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Known for his skills on the saxophone, Branford Marsalis is a jazz musician who has won three Grammy Awards, worked on acclaimed albums and toured around the world.
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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.
"A lot of modern jazz does not have—it has no pulse to it, which is why when people listen to it, it just sounds like flat-line music."
"Jazz is not for kids. ... Jazz has a level of sophistication that's just too hip for kids."
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.
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).
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Saxophonists have been an integral part of the American jazz scene, with the timbres of their chosen instrument often at the center of layered compositions. Coleman Hawkins was the first American jazz saxophonist to become famous during the 1920s-30s. Jimmy Dorsey and Johnny Hodges also had major success with big bands during jazz's heyday as a popular music juggernaut, while Lester Young popularized the West Coast, cool style. Later, soprano and tenor saxophonist John Coltrane created pioneering works that ranged from "sheets of sound" bebop to unbound, rhythmically complex free jazz. And Branford Marsalis has taken his sax to great heights in non-jazz arenas; he's toured with rock artist Sting and served as musical director for The Tonight Show.
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