Branford and Wynton Marsalis Are Keeping New York’s Jazz Scene Alive

(Photographs by Jai Lennard)

New York is not the birthplace of jazz but rather its town square, where discipline is sharpened and lessons are taught. In the late 1970s and early ’80s two brothers from New Orleans came to New York. First, the trumpeter Wynton Marsalis moved to Harlem, then his older brother, saxophonist Branford, arrived in Brooklyn. In the 40 years since then, the Marsalis brothers have done more than most to celebrate jazz in and through the city.

“I grew up here,” Branford tells me. “I became a man here. I was 20 years old when I got here, just a regular kid.”

In the early ’80s he was honing his R&B skills and “learning to become a jazz musician.” He hung out at a club called Seventh Avenue South, which was owned by Randy and Michael Brecker (another pair of siblings who play horns). The club’s live sets were piped into the downstairs bar, where Branford hung out and played Ms. Pac-Man with R&B singer Patrice Rushen until four in the morning, “just listening to the music and talking shit.”

He also went to the Village Vanguard so he could learn from the elders. “I used to go to the Vanguard, and they’d let me come in for five bucks on the third set,” Branford says. “It was a poor man’s paradise.”

No longer a regular kid or a poor man, Branford—a three-time Grammy winner who used to lead the Tonight Show band—has just finished scoring George C. Wolfe’s film adaptation of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, due out this winter. Branford had a specific assignment: to recreate the arrangements and the sound of 1920s music, which was both an artistic and physical challenge.

“In the 1920s musicians played outdoors as much as they played indoors,” Branford says. “I needed to find a bunch of musicians who had outside voices and could still play the music, roughly in a style that’s similar to the ’20s.” The resulting album is a testament to the hard-as-nails dance music that held sway long before jazz players got lost in “solos and structures, way far away from the melody,” as Branford puts it.

The album was made in small groups using voice, cornet, trombone, clarinet, piano, banjo, and, in one case, feet. “There are two songs we did where the snare drum was replaced by Savion Glover hoofing.”

Branford’s younger brother Wynton, the managing and artistic director of Jazz at Lincoln Center, puts together groups on a daily basis. The only thing more impressive than his work with Jazz at Lincoln Center is how excited he is about the work, and the musicians who build that work with him.

“I work with the greatest musicians in the world,” Wynton tells me, shaking his head and smiling. “We revived Duke Ellington’s music! We breathe life into the music by not divorcing it from its tradition! We program more from American composers than has ever been programmed by any entity in the history of America.” By the time he’s done, he is half out of his seat, about to turn a Zoom call into a Zoom concert.

Jazz at Lincoln Center hasn’t let the pandemic slow its roll. It has put on more than 600 live online events since March, including swing university classes and lectures. Over the summer Wynton also released the most audacious album of his career, The Ever Fonky Lowdown. He may be royalty now, but that’s not making him avoid the real talk.

“New York is such a segregated place now. We got too greedy,” Wynton says. “We need to have more citizens participate.”

It was something else when he got here. “I got here in 1979, when I was 17, to go to Juilliard,” he says. “In my first year I played in the orchestra pit of Sweeney Todd, when Angela Lansbury was in it. I played with the Brooklyn Philharmonic, Art Blakey, David Murray, so many people. And I taught elementary school in the Bronx with Hispanic kids—everybody thought I was Puerto Rican.”

What stayed with me after talking to Wynton was how many other people he talked about. Swapping notes with a friend, days later, I mentioned some of the newer jazz artists I had been playing over the past week: saxophonist Immanuel Wilkins, composer and singer Cécile McLorin Salvant, vibraphonist Joel Ross. He asked me where I’d heard about these people.

“Oh, you know. Wynton told me.”

by Sasha Frere-Jones
Source: This story appears in the December 2020/January 2021 issue of Town & Country

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