After 40 years in vanguard of jazz, Branford Marsalis still goes his own way

From jazzy jamming in small clubs to rocking out in cavernous arenas, saxophone virtuoso Branford Marsalis has always challenged himself artistically and done his own thing professionally. When he lands in Chicago for a Symphony Center Presents Jazz concert June 2 with his longtime bandmates — pianist Joey Calderazzo, bassist Eric Revis and drummer Justin Faulkner — he’ll bring all of that experience to bear on a stylistically varied set that has one overarching purpose: to give the audience its money’s worth.

In a recent conversation, the Grammy Award-winning jazz veteran talked about his musical influences, connecting with audiences and the perils of taking oneself too seriously.

You seem like someone who doesn’t like to be too comfortable musically; you're always trying new things. Does that come from wanting to avoid complacency?

No, I just always liked a bunch of stuff, bro. When I was a kid, I listened to Elton John and the Jackson Five. Most of my friends would listen to Elton John or the Jackson Five. Barry White or King Crimson. But I had like four or five guys — we lived in a small town called Kenner, Louisiana — and we all listened to all kinds of stuff. So it was Jimi Hendrix and Elton, Earth, Wind and Fire and Stevie Wonder and Procol Harum. We were just checking out everything.

Then I started listening to classical music. I started listening to jazz. And at my age when you listen to recordings from 62-year-old guys playing jazz traditionally, there’s a drop-off that starts, because when you’re good at something, what are you practicing for? You’re already good at it. So you have to find something else that you’re not good at, to give yourself a reason to practice, that allows you to maintain an edge.

At this point in your career, are you more apt to take musical risks?

Taking a musical risk is kind of a subjective term. Some people think playing jazz is a musical risk at all times. But there's complex music, and there’s simple music. Simple music should be played simply and complex music needs to be played with complexion. Too many times we tend to fall in love with complexion. And then we take simple things and over complicate them. Our challenge as a group was to learn how to play simple things simply. And we have fun doing all of it.

Some people would say that jazz is beyond melody. But jazz is never beyond melody if the people playing can play a melody. Melody is only archaic when the people who are playing it grow into this reality that they’re not very good at. When you’re talking about Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, Miles Davis, those guys played melodies. They’re melodic players. And [somebody like] Miles knows how to make people feel a certain thing when he plays. That’s an art. It has nothing to do with the instrument. The instrument is a physical construct. It’s a mental thing. You have to hear sound in a certain way. You have to develop a musical imagination. The instrument is a delivery system, it is not the creator of ideas.

Certainly you’ve seen some jazz musicians who appear to have disdain for their audience. But you don’t; you always want to connect with them musically and otherwise.

I just think it’s a defense mechanism. Because if you anticipate the idea that people aren't gonna like something that you do, then you kind of steel yourself. It’s kind of like this thing in sports, where you ask some of these guys, “What motivates you?” And they say, “The haters” or “To shut up the critics.” Why not imagine playing for your parents who raised you or your family, the people who believed in you?

But there seems to be some sort of romance with, “Look at me now, I’m a success. You thought I’d be a bum.” Michael Jordan always looked for a reason to be mad at somebody to be elevated. That's one way to do it. It's just not my way, that’s for sure. I grew up in a very social city, and it’s not cool to be anti-social. That doesn't mean that there aren’t musicians in New Orleans who are anti-social; there are. But then when we got to New York in our 20s, we felt we had to prove something; we were afraid to show joy.

It’s a complicated kind of thing. You want to be perceived as serious. For the first 120 or 130 years after the end of slavery, Black musicians and singers and dancers were seen as sources of entertainment and not necessarily good at anything other than being entertaining. So a lot of times, especially as Black musicians, we tend to want to cloak ourselves with this aura of seriousness so that the audience can take us seriously. But I grew into this idea that how serious you are as a musician comes across when you’re playing the instrument. So as a group, we all love each other very much. And we all enjoy each other. And everybody in the group is charismatic, and everybody’s fun. And we’re not afraid to show that on stage.

You recently told the Boston Globe, “We’re just a bunch of jackasses who play. We're not under the illusion of our own self-importance, our own radicalism.” That’s an evolved mindset. It must have taken a while to get there. When you’re young, ego is more of a driving force.

That’s insecurity. It’s not ego. The reality is that you’re really good at a thing people generally don’t like. That’s just the fact of it. I went to this health lab the other day and the lady there said, “I heard you’re some kind of jazz guy.” And I said, “Yeah, I’m kind of a jazz guy.” But it wasn't like, oh, let me Google this guy’s name. They had no curiosity about it at all. And that’s fine. You have to become mature enough [to handle that]. 

There was this thing when I was 20 and said I really didn’t care what people thought. People kind of thought it was a defense mechanism or an angle, but I really don’t care what people think. I like people, and I like to play for people. But I am not going to do the things that are often required to get people to like us. We’re not doing the little dance on stage, we’re not going to be like, “How y’all feeling tonight?” We're gonna come onstage and make fun of each other, and people will laugh at that because people like self-deprecation.

There’s also a lot of sonic variety in our music sets. Happy songs sound happy, sad songs sound sad, melancholy songs sound melancholic. So even people in the audience who aren’t trained in music can feel when the color of a song shifts. But this whole idea of playing the tough guy, and being mercurial, showing up late for gigs, telling the audience not to make any noise when you’re playing — it’s all just crazy, man. We really like what we do, and that’s enough for us.

In a certain way you have a Chicago mentality: No matter how big you become, you can’t get too big for your britches.

What’s the point? Other than feeding an insecurity complex — wanting to believe that people need you, that people love you. The people that love you, love you, and the people that don’t, don’t. It should be OK. But some people need to have this thing where they’re this towering figure, and they can dominate the space and they go onstage and say stuff like, “The privilege is yours to hear me.” What the hell is that?

What’s the source of your rootedness?

I’m not a psychiatrist or a psychologist. I don’t have any answers for that. I didn’t grow up with these [types of] people. I grew up in New Orleans. It’s just different. We have respect for our elders. They tell us stuff, we listen to it. They tell us we need to work on something, we consider it. We don’t say, “You old cats are just hatin’, man. I’m killin’!” It never occurred to me to say, “F--- you guys. I'm substantial.” I don't understand the point of that.

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