Branford Marsalis speaks his mind on music and politics, and he’s not holding back

The Branford Marsalis Quartet will play at the North Carolina State Fair.
The Branford Marsalis Quartet will play at the North Carolina State Fair.

Branford Marsalis has called Durham home for more than 16 years, although he tends to be on the road at least half of any given month.

But next weekend, he’ll play a hometown stand at Duke University’s Baldwin Auditorium with his Quartet. No tricked-out special concept or repertoire, just playing tunes.

“It’s quite a comical argument in jazz,” he said an interview. “Pop culture normalizes and sweeps over everything, and it’s funny how every other art form starts to identify with whatever is culturally dominant. So I get asked about ‘concepts,’ as though I formulate one out of whole cloth. We’re just a working group, and every record you make, or show you play, is either validation or repudiation of that one concept you have.”

Marsalis is accustomed to speaking his mind, and it doesn’t take much to get him going on subjects like music, lyrics and even politics. Here’s how it went when we dialed him up recently. The conversation has been edited for clarity.

Q: How long has the Branford Marsalis Quartet been together?

A: About 20 years. I never thought about it until jazz writers and promoters started asking, “Why don’t you come here with different players? People have seen you with your band many times.” Interesting terminology, “see” instead of “hear.” Because, right, they see us all the time, but we don’t sound the same.

Branford Marsalis press 02 PALMA KOLANSKY.JPG
Branford Marsalis and the Branford Marsalis Quartet play a rare hometown show, at Baldwin Auditorium for Duke Performances in Durham. Palma Kolansky

They don’t care, they’re just trying to sell tickets and they’d like a new concept: “Come see Branford Marsalis in a different setting with this person, that person, the Grateful Dead.” That’s not the purpose of music to me. I’ve always gravitated toward musicians that have bands, defining success by creating a sound because we don’t have the benefit of lyrics.

Q: You’re a music guy, not a lyrics guy.

A: Funny thing happened recently. I was listening to various funky tunes one morning and tweeted some out — Meters’ “Just Kissed My Baby,” Donnie Hathaway and Roberta Flack’s “Baby I Love You.” And a friend calls to ask what’s wrong: “You’re posting all these love songs!”

I was just listening to music, the lyrics never even registered. And I told him, “This is what I’ve been telling you for 20 years, you don’t hear music, you go straight to the lyrics.” This is a society that’s very true to its English roots, which is in lyrics, poetry and plays.

Q: So what’s a poor saxophonist to do?

A: I ain’t poor, but just keep playing. People who shake their fist about how the world ignores great music, just accept the fact that most people ignore it. Been that way my whole life, even with dear friends I grew up with. They don’t care about music and would rather talk about golf or why the (New Orleans) Saints lost. So I just talk about music with people who have the capacity to understand it.

Q: Some of the most important musicians of the 20th century, like Nina Simone and Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane, were born in North Carolina but left. Why?

A: All three of those have the common effect of the Pentecostal church on their playing. Nina Simone could have been a great classical player, but she was also a great church player. Monk’s whole thing was church. And New York jazz writers who thought Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme” was “a quantum leap like nothing anybody’s ever heard” — if they’d been Baptist in the South, they’d have heard that growing up in church.

Q: And they took that up North?

A: In context, a black person in the 1920s, ‘30s and ’40s could leave the South but never leave the South. Move to Philly and it’s a neighborhood comprised of the same people you left. All the clubs were in that neighborhood, too, and everybody would go hang out. That had tremendous impact and was great for music, less great for freedom. You’ll never see that again. These articles you see, “Lamentation of music and creativity,” asking what happened — freedom happened.

Q: Have we really come that far, though?

A: Of course we have. I tweeted something the other day about a thin-skinned president with dictatorial tendencies: John Quincy Adams, who had people imprisoned. People talk about Donald Trump as the worst president ever, but historically, he’s not. He’s a president who appeals to the base nature of people, but at the end of the day, it’s only 35 percent of the population. Nobody is ordained by God to be adhered to, it’s back and forth. This is either forth or back, depending on your perspective, but it’s certain to change.

Q: What do you see happening next?

A: This is an important presidency. It’s been a long time since a president forced people to decide what we’ll be as a country, and we’ll figure that out starting with the midterm elections. Will people continue to be emotionally attached to politics, or intellectually? Because a lot of intellectual things are being done while people vent their spleens.

As a black person with a mild understanding of history, I can’t even compare now to what happened before. Franklin Roosevelt once invited Booker T. Washington to the White House for dinner, and a senator from Alabama said, “We’re gonna have to hang a thousand (expletives) just to restore order” — in The New York Times! Nobody said anything about “abrogation of norms,” that was normal. So yeah, it’s different now. It might not feel different, but use your mind over your feelings.

David Menconi: 919-829-4759 or @NCDavidMenconi


What: Branford Marsalis Quartet

When: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Oct. 5-6

Where: Duke University’s Baldwin Auditorium, Durham

Cost: $50-$62, $10 for Duke students

Details: dukeperformances.duke.edu

Free talk: Marsalis will also give a lunchtime talk at noon Wednesday, Oct. 3, at The Pinhook, 117 W. Main St. in Durham. Duke Performances executive director Aaron Greenwald will lead the discussion about the evolution of the tenor saxophone in jazz.

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