Branford Marsalis On Sensitive Musicians And The First Family Of Jazz : A Blog Supreme The saxophonist also outlined the failings of modern jazz and his hopes for the next generation.
NPR logo

Branford Marsalis On Sensitive Musicians And The First Family Of Jazz

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Branford Marsalis On Sensitive Musicians And The First Family Of Jazz

Branford Marsalis On Sensitive Musicians And The First Family Of Jazz

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript



And if you're just joining us, this is WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz. And it's time now for music.


RAZ: The oldest son in what's considered the first family of American jazz released a new album this week. Legendary saxophonist Branford Marsalis has been putting out acclaimed albums for almost three decades, but he says when it comes to naming them, he usually has trouble.

BRANFORD MARSALIS: My managers call me and say we're time sensitive here. We need a title now. And I usually say something incredibly ridiculous or controversial and they say that's the dumbest thing I ever heard.

RAZ: The name he threw out this time, "Four MFs Playin' Tunes." After all, he says, that's what this album is.

MARSALIS: It's just about four guys on a stage playing tunes and that the tune is more important than any individual solo or any idea of genius or innovation, all these false choices that I hear in the jazz world. And when my manager said we need a title, I kind of threw that out there, figuring he'd say that's the dumbest thing. You're not going to do it.

So when I said it, there was a little beat, and they said, man, that's great. We're going to go with that. And then it was me saying, now, wait a second. We might not want to use this. And it was too late. They were off to the races with it. They were in like crazy people with it. And there it is.

RAZ: And it really is just four guys. I mean...

MARSALIS: For lack of a better phrase, four guys.

RAZ: For lack of a...

MARSALIS: Four guys.

RAZ: Four guys just playing music and almost as if it's a band of equals.

MARSALIS: Well, all bands are bands of equals, if they're bands. The things that made jazz magical in the early years, musicians actually played together, not just at the same time. You're finding fewer and fewer of those guys. You find guys that come off the stage and say stuff like, I really liked my solo in the third song. What do you think?

In a band situation, it has to be a group of equals, regardless of age or anything else.


RAZ: You've taken on a very young drummer who is on this record, Justin Faulkner, and a lot has been written about him. First of all, why did you take a chance on him?

MARSALIS: It wasn't a chance. It was a sure shot. There was no chance at all. There were things that he had that I didn't even hear some current New York drummers have. I could tell that he played gospel music or R&B or something like that because his feeling was really, really - it had a real strong feel to it. And he was playing very simply. He wasn't playing any overly complicated things.

So to hear him play a very simple blues with a very not good high school band and just keep time and not try to use it as a vehicle to show off what he could do when he was clearly the most talented person in the band, I kind of went, wow, yeah, that's the kind of guy I want to be around. And over a span of two years, he basically learned everything that we asked him to learn.

RAZ: That's incredible to hear him on this record, particularly on the song "Whiplash" where you hear that moment.


RAZ: How many arms does this guy have?

MARSALIS: He's a player. He's a player. And one of the things that was funny about playing with the young kids is that when you get older, you get a little slower and you get a little less intense. But you still fashion yourself as the guy that you were. So we would always make comments that we played with a lot of intensity. And then Justin joins the band, and the first night he played, we kind of looked at each other and said: Oh, we thought we were playing with intensity.


MARSALIS: So it was really great to have a young kid in the band because he brought that young kid energy. It kind of perked the whole band up because we had gotten very comfortable with each other, like a marriage. And we were settled in, and we were playing what we played. But he was a big jolt of caffeine to the system from the moment he joined the band.


RAZ: I'm speaking with Branford Marsalis. His new record with his quartet is called "Four MFs Playin' Tunes." What was amazing about this record to me is it was recorded on two days - October 11th and 12th last year - and then mixed in, like, five days. I mean, that's - that is lightning fast. You guys recorded this in two days.

MARSALIS: Well, a lot of musicians, due to financial realities, they record records in one day. But what they do that we don't do is they rehearse the music for about six or seven days before they record it. But my philosophy is that the preparation is done when you play gigs. When you play concerts, you're preparing for this moment. So either we're good musicians or we're not good musicians, because these songs aren't like concertos.

There's not a whole bunch of notes you've got to practice. The songs are very simply stated. And either we can play or we can't play. So the element of surprise, I think, is very, very important in the songs and in the band concept.


RAZ: Branford Marsalis, when people put this CD on, what do you hope they will hear on this record?

MARSALIS: I guess the best way to explain the question is to relay a story. When my kids were younger, one of the mothers of one of the kids in the school came up and said to me: I heard that you only play jazz and classical music for your daughters. And I said: Well, yeah. And she says: Well, why? I said: Well, I'm not stupid. They're going to listen to pop music eventually - which is all they listen to right now, actually - but I just want them to have a well-rounded template for when they get older. And she had her defense of what it is that she makes her kid listen to. And I said: Well, when you listen to a song like a Raffi song, the kids' song...

RAZ: Listened to him this morning, by the way, in the kitchen with my two kids.

MARSALIS: Very good. Very good. So when you listen to a song and the song is about alligators or kangaroos or whatever it is, it's about that. That's what it's about. It's about kangaroos. But if you play Eine kleine Nachtmusik for your kid, the music is whatever your kid wants it to be about. It's instrumental music. The kids' imaginations can run wild.

And I used to watch my kids hear this music and say, this music reminds me of - and they would basically tell stories. So the stories that the music tells are actually personal to the listener. I don't want the listener to come up with the same conclusions that I have come up with because they're not me. They haven't lived my life. They don't know nearly as much music as I do. I want them to hear the music and find things that are relevant to their own personal experience in the songs.

RAZ: This record is whatever anybody wants it to be.

MARSALIS: Whatever - I think any record is whatever you want it to be, particularly instrumental music because we don't have lyrics that tell us what the songs are about. So we just carve out our little sliver of reality and, you know, we - any time one person gets it, that's an awesome thing.


RAZ: Do you listen to your own music?

MARSALIS: No. It's counterproductive. I'm trying to get better. I'm not trying to stand still.

RAZ: So what happens when you release this record? You just...

MARSALIS: Well, by the time I release a record, I've already heard it 20 times. So by the time that's done, I don't actually want to hear it anymore. But there have been times in the last few months when I've actually gone back and listened to this record. And it's a departure for me, because I usually don't go back and revisit it. But I really do like this record. And it's a very, very different sound for us than what we're used to.


RAZ: That's jazz musician Branford Marsalis. His quartet's new record is called "Four MFs Playin' Tunes." Branford Marsalis, thank you so much.

MARSALIS: Thanks, Guy. Take care, man.


RAZ: And for Saturday, that's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz. Check out our weekly podcast. Search for WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED on iTunes or go to We're back with a whole new hour of radio tomorrow. Until then, thanks for listening and have a great night.

Copyright © 2012 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.