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Conversation With Branford Marsalis: One Surprise After Another

Branford Marsalis

Internationally renowned musician Branford Marsalis will be playing with Youth Orchestras of San Antonio. I caught up with him by phone for a conversation that surprised me, question after question, beginning with the first. I asked if he was one of those musicians who knew right off what his calling was. Not at all. He thought his path led elsewhere.

“I was going to teach history and play music in like a funk band, and play on the side. I didn’t entertain the idea of leaving Louisiana ‘til I was nineteen.”

It took the encouragement of his family to convince him to take music seriously.

“It was Wynton and my dad who talked me into the idea of pursuing an international music career, moving to New York and doing that whole thing. My dad just said ‘this kind of thing is a young man’s game and you don’t want to be forty with a couple of kids wondering what could’ve been.’ And that was the thing that kinda said ‘yeah, he’s right.’”

Even after he was accepted to Boston’s prestigious Berklee School of Music, this was the extent of his plan.

“I’ll just go there for six months and when it doesn’t work I’ll come home and say ‘well, I tried it!’  I didn’t ever think I would actually be good enough to succeed.”

But succeed he did. And eventually he played with major talents—Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, Dizzy Gillespie.

“It was a great honor to be associated with those guys, and I learned a lot about music and a lot about     the business. It was an odd thing when Sting decided to call me. Because he heard something that I  couldn’t hear. Back then I couldn’t hear what they were hearing. I was kinda surprised that all that stuff was happening."

Marsalis revealed yet another surprise when I asked him about his work with symphonies.

“The first 8 years were really, really difficult. My teacher, Harvey Pittel…I took lessons with him. I still do.

I speculated “I think a lot of listeners would be surprised to hear that Branford Marsalis takes lessons.”

“I—I don’t know what to tell ‘em “ he laughed. "He made me change a lot of things in my technical approach to the instrument.”

He said he didn’t want to look up in his 50s and not be improving.

“Your musical ideas are still pretty fertile but the execution is bad because you just don’t practice anymore.”

He says the teacher-directed practices and his efforts in classical music have propelled him.

“It has forced me to address inherent weaknesses in my approach, and to fix them. I’m a much better saxophone player now at 54 than I was at 44.”

I asked him about the Musician’s Village effort he and Harry Connick Jr. spearheaded, building homes for musicians made homeless by Hurricane Katrina. I asked if it was rewarding.

“No, not really.”

That response was a bit surprising, But then he explained.

“I mean we were raised believing that these were the kinds of things you have to do. So it’s really hard to pat yourself on the back for doing something that you’re supposed to do. It’s like giving yourself a ribbon for taking out the garbage.” 

He thought back on the project, then added "I was overwhelmed by the kindness and generosity of all these people, but I didn’t think I needed to take a bow for anything.”

Marsalis is bringing that same sense of obligation to mentor young musicians with San Antonio’s Youth Orchestra. We have more about the event here.

Jack Morgan can be reached at jack@tpr.org and on Twitter at @JackMorganii