The loins of Ellis Marsalis are certainly no slouch in the siring-of-jazz-prodigies department. The respected New Orleans pianist is father to a fantastically talented brood of jazzmen--trumpet virtuoso Wynton, drummer Jason, producer/trombonist Delfeayo and first-born Branford. That last event occurred almost 35 years ago, and in that amount of time, Branford and his tenor, soprano and alto saxophones have been busy, to put it lightly.
If you need proof, his press kit contains 41 pages of bio material chock-full of facts such as these: He's released 14 albums of his own, and has toured and/or logged studio time with Sting, Public Enemy, Dizzy Gillespie, Bruce Hornsby, Tina Turner, Gangstarr and the Grateful Dead, to name but a few. He's got a pair of Grammys on the shelf, and has delved into music from classical to blues to jazz to pop without prejudice. Musical boundaries matter little to Marsalis, who really pushed the envelope by taking the job as bandleader on The Tonight Show, a position he recently relinquished "indefinitely."
Which brings us to Buckshot LeFonque, the musician's latest release (along with Gangstarr's DJ Premier) that gives "eclectic" a run for its money. The album blends jazz, hip-hop, blues, rock and reggae, even spoken word from poet laureate Maya Angelou. All in a day's work for Marsalis, who at the moment is tooling down New York's Henry Hudson Parkway, cellular phone in hand.
New Times: What exactly does Buckshot LeFonque mean?
Branford Marsalis: It's a name that an old jazz musician named Cannonball Adderly would use whenever he wanted to play on a record that his record company didn't want him to play on. It's a tradition that is maintained even today. I've done it three times this year.
NT: What are the names of the albums?
BM: I can't tell you.
NT: Can you describe Buckshot LeFonque?
BM: I've never considered this to be a jazz record; the band is decidedly a nonjazz band. We are more of a strange fringe rock funk band. But there are certain jazz elements and a certain sort of jazz logic, much like when you listen to Bruce Hornsby's or Sting's music. There is a certain sort of jazz logic in it. Ya know, Elvis Costello and Joe Jackson, guys like that. There is a certain kind of logic that is from another place. Ours is just another strange blend of that kind of hybrid mix.
NT: How do you handle the heat you get from jazz purists who criticize a hip-hop-flavored album?
BM: I have had more criticism from the hip-hop people and the pop people than the jazz people, 'cause they feel I am inching in on their territory and they don't like it. I'm supposed to stay over there with the jazz people. I mean, most jazz people do not really give a flying fuck what you do. When I came back to NY, I went to Sweet Basil, a jazz club here, and everybody gave me a hug, and their only question was, "When ya comin' back?" It wasn't like, "Why you playing that bullshit?" Just like hip-hop people like hip-hop, jazz people like jazz. Most of the jazz listeners don't listen to hip-hop, so they don't even know about the Buckshot record, and they don't care. It's really not a big thing to them. It's big in the eyes of the press and all, especially since I'm Wynton's brother. It ain't even a big deal with Wynton. NT: Speaking of your other famous brother, has there ever been any real competition between the two of you?
BM: Yeah. Football. It's the fuckin' worst situation. I'm faster than him, I'm bigger than him and I'm stronger than him; I should win. But why do my teams always lose? It's a serious problem. I feel like kickin' his ass. That shit is really not cool.
NT: The video for the Buckshot cut "Breakfast at Denny's" depicts racial tension, not too far from the real controversy that went down with the chain restaurant. What sort of racist experiences have you encountered?
BM: I never really saw the video as depicting racial tension. When we did the song, it was more of a humorous view rather than an angst feel to compare to racism. Every black person has stories to tell about racism. I mean, the first time I got called a nigger was when I was 6. When you're in first grade and they're reading Tom Sawyer and whenever the paragraph comes where they use the word nigger, the teacher made me read it. It's all kinda shit. That's just like some shit that you learn to deal with. And you realize that there're ignorant people of all races, of all forms, of all shapes. I basically try to spend my time dealing with people who think like I do. It's not that the racism doesn't hurt, but it's not a surprise, either.
NT: Have you had any damaging experiences, racial or otherwise, that affected your music?
BM: I think that everything that happens to you and everything that you experience influences your music. But I don't think you can put a finger on it and pinpoint it and say, "That was the turning point." With the exception of my divorce. That was a turning point.
NT: Are you afraid of any black stereotypes your 9-year-old son Reese will have to deal with? BM: No. This is the greatest country in the world. But he's gonna have to deal with some shit. If it don't kill ya, it'll make ya stronger.
NT: Would you object to him listening to messages from rap groups like 2 Live Crew?
BM: Even I wouldn't listen to that shit. It's not good music.
NT: There have been reports of tension between you and Jay Leno after you left the show last January. True?
BM: None to my knowledge. But, you know, everybody likes a good tension story. But since most people's aspirations solely rest on money and fame, they would think that the only way that I would leave the show was because there was tension. But there wasn't any real tension. I mean, the reality of it is that The Tonight Show was a good job and music is a wonderful career, and I just chose my career over a job.
NT: Were you after the exposure from a national television spot, then you could leave and collect the benefits later?
BM: Not at all. I read all of the shit that the NBC spin department was talking about me wanting to play jazz and all that. I mean, what kind of imbecile, after playing some of the greatest concert halls in the world, would think that The Tonight Show would be the kind of forum for great music?
It was an absurd notion, but they had to put their spin on it to make themselves look good. And without getting into too much detail, I think it's safe to say that there were certain philosophical directions in regard to the show itself that I thought we could move towards. Not more so the music that I was playing, but the types of musical guests that would be on the show. I thought we were going in one specific direction, in a direction towards change and quality, and they decided to go in the direction of status quo . . . The Tonight Show is not a job that is about music. And if you have a pleasant personality and a cheery face, then you can get that job and keep it forever.
I mean, I respect them because they had to do what they thought was in their best interest, and at that point, I had to do what was in my best interest, which was to leave. Because if I were going to essentially sacrifice my music career for a while, it was going to have to be for something worthwhile. Not for money and cars and fine women. There's piles of that nowadays. NT: Has the paycheck helped you lure fine women?
BM: Unfortunately, yes.
NT: Do you have to be careful of gold diggers now that you're single again?
BM: You meet a girl in L.A. and she says she wants to go out, you take her bowling, and within a matter of minutes, you'll know what you got. NT: Have you dated outside of your race?
BM: Oh, I've done it. Definitely.
NT: Without a problem from your parents or hers?
BM: Fuck my parents, it's my life. I mean, I respect my parents immensely, but my brother Ellis' ex-wife was white.
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NT: Was she accepted into your family without a problem?
BM: She was accepted into our family a lot quicker than he was accepted into hers. Me and my mother had a big argument about that shit, too. One of her cousins was lynched by white folks in the Fifties. So she still had a beef. I said, "Well, Ma, you're not fucking [Ellis' wife], so what difference does it make to you?" She knows how hard marriage can be. Ellis has to sleep next to his wife, he has to breathe her bad breath, he's got to make love to that woman, not my mother. I didn't understand what her beef was since her only job with the situation was to love and support her son. And if she couldn't do that, then I'd do everything in my power to keep her from going to the wedding and seeing them. That shit is hard enough. We don't need that. Then a week later, she came by and was like, "Hi! Glad to meet you. How ya doing? Congratulations."
NT: Did your presence on The Tonight Show help or hinder your career in any way at all?
BM: Oh, it helped me. I don't have to stand in line in restaurants anymore, and I get free sporting tickets. I went to Indianapolis and caught the Pacers game, they put me courtside and put the camera on me. So it helps.