Tag Archives: branford marsalis

Fathers Day in Jazzville

Must be a treat to play music with a parent. In this case, a dad. A recent Facebook chat with a pal reminded me of seeing Dewey and Joshua Redman share a stage at a jazz fest outside Boston back in the late ’80s. I believe it was the first time I’d ever heard Josh play live (also heard him play last night, as fate would have it). There are several sons who have chosen to follow in their fathers’ footsteps, and several of them have had the opportunity to work together with their dads. Here are 10 of ’em. Hats off to those who are furthering the family tradition. 

1. Ornette and Denardo Coleman,  The Empty Foxhole  

2. Joe and Mat ManeriThree Men Walking 

3. Wynton, Branford, Delfeayo, Jason and and Ellis Marsalis 

4. Dewey and Joshua Redman

5. Jackie and Rene MacLean 

6. Bucky & John Pizzarelli

7. Von & Chico Freeman

8. Dave & Darius and Chris Brubeck

9. John & Ravi Coltrane

10. Thelonious Monk & Thelonious Monk Jr.

The Marsalis Men: Working With Dad

Happy Fathers Day to all the dads out there. Here’s a chunk of a recent chat I had with the Team Marsalis for DownBeat magazine. 

DB: Sounds like in the back of your mind you knew that’s what your dad would’ve wanted you to do: take care of family.

Wynton: Nah, he wasn’t like that. My daddy was taking care of his situation. Plus, he’s not the type of person to force you do stuff. He did what he was doing. He was a man and you were a boy. It was always clear. He wasn’t going to live his life through you. Like, “You do your thing, I’m doing my thing, and good luck. If I can help you I will. If not, God bless you.”

Ellis: No, I was never a stage door dad. I’m not sure what conditions would have had to existed for me to been a stage door dad. If the music we were trying to play had been in a popular vein, say like Joe Jackson and the Jackson 5, and money was involved, well, who knows?

W: Damn sure there was no money with us. There was less than money.

We were cheap labor, the guys who carried the Fender Rhodes. Like “Okay, pick up this end, let’s move this thing.”

Branford: About 110 lbs, remember?

E: People used to ask all the time: why don’t y’all have a family band? I never wanted no family band. And sometimes it sounded like “Oh man, you’re jealous of them.”  And it’s, “no man, that’s not what it’s about.”

DB: Ellis, do you remember these guys playing together?

E:  I used to go to some of those gigs.

W: He sat in. It almost killed him.

B: He’d just sit and laugh. It was at my high school. We were playing the Crusaders, “Keep That Same Old Feeling.”

W: He came up and played it with us and we’d hit the bridge with all these changes on it, and we’d be bullshitting on the changes and he be like, “Oh, no, no, that’s not the way it goes. You gotta deal with these changes, baby, here it is…”

Everyone: Hahahahahaha!

W: Cats would say “Yeah, man, your daddy can play!”

DB: Were you guys wincing, going “C’mon dad, what are you doing here?” Were you embarrassed?

W: We were so happy to see him show up a gig. And the cats in our band were happy. “Get him to play with us!” They loved it.

B: That’s what I didn’t understand, that strange thing I’d see on TV all the time, like “Jesus, dad, what are YOU doing here?” or “Mom “C’mon, get out of here.” We didn’t have that vibe with our parents. We were happy to see them.

W: Plus, when he sat in, He made something clear.

B: Yeah, “I can play and y’all can’t.”

DB: When did truly realize that he was heavy?

B: When I was 1 year old, 2 years old.

W: We always knew he could play – that was never a question. He’d practice. Plus, when we started playing ourselves, and realized what it actually took, we really knew he could play. Because you hear him and you could hear yourself. No comparison, right? And he was cool about it, so you’d had to be cool too.

E: I think that a lot it had to do the philosophy of teaching that evolved over a period of time…

W: This is before the teaching. I remember clearly. It was in the ‘60s and I remember a gig with the Xavier University band and he played bass on the gig. The bass player didn’t show and they called him up. I might have been nine years old, and we were sitting in the audience because [a friend of ours] Fernandez had some fine daughters, so we were always there.

B: He sure did…

W: And we’d be the only kids at the concert. We said “Damn man, daddy’s playing bass!” I remember it like it was yesterday

B: Yesterday Cedar Walton told me: “The first time I met Ellis he was playing bass and I was playing piano. It was in 1951.” He can play sax, too.

W: I remember being in bathroom one day and hearing a sax playing Charlie Parker. I said, “Damn, Branford finally learned how to play that thing?” I came into the living room and it was daddy.

