The American saxophonist Branford Marsalis is one of the premier tenor-saxophonists of his generation. In addition to leading his own acclaimed quartet he has played with many of the giants of jazz music from Miles Davis to Art Blakey, and has been a great advocate for keeping its traditions alive into the modern era.
Branford has also been very involved in classical music playing a wide range of repertoire fromCopland to Debussy to Mahler and as a soloist with internationally renowned orchestras including theChicago Symphony Orchestra, the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, the Dusseldorf Symphony and theNew York Philharmonic. He is known for placing a huge value on melody and on the preservation of the jazz tradition, often lamenting how newer generations are losing touch with the origins of jazz music.
Grouping up in the rich cultural environment of New Orleans, Branford was steeped in music from an early age. His father was the acclaimed pianist and educator Ellis Marsalis, and three of his younger brothers; Wynton, Delfeayo, and Jason, would also go on to excel in jazz, making the Marsalis family possibly the most famous in the genre’s history. Straight out of his studies at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, Branford was picked up by Art Blakey to play in his big band, along with his brother Wynton. They would both go on to play in Blakey’s infamous Jazz Messengers the following year, with Branford switching roles from baritone to alto saxophone. Finally in 1982 the Marsalis brothers left the Jazz Messengers to form their own quintet, with Branford switching again to play mostly tenor and soprano saxophone, the two instruments for which he would be known for the rest of his career.
Over the next several years Branford continued in his evolution as a sideman and leader, He played on albums by Miles Davis (Decoy) and Dizzy Gillespie (New Faces) and released his first album as a leader, Scenes in the City, all in 1984. The following year he left Wynton’s band to play with Sting, playing on his first solo album,The Dream of the Blue Turtles, and touring with him for years. Although this created a temporary rift between the brothers, it was eventually patched up, and afforded Branford the incredible opportunity to play with one of the greatest stars of contemporary popular music, as well as opening the door to playing with other popular acts such as the Grateful Dead and Bruce Hornsby.
In 1986 he formed the Branford Marsalis Quartet, with Kenny Kirkland on piano, Bob Hurst on bass and Jeff “Tain” Watts on drums. This group, in various iterations, would release many of the seminal jazz recordings of the next decades, includingCrazy People Music (1990) and Requiem (1998). Although the Quartet was Branford’s main focus he was also beginning to be involved in increasingly diverse projects.Throw Momma From the Train (1987) and School Daze (1988) marked his first appearances in film, and in 1990 he composed the soundtrack for the acclaimed Spike Lee filmMo' Better Blues. In 1992 he became the musical director for Jay Leno’sTonight Show, which elevated Branford to the status of instant celebrity. Eventually becoming dissatisfied with the small amount of musical freedom the show afforded him, Branford left a few years later to tour with his new-founded group Buckshot LeFonque, which fused jazz and hip-hop.
Header photo courtesy of allaboutjazz.com Long photo courtesy of the Basque National Orchestra