Saxophonist Branford Marsalis, oldest son of New Orleans pianist and educator Ellis Marsalis, released an album with his quartet this week. He spoke to weekends on All Things Considered host Guy Raz about the failings of modern jazz, his hopes for the next generation and leaving New York City to move back to the South.
GUY RAZ: I have to ask you about the title of your new album: Four MFs Playin' Tunes.
BRANFORD MARSALIS: I have trouble naming albums, so when it gets time for the pressing of the CD, my managers call me and say, "All right, we're time-sensitive here. We need a title now." And I usually say something incredibly ridiculous or controversial, and they say, "That's the dumbest thing I've ever heard." And that gives me another week. We were in that situation again, and that phrase came from a writer who was at the session. He kept pressing me about what the concept of the record was, and I was trying to assure him that the record did not have a concept, which he couldn't wrap his head around. The general concept of the music is just about four guys on stage playing tunes, and that the tune is more important than individual solo, or any idea of genius or innovation or all these false choices that I hear in the jazz world. When my manager said we need a title, I kind of threw that out there figuring they'd say, "That's the dumbest thing. You're not going to do it." So when I said it, there was a little beat, and then they said, "That's great. We're gonna go with it." And then it was me saying, "Now wait a second, we might not want to use this." It was too late; they were off to the races with it.
RAZ: I want to ask about something that I've read you sort of allude to in previous interviews. It seems like you've been somewhat critical of jazz: Too much of it is too complex and too mathematical and even too inaccessible for newer audiences. Is that the case when you look at the world of jazz now?
MARSALIS: Put the records on and you tell me. You don't have to take my word for it. Just put the records on. It's essentially inauthentic when I listen to it. It doesn't sound like jazz, and I can find few situations with the exception of popular music where the music is so far removed from its roots that it's so unrecognizable from the original form.
RAZ: Do you consciously think about that when you make your music — that you want this to be music that lots of people can hear and listen to and appreciate?
MARSALIS: It's not lost on me that when you go to jazz clubs now there are no regular people in it. It's all basically musicians and avid jazz fans, and when you think anecdotally about the generation that played in the 1940s, '50s, '30s and half of the '60s, there were a lot of regular people there — just folks. But I think a combination of things — mostly the banning of conversation in jazz clubs — drove away a lot of people who liked the music casually. And it's the casual listener and the casual appreciation of the music when it was at its zenith. Now that it's basically listening, only hard-core fans — the music is played with a level of specificity that alienates the casual listener, so it's not really about simplifying the music or demystifying the music. I guess the easiest way to put it is: It's our job to know what we're playing; it's the audience's job to feel what we're playing. And if they have to know what you're playing to appreciate it, you fail.
RAZ: Do you feel that because of your prominence in the world of jazz you kind of have to do that — you have to pull newer listeners in, younger listeners in?
MARSALIS: I don't think you can actually control it, and I don't think that there's a mechanism that you can use to pull younger listeners in. What I've learned how to do as I've gotten older is to take all of the information that I have, and push it aside, and try to distill each song into an emotional theme. The hardest thing that I've ever had to learn how to do in playing music is use the sound of my instrument to create an emotional effect. That took a while because I didn't even have anybody to even talk to me about it. I just kind of bumped into it listening to jazz, listening to Sonny Rollins and Coltrane and Stan Getz and guys like that, and then comparing it to the post-bop guys who played with a lot more — playing really fast songs and playing songs that had a complete aural predictability — and then listening to classical music and saying, "Why is this effective? Why is this not effective? Why do people cry when they hear this? Why do they not cry when they hear that?" I kind of got to a place where I realized it's the sound that makes the emotional effect. It's not knowledge of the music, because when people are emotionally affected by songs, they can't tell you why; it just exists. So it took me a good 15 years to kind of be able to incorporate that philosophy into what I play.
RAZ: It's interesting to hear you say that, because you come from, of course, an incredibly famous family. It's a cliche at this point ,but the Marsalis family is often referred to as the First Family of Jazz, and I guess a lot of people would imagine, including me, that growing up, you and your brother Wynton and Jason and Delfeayo would sit around, and your dad, Ellis, would play the piano, and there you go.
