sounds like
is that he was playing his solo based on the melody, and he was staying true.
The solo had a lot of the melody in it, and everything that he played was
based off of what the melody was. And what I wanted to do was make it a
little more sweet, a little more romantic and not as angular, not as terse.
So when we played it, I was thinking more in line of the way that Lester Young
or Ben Webster would play those changes. So it starts off a little like
Sonny, then it just morphs into something a little more romantic than what
Sonny would have done at that time.
GROSS: This is Branford Marsalis from his new CD, "Footsteps of Our Fathers."
(Soundbite of music by "Freedom Now Suite")
GROSS: That's Branford Marsalis, a movement from Sonny Rollins' "Freedom
Suite" as featured on Branford Marsalis' new CD, "Footsteps of Our Fathers,"
which is on Branford's new label, Marsalis Music.
Now you also pay tribute on your new CD to John Coltrane.
Mr. MARSALIS: Yeah.
GROSS: And you play "Love Supreme." Do you remember first hearing this?
Mr. MARSALIS: Yes.
GROSS: Like, what you were doing, where you were in your life and what impact
it had on you?
Mr. MARSALIS: I don't remember it that well, but I was in my teens. I think
I was probably at the Berklee College of Music the first time I heard it, or
maybe I was at my dad's house, I was 18, 19 or something.
GROSS: But what year would this be, about?
Mr. MARSALIS: '78, '79, '77, somewhere around there. I was very
uncomfortable, because I just had--there was nothing that I'd ever done or
listened to in my life that could adequately prepare me for that experience,
and there was a lot of discomfort on my end. I just wanted them to turn it
off as quickly as possible.
GROSS: What was making you so uncomfortable?
Mr. MARSALIS: It's just when you hear something that you've never heard
before. It's something that I see in a lot of people the first time they hear
jazz, and the first time they hear it played well, or the first time they hear
it played differently than what they're used to hearing on a lot of jazz radio
stations. And I remember it well because I just didn't have anything to
reference it to. I was a kid. I grew up listening to Elton John and Led
GROSS: But your father, Ellis Marsalis, is a pianist who plays jazz, so you
grew up hearing that, too.
Mr. MARSALIS: Yeah, but that's what he did.
Mr. MARSALIS: That's not what I did.
Mr. MARSALIS: I was a kid, and I listened to a lot of pop music. And I had a
couple of Charlie Parker records that I had to learned some solos from. One
was called "Fiesta," and it was, like, Bird playing with a Latin percussion
section. The record's really corny, which lends me to believe, you know,
Norman Grantz had a hand in that one, because, you know, it's like with "Blue
Suede Shoes" and all these really cute little pop ditties. And Bird plays his
tail off, but they're short solos, one chorus, at tops, two choruses on short
12- and 16-bar forms.
And, yeah, I just never--that John Coltrane thing, "A Love Supreme," it just
comes out like, you know, Elvis hitting the gong--(makes noise)--and the music
comes in--(imitating saxophone) and you're just like, `What is this? What is
this?' I didn't really have an understanding of the blues. I mean, I knew
that the blues was a 12-bar form, but I didn't really have any real personal
understanding of the blues idiom and its impact on jazz. And the first
movement of "A Love Supreme" is basically straight blues, so I just wasn't
intellectually or professionally or, you know, musically prepared for the
GROSS: Well, why don't we hear your version of "A Love Supreme"? We'll hear
the opening movement....
Mr. MARSALIS: Great.
GROSS: ...as performed on your new CD in the "Footsteps of Our Fathers."
(Soundbite of "A Love Supreme")
GROSS: The opening of "A Love Supreme," as performed by my guest, saxophonist
Branford Marsalis, and featured on his new CD "Footsteps of Our Fathers."
You grew up in what is now America's probably most famous jazz family, the
Marsalis family. Your father, Ellis Marsalis, is a pianist.
When you were growing up, liking the pop music that you liked, did you feel about his music
the way, say, I felt about my father's old Benny Goodman records?
Mr. MARSALIS: I felt about my father's music the way my next-door neighbor
felt about his father, the chauffeur driver. That was just what he did.
Mr. MARSALIS: How did you feel about your father's Benny Goodman records?
