Journalist John Feinstein once described legendary UNC coach Dean Smith as the “most competitive human being” he had ever met. Smith was so competitive, Feinstein said, that he’d even compete in an interview. The same could be said of saxophonist Branford Marsalis, another local legend, who joined Duke Performances Director Aaron Greenwald for a listening session at Durham’s Motorco Music Hall on January 12. Always happy to express an opinion, Marsalis is a lightning rod for criticism as a result of his unapologetic stance on the contemporary state of jazz.
Throughout the night, Marsalis showed that he doesn’t mind talking about difficult subjects. “Most people that I know,” he said, “are comfortable when they can predict the outcome of the conversation. See, I’m the opposite of that. I find that boring. I want someone to come and tell me I’m full of crap and then I can defend it. I enjoy arguing. I enjoy it because it’s challenging. What gets accomplished when people just agree? But I don’t enjoy screaming, I enjoy arguing.”
As Marsalis told the audience, this comes from his upbringing in a competitive musical family. “My friends hated coming to dinner,” Marsalis said, “because there was this expectation that they would engage in a conversation that they were completely ill-equipped to have. My father would say, ‘What do you think about what Jimmy Carter is doing compared to what Richard Nixon was doing?’ They’d be like, ‘What? Look at the time. I’ve got to go.’ You couldn’t just say something. You’d have to justify it. You’d answer with something and he’d be like, ‘Man, we can’t have this at the dinner table, this unsubstantiated opinion.’ Of course, you’d get mad because he’s busted you. So he’d say, ‘Don’t get mad, get informed. We got books all over this house. Go do some research.’”
The 90-minute listening session, in a room packed to the brim with eager fans, took awhile to get going. Greenwald started the listening by playing Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power (powersax mix)” from the soundtrack of Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, which features Marsalis. After the excerpt ended, Greenwald looked at Marsalis and asked, “Do you have anything to say about that?” A nod of his head and a short response: “Nope.” As Greenwald and Marsalis danced around a few other topics, Marsalis seemed unwilling to give any easy answers, turning questions around and, like the master improviser he is, making the conversation into his own.
At one point he turned to the audience and asked, “Y’all got any questions? It’s more fun when y’all have questions. I’m just sitting up here running my mouth.” Someone in the front row asked what inspired Marsalis to choose the trumpet as his main instrument. This was a case of mistaken identity, since the man was clearly thinking of Marsalis’ brother, Wynton. Unfazed, Marsalis used this moment to his advantage and related a humorous story about a similar case of mistaken identity, where someone told him, “You sure sound great on that sax, but next time you should bring your trumpet.”
As Jazz Loft Project curator Sam Stephenson recently wrote, the elder Marsalis brother “operates in a strange obscurity. His band is among the best, most diverse, and most challenging in the world, but his fame attracts a live audience that often appreciates his celebrity over his music.” Surely there were some in the audience who had come simply because of the Marsalis name. As brash as he can sometimes come off in interviews, he took this mis-recognition in stride, saying, “It happens. It’s cool.” He happily answered several more questions from the same man during the course of the night.
The back-and-forth with the audience seemed to invigorate the conversation and Marsalis began relating stories about his upbringing in New Orleans. In response to a question about his decision to move to Durham, he compared the Bull City to his hometown:
“The thing that is great about Durham—which reminds me of New Orleans—is that the city has a lot of economic diversity. When I moved here, I was really mindful that I wanted my kids to have exposure to people who represented all walks of life. Durham is perfect like that.”
Greenwald followed up with a question about teaching at North Carolina Central, where Marsalis has been an artist-in-residence for a number of years. Marsalis used the question to revisit some of his opinions of jazz today:
“Jazz has become mechanized in the last few years and guys don’t focus on playing songs, they focus on playing chord structures, so the music becomes systematic and predicable. Last summer…one of the trumpet players [at NCCU] asked me if I’d play some gigs in the area with them. I said, ‘Sure, if I can pick the tunes, I’ll play the gigs.’ So the whole band became a traditional New Orleans Band, with the songs being written 100 years ago… It was really fun to watch them die for three weeks because they tried to play all their [worked out bebop patterns] on these songs and they don’t work.” Marsalis played Jelly Roll Morton’s “Black Bottom Stomp” as an example.