MARSALIS: And at night we'd say, "Goodnight Grandpa. Goodnight John Boy." First of all, Jason's 17 years younger than me, so when he was walking, I was in college. I was in an R&B band my high school years — I didn't really play jazz at all. By the time Delfeayo decided he wanted to play the trombone and wanted to play jazz, he was 14, maybe, or 12 or 13, and by that time, I was a senior in high school, or out of high school and in college. So that little fireside jam session never really occurred.
RAZ: Isn't it amazing that four of Ellis' sons went into jazz and you all play different instruments?
MARSALIS: Well, that was an edict. No two sons were going to play the same instrument, because he thought that sibling rivalry was one of the stupidest things ever, and he wasn't going to have it in his household. One way to avoid it is to make sure there's no internal competition.
RAZ: I want to ask you about one of your mentors, Art Blakey — how did he shape who you became as a musician?
MARSALIS: He didn't really like me at first. It was actually to my benefit because he was completely, unsympathetically scathing in his rebukes. That was one of the reasons why I'm any good at all. Because he made me understand, first of all, that I knew absolutely nothing about jazz, and if I was going to learn, there were all of these things that I was going to have to acquire that I had no idea even existed. That was probably the most important thing to happen to me. I was only in the band for eight months, but for those eight months it was constant challenge and constant conversation, and I cherish those eight months. He's seminal in the way I lead a band and try to develop the musicians in the band.
RAZ: Did you know that at the time that he was mentoring you, or did you just feel like he was torturing you?
MARSALIS: I grew up in the South, in New Orleans, where guys torture you all the time. So I didn't really grow up on the self-esteem campaign. When you were lousy at something, they told you you were lousy, and they told you how to fix it. As long as those things were happening, it was fine. Sometimes he wouldn't tell you how to fix it — he'd hint at it, because the two elements that you have to have to become successful are cognition and intuition. Intuition does not come without cognition, and my cognitive abilities were very, very low at the time. Sometimes he'd say things very cryptically and leave to me to sort it out. I know a lot of guys now — some of my students — they would have cried. They would have left 'cause there's a lot of different kind of guys out here now — very sensitive.
RAZ: You've taken on a very young drummer on this record — Justin Faulkner. You obviously are a mentor to him. Why did you take a chance on him?
MARSALIS: It wasn't a chance. It was a sure shot. I could tell that he played gospel music or R&B or something like that because his feeling was really, really — it had a real strong feel to it. He was playing very simply; he wasn't playing any overcomplicated thing. All kids that age can play complicated stuff 'cause that's what kids do — they believe that that's the thing that they like to do. The thing that they're usually lacking in is the simple things. To hear him play a very simple blues with a not-very-good high school band and just keep time and not try to just use it as a vehicle to show off what he could do when he was clearly the most talented person in the band — I went, "Wow, that's the kind of guy I want to be around." When Jeff "Tain" Watts left the band and Justin came in, I had a list of things I wanted him to learn; Eric Revis, our bassist, had a list of things that he wanted him to learn; and Joey [Calderazzo] had a list of things that he wanted him to learn. Over the span of two years, he basically learned everything that we asked him to learn. He's a student of the music now.
RAZ: I mean, he was just 20 years old when you recorded this album.
MARSALIS: Well, yeah, he's a player. One of the things that was funny about playing with young kids is that when you get older, you get a little slower, and you get a little less intense, but you still fashion yourself as the guy that you were. We would always make comments that we play with a lot of intensity as a band, and then Justin joins the band, and the first night he played we kind of looked at each other and said, "Oh. We thought we were playing with intensity."
RAZ: You moved to Durham, N.C., about a decade ago from New York, and obviously New York is widely seen as the center of jazz, international jazz. Why did you leave? Why did you decide to settle in Durham?
MARSALIS: The scene had changed a lot. There weren't a lot of musicians that I actually wanted to hear, because there wasn't anything I could actually learn in those situations. And it didn't make any sense for me to spend the amount of money that you have to spend to live in a city like New York when I could spend considerably less somewhere else and get a house with a backyard. It just made a lot of sense, and Durham is a very vibrant, cultural little town. For instance, the big town in North Carolina is Charlotte, and I guarantee you more people read the New York Times in the Durham/Chapel Hill area than they do in Charlotte, even though they have the football team and the basketball team. The Research Triangle is a very cosmopolitan area.