GROSS: Oh, yeah, I guess I didn't--I really disliked them until I got much
older--well, in my 20s, anyways.
Mr. MARSALIS: Well, jazz is not for kids. I know there's an argument--my
brother says jazz can be for kids. I don't think--jazz has a level of
sophistication that's just way to hip for kids. It's not a music for kids,
and it certainly wasn't the music for me. But it wasn't like he'd play them
and I'd go `Aaargh!' I would just leave the room.
GROSS: You just didn't care.
Mr. MARSALIS: I'd turn on the television in the other room until it way my
turn to listen to my music. And then I'd put on Cheech & Chong and Elton John
and James Brown and whatever I wanted to put on, and my father would stay out.
And then when James Brown came on, he'd come in and say, `Yeah, kid, yeah
Jack. I like that.' And then he would always dance to it. And when he'd
dance to it, he would snap his fingers on two and four, which is the funniest
thing in the world, you know.
GROSS: That's great. Yeah. Yeah.
Mr. MARSALIS: You know. "Cold Sweat's" going on, you know. (Singing) `Like
a cold sweat--dun, dun, dun, doo-bah, da-doo-dee, dee.' My father's going
`Yeah,' (snaps his fingers; sings) `Doo-doo-da-doo-dee, da.' I'm, like, `No,
Dad.' It just was funny.
GROSS: Just on the one.
Mr. MARSALIS: Oh, yeah. It was classic. It was classic.
GROSS: Oh, that was great. So what was your first instrument?
Mr. MARSALIS: My first instrument was the piano. And then when I was a
freshman--when I was in the first grade or second grade, I went and started
playing the trumpet and I wanted to play an instrument, so I said, `I want to
play the trumpet.' And my father says, `No. We're not going to have two
people playing the same instrument in the same household. So you have to pick
something else.' I said, `OK, clarinet.' `OK, fine. You get the clarinet.'
And I played the clarinet for seven years until I was a sophomore in high
school, and then I switched to the alto saxophone, because I wanted to be in a
GROSS: Yeah, that's the thing. There are no clarinets in funk bands.
Mr. MARSALIS: And if there were, it would be really bad. It wouldn't work.
It wouldn't be a good vibe at all.
GROSS: My guest is Branford Marsalis. His new CD, "Footsteps of Our
Fathers," is on his new label, Marsalis Music. We'll talk more after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: Let's get back to our interview with saxophonist Branford Marsalis.
He has a new CD called "Footsteps of Our Fathers." Let's get back to talking
about learning music. His first instruments were clarinet and piano.
How did you end up feeling about clarinet when you were playing it, because
they weren't featured at all in the kind of pop music you were listening to?
Not in Elton John or James Brown.
Mr. MARSALIS: I was in the orchestra, I was in the wind ensemble. I didn't
care. You know, I wasn't out--that was like a separate thing.
Mr. MARSALIS: That was the music I liked but it wasn't necessarily the
music--you know, of all that music, the only time I ever envisioned myself
being on stage doing it was when I was listening to Elton John religiously and
I would play the piano and I'd learn all his songs, you know, "Burn Down the
Mission" and, you know, "Daniel" and "Rocket Man." And I'd play the piano and
say, `One day, I'm going to be on the stage playing these songs on the piano.'
When I started playing piano, that whole thing went away, because you go from
being the front man to in the horn section, which is like a whole different
thing. It's not really the most romantic gig in the world to be in the horn
section of a rock star or, you know, a pop band. It's just you're just in the
horn section. That's the way it goes. So, hey, playing clarinet was fine for
me. You know, it was a different thing.
GROSS: Well, once you got into the horn sections of bands, what are some of
the bands in which you were in the horn section?
Mr. MARSALIS: Oh, well, the one that we had in New Orleans was a band we
called the Mighty Creators(ph). And it was the funniest band. It was an R&B
band. And there was another band that went and joined and got me into called
Killer Force and the Crispy Critters(ph). And then there was one other band
that I can't remember the name of, but the band we spent the most time in was
the Creators. What was that other band I was in? Stop, Inc. I played
keyboard in Stop, Inc. And there was another band called--the other rival
bands, Jam, Inc.(ph) and Flashback and all these bands, Chocolate Milk. And
the Creators were interesting because I learned a lot about--I don't know what
you really call it, but we had a band that was probably technically the best
funk band in New Orleans. I mean, we could play music that these other guys
could only dream of playing.
