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Branford Marsalis: Gordon Gekko is Dead

By Mike Zwerin

PARIS, 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 irony.

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.'

"If 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 standards.'"

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."

Branford Marsalis plays at the Detroit International Jazz Festival on 31 August 2002 and at Sedona Jazz On The Rocks in Sedona, Arizona on 27 September 2002.

Related: BRANFORD MARSALIS: Waltzing With The Devil

Branford Marsalis' Official Web Site

Mike 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.

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