B: Lots of kids would say, “Hey, my dad’s a drag.” I’d say, “My dad’s kind of cool.”

DB: Ellis, you were known for trying to play modern jazz in a world where trad was king.  

E: There are lots of father/son things in New Orleans. I remember a banjo player named Albert French. He played with the old guys. His oldest son was around my age. I knew the family from when we lived in Gert Town. We ran into each other occasionally, and once I saw Papa French and he said “Your guys need to come out and learn how to play this music.”  

 W: My father’s contemporaries, not us kids. French wanted ‘em to play the traditional stuff.  E: He said, “Some of these old guys are passing on, and the younger folks don’t know how to play this music. And I said “Yeah, Papa French, you’re right.” But to myself I was saying, “I don’t want to play that crap.” I was about 40 years old before I really understood the early connection of jazz and what we were trying to do in a more modernistic vein. It wasn’t really that far apart, but when I heard it at the time, well, let’s just say you want to deal with your peers. The reason I got a saxophone, in high school, was because of Roy Brown and the Mighty Mighty Men and Lee Allen playing the tenor with Fats Domino’s band. There were no girls listening to no cats playing bebop, but I could hear it. I could hear the music and do a few little parts. We’d go play the dances.


The Marsalis Gang: Growing Up To Become Masters

Recently reread this story I wrote for DownBeat on the Marsalis family. Fun! The time spent together was short that morning – their big National Endowment of the Arts concert took place that night – but the guys were up for some reminiscing. I like the part where Ellis schools Wynton and Branford on the rigors of playing the changes to a Crusaders tune, and get a kick out of Branford meeting up with Michael Steele’s “blue suit and red tie” aid. Here’s the start of the show. Jump to DB for the full Q&A.

Jason Marsalis looks serious as he fiddles with his drum sticks at  Manhattan’s Apple Store. He’s sitting at his trap set, paces away from his dad, pianist Ellis, getting ready to hit. But then again, Jason often looks serious. Perhaps the snap he brings to his music demands it…or perhaps not. As the father and son start to ignite with bassist Jason Stewart, the drummer begins to get his grin on. The spry way he delivers his swing pretty much demands a smile or two. Goading his dad’s glide over the keys, he helps bring an élan to the room. The Marsalises have a way of quickly connecting.

But with five busy careers in play at once, the Marsalises don’t manage to connect all that often. So this evening is somewhat special. During an informal set celebrating the iTunes arrival of Ellis’ An Open Letter To Thelonious, the pianist’s other sons jump up and blow a bit as well. Trombonist Delfeayo, saxophonist Branford, and trumpeter Wynton arrive at the store one by one, taking the stage in a casual way, and enjoying the heck out of standing shoulder to shoulder while kicking around some standards. All of a sudden, those grins are everywhere.

The quintet did something similar in a much more formal setting two summers ago at the D.C.’s Kennedy Center, a show that was turned into Music Redeems, a live disc benefitting the nearly-complete Ellis Marsalis Center for Music back in their home town of New Orleans. That was a year and a half ago, and the five musicians haven’t been in a performance together since. This little Apple gathering, which found Delfeayo throwing down some exquisite ‘bone lines, came about because they were all in town to participate in the National Endowment for the Arts’ Jazz Masters ceremony. Along with Hubert Laws, Dave Liebman, Johnny Mandel, and Orrin Keepnews, the five Marsalises were receiving the prized designation and performing at a high-vis concert the following night at Lincoln Center. You could call this a rehearsal of sorts. And yes, it was worth it. They rather killed with some high-flying polyphony when the big night came and they smoked their way through Jason’s “At The House, In Da Pocket.”

During this two-day stretch, all the Award-winners, especially Team Marsalis, were part of panel discussions, photography sessions, and interview spots that examined the impact of their careers. DownBeat thought it was a great time to grab the guys, who span in age from Ellis’ 76 to Jason’s 33, for a chat about family dynamics and the way jazz has impacted their lives. Convened in a meeting room adjacent to Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola, the guys laughed and chatted. Ultimately, it turned into a trip down memory lane while managing to include a bit of controversy, too. I began by addressing Ellis as “Master Marsalis,” echoing a fawning audience member who made a mark at the panel discussion the day before. Some brothers cracked up, some winced. Dad had the final word, though. “It’s cool if you call me that…as long as I don’t believe it.”

DownBeat: You guys went to the funeral service for Dr. Billy Taylorlast night. Was it thought provoking?

