Saxophonist Branford Marsalis on the Jazz/Classical Disconnect within Music Education

Interview conducted by Sean Packard

NEA Jazz Master and Grammy Award®-winning saxophonist Branford Marsalis has established himself as a world class artist in the both the realms of jazz and classical music. Marsalis leads one of the finest jazz quartets today, and performs frequently as a classical soloist with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the Boston Pops, and the New York Philharmonic.

His work with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers sparked a successful career of performances with the likes of Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Herbie Hancock, Sonny Rollins, and rock icons Sting, the Grateful Dead, and Bruce Hornsby.  Branford has also received a Tony Award® nomination for his composition work on Broadway, and brings a fresh new approach as a jazz educator.

VandorenUSA: There seems to be a disconnection between classical and jazz music in schools today.  What is your opinion on the separation of classical and jazz music in the classroom and in our culture today?

Branford Marsalis: It’s basically how people are. They seem to gravitate to a position, and spend much of their time appreciating that which validates or affirms their position. Often times, I post music on my Facebook page which has nothing to do with jazz, and there is not a single response to those posts. Classrooms are a metaphor for this. Many of the instructors are only adept at the subjects they teach, and do not like the idea of being exposed as subpar in another situation. I don’t think this is a new idea, or a problem with schools. It’s a problem with people, and unless the people change, the situation will not.

What are a few things that you think we could do to improve the music education system in universities and conservatories today?

BM: That’s an easy one. There should be listening lists added to the curriculum. Ultimately, great composers heard the sounds before they wrote it, not the other way around. The way harmony is taught is based on a false premise, but it’s the only way to really teach it. Much like writing, the idea comes before the note is put to paper.

What was it like growing up with so many talented musicians in the Marsalis home?  Were there and are there still frequent family jam sessions?  

BM: There were never jam sessions at our house. There is a 17-year gap between me and Jason, my youngest brother. There is a 5-year gap between Delfeayo and I. Wynton and I spent a lot of time working on music together, in the form of playing in bands, or singing the Bach 2-part inventions in solfége, but we didn’t have jam sessions at home.

"The blues is the key to all things American (except classical music)." - Branford Marsalis 

It is evident in your sound that you have a background in blues, classical, and funk music as well as jazz.  How has this rich musical background influenced you as an artist?

BM: The blues is the key to all things American (except classical music). It took me a long time to understand that it is much more than a 12-bar form, and when I did, it made me better as a  musician.

What do you strive for most when performing an improvised solo? 

BM: I strive to be in the moment. Not to use music as a vehicle to show off my worked-out solo, but to allow the song and the musicians to influence me in real-time.

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