Branford Marsalis has often heard the complaints, and he has always ignored them. He has listened as critics, fans, even his own brother have labeled him a sell-out, a traitor; he has withstood attacks on his credibility and defied them with the courage of convictions.
Though he is perhaps the best young jazz performer of his generation--a musician whose finest works equal those of a young Sonny Rollins or John Coltrane, so adventurous and exuberant are such albums as The Beautiful Ones are Not Yet Born and Crazy People Music and Trio Jeepy--Branford has strayed. Far, and often without forgiveness.
In the mid-'80s, just as Marsalis was cementing his reputation as the inheritor to Coltrane's crown, he became part of Sting's jazz-rock ensemble that also included bassist Daryl Jones and keyboardist Kenny Kirkland; for such an indiscretion, his jazz peers nearly labeled him a leper and almost asked that he never return to their fold. Younger brother Wynton, who had previously taken Miles Davis to task for playing pop songs, scoffed openly and loudly during interviews.
But Branford--who continued to release jazz albums, each better and richer and deeper than the last--was not swayed. He appeared with pop pianist Bruce Hornsby at an NBA All-Star Game, performing a new-agey "Star Spangled Banner"; he took acting jobs in pal Spike Lee's films; he has worked with rappers Gangstarr and Public Enemy, post-modern soulman Terence Trent D'Arby, the Grateful Dead, bassist Rob Wasserman, and so on.
As a final act of insolence and mutiny, he even accepted the job as Jay Leno's sidekick on The Tonight Show, becoming Doc Severinsen to Leno's sterile, clumsy Carson. It was a job he held for nearly two years, quitting several weeks ago to begin touring again and to spend time with his son--though Howard Stern often insists, to Branford's face, he quit the show because he was tired of taking shit from his brother. But every time Branford heard the criticisms from those jazz purists who felt he was betraying their cause, he just smiled and scoffed at that "dumb shit" people said about him.
"That's been other people's problem for a long time," he says now. "It's never been a problem I've had because it's something I knew wasn't true and something I never have chosen to address. It's like playing with Sting wasn't a huge stretch for me, and jazz ain't like a huge thing. I can do all that stuff."
And now comes the ultimate dare--Branford doing the "unspeakable," as younger brother Delfeayo writes, releasing an album of his very own (no mere sideman, anymore) that can hardly be considered jazz, though it does skirt the issue. ("I've been doing the unspeakable for a long time," Branford says.) Its source material comes from all places--funk, hip-hop, ska, reggae, Elton John, bluesman Albert Collins, John Coltrane, poet Maya Angelou, James Brown, Fela, banjo master Bela Fleck, journeyman rock guitarist Nils Lofgrin. Buckshot LeFonque it's called, both the band name and the album, and it is a mishmash, pieces seemingly assembled at random from so many places; references to Madness and the Beastie Boys are heard in the first track, and from there it evolves (or degenerates) into a dozen different entities.
And yet, listen close enough and it is indeed jazz--or at least, funk and hip-hop born of the same melodic and rhythmic sensibilities; it's no small footnote that Buckshot LeFonque was the name Cannonball Adderley used when he jumped the jazz ship to record rhythm-and-blues, back during the days of "race records."
Unlike similar ventures by the likes of Guru or Us3 or any of the artists (such as MC Solaar, Digable Planets, even The Last Poets) on the Stolen Moments Red Hot + Cool AIDS awareness compilation--all hip-hop artists who lure washed-up jazzers out of retirement then have them lay down sterile sounds over a drum-machine beat--Marsalis and his co-producer, DJ Premier, bring an equal love for an understanding of jazz and hip-hop. They understand the logic that connects the two styles, finding a marriage of sound in which notes and beats are not forced on top of each other. They combine the live with the taped, the acoustic bass with the sampling machine; they bring the blues into the dancehall, the funky into the soulful.
On a track like "Breakfast @ DENNY'S," MARSALIS QUOTES THELONIOUS MONK'S "EPISTROPHY" AS PREMIER SCRATCHES ALONG, USING THE TURNTABLE TECHNIQUE TO PROVIDE A BEAT. AS OPPOSED TO SOMETHING LIKE US3'S "CANTALOOP," WHICH IS DRIVEN BY A HERBIE HANCOCK SAMPLE AND SET TO A DANCE BEAT, MARSALIS AND PREMIER WORK IN TANDEM AS MEMBERS OF A BAND--THE SAX PLAYER AND THE FUNKY DRUMMER, TO QUOTE JAMES BROWN.
"THERE ARE A COUPLE OF MY JAZZ BUDDIES WHO ARE MORE INTERESTED IN BEING CALLED GENIUSES THAN MAKING GOOD MUSIC," MARSALIS EXPLAINS. "THEY WANT TO BE CALLED INNOVATORS AND GENIUSES. ONE OF THE THINGS I KNOW FROM PLAYING WITH STING, FOR INSTANCE, IS WHEN YOU'RE PLAYING WITH STING AND YOU'RE AT THE G7 CHORD, YOU HAVE THREE OR FOUR THINGS YOU CAN PLAY THAT WORK REALLY WELL, AND THE REST OF THE SHIT IS JUST FODDER.