But we weren't a funky band at all. Our drummer and bass player just didn't
have a groove. So we would be playing all this music and all the musicians
would be there and the audience would just be bored to tears hearing us play
because they couldn't feel anything. And then the next band, a band like
Flashback would come on, where they didn't have half the technique we had, and
they would just hit a simple groove and people would just be up and dancing
and going crazy and loving it, and it was like a really good lesson...
Mr. MARSALIS: ...that, you know, you can sit around like a good friend of
mine, Rob Hunter, my engineer, he calls them `talent attacks.' You know, you
can get on stage and have a talent attack and the musicians might be
impressed, but the regular audience, the laypeople could give a damn, you
And I've always wanted it to be very important that when I'm playing that I
don't have an audience full of musicians and music students. That was always
something that was really kind of important to me. And it's strange because I
don't really believe that as a musician I should reach out to the audience.
It doesn't mean I should treat them like garbage. That's not what I'm saying,
but it's just when you're trying to make music that is a personal statement of
your own, you can't really worry about whether the audience gets it or not,
whether the audience likes it or not. You have to do it. But at the same
time, I wouldn't want to look out in the audience--like, there are some
musicians we have where like the majority of their fan base are, like, people
who play the same instrument. And that's kind of like the talent attack crew,
you know, and I just never wanted to be a part of the talent attack crew
because I remember being a part of that when I was with the Mighty Creators
and I didn't dig it very much. I didn't dig it very much.
GROSS: So was it fun to be--I mean, I always thought it would be fun to be in
the saxophone section of a band.
Mr. MARSALIS: It was great in that band.
GROSS: Yeah. Because, particularly, like--well, in some of the showier
bands, the section would move their horns to the left and to the right...
Mr. MARSALIS: Oh, we did all that.
GROSS: ...in rhythm and, you know, kind of synchronized and it would be very
Mr. MARSALIS: We did all of that and then we were in marching bands and drum
and bugle corps.
GROSS: Don't you love marches? I mean, as corny as they can be...
Mr. MARSALIS: Oh, we weren't in that kind of marching band, but I did that,
as well. Yeah, the Sousa marches they play?
GROSS: Yeah. They're great. Yeah.
Mr. MARSALIS: I played piccolo. When we did "Stars and Stripes Forever" and
we didn't have a piccolo player. And so on this one particular performance,
George Marx(ph), our music director, wanted to play "Stars and Stripes" and
have the piccolos--the band spreads in the formation and the piccolos play
marching down the center of the field. And we only had one piccolo player and
George, 'cause I was like the jack-of-all-trades. When they needed an oboe
player for the Christmas thing, he says, `You ever play oboe?' I says, `No.'
He says, `Well, you got six weeks. Here you go,' you know. And I'd stumble
around with it, took a couple of lessons and got good enough to pass for the
Christmas play. And it was like a bizarre experience to have this guy just
give me these strange instruments and have me do them for these Christmas
concerts. I did enjoy it.
GROSS: Branford Marsalis will be back in the second half of the show. Here's
a track from one of the CDs by his band Buckshot Lefonque, which combined
jazz and hip-hop. This is called "James Brown."
I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of "James Brown")
Announcer: This is NPR, National Public Radio.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: We're listening to saxophonist Branford Marsalis with his father,
pianist Ellis Marsalis. Coming up, we continue our conversation with Branford
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with more of our interview
with saxophonist Branford Marsalis. His new CD, "Footsteps of Our Fathers,"
features his interpretations of compositions by John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins,
Ornette Coleman and John Lewis. It's on his new record label, Marsalis Music.
Branford is from a jazz family that includes father Ellis Marsalis and brother
Wynton Marsalis, but jazz wasn't the first music Branford played. When he was
a teen-ager living in New Orleans, he performed in bands that played rhythm
and blues and funk.
