Music is a quest along many paths for Branford Marsalis
Special to the Seattle Times
Most jazz musicians would do almost anything to get a major contract with Columbia Records or to become bandleader of Jay Leno's "Tonight Show." So why did Branford Marsalis abandon all that to start his own Marsalis Music record label?
"People are in show business to hang with stars, not artists," said the gruff but good-natured saxophonist. "I could have become a millionaire in Hollywood and spent time recording unchallenging music that wasn't really me. But, even if I did compromise some, I might still be only selling a few hundred more CDs than I am now."
The reason for that, Marsalis explained, is that "jazz radio stations won't program adventuresome music anymore, because a lot of businesses that tune in only want soft background music. Too much audacious programming would hamper the broadcasters' annual fund-raising drives."
Marsalis, whose quartet opened last night at Jazz Alley, is touring in support of his latest recording, "Romare Bearden Revisited." Bearden was a prominent African-American artist who died in 1988; his powerful images of African-American life are currently being celebrated in a major retrospective at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.
When the Romare Bearden Foundation suggested that Marsalis develop an album to complement the show, he embraced the idea wholeheartedly.
"Bearden named some of his paintings after his favorite jazz performances," Marsalis said. "He even did artwork for an album by (saxophonist) Charlie Parker."
The new Marsalis CD features nine selections depicting moods suggested by various Bearden paintings, which are reproduced on the CD jacket. The pieces range from the sensual bolero "Sea Breeze," in which Bearden himself contributed the lyrics, to the hilarious up-tempo romp-through "Carolina Shout" with guest pianist Harry Connick Jr.
On the day we spoke, Marsalis had just finished teaching a music class at San Francisco State University, where he is an adjunct professor.
"My first task is to help students reject 18 years of poor learning that teaches them that knowledge is a product rather than a process," Marsalis said.
"I begin by asking a student why they are in the class, and the usual reply is 'I don't know.' I'll then have the student play a C scale for me on their instrument and then ask them 'How did that sound to you?' The answer to that is also often 'I don't know.' So then I say, 'Well, now we definitely do know two things: You don't know what you sound like, and you don't know why you're here ... go home for a few weeks and think about it.' "
Marsalis feels that college-age students "should come prepared with musical ideas that can be developed, rather than just pay a teacher to tell them what to play."
Concerning criticism about some of his non-jazz gigs, such as fronting the band on the "Tonight Show" and working with pop-star Sting, Marsalis replied, "Playing all kinds of music makes you a better musician. I do care about my jazz audience but, other than that, can't worry about what perfect strangers think."
His father, Ellis, who is the pianist in the band this week, helped nurture Branford's strong sense of self. He is a revered jazz educator and a "1960s radical and idealist," according to the younger Marsalis. "He let us know that there was more to life than merely being a breadwinner. This attitude has enabled my brothers and I to seek greener pastures and discover who we really are."
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