"IN JAZZ, YOU HAVE 14 OR 15 DIFFERENT COMBINATIONS OR MORE THAN THAT EVEN THAT WORK WELL. THAT'S JUST SOMETHING THAT IS REALISTIC TO THE NATURE OF THE MUSICS THEMSELVES. SO WHAT A LOT OF THOSE GUYS TRY TO DO IS TAKE THE JAZZ SENSIBILITIES AND FORCE IT ON TOP OF THE COMMERCIAL SENSIBILITY, AND THAT SHIT DON'T WORK. IT CLASHES, AND IT MAKES YOU CRINGE. IF YOU JUST SAY, 'I'M A JAZZ MUSICIAN,' AND TRY TO PUSH THAT JAZZ SHIT ON TOP OF HIP-HOP, IT'S NOT GOING TO WORK."
IT IS, AT THE MOST BASIC LEVEL, THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN HIRING DALLAS-BORN TRUMPET PLAYER ROY HARGROVE, AS MARSALIS DID, AND HAULING DONALD BYRD OUT OF RETIREMENT, WHICH WAS GURU'S BID FOR LEGITIMACY. HARGROVE--LIKE BRANFORD, WHO BEGAN PLAYING IN FUNK BANDS AND OFTEN CITES LED ZEPPELIN'S PHYSICAL GRAFFITI AS ONE OF HIS FAVORITE RECORDS AS A KID--WAS RAISED ON MYRIAD SOUNDSo rap, soul, funk, jazz. The disparate but always intertwined sounds of Buckshot LeFonque are second nature to Hargrove, in his blood. By contrast, Byrd, long one of jazz's second-tier performers, has been irrelevant as a performer for years, his soul-and-pop inspired jazz long since dated and dried-up.
"Because Guru is a hip-hopper, his sensibility is based on the records they sample, so when he needed a trumpet player, he called Donald Byrd," Marsalis says. "No disrespect to Donald, but he has muscular dystrophy in his lips. He hasn't played with any impact for a long time. He called Donald Byrd, I called Roy Hargrove, and that's a significant difference in sound and approach.
"I legitimately like the music I'm doing. I'm not tryin' to be hip, I'm not tryin' to be cutting-edge. There's this little clique of 'innovators' where the outer the shit, the outer the music gets, the more innovative they feel. It was about an experimentation with melody for me and changing the aural sensibilities in sound."
But Marsalis, in fact, is often regarded as the father of hip-hop-jazz; his work with Gangstarr (which included DJ Premier) on the song "Jazz Thang" from the Do the Right Thing sound track in 1989 was the precursor to a so-called jazz-hip-hop movement that has become more fad than fact. Marsalis shrugs off any idea of his having been an innovator--"We took a lot of jazz elements and jazz logic and infused it with the hip-hop elements and hip-hop logic," he says--because he has not invented anything. He has simply recast the die, blended elements that already exist and breathed new life into them--or, in the case of dancehall reggae, found a way to make the sound at least interesting. And never once has he ever claimed to be anything but a jazz musician, no matter how far he strayed from the "tradition" of which he still speaks so often.
Wynton--hailed by purists as a jazz savior who has reinvigorated tradition, reviled by some critics as a narrow-minded elitist and even a racist who doesn't perform the works of white composers--has often been cited as having tremendous disdain for the hip-hop musicians who blend jazz into the mix, whether through the use of samples or with studio musicians. But, as he told the Observer earlier this year, he does not necessarily dislike the music; rather, he simply doesn't consider it jazz and winces at the perception that a band like Us3, the first hip-hop band on the famed jazz-only Blue Note label, could even be lumped in with labelmates like John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, and Cannonball Adderley simply by virtue of sampling snippets of sax lines or a walking bass line.
"I just don't think it introduces a new audience to jazz," Wynton says. "If you want to introduce an audience to jazz, play jazz and talk about it. Something like [Red Hot + Cool] is cool for what it is, but that's not jazz music. It's something else, whatever they call it--hip-hop, whatever. There's many different things in the world.
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"Now, anything that's not jazz becomes celebrated as an innovation in jazz. That is what the problem is. So you say, 'OK, what is jazz?' It's something that addresses the conception of swing and it has at its base--as its harmonic, melodic, psychological, and spiritual base--blues idiom expression. That's what jazz is. That's the definition I'm willing to forward and to defend."
Branford is more than willing to allow his brother to remain a purist: "Trust me when I tell you, you don't want to hear Wynton make a hip-hop record. You don't want to hear him playin' on nothin'. That's a fuckin' disaster waitin' to happen.
"If Wynton says he doesn't like hip-hop, so what? Hip-hop guys don't run around talkin' about how much they like jazz, unless they samplin' it. You never hear them say, 'Yeah, man, I was at a Joshua Redman concert, and tha' mufuckuh's dope.' They don't come around, and nobody asked them about jazz. Don't ask us about hip-hop."
Buckshot LeFonque, featuring Branford Marsalis, performs May 13 and 14 at the Caravan of Dreams in Fort Worth.