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Striving for excellence, not popularity

Jazz saxophonist gets serious at The Clyde


Steve Penhollow

Whatzup Features Writer

Published October 3, 2019

Heads Up! This article is 3 years old.

In the mid-1990s, jazz saxophonist Branford Marsalis tried to record the John Coltrane song, “Resolution,” from the monumental album, A Love Supreme.

Marsalis is not one to blow smoke. He decided he was doing a terrible job of rendering that song.

“We have the reality of the original recording that we have to deal with,” Marsalis said in a phone interview with Whatzup. “That allows you to know when you are falling short of expectations. That allows you to know there are things you need to figure out. There’s no manual for it.”

Instead of giving into despair, Marsalis got investigative.

He went around and asked people he respected to weigh in on what he was doing wrong.

They said he didn’t know enough about the blues — the music, not the doldrums.

So he listened to the blues and practiced the song for six or seven years. Eventually, he came to feel that he was doing the song justice.

Getting at the truth

Marsalis is a fascinating guy: Outspoken, thoughtful, candid, humble. He likes to challenge things you say, not because he is combative, but because he wants to have a substantive conversation.

He wants to get at the truth.

I told him that many of the established musicians I have interviewed say they keep practicing in the knowledge that they are striving for some ideal that will always be just out of reach.

Marsalis said that doesn’t describe him at all.

“I think about the obstacles that are in front of me and how I can overcome those,” he said. “And then, when you’re finished with that, there are new obstacles. But it’s never about the idea that you’re never going to get there. It’s about problem-solving.

“But you have to be cognizant of what your weaknesses are so you can eliminate them,” Marsalis added.

Early in his career, Marsalis played pop, rock, and R&B.

He joined Sting’s band for a time, which didn’t go over well with some jazz aficionados, especially his brother, Wynton.

Wynton accused his brother of selling out.

“I’m not trying to make money or cross over to different markets by coming up with a mishmash of stuff that will appeal to as large a number of people as possible,” Wynton told Rolling Stone at the time. “Sure I’d like to get a larger audience, but I’d never, never do something to get more people to check the music out.”

Marsalis said the press blew that quarrel out of all proportion.

“They made it into a blood feud, when it was really an ideological disagreement,” he said. “He probably still feels that way.”

Seeing the point of seriousness

In fact, as Branford Marsalis aged, he began to see the point of his brother’s sober-mindedness.

“As I got older, I got more serious about playing,” he said. “My brother has always practiced every day, so I knew what that was. I was playing pop music as a kid. You really don’t have to practice that. When I turned about 35 or 36, I decided I wanted to find out how good a saxophone player I could be.”

These days, Marsalis plays just jazz and classical music.

He said jazz and classical will always be on the periphery of the music business because they require “a sort of emotional yet non-participatory involvement.”

“The music that most people prefer,” Marsalis said, “you can sing along to it. I think a lot of people like participating in their music.”

Jazz is adult music, he said.

“It’s not for kids,” Marsalis said. “It’s not for teenagers and 20-year-olds. Most of the audience I have is 50 or 60, and when I started out, most of the audience was 50 or 60. It’s not kiddie music. I’m fine with where it is. I don’t think jazz would be improved if we had a high level of people between 18 and 35.”

Marsalis doesn’t have to deal with someone saying to him before a show, “I heard your song on the radio. Can you play that song for me?”

“We can play what we want to play,” he said. “We enjoy ourselves and that’s all that really matters to us.”

Learning Lessons from Sting

Having stated that, Marsalis went on to say that many contemporary jazz musicians emphasize technique over emotion to the detriment of the music.

“In modern jazz communities,” he said, “the musicians are obsessed with a certain kind of technical proficiency that the music does not need.”

Whether it’s jazz or pop, Marsalis is a proponent of playing what the songs needs and nothing more. Despite having left his pop music days behind him long ago, Marsalis said the person who taught him the most about songcraft was Sting.

“I learned about his process from working with him and watching him,” he said. “It wasn’t like he sat me down and said, ‘Hey man, let me explain to you my process.’ Now when write songs, I notice that a lot of them, structurally, are kind of like Sting songs. I learned a lot from him. I stole a lot from him.”

Throughout his career, Marsalis has won a number of the music industry’s major awards and they haven’t made him think too highly of himself.

“They’re just popularity contests,” he said. “It’s nice to be popular, but it’s possible — and I proved it at the time — to be popular and still not be very good. It was always kind of a joke that I would tell my brothers: ‘You know the better we get, the less popular we’ll become.’

“And that’s pretty much what has happened,” Marsalis said.

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