“It’s a great story,” Marsalis went on, “because the trumpet player, who’s really talented, is trying all these post-bebop licks, and I’m just looking at him saying, ‘Man, when are you going to start thinking about what you’re doing? That stuff is just not going to work on those songs.’ So we’re at my house rehearsing right before the third week of gigs, and he’s getting ready to play one of those typical things that he plays. He plays two notes, stops, and moves back. Then he starts playing. At the end of the song he says, ‘Thanks man, I appreciate that.’ I say, ‘Appreciate what?’ He says, ‘I was about to play one of those things and you told me no.’ I said, ‘I didn’t tell you anything.’ He thought I had told him something but it was his own brain saying, ‘NO.’ Now that’s progress!”
Marsalis attributed many of his opinions to his upbringing in New Orleans and his father’s insistence on substantiated opinions at the dinner table, explaining, “Wynton and I would always do all this research [before dinner] and say, ‘Oh yeah, we’re gonna get him tonight.’ We didn’t realize at the time what he was doing for us, and that could really explain why we’re constantly in trouble with the jazz media and with jazz musicians. They were just brought up in just a different way than we were.”
Marsalis is right to point out that the jazz media (and musicians, for that matter) often discount his criticisms and statements under the assumption that he is angry, overly aggressive, or uninformed. Marsalis is indeed a multitude of things. Opinionated? Yes. Wrong? Sometimes. Thoughtful? Always. Angry and aggressive? Certainly not. And he can be quite thought-provoking. “It’s interesting,” he said at one point, “you say that you don’t like a guy’s music. What he hears is that you don’t like him, and he overreacts. My music is an extension of me, but it’s not me—it’s an extension of me! I make the music, the music doesn’t make me.”
By implication, his demeanor during such public events is also an extension of him, one that relates to his musical performance on stage. His quick reactions, his ease at turning questions around, and the way he improvises through the conversation are all part of the performance. Each of these moments says something about him, but no single one reveals all there is to see.
After begrudgingly playing his own recording of Darius Milhaud’s Scaramouche, Marsalis moved on to Miles Davis’ “Hand Jive” from Nefertiti in order to talk about what inspired him to pursue jazz. “That was it,” he said. After cleverly dismissing a question about his major influences by naming every famous tenor saxophone player in jazz history, the conversation turned to his latest record with pianist Joey Calderazzo and his composition, “The Bard Lachrymose,” which reuses several melodies and fragments from various classical pieces. In rapid succession, Marsalis shared a Montiverdi madrigal, two opera excerpts from Sergei Prokofiev and Richard Wagner, and briefly looked for Robert Schumann’s Dichterliebe, all while answering a few more questions from the audience.
Somewhere in this flurry of activity, Marsalis responded to a question about the exchange between jazz and classical music by playing an excerpt from Morton Gould’s American Symphonette No. 2, because, as he said, “You can hear a very clear song that was written by a very great musician. He blatantly stole from this.” A minute and a half into the excerpt, Marsalis looked around as Gould’s melody from 1939 floated across the audience. Right on cue, a few members of the audience laughed as they recognized the melodic line of John Coltrane’s iconic piece, “Impressions.” Marsalis responded by saying, “I applaud him for stealing it because he incorporated it into his music and when you hear him play it, it sounds like Coltrane. So I’m an advocate of stealing.”
His humor and play with the audience demonstrated Marsalis’ comfort in the spotlight, as someone who continues to compete in interviews using his quick wit, wealth of knowledge, and fearless improvisation. Unsurprisingly, he also had some more opinions to share: “If people have to take harmony classes to get your music, something is wrong with you. It’s our job to take harmony classes. When my electrician comes over to fix the light, I don’t have a schematic in my hand saying, ‘So, you’re going to …’ No, fix the damn light. Here’s the money. Play the tunes, make me happy. Here’s the money. Make me cry. Do something! It’s real simple.”
CRASH! Someone in the audience dropped a glass on the floor. Marsalis responded, “Oh man! Guess you didn’t like that. That’s okay”—without missing a beat.
Check back a little later this week for our review of the Branford Marsalis Quartet’s Jan. 13 show at Reynolds Theater, the first of two sold-out nights.