Branford Marsalis: The Problem With Jazz

The saxophonist says the genre needs to get out of its rut of virtuosic self-indulgence.

The following is edited from an interview with jazz saxophonist Branford Marsalis, whose latest album, Songs of Mirth and Melancholy, is a collaboration with pianist Joey Calderazzo.


You put on old records and they always sound better. Why are they better? I started listening to a lot of classical music, and that really solidified the idea that the most important and the strongest element of music is the melodic content.

In jazz we spend a lot of time talking about harmony. Harmonic music tends to be very insular. It tends to be [like] you’re in the private club with a secret handshake.

I have a lot of normal friends. ‘Cause it’s important. [When] you have a bunch of musicians talking about music and they talk about what’s good and what’s not good, they don’t consider the larger context of it.

You read a review of something and some guy in New York says “This is the most important music since such and such.” And then when you look at it in a larger context, you say, “Well, can we really use the word ‘important’ for something that the majority of the people have never heard?”

As I’ve started to extend and get back into the outside world—which really started when I was on the Tonight Show—you realize, “Man, nobody knows who the fuck were are.” And the idea was not to do things to make them know, but the question is within the context of the music I’ve chosen to play . . . what are the things that normal people like about music and can we incorporate those things?

When laypeople listen to records, there’re certain things they’re going to get to. First of all, how it sounds to them. If the value of the song is based on intense analysis of music, you’re doomed. Because people that buy records don’t know shit about music. When they put on Kind of Blue and say they like it, I always ask people: What did you like about it? They describe it in physical terms, in visceral terms, but never in musical terms.

In a lot of ways classical music is in a similar situation to where jazz is, except at least the level of excellence in classical music is more based on the music than it is based on the illusion of reinventing a movement. Everything you read about jazz is: “Is it new? Is it innovative?” I mean, man, there’s 12 fucking notes. What’s going to be new? You honestly think you’re going to play something that hasn’t been played already?

So, you know, my whole thing is, is it good? I don’t care if it’s new. There’s so little of it that’s actually good, that when it’s good, it shocks me.

So much of jazz, it doesn’t even have an audience other than the music students or the jazz musicians themselves, and they’re completely in love with virtuosic aspects of the music, so everything is about how fast a guy plays. It’s not about the musical content and whether the music is emotionally moving or has passion.

At some point, you get into the music and it’s only about, well, this is what I want to convey. I’m into me. I’m into my shit. And after a while you look up and say, “Well, that was nice and self-indulgent and fun.” Music clearly has to have more meaning than that.

My job is to write songs that have emotional meaning to me. Because I believe that if the songs have emotional meaning, that will translate to a larger audience that has the capacity to appreciate instrumental music, ’cause a lot of people don’t. And I can’t do anything to get them to like my music, and I’m not really trying.