Wynton: I thought it was extremely soulful. The diversity of the people who showed up? Wow. He did a lot to unite people. I knew him, but I didn’t have a real understanding of the ways he touched people until I saw that community come together.
Branford: When you grow up in New Orleans, people talk about death all the time. Some of my boys used to go and hang out at the St. Louis Cemeteries in the middle of the city, and ponder why roaches used to sit on the sides of the tombstones, you know?


Branford Marsalis, Alexander Glazunov, And The Commodores

Steve Smith says Branford Marsalis brought a “gracious poise” to Glazunov’s “Concerto for Alto Saxophone And String Orchestra” last week at a New York Phil show. A few weeks prior, when I sat down with the five Marsalis men who are working musicians, the subject of growing up with the Glazunov cropped up, too. Patriarch Ellis, a longtime educator and superb jazz pianist, ruminated on the rigors of addressing classical works. And then Branford and brother Wynton weighed in with a quip or two. The entire Q&A is coming out in the April issue of Down Beat, due in two weeks. Here’s part of the piece that had to be edited out for space reasons.

Ellis: When I was teaching at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts, I began to notice the level of professionalism. There would be competitions for high school students, and Wynton would be working on classical music. He’d play the different concertos, either the Hummel or the Haydn. The people who were making the choices weren’t interested in the Glazunov or the saxophone, because they had a lot of kids who were playing different instruments and could make it as a part of the symphony program.  Later, there was a strong sax player at the school. He had a good shot at playing the Glazunov with the orchestra. Whereas when Branford auditioned with the Glazunov, they didn’t even want to hear that.

Branford: I played it like crap, too. That had something to do with it. It’s hard to play the Glazunov when you spend your time listening to Sly & the Family Stone and the Commodores.

Wynton: Actually, he just played the hell out of it again this summer with the Philharmonic.

Branford: But I ain’t listening to the Commodores no more. So it’s a different story.

Here’s the family dodging the Glazunov at a rehearsal for their NEA Jazz Masters show.

Branford & Miguel: The Cutting Room Floor

I  was cleaning up after a recent interview with Miguel Zenon, and happened upon some quotes that didn’t make the final edit. The beauty of a blog is that you can offer interested parties a bit of lagniappe. Here’s Branford Marsalis and Zenon himself getting their pundit on. Nice that the new Steve Coleman disc, Harvesting Semblances and Affinities (Pi) is dropping in early June.  Zenon will have some more black science to absorb.


What made you want to have Miguel on the label in the first place?

I tend to think of jazz in populist terms. I’m not one those people who believes that the key to making jazz relevant is to start playing Radiohead tunes. It ultimately doesn’t work, because the people who like Radiohead don’t want to hear instrumental versions of those songs, and jazz people want to hear jazz. As I looked around, I saw that of all those guys who had the advanced thinking, the ones who tended to succeed, were the ones who understood the simple things, the populist things.

One simple thing is: melody reigns supreme. You can’t treat it like an afterthought. Melody is the most important part of a song, even more important than your solo. Bird understood that, Armstrong understood that, Bechet understood that, Coltrane understood that. Sonny Rollins understands that. And of the new crop of guys, Miguel is the guy who actually naturally understands that.

When did you first hear him?

I heard him with David [Sanchez], on the record Melaza. During his first solo I said “God damn, he’s been listening to Steve Coleman. Trends come and go, but a good musician is forever. Musicians, unfortunately…we gravitate toward the things that will insure us the greatest level of success with the largest amount of relative ease.  These days it’s easier to play “Giant Steps” than it is to play that Steve Coleman shit because [Steve’s stuff] forces you to rethink your approach to music.  So someone said [Miguel] is like Steve Coleman, and I said “Yeah, but the shit is actually grooving and swinging, even sometimes more than what Steve got to, and Steve got pretty damn far. [Miguel] has the ability to grab complex things and make ‘em musical. A lot times in modern society, complex things are complex at the expense of everything else.