RAZ: Did you want to be back in the South? I mean, you grew up in New Orleans.
MARSALIS: I did. I wanted to be back in the South. I'd had enough of New York living — I had enough of 5-year-olds calling adults by their first name. The conversations are just very, very different. When I would play golf in New York and I'd meet new people, they would ask me if I was married, and they would ask me if I had kids, and then they asked me what I did for a living. The small metaphoric difference is down here they'd say, "Are you married?" Then they'd ask, "Well, what's your wife's name?" That's very different in a place like New York, because it's the place to go for young people; it's for young, ambitious people. I became a man in New York. New York made me the musician that I am and the person that I am, so it's impossible for me to say I regret having lived there.
RAZ: Talk to me about what you're doing [as an artist-in-residence] at North Carolina Central. You're working with kids, with college students, and helping develop the next generation of jazz musicians.
MARSALIS: Not really, no. I'm making them mad more so than mentoring them. But North Carolina Central is a very different school. Most of the kids who go to that school are from very small towns in North Carolina. They're the best player in town, and one thing that they all have in common is that by the time they get to school, they've never heard a jazz record, and never heard a classical record, so they don't really have an understanding of how high the bar is until they show up. So that first semester is just culture shock for them. And it's fine because I think what I'm really more interested in is being like a football coach, where a majority of the players on your team — regardless of the quality of the college football program — you are training them or using the skills that they have to process information that's going to help them later on in life in professions that are completely separate from football. My goal is that 10 years from now some students come in, and I'll say, "Have you ever heard a jazz record?" And they'll say, "Yeah, my teacher played one for me when I was in high school," and the teacher is one of our students. I think we really have to find a way to gain advocacy for something other than marching band and popular music in high school programs. I think one of the ways we can change it is by having teachers who are armed with information that fights back against the general lack of understanding about what music does for students.
RAZ: When you first encounter those kids, what do you tell them they have to listen to?
MARSALIS: The first thing out of the gate is this Lester Young record called The Lester Young Trio, because Lester Young was a marvelous musician who influenced Charlie Parker, Dexter Gordon, a whole lot of other musicians. You can sing it, and it's simple, and it's not overly complicated. They spend all their time learning solos from this Charlie Parker Omnibook or learning the John Coltrane solo. Lester Young has some of the simplest solos in the world, and these young guys and gals, they can't play them, not with authenticity. They can play the notes, but they can't make it sound like he made it sound. So I start simple. We wind up sitting on the same couple of songs for a whole semester.
RAZ: North Carolina Central is a historically black college, and I want to ask you about the young people who go into the profession of jazz. Increasingly, fewer and fewer young African-Americans are the studio musicians, the session musicians, and I wonder what you make of that.
MARSALIS: The studio scene in New York was never heavily populated with African-Americans. Black folks just weren't in there — you could count them. There isn't really a studio scene anymore. It's mostly just a keyboard player now if you listen to most of the commercials that are on; it's not live musicians anymore. But in the '80s, when we got to New York, there were virtually no blacks in the studio and musician scene at all. The biggest issue that we have is that because of budget cuts — the first place they cut in New York City, for instance, was in music. The majority of the high schools and the public schools in NYC don't even have band programs. Hip-hop in a lot of ways is an outgrowth of a lack of instruments and a desire to play music, so we can't really fault the kids for that. These are the times we live in. But, ultimately, I don't really care what color you are or where you come from, I just want you to play jazz and sound like a jazz musician. The only requirement for Jessye Norman when she sang opera was that it had to sound like opera. She didn't come in there singing opera like James Brown or Dinah Washington; she had to sound like a classical singer. And whoever's playing with me, they have to sound like a jazz musician. The music is what it is, and the cultural imprint of the music exists. You have a lot of people who want to play jazz but want to ignore the cultural imprint of the music.
MARSALIS: The kids that you work with at NC Central, a lot of them probably coming to school having grown up listening to hip-hop music. How does it influence the kind of music they make or will make?
