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Sons of Miles
BRANFORD MARSALIS: Waltzing With The Devil
by Mike Zwerin
13 August 1998

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 small-screen staple.

Meet Buckshot LeFonque.

The 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.

Financially, 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."

All 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.

It 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."

He 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).

As 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.

Branford Marsalis

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 leave.

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.

The 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:

"Call it jazz sensibility. Nothing is engraved in stone. The beginnings and the endings are fairly consistent. Everything else is completely negotiable."

Photo: Branford Marsalis.
Credit: Christian Rose

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