So what was the transition for you from going from the, like, high school guy
playing in local funk and R&B bands...
Mr. MARSALIS: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: ...to starting to take jazz seriously?
Mr. MARSALIS: I was at the Berkelee College of Music and I was basically
studying production, playing jazz kind of on the side; not really, you know.
GROSS: Production like as in...
Mr. MARSALIS: Of funk.
GROSS: ...producing records.
Mr. MARSALIS: Producing records, you know.
Mr. MARSALIS: Quincy Jones. I'm going to be the next Quincy Jones. I'm
going to hire musicians and put them with certain musicians and, you know, do
that thing, you know. Because I did have a knack, and still do kind of have a
knack, for knowing which musicians fit in which musical situations well.
And I was playing with this R&B singer named William Bell, who had this big
R&B hit called "Tryin' To Love Two," and had a review. Because with R&B
singers, when you have a hit, you have a band or you have a show, you know,
William Bell. When you don't have a hit and you get on the chitlin circuit,
they call it a review, William Bell and His Review, and we were part of the
review. And I was playing with him in a town--(makes clicking
GROSS: In New England?
Mr. MARSALIS: Yeah. It was about 30 minutes, 40 minutes away from Boston.
That same night, Wynton was playing with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers at
a club in Boston. And I was playing in the band, and we did our show and at
the end of the night, William Bell turns around and says, `You know, let's
give a round of applause for the boys in the band,' and the audience applauded
for the boys in the band.
And then I left and I said, `I'm going to hear my brother play with Art
Blakey,' and it struck me, the difference between the two. And in my concert,
we were one of the boys in the band. You go to the jazz club, and Art
introduces everybody in the band, you know, `Wynton Marsalis on trumpet, Billy
Pierce on tenor saxophone, Bobby Watson on alto saxophone, Charles Famborough
on bass, James Williams on piano. You know, yours truly, you know, Mrs.
Blakey's one and only bambino, yours truly, Arturo Blakey, me,' you know. And
he would do his thing, and I was kind of struck by it, I'd say, `Wow, man,
guys they get introduced and respected as individuals, they get to play
solos.' You know, it's like a much hipper thing than being one of the boys in
So after that concert, I told Wynton, I said, `Man, I think I want to play
jazz.' And he's was like--he started laughing. He says, `You? Get out of
here,' because, you know, it was known that I just could care less. I said,
`No, really. I think, man, this concert really inspired me to play.' He's
like, `Yeah, OK. Whatever. We'll see.' I called my dad and said, `I saw
Wynton last night playing, and it was something else, man, and I think I want
to start playing jazz.' He laughs, `Oh, man, you play jazz? Get out of
here.' And about six months later, they were like, `Oh, OK,' because I really
got into it.
GROSS: Mm-hmm. Oh, you ended up joining Blakey's band...
Mr. MARSALIS: Eventually.
GROSS: ...while Wynton was still in it.
Mr. MARSALIS: Eventually.
GROSS: How much later was that?
Mr. MARSALIS: Two years. Two years later.
GROSS: Mm-hmm. What did you get from being in Blakey's band?
Mr. MARSALIS: Blakey was a wonderful band leader.
GROSS: Yeah, I should say, you know, for people that aren't familiar with it,
like the Jazz Messengers is considered almost like going to jazz school or
Mr. MARSALIS: Yeah, it's a jazz university.
GROSS: A lot of great players came out of that band.
Mr. MARSALIS: A lot of great players. Freddie Hubbard and Lee Morgan and
Wayne Shorter and I think George Coleman and Bobby Watson and Billy Pierce.
And Hank Mobley played in that band. And...
GROSS: So what did it do for you?
Mr. MARSALIS: Art Blakey taught me the function of drums, not only within
the context of a rhythm section, but in the context of a group, and how the
drummer can actually help the soloist build the solo. And we talked about it,
rather than just being off in the corner doing his own thing--you know, you
see those drummers with their heads turned to the left and they're just
playing and thinking about what they're playing and not paying attention. He
really pays attention to what you play. He paid attention to what you played,
and he was on it.
GROSS: And that gave you certain support and direction?
