The "Tonight" show bandleader Branford Marsalis,
whose smiling face, as he once wryly put it, played Rochester to Jay
Leno's Jack Benny five nights a week for four and a half million
American couch potatoes for two and a half years, is no longer a
Meet Buckshot LeFonque.
name is taken from a pseudonym Cannonball Adderley used while
moonlighting pop and R&B records in the '50s. Branford/Buckshot
was passing through Europe on his way to Capetown doing promo and
showcases. His manager asked me to make it clear to the readers that
Branford (the first name used all alone distinguishes him from his
distinguished brother Wynton; mother and father Marsalis certainly had
a flare for names) had not, contrary to general opinion, move into a
significantly higher tax bracket when he joined Leno's "Tonight"
show. And he was not exactly left wanting leaving it.
he does very well indeed, thank you very much. The drama of Branford's
last decade had been the flirtation of a talented and dedicated but
volatile musician with pop-star prostitution while, he said, "the
defense mechanism was screaming WARNING, DANGER. He likes waltzing
with the devil and he knows how to lead.
He was Sting's
soloist and musical director for three years. "The Music tells
You," a D. A. Pennebaker documentary film, features Branford
running between heavy-duty engagements and includes appearances by
Sting, Bruce Hornsby and Jerry Garcia. He played Wesley Snipes's
saxophone on the sound track of Spike Lee's "Mo' Better Blues,"
ditto for Sean Connery in "The Russia House."
the while, he led his own quartet, which he described as "the
best jazz band in the world. For one brief moment we were the best at
what we did. Not many people can say that. I'll carry that for the
rest of my life." Along the line he won a few Grammys.
all started when a "Tonight" show producer called him at 11
one morning asking for a short composition to accompany a skit by two.
"Are you joking?" Branford replied. "No way. Music
isn't like a punch line." Then he thought for a minute. What the
hell: "I'll have it ready by 3."
A major chord at
the top. A triangle. A majestic trumpet flourish with trombones in
counterpoint. Program the horns on a computer, tympani on a sampler.
Hook it all up to a MP-C60 sequencer. He delivered it at 3:30. That
was a good day in the gilded cage. He loves rising to occasions, like
when they had to nail some klezmer music on a first take. He's at his
best under pressure. Unfortunately it was rarely like that with Leno.
Television producers think they are working in the most
creative and pervasive medium of them all. If you're on this show,
they told Branford, you're going to sell a zillion records. He learned
it doesn't work like that. Television watchers don't buy records.
They're watching, they don't have time to listen. You can't do both at
the same time.
The album "Buckshot LeFonque"
(Columbia) bombed when it was released. If you believed the producers,
after all that television exposure it should have shot right up the
charts. Branford describes it as "experimental pop." It
includes an Elton John clip, Gang Starr's DJ Premier rapping, Jamaican
house music, a guitar solo by Albert Collins and an Elvin Jones drum
sample. He places it "a little over to the left but not far out
enough so that people who spend all their time liking stuff nobody
else likes are going to rush over and embrace me."
never considered the "Tonight" show a substitute for music.
It would be another stop, a stage, like with Sting. Everyone had told
him not to go and play rock with Sting - his father, the pianist and
teacher Ellis, his brother, the cats. Everyone. Yet it had been a
positive stepping-stone in his career, and the strong survive. Every
project is a launching pad to the next level. "Sorry to say,"
he smiled ruefully, "it seems that even my marriage was like some
other kind of stop" (he had been recently divorced).
far as the musical skill level was concerned, he figures he could have
played the "Tonight" show when he was a high school junior.
One of the guys in Doc Severinsen's band, which he replaced, told him:
"You're going to love this job. You can play golf all day."
If you play golf all day and milk the cash cow in the evening
when are you going to play music? Musicians play music, he's a
musician. Branford set goals for himself. He recorded John Coltrane's
"A Love Supreme," performed a Fantasia by Heitor Villa-Lobos
with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra. He tried to practice two
hours a day. He hates practicing, but he does not enjoy sounding bad
in public either.
The "Tonight" show producers' promises of "artistic
freedom" faded with the ratings. (A lot of people did not think
Jay Leno is a funny man.) The band was playing stuff like the "Flintstones"
theme and Edgar Winter's "Frankenstein." Branford went on
Everybody's been talking about a hip-hop progeny of
Miles Davis but as far as Branford could hear nobody had done it. Some
critics say neither did he. Buckshot LeFonque is not disturbed: "When
I make a decision to do something artistically, I don't care who likes
it or buys it. Because if you use that criterion Mozart would never
have written 'Don Giovanni.'"
He was not trying to
create an art form, just "adding some wrinkles to the package."
Drummers, for example, have been trying to imitate sampling machines.
Ridiculous - human beings imitating machines. Why not see what happens
when you use both at the same time? His drummer triggered the sampler
and there were no sequencers on stage so that the numbers could be as
long or short as he liked whenever he wanted to change them.
Buckshot LeFonque band - including singers and rappers - has been on
several world tours. They played James Brown songs, Nirvana tunes;
they mixed it up. The forms could be complex, a lot of starts and
stops. Moods and tempi changed. It's a lot of information for the
musicians to remember. There were written arrangements. Still, he
likes to go off on some new direction without warning:
it jazz sensibility. Nothing is engraved in stone. The beginnings and
the endings are fairly consistent. Everything else is completely