DATE September 17, 2004 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, "Eternal"
DAVID BIANCULLI, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, TV critic for the New York Daily
News, sitting in for Terry Gross.
As you might suspect of somebody who spent a couple of years as the bandleader
on "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno," saxophonist Branford Marsalis is funny as
well as being a great musician. Branford is from one of the best-known
families in jazz. One of his brothers is the trumpeter and composer Wynton
Marsalis. We'll hear from him later in the show. Their father is pianist
Branford has had several different public identities as a musician. His
group, Buckshot Lefonque, combined jazz and hip-hop. In the pop world, he's
performed with Sting, The Grateful Dead and Bruce Hornsby. And he's recorded
many jazz albums as the leader of the Branford Marsalis Quartet.
His latest recording is a collection of ballads called "Eternal." From that
CD, here's the "Ruby and the Pearl," a ballad made famous by Nat King Cole.
(Soundbite of "The Ruby and the Pearl")
BIANCULLI: "The Ruby and the Pearl," from the new Branford Marsalis CD
Terry Gross spoke with Branford in 2002. He told her about a turning point in
his life, hearing the John Coltrane recording, "A Love Supreme."
Mr. BRANFORD MARSALIS (Musician): 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.
TERRY GROSS, host:
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 big hand in that one, because, you know, it's like with
"My Blue Suede Shoes" and all these really little cute 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 a 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.
(Soundbite of "A Love Supreme")
GROSS: 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 that my next-door
neighbor felt about his father, the chauffeur driver. That was just what he
did. 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 was 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: 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 stopped 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 it,
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, Incorporated. I
played keyboard in Stop, Incorporated. And there was another band called--the
other rival bands, Jam, Incorporated 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 then the people would just be up and dancing and
going crazy and loving it, and it was, like, a really good lesson 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 know.
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,
which 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, those 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 played 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.
BIANCULLI: Branford Marsalis speaking with Terry Gross in 2002. More after
a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
BIANCULLI: Let's get back to Terry's 2002 interview with jazz saxophonist
GROSS: So what was the transition for you, going from the, like, high school
guy playing in local funk and R&B bands to starting to take jazz seriously?
Mr. MARSALIS: I was at the Berklee 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. 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 he 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 called--(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: 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: 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, it was is considered almost like going to jazz
school or something.
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 a grandson and some cows walking down a hill. And I'm not
really going to get into the joke now, because it's too 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 the hell is that supposed to mean?'
It took me 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
that 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. But in this one I know for a fact that the only reason that I was
even in the band was because 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")
BIANCULLI: Branford and Wynton Marsalis with Art Blakey and the Jazz
Messengers. We'll hear more about the Marsalis family in the second half of
the show. I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.
BIANCULLI: Coming up, we continue our conversation with saxophonist Branford
Marsalis and hear from his brother, Wynton Marsalis.
Also, film critic David Edelstein reviews "Wimbledon" starring Kirsten Dunst
and "Mr. 3000" starring Bernie Mac.
(Soundbite of music)
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Wynton Marsalis talks about growing up in Louisiana
DAVID BIANCULLI, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli sitting in for Terry Gross. Today
we're hearing interviews with two Marsalis brothers: saxophonist Branford and
trumpeter Wynton. The Marsalis family, led by their father Ellis on piano,
united for a live recording in August of 2001, along with two other members of
the family, Delfeayo Marsalis on trombone and Jason Marsalis on drums. Wynton
introduced one of the songs.
Mr. WYNTON MARSALIS: I guess it's been about 15 years, every time I'm
standing up in a group of people, they look at me and say, `So how are you
and your brother getting along?' And I say, `Do you have a brother, or do you
have sisters?' They'd say, `Yeah.' I'd say, `How you all getting along?'
And they'd say, `Oh, yeah, OK. Cain and Abel.'
(Soundbite of music)
BIANCULLI: The Marsalis family, recorded in 2001 from the CD "A Jazz
Celebration." Wynton Marsalis, the best-known jazz musician and composer of
his generation, joined Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers when he was still a
teen-ager. He went on to become the first musician to win Grammy awards for
classical and jazz recordings in the same year. Terry spoke with him in 1994.
TERRY GROSS, host:
What was it like at home when you were growing up? What was your home life
like? What was the neighborhood like, atmosphere in the family?
Mr. MARSALIS: Well, I'll tell you about my block that we lived on on Webster
Street. We lived on the side of the railroad tracks that the black people
lived on. It was in Cankton, Louisiana, a southern town. They have ditches
in the street where the sewage, the ditches dug out. It was black asphalt
streets we played street football in. And the sweet shop around the corner
where they'd sell those Pigtails(ph) and Pig Feet(ph) in the little red jar
and Mary Jane candies and all of that. The gym down the street where we would
all play. They had three black little league football teams: Margon(ph),
Color(ph) and Impolah(ph). And they had about 10 white teams, like Wentwood
and Driftwood(ph), and we would play them.
