By now, it is very common knowledge that the name Marsalis does not connote a one-man family. As an outgrowth of Wynton Marsalis’ extraordinary success, his brother Branford, one year his senior, now has a burgeoning career and a group of his own.

In Los Angeles recently for a concert with his own quartet, Branford Marsalis, 26, loose-limbed and affable, talked about the multifaceted career he has enjoyed since removing his tenor and soprano saxes from Wynton’s group.

“People are saying Wynton fired me,” he said, “but it wasn’t like that. Wynton is such an incredible musician, and he demands high standards of his men. There are hardly any pianists who could replace Kenny Kirkland, and as for sax players--well, after Kenny and I took time out to work with Sting, he just didn’t find anyone he was satisfied with.

“After making the album with Sting, Kenny and I went off in May of 1985 to do this movie with him. When we got back, expecting to rejoin Wynton, he had found another piano player, and told us: ‘Look, I’ve got this other band now and I’m going to stick with it.’

“I wish he had made the decision and told us a little earlier. I had just gotten married and found myself out of work for a whole month.”


Whether Branford was fired or effectively fired himself by working with Sting, there is no question that Wynton did not look kindly on the move; he has described the Sting film (“Bring on the Night”) as “horrendous.” As Branford concedes: “I grew up on pop music, more so than on jazz, and definitely more so than Wynton did.”

He had had other offers to play rock or pop jobs, he says, but “when Sting called and told me he was getting this band together, it seemed like the perfect opportunity. I wasn’t just walking into someone else’s group; each of us became a leader in his own way. We had new numbers, new songs, a new sound; I didn’t have to restructure my head, as I did when I was playing for Wynton or for Art Blakey, or making the record with Miles Davis.

“I certainly didn’t do it just for the money; if that were my only motive, why would I go from making good money with Sting to losing $1,500 a night with my own band playing jazz, as I am now?”

During his nine-month tour with Sting, which ended last April, Branford knew that eventually he had to have his own group. “I didn’t want to be playing rock ‘n’ roll forever. I like listening to it, but it’s not all that enjoyable to play on a long-term basis.”

Branford’s personality contrasts sharply with his brother’s. Though just as socially conscious and no less articulate when racial topics come up, he seems generally broader-minded. His analysis of Miles Davis (on whose “Decoy” album he played in three numbers) tells as much about Marsalis as it does about Davis.

“One minute, Miles says I sound like John Coltrane. Then when I don’t want to join his band. . . . Am I gonna fall apart because of Miles? I know what I’m doing.

“I play music because I love it. Miles was quoted in an interview as saying that he loved music, too, but his actions don’t match his words.

“All of a sudden, at one point, Miles was no longer playing jazz. He was over there with some platform shoes on, and an Afro and shades, doing his thing, and telling people every chance he got that jazz is boring, it’s not happening. People who truly love music wouldn’t do that. I have a lot of his later records at home and they have nothing to do with jazz.”

Despite his musical reservations, Marsalis defends Davis’ right to do what he has done. “Here’s a trumpet player who has worked with all my heroes--Bird (Charlie Parker), Newk (Sonny Rollins), Coltrane, Wayne Shorter, Cannonball (Adderley)--so how do I have the right to say what Miles should be doing?

“I had a chance to talk with him when we made that record. He has an incredible mind. His persona will always be larger than life. But he’s a very manipulative person; he manipulates the public and he manipulates weak musicians. Thanks to my father and mother, I was gifted with a very strong personality, so when I run into people like Miles I know how to handle the situation.”

Clearly Branford has handled the situation by returning to the present jazz quartet format in which he feels comfortable. He bridles at implications that he sold out by going with Sting. “People compare me to George Benson or Herbie (Hancock), in terms of my decision to work for a while in a commercially successful setting. That just isn’t so.

“George has his home in Hawaii; he doesn’t listen to jazz any more, he’s separated himself from that world. Herbie moves in and out of it because of the economic realities. He’s still one of the greatest musicians in the world, and it amazes me that a man can play jazz so well but play it so little and so seldom. Emotionally, spiritually, he’s not a part of the jazz world anymore.”

That world can surely claim Marsalis as one of its citizens. “The music I’m playing is first-rate, but in every other sense, we’re second-class citizens. With Sting’s band, you jumped off the plane, jumped in the limo and went to the hotel. With our band, you jump off the plane, go to Hertz to get your van, load the equipment yourself and drive it to the venue.”

Although the quartet takes up much of his time, it is not Marsalis’ sole preoccupation. “Ever since 1983, when I was playing with Wynton, I’ve been getting offers to take other gigs, play on records with various people. Finally, I found myself missing gigs and double-booking, so I got a manager, which leaves that space in my head open for artistic matters.

“I’ve been getting sound track offers--for composing, and also for playing if I want to. I’ve even had offers for movie roles, man. If I feel I can handle it--mostly comedic stuff, not anything that requires serious acting--I’ll be glad to do it.”

Although Branford Marsalis’ name has not yet equaled that of his brother in terms of international recognition, there is little doubt that his innate talent, both as saxophonist and composer, predestines him for fame. “I hope to take my group to Europe and Japan next year,” he says. “I see a lot of fun ahead--along with a lot of good music.”