By Rachael E. Worthington
In a family with five critically acclaimed jazz instrumentalists, including his father and three of his brothers, Branford Marsalis acts as the prince of the saxophone in a clan that some would classify as jazz royalty.
“We were a family first,” says Marsalis, clarifying that they weren’t a musical family in the sense of the Partridges or the Von Trapps. Even so, it’s hard to argue that music wasn’t a huge part of his life. Marsalis’s upbringing in New Orleans was instrumental in his appreciation for music. “We were lucky enough to grow up in a city where music was a priority,” says Marsalis, “Where playing an instrument was as cool as playing sports.” He and his brothers easily gravitated toward jazz, forming the Wynton Marsalis Quintet in college before Branford formed his own quartet in 1986.
While the Marsalis brothers developed together musically, they eventually all grew into their own styles and pursued independent careers — and Branford started his with style. Few jazz artists can lay claim to having performed with Sting, The Grateful Dead, Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock and Dizzy Gillespie. Far fewer have been bandleaders on The Tonight Show, been awarded the National Endowment for the Arts’ Jazz Masters Award, and helped to develop a community for displaced families after a hurricane.
His work as a bandleader, composer, musician and philanthropist has garnered him three Grammys, a Tony nomination, and the New Orleans Recreation Development Foundation’s 2018 “Legacy Tribute” award.
Since then, he has toured, founded the Marsalis Music label, developed The Musicians Village in New Orleans, written an original score for the Broadway production of Fences and hosted NPR’s Jazz Set.
But what makes Marsalis arguably the most respected U.S. jazz instrumentalist alive is his ability think and hear critically. When it comes to performing, Marsalis says he “found it was better to be wrong with conviction, than right with doubt,” and that is why audiences flock to hear his fearless brand of jazz. There is a fluency of thought with his work that’s constantly evolving. Marsalis believes that you have to be able to “change your mind when you’re wrong” to produce great work.
The Branford Marsalis Quartet consists of pianist Joey Calderazzo, bass guitarist Eric Revis and drummer Justin Faulkner, and together they have won two Grammy Awards for Best Jazz Instrumental Album. Their latest recording is Four MF’s Playin’ Tunes, and they have been hailed as the most innovative and forward-thinking jazz ensembles around today.