The people next door to me on the left, once the guy--his wife shot him in the
foot. The guy across the street from me, his daughter was pregnant by him.
They had a woman used to walk up and down the street, named Geraldine(ph) who
was crazy. She would be hitting people with switches and stuff, so we would
run from her. We were scared of her. There was a woman who lived down the
street in a yellow house, who killed her husband on a Easter Sunday and shot
him. They had a guy named William. He would be out on the street, fighting
with his wife. He would get drunk and whip her booty on a regular basis. A
lot of people would be disillusioned, because they weren't working, and they
were having a hard time, struggling.
GROSS: So did it seem unusual to have a well-balanced family like yours?
Mr. MARSALIS: Well, our family wasn't necessarily well balanced.
GROSS: Oh, OK.
Mr. MARSALIS: See, we were struggling with dealing with life like everybody
else. We weren't that different from other people in our neighborhood. And
then my little brother was autistic, Mboya. When he was born, I was nine
years old, and this was, like, in 1970, so he--our family, like, wasn't based
on playing music and all. My father was a struggling musician who was trying
to deal with his responsibilities to feed his family. And he and my mother
both were--had a great disillusionment, because even though they had grown up
in segregation and they were happy because of integration and a breakdown of
all these--riding in the back of streetcars and stuff, the progress in the
society wasn't the way they thought it would be. So this was right in the age
when it started to dawn on them that their lives were going to fall into a
So they were having to deal with that, and my mother was really dealing with
the trauma of my little brother being autistic and how was she going to get
help for him. And, you know, my brothers, we would be fighting constantly.
We had a good time, though. Now I'm describing our neighborhood, because we
had a lot of things, but we thought these things were normal. I mean, of
course, we knew somebody getting killed wasn't normal, but, like, we also had
the Bossy Clay's Gas Station(ph) where you could work and you could go--you
know, the gasoline then was like 35 cents a gallon. We had Burton's Pharmacy
which was across from there, where you could go in and try to steal you a
little something. And the Clay's Church(ph), where Reverend Clay had about 23
And it was a certain type of life that has never been communicated whenever my
family has talked about it. It's always like, `Yes, and we sat around, and
daddy played jazz, and mommy did something, and then the kids pulled their
horns out.' We didn't grow up that way at all. I mean, you got in the street,
and you would have to put your foot into some booty. You know, you had to
deal with what everybody else was dealing with. But one...
GROSS: Was it hard for you to hold your own in a situation like that? Did
being a musician help you at all, help your standing in the neighborhood?
Mr. MARSALIS: No. Well, I wasn't really a musician. They knew me for being
able catch them touchdown passes and shooting that jump shot.
Mr. MARSALIS: So you didn't--I mean, nobody really liked that kind of music.
Mainly, you know, you'd be in the community, like, "What's Going On" would be
on, you know, Marvin Gaye. And we got little house parties at Shawn
Jones'(ph) house. It was, like, typical Southern life for the American negro
at that time.
GROSS: What impact did it have on you when your brother Mboya was born and he
was autistic? Did you spend a lot of time taking care of him? Did you feel
Mr. MARSALIS: No.
GROSS: ...it limited any of your options because you had to bear more
responsibility for the family?
Mr. MARSALIS: No, you know, it didn't really have that much of an impact me,
because I was so deeply into what I was doing that the fact that he was
autistic--I used to tease my mother all the time and say, `Something's wrong
with that boy,' you know, just like teasing him. I didn't know, but he would
be kind of strange to me, you know. But then I was nine, 10, 11, you know, a
lot of stuff was going on in our house. And then when we found out that he
was autistic, we had no idea of what that meant. See, we were country people.
So they say, `Well, he's autistic,' we were like, `Good, that means he can
draw or something.' And then he would be hitting his head, you know. He had,
like, a lot of these traits, 'cause he's severely autistic. And at one point,
my little brother could talk, and then he stopped talking. I can still
remember, he used to say, `Get off the table, man.' That was, like, his little
thing, and then he stopped talking altogether. And then he just withdrew into
this way of being, and he's still that way now.
And, you know, I remember in my neighborhood, there was a family of boys, all
boys. And they were all, like, gangsters. Like, you know, everybody in the
neighborhood was kind of scared of them. But Earl, which was the oldest
brother, he taught me how to play basketball, so we were real good friends.
