Branford Marsalis' Changing New Orleans

Jazz musician Branford Marsalis discusses his commitment to musicians hit hard by Hurricane Katrina and helping rebuild his home town of New Orleans.

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TONY COX, host:

Some say it's tough enough just being a jazz musician, but the famed saxophonist Branford Marsalis has the nerve to wear a couple of other hats. Marsalis Music is a record label he started a few years ago. The label hopes to provide an outlet to elder musicians who never got their due. After Hurricane Katrina, Branford added activist to his resume. He co-founded the New Orleans Musician's Village with singer Harry Connick Jr.

In conjunction with Habitat for Humanity, Marsalis is in the process of building new homes for displaced musicians in the Ninth Ward. Through it all, Branford has never stopped making music. But he told me his business venture, and more recently, his activism have hit a few bumps.

Mr. BRANFORD MARSALIS (Saxophonist and Co-Founder of New Orleans Musician's Village): Right now, we are in the process of going through a local battle with a lot of the people that are in New Orleans because, you know, this is the traditional form of aid, which is kind of self perpetuating. And you know, sometimes it's guilt-based aid I guess, I'm not sure. But it's the kind of aid when somebody says I really need some money. They'll say well, here, have some money. And what we're seeing is you really need some money, here have a job. You know, what I mean. Here, have a house.

So when we started the plan working with Habitat, because musicians get paid so incredibly poorly commensurate to their value to the city, a lot of the musicians had credit - they have debt problems. At which point, Habitat says, well, we can't give you the house right now because you have debt problems, but we have several organizations that we would direct you to depending on the severity of your problem.

COX: Right.

Mr. MARSALIS: And once you worked that out, then you can re-apply, and we got it. You're cool. And a lot of the guys were just like, well, you know, man, I just - they basically are used to the old way - they didn't want the key.

COX: Right.

Mr. MARSALIS: They don't want to clean up the debt. They didn't - you're raising money in our name, so just give us a check. I mean this is a very old kind of mentality.

COX: You're in an activist role, and how does it feel to have to wear that hat, especially given the kinds of things you're just talking about with some of your fellow musicians who are not necessarily understanding how this has got to play out?

Mr. MARSALIS: Well, I'm, you know, my parents were activists in their own way. You know, not standing in the street, you know. I mean, most of those kind of people, to me, the ones that are standing on soapboxes all the time, they just love the sound of their own voice. And they travel from tragedy to tragedy, kind of like the ambulance chaser. But my parents were always very active in the New Orleans community, trying to change the environment, and it kind of rubbed off on all of us. I would have preferred to have just started this, raised money, and then done with it.

COX: Right.

Mr. MARSALIS: Because, you know, I don't really get anything out of doing this - which is very a New Orleans thing too, you know. So some of the other organizations were actually spreading bad rumors about us because they're in the business of charity, and we're not in the business of charity - it's just a charity. I mean, Habitat is a nonprofit organization, you know, in the real sense of the word, 501c3 Nonprofit. Not nonprofit wink-wink. But the idea of a free free houses? Forget it. Done. There will be no free houses. And if it's on me to be the bad guy, I've been the bad guy before. My legs are sturdy enough to handle it. So I don't mind that part of it all.

(Soundbite of music)

COX: You're now a label head.

Mr. MARSALIS: Not really, but okay.

COX: Yes, you are. How does that change your vision, all right Branford, when it comes to making music - music that has to be more marketed.

Mr. MARSALIS: Doesn't. The amount of sacrifices that you make, if your reward on the other side is not commensurate - and what I mean is, if you make a jazz record and you say well, I want to put on a Beatles tune, or Bjork tune, or Cyndi Lauper tune. How many more records are you going to sell? A hundred? Now if somebody said, look, man, you put this tune on; you will sell five million records. I'd be the first one in line to do it. But the reality is the music that I have chosen to play is always going to appeal to a very small number of people.

COX: But that means as a musician, you have to be able to afford to do that. Doesn't it?

Mr. MARSALIS: You just have to make sacrifices. You put certain things ahead of other things,

COX: Not food.

