Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Marsalis, Branford

Tenor saxophonist Branford Marsalis quickly established himself as a leading voice on his instrument, with an uncommon tone and lyricism. Out of the gates with Art Blakey, Herbie Hancock, and Dizzy Gillespie, he has enjoyed crossover success in pop and hip-hop, and even as an actor, yet has always returned to his roots in jazz.

Branford Marsalis was born on August 26th, 1960 in Breaux Bridge, Louisiana, a small town west of New Orleans. He was the eldest son of pianist and educator Ellis Marsalis Jr. Ellis and his wife Delores had five other children, several of whom went on to become jazz musicians. These include trumpeter Wynton, trombonist Delfeayo, and drummer Jason. Branford’s other siblings include another brother, Ellis III, who is a poet and Mboya Kinyatta, who was born with autism. Branford’s grandfather, Ellis Marsalis Senior, was a businessman and civil rights activist who passed away in September of 2004.

Growing up as the son of a well-known musician in New Orleans, Branford was constantly surrounded by music. Branford started out playing piano at the age of four and began playing alto saxophone and clarinet before settling on the tenor saxophone. Growing up and especially as a teenager, Branford was drawn the funky styles of bands like Earth, Wind and Fire and contemporary saxophonists like David Sanborn and Grover Washington, rather than the bebop favored by his father. He has stated that his introduction to the work of Charlie Parker happened when he was sixteen, when his father played a record for him. This kind of experience, combined with seeing his brother Wynton playing with drummer Art Blakey, began to open his eyes to the possibilities of jazz.

Branford studied music formally for a year at Southern University in Baton Rouge, then transferred to the Berklee College of Music in Boston. During the summer months of 1980, Marsalis toured Europe with an ensemble led by legendary jazz drummer Art Blakey. By the end of 1981, Marsalis had joined Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, alongside his brother Wynton on trumpet. He remained with Blakey for five months and played dates all across the United States. Some of these dates were recorded, including one from January of 1982 at San Francisco's Keystone Corner. The young Branford can be heard on songs such as “A La Mode." Marsalis also toured Japan with pianist Herbie Hancock in 1981.

Branford played with many different artists between 1982 and 1985. He was a full-time member of Wynton's group, played with Clark Terry’s big band for a brief period of time, and recorded with vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson. Wynton released his self-titled debut album in 1981, which featured Branford on tenor, Herbie Hancock on piano, Ron Carter on bass, and Tony Williams on drums. This album includes the memorable “Sister Cheryl," which was written by Williams.

Branford played on subsequent releases by Wynton, which included Think of One in 1983 and Black Codes (From the Underground), which featured the song “Chambers of Tain," an homage to drummer Jeff "Tain" Watts. Branford is also featured on trumpet Dizzy Gillespie’s 1984 album New Faces. Joined by Kenny Kirkland on piano, they play on Dizzy’s original composition “Tenor Song."

Branford released his debut album as a leader in 1984, Scenes in the City. In 1985, along with Kenny Kirkland and drummer Omar Hakim, Marsalis joined a new group being formed by the bassist and pop star Sting. The band showcased a variety of musical styles, and Branford’s playing helped to enhance the overall sound of the group's amalgam of funk, r-'n-b, and rock. The jazz trio's two-year stint with Sting was documented in the film Bring on the Night.

Marsalis formed is own group around 1986, which included Jeff “Tain” Watts and Kenny Kirkland. Marsalis released several albums in the 1980s, which include Royal Garden Blues and Random Abstract. He also released his first album of classical music in 1986, called Romances for Saxophone. Marsalis also began branching out into acting. He appeared in the 1987 movie Throw Momma from the Train and in Spike Lee’s 1988 movie School Daze.

In 1991, Marsalis released The Beautyful One Are Not Yet Born with his brother Delfeayo acting as producer. In 1992, Marsalis became the director of the Tonight Show band. Kenny Kirkland also briefly played in the group. Marsalis also continued to play with people outside of the jazz world including pop singer and pianist Bruce Hornsby and the Grateful Dead. Marsalis can be heard on the 1992 hit R&B single “I Love Your Smile” by Shanice, where he delivered a very expressive but short solo in the middle of the song.

In 1994, Marsalis formed a jazz and hip-hop group, Buckshot Lefonque, which explored the potential for interaction between the two styles. The group's debut album,Buckshot Lefonque,featured Marsalis’ tenor and production by DJ Premier on such songs as “Breakfast at Denny’s." The group released a second album in 1997, Music Evolution.

In 1995, Branford recorded an album with his father called Loved Ones for Columbia Records, which featured the plaintive Johnny Mercer song "Laura."

Marsalis continued to record and tour with his own group through the mid-1990s, but it was shaken up when his longtime collaborator Kenny Kirkland died of a heroin overdose in 1998. Kirkland was replaced by pianist Joey Calderazzo, and Marsalis dedicated his 1999 album, Requiem, to the pianist. In 2000, Marsalis received Grammy Award in 2000 for his album Contemporary Jazz, which explored complex time signatures and featured Marsalis's breakneck solos on songs like “Elysium."

In 2002, Branford formed his own music label, Marsalis Music. The label has released his albums Eternalin 2004 and Braggtown in 2006, as well as albums by drummer Jimmy Cobb and pianist Harry Connick Junior, with whom Branford toured to raise money for the victims of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. Marsalis has taught at Michigan State, San Francisco State, and North Carolina Central University, where he is currently on the faculty.

Select Discography

as Branford Marsalis

Scenes in the City (Columbia, 1984)

Royal Garden Blues (Columbia, 1985)

Random Abstract (Columbia, 1988)

Crazy People Music (Columbia, 1990)

Loved Ones (Columbia, 1996)

Contemporary Jazz (Columbia, 2000)

with Buckshot Lefonque

Buckshot Lefonque (Columbia, 1994)

Music Evolution (Columbia, 1997)

with Wynton Marsalis

Wynton Marsalis (Columbia, 1982)

Think of One (Columbia, 1983)

Black Codes (from the Underground) (Columbia, 1985)

with Sting

Bring on the Night (A&M, 1986)

Nothing like the Sun (A&M, 1987)

Contributor: Jared Pauley