And Jack, he was the roughest of all the brothers. Like, this was the type of
guy who--eventually all of these brothers got killed except for Earl. And I
saw Earl later. He said, `Man, Jack died.' Well, me and Jack, we were really
tight. But Jack was the type of guy who was just real, real hard, and he very
seldom would show emotion. But I remember one day when I was, like, 11 years
old, I was sitting out on the street with my bicycle. Maybe I was 12. And
Jack and I, we were talking. He said, `Man, where's your little brother, the
one that's crazy?' I say, `My little brother's not crazy, man. He's
autistic.' He said, `Man, let me tell you something. If I had a brother like
that, I would have him on my bike right now, and I would take him all around
this city.' So, like, that was something. It was a certain emotion that came
out of him that I didn't expect.
And to be honest, I never have had that type of relationship with my little
brother, like, where I really would take him around, because we were always
running up and down. And if you take my little brother out, you know, when he
was younger, you never knew what reaction he would have to being in different
GROSS: Wynton Marsalis is my guest.
Why did trumpet become your instrument when you did start to play?
Mr. MARSALIS: Well, that's just the instrument that I had, because my father
had gotten the trumpet. Al Hirt gave me a trumpet on my sixth birthday. And
I didn't play it that much, 'cause I wasn't serious about it. But once I
became serious, you know, I already had the instrument, so I didn't mind
GROSS: So the music you heard around you, you heard the contemporary music
that your father was playing, and there was the pop music on the radio. What
else was around you?
Mr. MARSALIS: Well, you mean, once I became a musician?
GROSS: No, when you were young, when you were just starting out.
Mr. MARSALIS: Well, we had all of those kind of little Walt Disney things of,
like, symphony music, but I didn't really like any of that. And then when
Walter Cronkite was on the news, they'd play that Beethoven: bom-bom pom-ton
Mr. MARSALIS: Pom ba-domp pom pom pom pom pom pom pom pom pom pom. I mean, I
can remember hearing that.
GROSS: Did you like that?
Mr. MARSALIS: Yeah, I always liked that. So even to this day--and then once
I started to learn in high school about Beethoven, he was, like, my favorite
composer. And even now, I love his music. And I can remember just as a baby
hearing that theme. And mainly it was pop music that we heard, James Brown,
Marvin Gaye, Stevie, you know, Sam and Dave. We lived next to barroom in a
restaurant pool hall. Before we moved to Kenner, we lived in a place called
Hanson City, Louisiana, and there was a woman named Miss Mary who had these,
like, two of the biggest breasts you ever saw in your life. So I used to like
to always lay up underneath her, and she liked to fix me shrimp, boiled
shrimp, you know. In Louisiana, they have the boiled shrimp that you like to
eat. So I can always remember, they always had, like, Sam and Dave on the
radio, on the jukebox. You know, when you're a kid and you walk into a
barroom, like those barrooms with the black and red tile, real country where
they serve fried catfish and stuff, you always had that smell of beer. It was
like in a place you didn't think you were supposed to be. So since we lived
next door to them and sometimes they would baby-sit us. I would go there in
the daytime, and I can remember the music that they played on the jukebox.
BIANCULLI: Wynton Marsalis speaking with Terry Gross in 1994. Coming up, the
conclusion of our interview with his brother, Branford. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
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Interview: Branform Marsalis discusses his life and music career
DAVID BIANCULLI, host:
Let's get back to Terry's interview with saxophonist Branford Marsalis. He
has a new CD of ballads called "Eternal" on the Marsalis Music label. They
spoke in 2002.
TERRY GROSS, host: 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 if 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 a 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: That'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. 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. So there's 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 Blakey,
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.
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. It's not like there's
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.
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
Mr. MARSALIS: It's entertainment in its purest form. It's not, you know,
artistic or anything like that.
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. My dad
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?'
