Born in Louisiana in 1960, Branford Marsalis followed his father into the world of jazz, as did three of his five younger brothers. A brilliantly innovative saxophonist, Marsalis has worked with brother Wynton, Sting, Miles Davis and many other musicians. From 1992 to '95, he served as musical director of Jay Leno's Tonight Show. In 2002, he founded his own music label, Marsalis Music.
Branford Marsalis was born on August 26, 1960, in Breaux Bridge, Louisiana. The eldest of six brothers, he grew up in New Orleans in a musical family that was led by his pianist father, Ellis Marsalis. Though he wasn't into jazz in high school—instead playing in an R&B band—Branford would go on to become a noted jazz musician, as would three of his brothers.
After studying at the Berklee College of Music, Branford began his professional career playing the baritone saxophone with Art Blakey's big band in 1980. The following year, Branford and his brother, Wynton Marsalis, both played in Blakey's Jazz Messengers, with Branford moving on to the alto sax.
Branford joined Wynton's quintet in 1982. In this group, he played tenor and soprano sax, the instruments that would define the rest of his career. Branford soon released his first album, Scenes In the City (1984). On other recordings, he partnered with legendary musicians like Miles Davis (1984's Decoy) and Dizzy Gillespie (1984's New Faces).
In 1985, Branford left Wynton's quintet in order to work with Sting. The departure caused problems between the two brothers, though they later mended fences. Branford contributed to The Dream of the Blue Turtles, Sting's first solo endeavor. He credits his work with Sting with helping him learn how to effectively end his jazz solos, thus making them more powerful.
Evolving Music and Career
In 1986, Branford created the Branford Marsalis Quartet with pianist Kenny Kirkland, bassist Bob Hurst and drummer Jeff "Tain" Watts. He also started to work in films, appearing in Throw Momma From the Train (1987)and School Daze (1988), and composing the soundtrack for Mo' Better Blues (1990). However, it was signing on to be the musical director for Jay Leno's Tonight Show in 1992 that made Branford a national celebrity.
Even while working on other projects, Branford continued to put out music. In 1993, he won his first Grammy for I Heard You Twice The First Time, an album whose guests included B.B. King and Linda Hopkins. With Bruce Hornsby, Branford won another Grammy in 1994 for "Barcelona Mona." That same year, he formed Buckshot LeFonque, a group whose goal was to combine jazz and hip-hop.
In 1995, Branford left the Tonight Show, ostensibly because he wanted to spend more time with his son and be able to tour more often. However, leaving the job was likely a relief, as he reportedly didn't enjoy the requisite late-night banter or the type of music he was asked to perform. The decision did not seem to hurt his music career; Branford and the other members of his quartet won a Grammy Award for the album Contemporary Jazz (2000).
Though he had been recording with Columbia since 1983, Branford left them and started his own label, Marsalis Music, in 2002. Performers for Marsalis Music have included Harry Connick Jr. and Miguel Zenón. Branford also continues to tour, appearing in venues that range from clubs to concert halls. He added Broadway to his resume when he composed the music for the 2010 revival of August Wilson's Fences.
After Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans in 2005, Branford contributed to fundraising efforts and worked to create a music center in the city's Upper Ninth Ward. He has also taught students at institutions such as San Francisco State, Michigan State and North Carolina Central.
In 2011, Branford, Ellis, Wynton and the other two jazz musicians in the Marsalis family—Delfeayo and Jason—were named "Jazz Masters" by the National Endowment for the Arts. It was the first group award for the program, and an indication of how great an impact Branford and his family have had in the world of jazz.
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