Mr. MARSALIS: Well, it made me understand that the music was a lot more
intricate than it seems on the outside when you just sit around thinking about
playing your own chord changes. And, you know, he would use these really
coarse jokes to illustrate points that he would never really explain; you'd
have to come to it on your own.
GROSS: What do you mean?
Mr. MARSALIS: I was playing a ballad once--there's an old joke about a
grandfather and grandson and some cows walking down a hill. And I'm not
really going to get into the joke now, because it's to risque for--but it's
basically a joke that illuminates the difference between young people who rush
into things and older people who have learned to take their time. And I'm
playing this solo and Art, when he plays ballads, he would always have a part
at the end and then the musician gets to play a credenza. And in the
credenza, that's where you get to show your stuff and you're ripping through.
And at the end of one night, he says, `Hey, Branford,' and he tells me this
joke. And I'm like, `What in the hell is that supposed to mean?'
It me about a week, about, to figure it out. It took about a week. And then
the next time I played the ballad, he says, `Oh, you figured it out. You're
walking now.' And I said, `OK, great.' And I believe in that so much now I
don't even play credenzas on ballads, because they're pointless. The only
reason you play it is to show off your technical prowess, and, I mean, my
technique is not anywhere near the top 20, as far as I'm concerned. So it's
not germane to the body of work, so I just eliminate them from my playing
GROSS: Was it a good thing to be in the band the same time as your brother,
Mr. MARSALIS: Well, it was interesting because I really tried hard not to
delude myself, and sometimes under the guise of honesty, I would delude
myself. And this one I know for a fact that the only reason I was even in the
band was that Art knew that Wynton really wanted to play in a band with me,
and Art thought that if he hired me that Wynton would stay in his band longer.
I have no illusions about this at all. And that's the only reason I got to
play with Art.
GROSS: Here's Branford Marsalis and his brother Wynton in 1982 when they were
part of the band Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers. This is "In Walked Bud."
(Soundbite of "In Walked Bud")
GROSS: Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, with Branford Marsalis on alto
saxophone, Wynton Marsalis on trumpet. We'll talk more with Branford after a
break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is saxophonist Branford Marsalis. His new CD, "Footsteps of
Our Fathers," is the debut release of his new record label Marsalis Music.
Now Wynton is younger than you are...
Mr. MARSALIS: Yes.
GROSS: ...but he was...
Mr. MARSALIS: Most people assume he's older.
GROSS: ...but he was more serious about jazz before you were.
Mr. MARSALIS: Oh, yeah. Way more.
GROSS: And he got you into the Blakey band and then you played in his band.
Was it awkward for you then, being the older brother, knowing that your
younger brother was making more headway in jazz...
Mr. MARSALIS: No.
GROSS: ...and was more serious about it sooner than you were?
Mr. MARSALIS: No, because I wasn't. You know what I mean? I think it would
have been more difficult it I had been really trying and...
Mr. MARSALIS: ...I was really serious. Because then it's an issue of, `Well,
I'm just not good enough.'
GROSS: Was your temperament musically different, too, about like how serious
you needed to be?
Mr. MARSALIS: I was just a strange person, and I was really into music then.
I wasn't really into music the way my brother is. We think about it in
different ways. I was more into the sort of almost metaphysical interaction
that good musicians have with one another. And I was huge fan of music. I
used to listen, and still do listen, to all types of music just trying to find
ways to incorporate those things organically--not peripherally, but
organically into my conception.
And Wynton was going headstrong into the quintet concept; this particular
band, writing songs for the band, arrangements. He was always, like, `You
don't write songs. You need to write songs.' I mean, I really wasn't into
writing songs at that time. I was still checking out music and trying to
figure out what it was that I wanted to do musically. I wasn't so sure what
that was, and I wasn't really ready to put the lion's share of my energy into
something until I was absolutely certain what it was.
GROSS: You know, it's interesting hearing you talk about your musical
development and how jazz is something you got interested, you know, in your
late teens, when you were in college. You have left jazz a couple of times.
You know, in 1985, you joined Sting's band.
Mr. MARSALIS: Right.
GROSS: And you spent--I forget how long--on "The Tonight Show" as the band
Mr. MARSALIS: Two and a half years.