Mr. MARSALIS: I won't… It's not that dire, man. But I won't be driving a new car anytime soon. It's little things. It's just little things.

COX: Let's talk about the Marsalis Music Honor Series. This recording project honors jazz greats, like Jimmy Cobb, in a different way. Tell us what you're after here and who you've chosen to spotlight?

Mr. MARSALIS: My manager and I were talking about the fact that the older musicians were just pushed aside, and they weren't being recorded. So we came up with an idea where you take one of the older musicians, at least 60 years old, and it's us honoring them. And then them passing information onto the younger guys. So one of the first two guys we landed - we tried other people who weren't really interested - but Jimmy Cobb was interested and Michael Carvin was interested. And their both drummers, we just set it up from that point - but that's the premise.

COX: Really? We used a private - there were those who weren't interested in doing this?

Mr. MARSALIS: No. I mean, you know, a lot of what it is to play jazz or a lot of what it is to play art, anything, is that you get raised in a culture of defeat, you know. If you hang in there long enough, you just buy in. Like some of my experiences have been, for guys to say, well, all right, man, I'll do it, but you know, I'm not giving up my publishing. Like I would steal people's publishing. You know, what I mean? It's just, I mean, you know me my whole life, what makes you think that I would do that? But there are instances in New Orleans - a very famous New Orleans producers is doing just that to their friends.

So there's this expectation of jiveness on our end. And it's not really a matter of talking bad about those people, but I understand why a lot of them refuse not to do it - because why shouldn't I be like every jive-ass record producer and record company owner that they've encountered in there 40, 45 years in the business.

(Soundbite of music)

COX: Let me ask you about putting together a group, because it takes time, right, for any group to jell together. How long does it take for you to get the sound that you had in your head to begin with?

Mr. MARSALIS: Everybody in the band has to be committed to playing with a very large sound and with a high level of intensity all the time. It requires a lot of physical stamina. So once I found musicians who were willing to do that, then everything else is fixable. You know, harmonic issues, I mean harmony you could teach a monkey harmony. But the commitment and the dedication to play really, really hard with a lot of intensity for an hour and a half, it requires a certain level of practice.

(Soundbite of music)

COX: Are listeners ready for the intensity that you want?

Mr. MARSALIS: I think that some are, some aren't. We started getting a lot of rock 'n' roll guys coming to our gigs. People who are in their 30s, but still have music that has that kind of intensity. And that's the kind of intensity that we bring. There some people who like the style of jazz that is more popular on jazz radio. They're not - probably not going to enjoy us very much.

(Soundbite of music)

COX: You've been critically acclaimed as a saxophone player for a long time. But every musician strives to get better, right? You'd agree with that.

Mr. MARSALIS: No.

COX: You don't agree that musicians strive to get better?

Mr. MARSALIS: No. Most musicians strive to be successful. Once I was talking to Illinois Jacquet. I said, man, you know, you got any advice? He says yeah, man, find something that's uniquely yours and stick with it. That way everybody knows it's you. That's not a formula for getting better. Now, it's a formula for self-preservation.

COX: Well, how has your sound been changed over the years that you've been playing, or has it?

Mr. MARSALIS: It has, significantly, because in the '80s I was doing - I was playing with Sting, and then coming back to jazz, and doing other things that are coming back to jazz, and I didn't put the problem or the pressure on myself to improve in significant degrees. So musically, I was getting better, but on the instrument I was pretty much the same for most of my career.

And in the last eight years, I started really practicing the way I used to watch Wynton practice when were at home. I had a role model for how to do it. It was just a matter of getting off my lazy butt and doing it. And I started applying myself. So in the last, you know, two or three years, it started to change dramatically.

COX: Branford, thank you, man.

Mr. MARSALIS: My pleasure.

COX: I appreciate it. Good luck with the new CD.

Mr. MARSALIS: Thank you.

(Soundbite of music)

COX: That again was saxophonist Branford Marsalis. His latest CD is called "Braggtown."

(Soundbite of music)

That's our show for today. Thanks for being with us. To listen to the show, visit npr.org. NEWS & NOTES was created by NPR News and the African-American Public Radio Consortium.

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