MARSALIS: It just depends. I would much rather have kids who spent their younger years playing pop music than going to jazz camp, because ultimately you're trying to play music in a fashion, like I said earlier, where you attract people who are casual listeners. So the music has to have a pulse. A lot of modern jazz does not have — it has no pulse to it, which is why when people listen to it, it just sounds like flat-line music. You have to really understand the technical context of it to even get what makes it good. When I talked to a lot of older people — when I was playing with Blakey, I would always just talk because my father said you need to talk to people and find out what they're thinking — their appreciation of jazz was very general. They didn't have any specific ideas. When they talked about Coltrane or they talked about Miles, they talked about how the music made them feel. They never once talked about a specific chord structure that they thought was great. You can listen to live records and hear people talking, and in the middle of talking they suddenly react to a sound that one of the musicians made. "Ya! Play that!" So my ideas about the music were less about all of the specific things than the general things. I think one of Justin's great advantages was he clearly played R&B music growing up, and he played in the church, and that's a big deal. I like musicians who have done stuff like that because they understand how to communicate with laypeople.
RAZ: When people put this Four MFs Playin' Tunes on, what do you hope they will hear?
MARSALIS: When my kids were younger, one of the mothers of one of the kids in the school came up and said, "I heard that you only play jazz and classical music for [your] daughters." And it was clear that she only played pop music for her kids. And I said "Well, yeah." And she said "Why?" I said, "When you listen to a song like a Raffi song — a song about alligators or kangaroos or whatever it is — it's about that, it's about kangaroos. But, if you play Eine Kleine Nachtmusik for your kid, the music is whatever your kid wants it to be about. It's instrumental music. The kids' imaginations can run wild." I used to watch my kids hear this music and say, "This music reminds me of ..." and they would basically tell stories. So the stories that the music tells are actually personal to the listener. I don't want the listener to come up with the same conclusions that I have come up with because they're not me, they haven't lived my life. They don't know nearly as much music as I do.
RAZ: Do you listen to your own music?
MARSALIS: No, it's counterproductive. I'm trying to get better, I'm not trying to stand still. I just picked up a cool version of Handel's opera Julius Caesar, and I'm trying to ingest that.
RAZ: Do you ever get feedback from your dad or your brothers?
MARSALIS: Not really. With my brothers, if they don't like it, that's when I hear from them. But usually they don't call to say, "Man, that's amazing! That's killing." Cause we don't really talk about music when we talk. When I talk to my mom, she says, "How's the family? How are you feeling? How are you doing? Take care of yourself. Eat more matzo ball soup." That's where we are. And my father's just like, "Yeah, what's happening out there?" Not as much as when I was in New York. He was always excited when I was in New York because he always wanted to move out there and didn't. So whenever I would meet somebody, I would always — especially with digital technology when we got older — we did a gig once with Oscar Peterson, and I called, and he talked to Oscar for 15 minutes and that made him very excited. He was just over the moon with that one. But other than that, when we do talk, we don't really talk about music that much.
RAZ: Do you think that you guys would make a record with all five of you on it again?
MARSALIS: I doubt it. We all have very different sounds and directions that we're going in the music. When you start getting all of these guys together, then at some point you have to kind of push aside your direction because you can't have five people going in different directions at the same time. Everybody has to be on the same page, so what we wind up doing is deferring to my dad's sound and my dad's style, and we'll do that for a little while. So it could happen, but it's unlikely right now.
RAZ: You have two kids — do you like any of the pop music that they listen to?
MARSALIS: No, not really. But it's for them, it's not for me. I'm always leery of people my age singing along with 11-year-old girls' pop songs. I listened to a lot more popular music, clearly, when I was younger. But I don't really use music as a template for my life — I don't use it to reminisce. Songs aren't really a soundtrack to my life — songs have more value to me than that. It's not to diminish the value to other people, but when I hear songs from the '70s, there's songs that I like and then there's songs that I don't like. I went to a Jonas Brothers concert, and I was amazed; I loved it. The piano player, Nick Jonas, he's really, really good. There's not a lot of it I like. My kids listen to it, and I tend to go in the other room when it's on, but I am 51 years old. I don't think that when they were crafting these songs they had my old behind in mind, so it's OK with me.