Classic Branford Marsalis on the magic of learning and playing classical music

Branford Marsalis. Photo Roger Thomas

You quickly discover when you interview Branford Marsalis, that he is blunt, opinionated, confident and a joy to engage with on any subject from a barbecue-flavoured potato chip “cut and fried and processed and good as hell” to the importance of listening in all forms of music. 

Marsalis may be better known as a jazz saxophonist, coming as he does from the first family of American jazz. But he is also a determined and dedicated player of classical music. 

The classical side of Marsalis is on view this week at the NAC on Thursday and Friday and at the National Gallery on Sunday. (That latter show is sold out).

He will play Alexander Glazunov’s Saxophone Concerto with NACO in Southam Hall.

It’s a piece he has played for a long time.

“My first saxophone teacher, my only saxophone teacher gave it to me when I was 15. And I didn’t have an adequate sound vocabulary so I’m sure it sounded like s**t.”

She gave him the piece to challenge him and knock him off his pedestal a bit.

“I didn’t want a saxophone teacher. I was playing R&B then and I didn’t want to play it. She plopped the Glazunov down in front of me and said, ‘Alright play that. I started playing and she said ‘That’s not right.’ Before I could say anything she pulled the music away and said, ‘Yeah, you are too good for this, go away’.

“I was right back there the next week: ‘Show me that music again’.”

It’s not that he decided he liked the Glazunov, he said, “I was challenged by it. I didn’t know enough about music to like it.”

Sometimes a “slap in the mouth” is a good thing. 

In music today, Marsalis says, there is a belief that the common language of modern interpretation is based on harmony, when, in fact, “the common language is based on sound. If you know what things are supposed to sound like then there are all these things you can do in service to that sound.

“If your job is to play for your colleagues you can use … harmony. If you aspire to play for regular people they are affected by how things sound because they don’t know the data and they don’t care to know the data. They just want to listen and enjoy.

“Music should be enjoyable but not necessarily all of it. If you are going to play a piece and hit somebody over the head with a baseball bat, the next piece you play give them some ice cream. Too many times in jazz you hit them over the head and then you hit them in the teeth. And that’s why people hate the stuff.”

Same goes for classical, he says. In programming you can play one Schoenberg piece, he says. “Don’t play three of them.”

So, is Glazunov ice cream? “In comparison to Schoenberg, yeah,” he says.

Glazunov left the Soviet Union in 1928 and landed in Paris. By 1936 he was dead, having not really gained a foothold in the west.

“This was the one piece … He was able to write a piece for an obscure instrument and he put everything he knew into this thing,” Marsalis says.

Glazunov left a regime that insisted that all musical composition should reflect the spirit of the Russian people. And it should not sound western. As a result, Marsalis says, a lot of music produced was less than stellar, but people would pretend to like it.

He sees something similar in jazz where “I think there are only a handful of people who play music who can actually hear the music. When jazz critics write about jazz records it’s more about how the record feels than how it sounds. To them, anything that feels like it sounds like nothing they have ever heard before, they call it innovative.”

Innovation for innovation’s sake isn’t the key to good music, he says. In fact, Marsalis believes, music, for hundreds of years, has been building upon the preceding generations. And, in his opinion, that’s OK.

“Beethoven’s first symphony sounds like Haydn. His fifth symphony sounds like Beethoven. Wagner’s first opera sounds like Verdi. His third opera sounds like Wagner. There is a process to it.

“This idea that there is some new sound to be found behind a tree or a shrub” somewhere that is better than the music built upon the sounds of the past, is wrongheaded, he believes.

“The only way to fight that is by stepping on their neck.” Tough talk but, Marsalis says, he is his mother’s son.

“My mother (Dolores) was tough. She had six boys because she was tough. My mother used to beat people up when she grew up.” His mother passed away last year at age 80.

Marsalis takes different approach to playing classical music.

“I have to be less loud. I need to have a mouthpiece that allows me to control the tone. Non-classical music never really gets to pianissimo. It never gets softer than super loud. To get that you have to practice in a different way. I played clarinet first. My clarinet teacher was always on me about my tone.

“When you spend enough time around jazz guys you realize jazz guys never talk about tone they just talk about data. Go learn this pattern, learn these scales.”

But the thing that affects people is how the music sounds, not how many notes a player can string together.

“Jazz musicians are smart people. They are whizzes at understanding and breaking down structure.”

But playing music is more than that, he says.

At the root of it is listening. This is a lesson Marsalis learned when he first performed the Quintet for Alto Saxophone and String Quartet by Adolph Busch, which he will play on Sunday.

“When I first started playing this piece, we ran through the piece once. Then the violinist picked up the score and asked ‘Who has the melody here?’ In my mind I’m going ‘What do you mean it’s for saxophone, I have the melody’.”

Then the cellist piped up and said she had the melody at a different point and so it went around the quartet.

“I looked at the scores and realized they were right. At this point I had a complete complex. I was coming from another background. I didn’t know how to play under them in parts. I had to develop and learn how to listen in that way. I had to learn how to pay attention to who has melody where and when I’m supposed to be louder.

“I never was one of those people who kissed my own ass too well. I’ve often said the learning never ends. For me there was the horror of the fact I was playing (this piece) so insensitively. Then there was the excitement of figuring out that I could get to be better. It’s hard work. I have been playing jazz since my 20s and I knew how to play jazz.

“Classical music in my 40s got me to a place where I was going to have to practice and become a better player. It made me a better musician.”

Branford Marsalis 
Where: Southam Hall
When: March 1 and 2 at 8 p.m.
Where: National Gallery of Canada
When: March 4 at 2 p.m. (This show is sold out).
Tickets and information:

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.