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Marsalis, Branford(1960–) - Saxophonist, jazz musician, Begins Successful Career, Chronology, Leaves Tonight Show and Goes Non-Stop

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Branford Marsalis is a famous saxophonist who comes from a famous musical jazz family. Marsalis has been more adventurous in his musical career with his various styles than his very famous and more traditional trumpeter brother Wynton. Marsalis has enjoyed mainstream success with his brief stint on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno but focuses more on musical artistry than commercial success.

Branford Marsalis, born August 26, 1960, is the oldest out of six sons born to music teacher and jazz pianist Ellis Marsalis Jr. and Dolores Ferdinand Marsalis. He and his brother Wynton are the two most famous musicians of the Marsalis family. Two more of the Marsalis brothers are talented musical artists: Delfeayo is a producer and a trombone player, and the youngest son, Jason, is a drummer. Ellis Marsalis III is a poet and photojournalist and is publicly known by the pen name, t. p. Luce. Mboya is autistic and lives with his parents. The family has done charity work to raise funds and awareness for autism. Grandfather Ellis Marsalis Sr. worked as a poultry worker until he opened the Marsalis Motel in 1943 in Jefferson Parish, Louisiana. Exposure to musicians’ lodging in the motel partly inspired Ellis Jr. to pursue a career in music.

Though he wanted to go to New York as a young man to pursue a music career, Ellis Jr. stayed in New Orleans and supported his large family on a music teacher’s salary and did not try to pursue or dissuade his sons from playing music. “Everybody thinks our family was, ‘Oh, let’s play jazz for breakfast, jazz for lunch, jazz for dinner’,” Branford told Ebony . “But Wynton didn’t like jazz until he was 12 years old. I despised jazz until I was 19.” He may not have pressed his sons to become musicians, but when his sons developed the vocation on their own, Ellis Jr. expected them to play their instruments well.

Shortly after taking up the saxophone in 1979, Marsalis began his studies at Berklee Music College in Boston, Massachusetts. While at Berklee, he worked at Burger King. The store manager was so impressed with young Marsalis that he wanted to recommend him for the fast food chain’s management school, but Marsalis had bigger plans. The career decision was one that he did not regret.

Begins Successful Career

After his studies at Berklee were completed, Marsalis played baritone sax with Art Blakely’s band while they toured Europe. He also briefly worked with the Lionel Hampton Orchestra in 1980 and Clark Terry in 1981 before working again with Blakely. In April 1984, Marsalis’s debut album from Columbia Records, Scenes in the City , was released. Marsalis also worked with Herbie Hancock and Miles Davis during this stage of his career. He played with Wynton’s band between 1982 and 1985 as well.

In March 1985, Marsalis was introduced to Sting and left Wynton’s band to work with the singer. The work that Marsalis and Sting did together (along with fellow band members Kenny Kirkland, Daryl “Munch” Jones and Omar Hakim) resulted in the 1985 album Dream of the Blue Turtles . In this same year, Marsalis performed at the 1985 mega-concert, Live Aid.

In 1986, baby Reese was born to Marsalis and his then-wife, actor Theresa Reese. That same year, the rock documentary Bring on the Night , profiling Sting and the band, was released. Marsalis also released a solo album at the end of 1986, Royal Garden Blues , which earned him a Grammy nomination. Marsalis’s 1987 solo album, Renaissance , was produced by his brother, Delfeayo.



Born in New Orleans, Louisiana on August 26


Begins studies at Berklee Music College in Boston


Joins brother Wynton’s band


Releases debut album Scenes in the City


Partners with Sting; performs at Live Aid


Wins Grammy for Best Jazz Instrumental Performance for album I Heard You Twice the First Time ; begins working on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno


Wins Grammy for Best Pop Instrumental Performance for single “Barcelona Mona” with Bruce Hornsby


Leaves The Tonight Show with Jay Leno


Teams with father, Ellis Marsalis, to do album Loved Ones


Wins Grammy for Best Jazz Instrumental Album Contemporary Jazz


Begins own record label, Marsalis Music


Co-founds Operation Home Delivery with Harry Connick Jr.