GROSS: And although you were often playing jazz on the show, it still wasn't
within the jazz world, per se. And then you've done, like, you know, your
Buckshot Lefonque music...
Mr. MARSALIS: Right.
GROSS: ...which is like a jazz-hip-hop hybrid.
Mr. MARSALIS: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: And these are things that the jazz world weren't necessarily
really enthusiastic about.
Mr. MARSALIS: Right.
GROSS: And I think it's fair to say some of this stuff you were perceived as
almost, like, betraying the jazz community by leaving it, for instance...
Mr. MARSALIS: Yeah.
GROSS: ...and joining Sting. But the way you're describing your musical
interests, it sounds more like a continuum than a turning your back on
Mr. MARSALIS: Well, it is a continuum. And my mother said something to me
which holds true to me to this day. We joke about it now. I was seven or
eight, five and, you know, `You're going to practice.' I was eight and I was
playing piano and I had a recital, a duo recital, with a young lady named
Barbara Crouse, and we had to play this piano duo. And my mother's, you know,
`You're going to practice.' I'd say, `I got it. I got the piece. I don't
feel like practicing,' you know. And she was just on me, `You're going to
fail if you don't practice. You're going to'--you know.
So the night before the concert, she's, like, `Are you going to work on this
piece or not?' I said, `No, I'm not.' And she grabs me by the shoulders and
she says, `You know what the problem with you is? You are a little boy who
wants to do what he wants to do.' That's great. And I never forgot it. So
then the concert comes up and we come out on stage. And when I come out on
stage, my mother gets up and walks out of the room. So I'm thinking, `Well,
humph, she's just trying to, you know, be mad at me because I didn't practice.
I'll show her.' And, I mean, I aced the piece, you know. It's not like we're
talking about Rachmaninoff here. It was like eight-year-old stuff. I mean, I
played it. And then she was looking in, like, one of those doors with the
little square window. She was looking in the square--I mean, now that I know
my mother a lot better, I realized she gets nervous for us.
Mr. MARSALIS: She was so nervous she couldn't sit. And, you know, like when
the first night of "The Tonight Show" came, I mean, she wouldn't even fly to
LA. She was, like, `I'm too nervous.' She wouldn't even watch the show. She
was in the other room and she would call my dad and say, `How's he doing out
there, honey?' `Well, he's sitting there. He looks fine.' She's just that
nervous. But at the time, I was, like, `Oh, so she's going to try to, you
know, stick it to me, huh?' So when we played the piece and we finished, we
bowed and I looked up and I saw my mother in the window, and I stuck my tongue
out at her. So I've always been a little boy who's going to do what he wants
to do. And in my musical choices, it has never been a dream of mine to
appease or please the jazz community. It has never been a dream of mine to
appease or please anyone other than me and my immediate family.
GROSS: Now you were saying before that you realized, after playing in a lot
of R&B bands and then seeing your brother, Wynton, playing with Art Balkey,
you realized, you know, in the R&B bands, you were like one of the boys in the
band, where if you're playing with a jazz band, a jazz group, you're all
significant musicians on stage playing something together.
Mr. MARSALIS: Yeah. Mm-hmm.
GROSS: When you, for instance, joined Sting, did you feel like you were one
of the boys in the band again?
Mr. MARSALIS: No, that was a very, very different thing.
GROSS: Was it?
Mr. MARSALIS: We were an integral part of the sound.
Mr. MARSALIS: It's not like there was a pre-existing sound...
Mr. MARSALIS: ...and we just came in and filled in the parts.
GROSS: What about on "The Tonight Show"? How did you feel in the band? Did
you feel like an integral part of the show?
Mr. MARSALIS: No, because the band is not an integral part of the show. The
musical director is an integral part of the show, but the music is
essentially--it's just pure entertainment. I mean, it's wild when the
commercials come on, you know, and the audience is--I'd never seen anything
like it before. Because they come to the show and they stand in long lines.
And if you ever go to the show, there's little TV screens, little monitors,
all over the place so people can see. And it's mostly for the people way in
the back. And, I mean, people love Jay and they stand in this line to see
Jay, and Jay is not even 75 feet from them. And they go, `Five, four, three,
two, one,' the lights go down and the thing comes up, and all the heads go
straight up to the television monitors. And the man is 75 feet from them.