BIANCULLI: Branford Marsalis speaking with Terry Gross in 2002. He has a new
CD on the Marsalis Music label called "Eternal." Coming up, reviews of two
new films opening this week: "Mr. 3000" and "Wimbledon." This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
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Review: Two new films, "Mr. 3000" and "Wimbledon"
DAVID BIANCULLI, host:
Two new movies feature athletes at the end of their careers making one last
attempt to get back in the arena. In "Mr. 3000," the self-centered baseball
ex-superstar played by Bernie Mac learns to think about the team. In
"Wimbledon," the un-self-centered tennis non-starter played by Paul Bettany
learns to think about himself and Kirsten Dunst. David Edelstein has this
DAVID EDELSTEIN reporting:
We Americans like winners, which is why our sports movies end with fists
pumping and crowds going nuts. But we also like warm, fuzzy life lessons,
which is why our winners don't win because they're better and more ruthless
athletes. They win because they're spiritually more evolved. This week two
very charming, go-for-it sport pictures test the formula, not enough to
explode it. These are big-studio movies. And did I mention that Americans
like winners? But they add dissonances, sour notes that make the music a
"Mr. 3000" is a surprisingly laid-back and even morose comedy about an
arrogant SOB who gets his comeuppance. Stan Ross, played by Bernie Mac, is a
winner, in part, because he puts his numbers ahead of the team. When this
jerk gets his 3,000th hit, he promptly announces his retirement in the middle
of a pennant race. The movie stretches credulity by imaging a player could do
that and not be run out of town. But Stan gets forgiven much, except by the
sports writers, who elect the members of the Baseball Hall of Fame. And then
nine years later comes the news that his best claim to inclusion, those 3,000
hits that put him in the company of the immortals, is based on accounting
error. Three hits short, the pudgy 47-year-old goes back into baseball, and
the last-place Milwaukee Brewers welcome him because he's their best chance to
fill the stadium. Here's the cocky ex-superstar reporting to the trainer.
You have to imagine the look of panic on Bernie Mac's face in the middle of
his first push-up.
(Soundbite of "Mr. 3000")
Unidentified Man #1: How many push-ups can you do?
Mr. BERNIE MAC: (As Stan Ross) One arm or two? Well, I'll tell you what,
man. Last time I counted, man--What was it?--about 40, 50.
Unidentified Man #1: I got 5 bucks in m pocket says you can't give me 10.
Mr. MAC: (As Stan Ross) (Laughs) That's easy money. Back up, man.
Unidentified Man #1: Bogey(ph), you better help your boy down.
Mr. MAC: (As Stan Ross) He didn't help me in.
Unidentified Man #1: OK. Well, that's one.
(Soundbite of Mac struggling; laughing)
Mr. MAC: (As Stan Ross) How many is that?
Unidentified Man #1: Oh, I don't know. I'd say 40, 50.
Unidentified Man #2: That's four. Come on, Stan. You got this, man.
Unidentified Man #1: Ho, ho, ho. You need to touch, man. That's a girl
push-up. That don't count.
Mr. MAC: (As Stan Ross) You see my knee touch, Boca?
Unidentified Man #2: Well, who said girl push-ups don't count?
Mr. MAC: (As Stan Ross) Yeah, who said girl push-ups don't count?
EDELSTEIN: Bernie Mac is a great comic presence because he projects something
lordly and arrogant. And yet those eyes, which never seem to blink, flash
panic as they scan the crowd for signs of approval. His prickliness tells you
his confidence is a little dicey. "Mr. 3000" is about Stan's realization that
the enemy is his own ego, a painful lesson and one that doesn't end on the
high note we're expecting.
The movie, directed by Charles Stone III, who made the low-budget winner
"Drumline," doesn't have the high-energy raunch that Mac's fans might hope
for, and there's some formula swill mixed in. But to see the hero repeatedly
taunted by a giant sausage--that's the team's mascot--it's a macho deflation
you can savor.
"Wimbledon's" hero needs to be more, not less, macho. He's a fair Englishman,
Peter Colt, played by Paul Bettany of "Master and Commander." Peter is a
one-time, 11th-ranked English tennis star, who just never rose to the
championship. Maybe it was because he's rich, and his father always said that
tennis was a gentleman's sport. Peter doesn't have any drive whatsoever,
until he meets a hottie American tennis star, Lizzie Bradbury, played by
Kirsten Dunst, who puts winning ahead of everything.
It's a strange thing, this movie. It's about an athlete who falls in love in
the course of a tournament and, as a result of those warm and fuzzy new
feelings, finds the killer instinct to obliterate his opponents. He even
obliterates his best friend, who says, admiringly, `You hit from the soul, the
heart. Something's happened to you.' So all you coaches and managers out
there, to make your players kill, get them to fall in love.
"Wimbledon" is a bit of a philosophical muddle, but the climactic tennis
scenes are galvanically convincing, with some long and nerve-wracking volleys.
And the rest of it works as "Notting Hill" with balls and rackets. The
Englishman gets to bat his eyes and deliver fascicle lies very badly. And the
American female celebrity is tantalizing and elusive, just like America to the
Brits. The best thing about it is the pale and gangly Bettany, who's high
strung in a way that women will find madly attractive and men madly agreeable.
Above all, we Americans like our winners winning.
BIANCULLI: David Edelstein is film critic for the online magazine Slate.
(Soundbite of music)
BIANCULLI: For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.
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