In a conversation called “Jazz: The Big Picture” at Dizzy’s Den stage, journalist Yoshi Kato asked Branford Marsalis about his family in New Orleans (they’re fine), his new label, Marsalis Music, and his views on the current state of jazz. If you’ve ever heard Branford speak, you know he has strong opinions and he’s not at all shy about expressing them. This day was no exception. A sampling of Marsalis-isms:
• On jazz today: “In a lot of ways, this is a really good time to be a jazz musician because the music is totally unpopular in American culture.”
• On being a jazz artist: “You have to immerse yourself in the music. If you’re meant to be innovative, it will happen. Otherwise you’ll have to be satisfied with being an excellent craftsman, and there’s no shame in that.”
• On Marsalis Music: “We don’t have buildings in every city, we don’t have limousines, we’re not beholden to shareholders—when you’re beholden to shareholders, you don’t have a lot of time to spend with ragtag jazz musicians.” And: “Jazz records really don’t sell. Given that fact, you might as well make good ones.”
• On his own recordings: “The fourteen records I did for Columbia were not close to my best stuff. My best stuff will be on my own label.” Some of it already is, like the delicious “Eternal.” Branford also guests on Harry Connick’s new Marsalis Music release, “Occasion.” The two will appear at the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul on Wednesday, September 28, as will label mate Miguel Zenon. Forget about trying to get tickets; the show is totally sold out.
Those of us who couldn’t score seats at the Fitzgerald show can bask in the glow of two more Marsalises earlier that week, when younger brother Delfeayo brings his quintet to the Dakota in Minneapolis for four sets on Sunday and Monday, September 25 and 26. The group also includes Jason Marsalis on drums.
On the horizon: Marsalis Music is planning an Honors Series in which older musicians (“thrown on the scrap heap,” in Branford’s words) will be paired with younger musicians for one-off recordings, tours, and the kind of schooling a younger artists can only get from an older, experienced artist. Branford remembers, “I was lucky enough to have Art Blakey curse me out on a nightly basis. I learned a lot.”
Back at the fairgrounds: After leaving Dizzy’s Den and downing some coconut shrimp croquettes, Janis Lane-Ewart and I headed toward the Garden Stage, deluding ourselves into thinking we’d find seats for Mavis Staples’ show. We were wrong, so we went and drank wine instead. It was 5:30—plenty late in the day for a little Pinot. I was able to squeeze into the crowd in time to hear Mavis sing “I’ll Take You There.” She’s been singing that song for decades but can still raise the hair on your arms.
Later that night, on the Jimmy Lyons Stage, the Carla Bley Big Band performed a rousing “Cages,” a lilting and lovely “One Way,” and a new work commissioned by the Festival: “Appearing Nightly at the Black Orchid.” The story behind “Black Orchid:” It was the name of a bar in Monterey in which Bley played her first and only gig as a cocktail pianist, performing all 17 songs she knew.
From some of the talk around us during Bley’s set (examples: “She sure has funny hair” and “Is it over yet?”), I suspected that most people were in the Arena for the night’s big headliner: Tony Bennett. Just before the red curtains opened for Tony, they parted every so slightly and Clint Eastwood walked out. He welcomed the crowd, mentioned the “Higher Ground” hurricane relief concert held at Jazz at Lincoln Center earlier that evening, and reminded us that the Festival was taking donations to benefit the many New Orleans musicians displaced by Hurricane Katrina. And then the curtain opened and I was seeing Tony Bennett live for the first time. (From much better seats than my own, thanks to the kindness of friends.)
I had expected Bennett to be good. I hadn’t expected to be blown away. Naturally, he sang the standards: “The Best Is Yet to Come,” “All of Me,” “Sing Low,” “I Got Rhythm,” “I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” “Fly Me to the Moon.”After years of interpreting the lyrics of others, he sang a song he’d written to music by Django Reinhardt. He looks magnificent—all class and elegance, silver tie and red pocket square. His profile still astonishes; on the big screen, it was Mount Rushmore-worthy. He’s still in fine voice. During an hour-long performance, he scatted, he held the long notes, he hit the high ones, he twirled on his heel and snapped his fingers, and he held 7,000 people in the palm of his hand. His final song of the evening was the Alan and Marilyn Bergman classic, “The Music Never Ends.” Believe it.