Branford Marsalis is one of the best known jazz saxophone players of the United States. He has performed also in rock, funk, and popular idioms, as well as classical. The All Music Guide's pop, rock, and jazz pages will have a fuller version of his career in those genres.
Marsalis was born into what emerged as one of the royal families of American jazz. He is one of three musician sons (the others are Wynton, and Delfeayo) born to Ellis Marsalis, a well known jazz pianist in New Orleans. Ellis Marsalis was not a traditional or "Dixieland" performer, but instead was a leader of the progressive jazz scene that helped keep jazz up-to-date in the town of its birth.
Ellis Marsalis valued thorough musical knowledge and saw to it that his sons got technical and theoretical training in music — the kind of instruction that as a kind of shorthand is often called "classical training." Branford learned to play piano from age four, and later took up the clarinet. He was 15 when he decided to switch over to the saxophone as his main interest. The family's interest in music was wide. When Branford was little, his mother gave him a Disney record that included Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms. Two pieces that hooked him when he was young were Gustav Mahler's Third Symphony and Beethoven's "Eroica." He points out that many jazz musicians love classical music. "Everybody knows Charlie Parker's favorite musician was Igor Stravinsky," he says. Branford studied at Southern University in Baton Rouge, LA. He found a mentor there in the legendary New Orleans jazz player Alvin Batiste, who insisted the boy transfer to the Berklee College of Music in Boston to gain the greatest possible range of technical skills.
From the age of 20, Marsalis began to play professionally. He followed Wynton into the ensemble Art Blakey & The Jazz Messengers and worked with other major jazz stars, including Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, and Clark Terry. He took on popular and rock session work that included playing with the Grateful Dead, Tina Turner, and many others, and collaborated with the British rocker Sting on three albums, establishing himself as one of the best-known jazz artists in the world. A job as the bandleader on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno made him a household word, although viewers could see artistic frustration growing on his part as he tried to engage in the kind of Doc Severinsen or Paul Shaffer banter expected on U.S. late-night shows. Marsalis left after two years. He also experimented with funk playing under the pseudonym Buckshot LeFonque, previously used by sax legend Cannonball Adderley.
Marsalis made a classical album early in his career, but has expressed dissatisfaction with that early effort. "It was light classical, you know, the kind of melodies they sell on TV." His second classical album, Creation, is a more serious effort, directed at the period around 1920 when jazz exploded into the world of French classical music in the hands of composers Erik Satie, Maurice Ravel, and Darius Milhaud. Marsalis is also the host of the weekly National Public Radio program Jazz Set. He has acted in motion pictures as well as writing and performing music for Spike Lee's films Do the Right Thing, Mo' Better Blues, and School Daze.