Fame has become such a permeable monolith in our media-driven age, so vulnerable to the affronts of mere celebrity, that authenticity seems harder and harder to determine.

Still, audiences tend to recognize the real thing when they see it. And for that reason, Branford Marsalis who, with his quartet will give two concerts Sunday at the Samueli Theater in Costa Mesa, has crossed musical barriers throughout his long career, and draws that subtle but well-earned nod of recognition given to the truly accomplished. 

As a jazz musician, he has a world-class reputation as a player who can hold his own with anyone, including the royal likes of Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, Art Blakey, Terence Blanchard and Sonny Rollins.

“Yes or No” – Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis feat. Wayne Shorter. Credit: Jazz at Lincoln Center

On the phone from his home in Durham, North Carolina this week (with frequent breakups), the 62 year-old Marsalis shared the somber mood occasioned by the recent death of another legend, Wayne Shorter. But he also alluded, as he frequently does, to the way things are done differently in New Orleans, his hometown.

“He was one of my major influences,” Marsalis said. “I’m as sad as other people are, because I can remember when he was able to play. By the end, he was on dialysis every day. He was 89 years old. If he could go like Doc Cheatham, who basically had a gig every Monday night until his death, yeah that would not be as sad. With Sonny Rollins it was great. He just said, ‘I’ve had enough.’ To be put in a situation where you can’t do the thing you love, that had to be really tough. In New Orleans, we throw parties for people when they die. We have a different outlook on it.”

If troubled youth is characteristic of a sensitive soul, Marsalis, who turned pro at 14,  was having none of it. New Orleans, the birthplace of Louis Armstrong and Dixieland jazz, is among the most musical of American cities. Funerals are celebrations, marching bands everywhere. Noted musicians were constantly streaming through to add to the countless number already performing. Branford’s father, Ellis, was a famous educator and a much-in-demand sideman in the clubs. 

Please Support Arts & Culture Journalism by Donating Today!

If Arts & Culture stories are important to you, click the the button below and your donation will directly support Arts & Culture coverage.

“When Clark Terry came into New Orleans,” Marsalis said, “he would hire my dad to play a place called the High Regency Club, but we knew it as ‘Le Club.’ It’s one of the few cities where as a kid you’re not teased or vilified. Ever see those coming-of-age movies? The person always has on braces and glasses and gets picked on. That wasn’t my recollection of New Orleans at all. Some of the toughest guys I met played a musical instrument, and loved it. It was a cool thing to do. I started out playing piano and in R&B band, then I switched to saxophone in ‘75 or ‘76.”

New Orleans Pelicans Drum Line on Oct. 13, 2017. Credit: New Orleans Pelicans

He continued, “NBA teams have drumlines at their games now. One of the things I’ve noticed is that the New Orleans team is the only one I’ve seen that consists of mostly high school kids. All the other bands consist of grown men, doing a job. So, if you’re a New Orleans high school kid, you can always find places to play.”

As a composer, Marsalis has written a Tony-nominated musical score for August Wilson’s “Fences” on Broadway (he’s also a four-time Grammy winner). He also wrote the film score for Wilson’s “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” and Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing” and “Mo’ Better Blues.” As an actor he’s appeared in “Throw Momma From the Train” and “School Daze,” in which Lee allowed him freedom to launch his own famously impromptu zingers.

One of his most famous gigs was as musical director for NBC’s “TheTonight Show,” after Jay Leno took over for Johnny Carson in 1992. Right away it was clear that he and Leno had zero rapport. Leno would fire a joke cross stage toward a stoic, unresponsive Marsalis, and it would sound as if his mike went dead. He lasted three unhappy years, after which he was quoted as saying, “The job of musical director … was just to kiss the ass of the host, and I ain’t no ass-kisser.”

As crossover performer, he has memorably worked with Sting, the Grateful Dead and Phil Collins. 

“It’s a great feeling to know you can kick the shit out of every other band in the world,” he said in “Bring On the Night,” the documentary made on the Sting tour. His formal training at Boston’s Berklee College of Music helped polish his classical technique, with its coppery, sensual brightness and warm intelligence.

He was part of the poignant AIDS awareness program of pop, rock, jazz and rap music stars appearing in “Stolen Moments: Red, Hot and Cool” (Time album of the year in 1994), which aired on a 2010 PBS documentary, “Red, Hot and Blue.” He worked with the New York Philharmonic in a 2010 concert held on Central Park’s Great Lawn, and toured the nation with members of the Philharmonia Brasileira playing works of Hector Villa-Lobos. He played “The Star-Spangled Banner” in 2012 at the Democratic National Convention. 

Just as famously, Marsalis is part of a family of distinguished musicians that includes his other brother Wynton, tireless evangelizer for jazz and artistic director of Jazz at Lincoln Center.

Marsalis has followed his father in teaching, at Michigan State, San Francisco State and North Carolina Central University. His other siblings include Delfeayo, Jason, Ellis III and Mboya Kenyatta. As the family name continually grew in renown, the New Yorker magazine ran a cartoon in which one character said to another, “They’ve found a new Marsalis brother.”  

He also holds workshops around the world and takes a dim view of what a majority of his students think they know and understand about jazz. 

Branford Marsalis Quartet, “Cianna (Live).” Credit: Branford Marsalis YouTube Channel

“The word ‘innovation’ in jazz is a joke,” he told Downbeat in 2019. ”The only thing that can be innovative in music is sound …. Songs are no longer called songs; they’re called vehicles for improvisation — as though improvisation is the provenance of jazz. Every culture has improvised over the last 5,000 years. You can hear improvisation in Klezmer music, in Balinese music, Indian music, in bluegrass music, in the blues.”

Without saying so overtly, Marsalis registers the effect of a culture of narcissism on his students.

An Evening with Branford Marsalis 

When: 4 and 7 p.m. March 12

Where: Samueli Theater, Segerstrom Center for the Arts, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa

Cost: $79–$89

Contact: 714-555-2787 or scfta.org

“To understand, they need to learn how to hear,” he said during his VOC interview. “What I try to do is get them to learn to listen. It shocks them when I mention that. In modern jazz, players can play great solos, but they can never play as a group.”

The Marsalis Quartet was first formed in 1987 and after a couple of untimely deaths was reformed in 2010, and since then has consisted of, in addition to Marsalis on saxophone, Joey Calderazzo (piano), Eric Revis (bass) and Justin Faulkner (drums).

“We’ll be playing new music. Most of the people who come to these concerts go to only one a year. They won’t know any of the music, so it’ll be new to them. But it’ll be jazz.”

In the meantime, he’s preparing for a May concert with the San Francisco Symphony under the baton of Dimitri Sitkovetsky.

“I just got an email from him,” Marsalis said. “The music has completely changed. I’m in the process of downloading the new music and getting started on it so that I don’t screw it up. The point is that I’m too busy looking forward to even think about looking back.”

Lawrence Christon is a contributing writer for Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. He can be reached at lrchriston@hotmail.com.

» Stay connected with the arts scene with our weekly newsletter.

Since you value arts and culture,

You are obviously connected to your community and value good arts and culture journalism. As an independent and local nonprofit, Voice of OC’s arts and culture reporting is accessible to all. Our journalists are focused on keeping you connected with the artistic and cultural heartbeat of Orange County. This journalism depends on donors like you to thrive.

Join the conversation: In lieu of comments, we encourage readers to engage with us across a variety of mediums. Join our Facebook discussion. Message us via our website or staff page. Send us a secure tip. Share your thoughts in a community opinion piece.