He's right there. They don't even look. And then, because it's, like, a
semilive show--I mean, they don't stop the show for anything, unless like a
light falls and almost kills someone or something--they're putting the
commercials in--because they have a narrow window. You know, they're putting
the commercials in live during the break, because they have to send the feed
off to the East Coast.
Mr. MARSALIS: And during that time, the band's playing, Jay's getting makeup
and people are talking. And, I mean, I would be curious enough to see what
it's like to put on a show. Most of the people in the audience, they look at
the commercials, which they can't hear, and they keep looking up. And it's
just the strangest experience to turn around while the band's playing and
realize that 70 percent of your audience is looking up, you know. So it's
just a very--it's entertainment.
Mr. MARSALIS: It's entertainment in its purest form. It's not, you know,
artistic or anything like that.
GROSS: How did you like the banter-with-Jay parts of the show?
Mr. MARSALIS: It was fine. I enjoyed that. I got on their nerves a little
Mr. MARSALIS: Because, much like a jazz musician, I never really knew what I
was going to say until I got to it, and that's just not TV. They want to know
what you're going to say. And if you say something at the rehearsal, that's
what you need to say on the show. They would expect you to say something, and
I would change it, and the director would be like, `No, no, say your lines.
Say your lines,' and it would be germane. It wouldn't be just some out left
bank kind of--you know, it would be germane to what was going on, but I would
always change it a little bit. And it was fun for me that way, but I think
that the show functions better when you just stick to the script.
GROSS: So tell me, has your father been really pleased over the years that
you've come to love jazz and play it?
Mr. MARSALIS: I mean, I just confused the hell out of my poor dad. He was
just--he didn't understand me. Now he does, but my whole career to him was
just one--because my dad is--he has two words--I mean, he always said--I mean,
like typical Ellis Marsalis fashion, he said, `Yeah, man, you know, you and
Wynton are interesting, because, see, Wynton's a concrete sequential and
you're a random abstract.' I actually named a record "Random Abstract,"
because he was saying--it's like, `What are you talking about, man? Just talk
to me like I'm your son, would you? What's this concrete sequential crap?'
you know And he went through you it, you know, `Wynton's does things like A,
B, C, D, E, F, and you're like A, F, B, Z.' And he just didn't understand
that, because if you have to really--he's a concrete sequential. So it just
seems like--it seemed just rampant, just like a pell-mell kind of thing, like,
`What in the hell is he doing?'
GROSS: I'd like to close with another track from your new CD, "Footsteps of
Our Fathers." And this is a John Lewis composition called "Concorde," and he
was the pianist of the Modern Jazz Quartet.
Mr. MARSALIS: Yes.
GROSS: Just tell us why you chose this as one of the compositions for the CD.
Mr. MARSALIS: It's really simple, actually. There's no symbolic significance
at all. I was doing some of my regular homework, and I was reading an article
on the MJQ, and I realized that I have most of their records on vinyl and I
only had two on CD. So I went and purchased all of the records I don't have
on CD, went online and got them and just started listening to them casually.
And when I heard that song, it--just like a little bell goes off and says,
`This would be great for the quartet,' and that's how it got included on the
GROSS: Well, let's hear it. Branford Marsalis, thank you so much.
Mr. MARSALIS: It was a pleasure. Thank you, Terry.
(Soundbite of "Concorde")
GROSS: That's the John Lewis composition "Concorde" from Branford Marsalis'
new CD, "Footsteps of Our Fathers" on his new label, Marsalis Music.
This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Profile: New DVD sets being released featuring entire episodes of
TERRY GROSS, host:
TV critic David Bianculli says his job is time-consuming enough just keeping
up with all the new shows on TV, yet he keeps losing more hours and getting
more excited by a lot of the old shows as they come out on DVD.
DAVID BIANCULLI reporting:
I've been a TV critic since before there was beta, so when it comes to
television, I'm an old dog who isn't impressed by many new tricks. But I'm
telling ya, the DVD format is the real deal. On the hardware side, it's
getting cheaper every month to buy a DVD player, and on the software side,
which is much more important, the people who put these things together are
getting very smart very fast. The small size of the discs, their large
storage capacity and the increasingly impressive packaging and bonus materials
make DVD boxed sets the perfect format for TV fans.