The other thing that colored my thoughts about Miguel is from an interview I once did. The guy asked me “Why don’t you play the pop tunes of the day?” I said, “They’re not applicable.” He says that’s what Charlie Parker did, and I said “No, he didn’t have to negotiate Prince tunes – that shit is different. He said “How is it different?” I said “Can we talk about this tomorrow, cause I need to think about it. I know it’s different, but I can’t intellectualize it. I need 24 hours. About eight hours in it came to me, and when he called I was ready. I said “Okay, when you look at the Broadway show tunes, almost all the people writing those songs had a very vibrant folk music they came from. It happened to be Jewish folk music, stuff that was played in celebrations, in temple, bar mitzvahs, but folk music nonetheless.  Almost all the musicians that played the stuff were classically trained. And on the black side it was the blues. Ellington, Fats Waller, Morton and the blues.  In the Broadway sense, great Jewish folk tradition, almost all the guys played piano and they made their living writing songs for people other than themselves to sing, so the songs had to have a universiality. In modern pop, the kids grow up completely secular with no folk traditions whatsoever.  They all play guitar, which is an instrument that has bends and all these other things the piano doesn’t have. And they write songs to sing themselves, so the songs are more highly personalized. So if you take the average pop song, with the exception of a guy like Billy Joel or a guy like Elton John, it’s really difficult to play those songs on instruments and make it work, and the style of the songs have changed so much, the chord structures don’t really lend themselves to  solos.  So the thing that was hip about hearing Miguel was the fact that he was kinda a like a return to the days of Gershwin or Basie. He grew not only listening stuff in church, but surrounded by an incredible folk music, matter of fact it would three or four folk musics on one island. You have bomba, plena, and the jibaro from the hills. They learn it as kids, like nothing, it’s just there. Like growing up in New Orleans, same thing, you just learn the folk stuff, you sing along. You’re not going to a class – you learn it in the streets, man. So for all of that right brain shit that Miguel has, he’s got this counterweight of the left side that a lot of the modern guys don’t have. That’s what hit me.

When I hear Miguel’s band play, there’s something to the heft of what they’re doing. He could go onstage and do a stereotypical jazz set. “How High the Moon” and all them tunes – and play the hell out of it. He listens to musicians and internalizes. Other guys lean more on harmonic information. Their problem-solving is based on whether this scale works on that chord. Miguel knows that stuff. He gave me some stuff I’m trying to tackle – I’m not technically minded like that. I’m not one of those guys, but I’m trying to address that part of my playing. But when he plays it doesn’t sound mathematical. He uses dynamics. I hear a difference between guys who transcribe by ear and the guys who don’t .


You’re a big Charlie Parker nut. You’ve transcribed lots of his solos?

Lots. And once I moved to New York  and started hanging with Steve Coleman – he’s the biggest Parker freak around – I got into it even more.

Coleman’s strategies have become a big influence for some players.

Some people couldn’t hear it at the start. I was hooked right away. First disc I got was Black Science. I had no idea what was going on in the music, but it sounded so hip. So different, so powerful, so well made…I was in Puerto Rico, it was. ’93 or so. When I finally met him I was like a groupie. “Do you remember when you made…” The great thing is that he’s really into sharing information. The guys from my generation take that M BASE stuff as a heavy influence. You talk to Vijay, Rudresh, Dafnis, Steve, they’ll tell you. And they all express it in a different way. Use different aspects of it. Steve is a serious guru figure.

What other alto players are you taken with?

Cannonball Adderley – the first solo I ever transcribed was Cannonball’s “Freddy Freeloader.” Wow. I remember that vividly. I went through a heavy Lee Konitz phase. Super heavy. I never told him. When I see him it’s like seeing Bird. Like, “Man that guy was around when Bird was around, and he’s right there in front of me.” It’s like a walking legend.

Who else of your generation is making moves?

Too many… Kurt, Mark, Brad. The Smalls guys: Jason, Myron. When I moved here checked ‘em immediately. I’m a huge fan of Steve Lehman.  Younger guys, Robert Glasper, Aaron Parks. Lots of talent around right now.

It the traditional language of swing fading away these days. You go to see Lou Donaldson and his ease sounds almost foreign. Tunes and rhythms are becoming more elaborate, complex – what are we losing?

There are two sides.  The language of swing is the foundation for anything happening now. It’s important to know it cold. I’m not trying to be all traditionalist here, but you’ve got to check Lou Donaldson and you’ve got to hear him swing, and you should be able to swing if need be. If you can’t play changes and time and melodies, you’ve got some work to do. It’s amazing stuff. You need to be able to play in that language. It’s the foundation of this music, and all music really. But it’s important to be honest. Even though I respect that music, it’s really not what I hear when I write. Even though I play with the guys from the SF Collective, a we’re playing something with that feel, I try to be true to that feel, not just do my thing. But if I’m writing my own stuff I don’t feel like I have to swing just to prove I’m a jazz guy or whatever. Again, you could hear it in a real ground breaker, like Wayne Shorter. He’s breaking ground, but he’s swinging hard, no doubt.

Miguel Zenon plays at the Jazz Standard from June 10 – 13