Sting and his band’s follow-up album to Turtles, Nothing like the Sun , came out in 1987. In January 1988, Marsalis toured internationally with Sting and performed at the Freedom Concert that was held in order to help free then-jailed South African political prisoner Nelson Mandela. Between 1988 and 1990, Marsalis released the albums Random Abstract, Trio Jeepy , and Crazy People Music . Marsalis also co-wrote the single “Jazz Thing” for the Spike Lee film Mo’ Better Blues . All three albums and the single earned Grammy nominations. In 1991, Marsalis released The Beautiful Ones Are Not Yet Born . The next year, he became the musical director for The Tonight Show with Jay Leno , elevating his celebrity to the level of his brother, Wynton.

Marsalis’s job at The Tonight Show did not slow him down. During his three-year stint with the show, Marsalis worked on various television and film projects as well as releasing three albums: a 1992 Grammy-winning blues album, I Heard You Twice the First Time ; the live album Bloomington ; and the album Buckshot LeFonque with the band of the same name that he formed for the project. Buckshot LeFonque was a pseudonym that was used by legendary 1950s musician Cannonball Adderly. Buckshot was released in the summer 1994, a few months after Marsalis won a Grammy with singer Bruce Hornsby for their single “Barcelona Mona.” The pair received another Grammy nomination for their rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner,” which they performed for the Ken Burns documentary, Baseball .

Leaves Tonight Show and Goes Non-Stop

In 1995, Marsalis left The Tonight Show to do a global tour for with Buckshot LeFonque. Marsalis later admitted one reason why he left The Tonight Show when he told the York Dispatch , “I needed to realize that I’m not an entertainer, I’m an artist.” Marsalis, who worked on the show in California, also did not want to be away from son Reese, who resided in New York. Marsalis and his wife divorced in the same year that he left The Tonight Show . He later remarried and had two children with his second wife, Nicole.

In 1996, Marsalis and his father together recorded the album Loved Ones in two days. The project was initially going to be a solo project for the elder Marsalis, but he invited his son to play on the album with him. In March of the same year, Marsalis wrote the score to the Showtime movie Mr. and Mrs. Loving , starring Tim Robbins and Lela Rochon. In the fall, Marsalis began the Catherine Herrick Cobb Distinguished Lectureship position at Michigan University. After the year lectureship ended, Marsalis stayed on as an adjunct faculty member until the spring of 2000.

In October 1996, Marsalis released Dark Keys . He defended his multi-genre music in light of criticism from jazz purists: “If you listen to a lot of jazz records, all the songs have a tendency to sound exactly the same,” Marsalis told the Memphis Commercial Appeal . “And that’s something I’ve always hated. I’ve seen many reviews saying that my music lacks focus. Because to most people the concept of focus is about sameness.”

In April 1997, Buckshot LeFonque released Music Evolution . In November, Marsalis appeared in a cameo role in the film Eve’s Bayou . In February 1999, Marsalis’s radio program Jazzset , received the Achievement in Radio Award (AIR) for Best Syndicated Show. The next month, he released the album, Requiem , which garnered a Grammy nomination. Marsalis won his third Grammy for the 2000 release, Contemporary Jazz . Later that year, he became a part-time faculty member of San Francisco State’s music department. In March 2001, Marsalis’s album and collaboration with the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, Creation , was released. Marsalis and the orchestra toured the United States and Japan to promote the project.

On August 4, 2001, Louis Armstrong’s 100th birthday, Marsalis teamed up with brothers Wynton, Delfeayo, and Jason as well as Harry Connick Jr. for the benefit concert honoring father Ellis, Satchmo to Marsalis: A Tribute to the Fathers of Jazz . The benefit took place at the Kiefer UNO Lakefront Arena in New Orleans.

Makes Music on His Own Terms

Columbia Records, the record company to which both Branford and Wynton were signed, drastically cut back their production of new jazz music and began to steer towards repackaging catalog material. In response, Marsalis, wanting to practice his art without the pressures of the profit-driven music industry, founded an independent record company, Marsalis Music, in 2002.

Marsalis continues to serve his community. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Marsalis and Connick teamed up with Habitat for Humanity and announced Operation Home Delivery , a plan for a Musicians’ Village. This village was intended to provide homes for New Orleans musicians displaced by the tragedy. In the center of this new community, the Ellis Marsalis Center for Music was to be built. This center would help to educate and nurture the musicians who live in the new neighborhood. Marsalis continues to make music and continues to co-chair Operation Home Delivery with Connick. Marsalis shows that one can be true to his art and himself in a business that increasingly focuses on profit.

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