By Mike Zwerin
22 July 2002 - Branford Marsalis - ex star sideman with Sting's
best rock band who also, as he put it, "played Rochester to Jay
Leno's Jack Benny" - recently founded Marsalis Music, a record
label. Earlier this month, he interrupted a vacation with his in-laws
in Malmo, Sweden, to promote its first release, "Footsteps Of Our
Fathers" by his own quartet.
"There are going to
be people who will be reluctant to sign with my label partly because
it's mine," he said. Saying exactly what he thinks is essential
to him: "I have a reputation that's different from the way I
really am. Musicians who don't work with me just know what they heard
or read about me. But I can live with that. I'm a big boy now."
Elder and more musically adventurous brother of the
high-profile trumpeter, educator and communicator Wynton, Branford
Marsalis is one of today's most talented, committed and successful
saxophonists. Like Wynton, Branford plays classical music too. He has
recorded Darius Milhaud's Creation Of The World. He played
Wesley Snipes's tenor on the soundtrack of Spike Lee's Mo' Better
Blues, and Sean Connery's soprano for "The Russia House.
For a while, he was the leader of the hip-hop/jazz fusion band
Buckshot LeFonque. His unusual combination of daring, intelligence,
sophistication and fame and fortune is mixed with a healthy sense of
Citing the late legendary Columbia Records Great
Discoverer, he continued: "There will be no more John Hammonds.
It's a different world now. The big labels have become more and more
manipulative. Columbia is owned by Sony now, and when Jean-Marie
Messier got fired from Vivendi, I don't recall any director standing
up and complaining, 'but he made good jazz records.'
you're not selling, you're out. That's all it is now. My buddies who
record for multinational labels are forced to play standards so they
can sell another ten copies from radio play. I don't believe in radio
as a marketing tool. Radio sells pop records, not artistic records.
The first thing I'm going tell anybody that records for me is 'no
He speaks quickly and unguardedly with
great charm and lucidity. Even his contradictions are lucid. In answer
to the observation that forbidding standards may be as manipulative as
demanding them, he said: "If that's manipulative, I'll take that
one. What no label has tried to do recently is cultivate a jazz
audience rather than to weasel into the pop audience. Jazz musicians
should write their own tunes." That "Footsteps Of Our
Fathers," presents his takes on Ornette Coleman's Giggin',
John Coltrane's A Love Supreme, Sonny Rollins's Freedom
Suite and the John Lewis jewel, Concorde is a somewhat
less lucid contradiction. Either way, he recognizes that this is not
exactly best-seller material and he's thought it through: "It is
possible to make a great jazz record that doesn't sell for a year or
two. Or ten. A good jazz record should still be selling 15 years down
the road. Columbia's biggest selling jazz record is [Miles Davis's]
'Kind of Blue,' but it took 40 years to reach that position."
Toward the end of the 1990s, Columbia Records named him
creative consultant. The company's press release at the time said that
he would be "instrumental in shaping the creative direction of
our jazz department." The arrangement was terminated prematurely,
as was the arrangement to lead Jay Leno's Tonight Show band earlier in
the decade. "People think I'm crazy," he said. "They
always ask me: 'What's going on? You get these high profile jobs and
then you quit all the time.' To me, it's simple. I'm going to do
exactly what it is I agreed I should do when I signed the contract.
All I ask is that you do your end too. But a lot of people seem to go
into these contracts with no idea of fulfilling them. First they say
what they think you want to hear, and then they go and do what they
want and figure if you get angry they will pay you some more money and
you'll shut up."
Marsalis, who is not known for
shutting up, makes a point of not touring the summer European
festivals. It seems that they will not allow him (or anyone) to own
his own audio and video-tapes because the festivals's government
subsidies prohibit that. At least so he is told. In particular, he
does not play the Montreux festival and accepts the fact that he will
never play there: "They still run that old plantation system.
They approached a friend of mine about a multi-million dollar deal for
a TV show called 'The Best of the Montreux Jazz Festival.' I wonder if
any of those millions are going to the artists who make the music and
are paid the glorious sum of 20 or 30 grand, basically nothing, for
the rights to record and videotape the show and own it in perpetuity.
I don't think so.
"You know what? I'll take less to
play but then you can't record or film me. When you have rent to pay,
$30,000 is a lot of money. Most musicians will play that game. But
when you are looking at the eventual value of the tape, well, then
it's not. The attitude is: 'Who do you think you are?' The Montreux
promoter looked me right in the face and said: 'Without me, you would
be nothing.' It's fundamentally wrong. I'm just not interested."
In order to own his own product, he has self-financed
Marsalis Music: "If there were other investors, sooner or later
they are going to say something like: 'You promised nine percent
profit and you only made five. Let's pull the plug.' Unlike
multi-nationals, we don't have high-rise buildings and fleets of
rented cars to pay for, and we don't fly first class. We don't aspire
to any of that. As far as we are concerned it's a matter of believing
enough in the music and reaching the audience that has the capacity to
understand it. Our aspiration is to put out good creative records
period. Greed has run its course. Gordon Gekko is dead."
Marsalis plays at the Detroit International Jazz Festival on 31 August
2002 and at Sedona Jazz On The Rocks in Sedona, Arizona on 27
MARSALIS: Waltzing With The Devil
Marsalis' Official Web Site
Zwerin has been jazz and rock critic for the International Herald
Tribune for the last twenty years. He was also the European
correspondent for The Village Voice. Zwerin is currently writing a
book called "Parisian Jazz Affair" for Yale University Press
and he is the jazz editor of Culturekiosque.com.