I've said this before, but each time I round up a batch of the new DVD
releases and work my way through them, I get more excited. You can see the
learning curve at work in a big way. Manufacturers are finding out what
consumers, and especially a show's die-hard fans, want and are giving it to
them. Universal, which owns about half the TV shows on the planet, just made
its first foray into the DVD arena. One boxed set features the entire first
season of the 1970s cop series "Baretta," whose star, Robert Blake, currently
is facing murder charges. The other more impressive set is the first season
of "Law & Order," a show that premiered in 1990 and is still running 12 years
later, with an entirely new cast. You get 22 episodes on six discs, including
the controversial "Life Choice" episode about a bombing at an abortion clinic.
The shows, with Michael Moriarty, George Dzundza and Chris Noth, are
fascinating to see, especially in order. And though Universal skimps on the
extra material, a 15-minute documentary on the creation of "Law & Order" does
allow series creator Dick Wolf a chance to tell some good stories, including
one about the show's cinema verite signature look.
(Soundbite of documentary)
Mr. DICK WOLF (Creator, Law & Order"): It was all very, very carefully
planned in the terms of looking like real film, almost news footage, not
cleaned up. As a matter of fact, when the show was ...(unintelligible) at
NBC, finally, I was called over by Brandon Tartikoff, who was laughing, and we
had to go down to the head of technical services, who said that this show was
not of broadcast quality because the negative was terrible and there were
scratches. And I said, `Yeah, that was all very deliberate.' He said, `Well,
we don't broadcast stuff that looks like this at NBC,' and Brandon was the one
who said, `No, no, it looks great. Run it.'
BIANCULLI: Other recently released sets are more generous with extras added
for DVD. The second season of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" from Fox is just as
valuable for its alternate audio tracks, with creator Joss Whedon and others,
as it for the delightful programs themselves. Another Fox set, with the
complete first season of "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," has a full-length,
behind-the-scenes documentary as part of its extras, and executive producer
James L. Brooks is as entertaining here with his backstage stories as he is
on his boxed sets of "The Simpsons."
If you're a fan of nature documentaries, you'll be stunned by the visual
qualities of two BBC video releases, the complete sets of "The Blue Planet"
and David Attenborough's "The Life of Birds." And the BBC is very savvy
when it comes to fan-based shows, where the term fan comes very close to
veering into fanatic. It's got a new "Doctor Who" boxed set compiling every
episode featuring Tom Baker, the most famous Doctor Who, and has new
commentary for every single adventure, along with pop-up production notes.
Speaking of fans, at least one DVD set about to be released owes its very
existence to a demand established at a fan Web site. Preorders are being
taken right now on Amazon.com and about a dozen other places for the complete
set of that wonderful series starring Claire Danes, "My So-Called Life."
My absolute favorite current recent DVD release is the complete first season
of "24." What a great way to catch up or collect a show that told a single
story line over 24 episodes in as many hours. You can watch it when you want,
as much as you want, then stop. if you've got a recent DVD player, it'll even
remember where you left off. And of all the extras offered by all the current
DVD sets, the one on "24" is the neatest. In order to preserve the secrecy of
this first season finale when it was filmed, and what happened to the family
of Kiefer Sutherland's anti-terrorist agent Jack Bauer, the producers of "24"
shot two different endings, very different endings, and the box set provides
both of them. What could be better than that?
Well, believe it or not, an answer to that very question is only a few weeks
away. Next month, HBO video is releasing a complete boxed set of its 10-part
miniseries "Band of Brothers." It's a set that's packaged so beautifully and
has so many extras, especially for those who want to appreciate and understand
the actual history of the World War II events being dramatized, that it pushes
the DVD boxed set to a new personal best. If you're still waiting to get a
DVD player, stop waiting. This is the time to buy, and it isn't another beta
GROSS: David Bianculli is TV critic for the New York Daily News.
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
(Soundbite of "Law & Order" theme music)