Famed jazz and classical saxophonist Branford Marsalis takes center stage March 6 not to perform but to receive the New Orleans Recreation Development Foundation’s 2018 “Legacy Tribute” for his international acclaim as a musician and composer and for his work in creating the Musicians’ Village in post-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans.
Like most people watching Hurricane Katrina on television, Marsalis felt helpless seeing images of his hometown drown in the devastating floods that inundated over 80 percent of the city. Within days, he and his brothers Delfeayo and Jason along with his childhood friend Harry Connick Jr. flew to Jackson, Miss., where they met, rented a car and drove to New Orleans to find someway to help. A drive that normally takes three hours lasted over six hours. They arrived six days after the storm. The result was Musicians’ Village.
With the help of volunteers and financial benefactors from across the country, construction began in March 2006. The village now boasts over 70 single-family houses, duplexes for seniors, after school programs for children, and the 17,000-square-foot Ellis Marsalis Center for Music that includes a 170-seat performance space and recording studio where Branford now produces most of his new albums. For their work, Branford and Connick received the coveted 2012 Jefferson Award for Public Service.
For almost four decades, Marsalis has performed his music around the world, moving easily from hot fleshy and funky jazz riffs to the precision of a “molto allegro” movement in a Haydn symphony. He has won three Grammys and directed NBC’s Tonight Show band. He also has played with, among numerous others, the New York Philharmonic, Grateful Dead, Sting, Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, and his brother Wynton. In addition to the stage, this icon of American jazz has taken his music into college and high school classrooms across the country.
Branford’s talent is in his DNA. He is a member of the illustrious New Orleans family of musicians that includes its patriarch jazz pianist and teacher Ellis Marsalis Jr., and mother, Dolores, herself a jazz singer, and brothers Delfeayo, Jason, and Wynton. In 2011, Branford, his father and brothers received the National Endowment for the Arts’ prestigious “Jazz Masters” award, the nation’s highest tribute to American jazz musicians.
In a recent interview from his home in Durham, North Carolina, Marsalis recalls his childhood years at NORD, his love of music, and growing up in the city that moves to syncopated rhythms.
Q: The first questions New Orleanians always ask: What neighborhood did you grow up in?
When I was 12, we moved to New Orleans from Kenner. We lived on Hickory Street in Pigeon Town (Carrollton neighborhood).
Q: What activities did you participate in at NORD?
We use to ride our bikes over to NORD and hang around the football team. The coach let us practice with the team. I was never really good at sports, but I could have been if I gave up music. People don’t understand the intricacies of sports. In music, it’s the same thing. NORD established discipline and regiment. That helps you out in later life. The same is true for music.
Q: Although you studied music at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts and at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, where did you learn to play New Orleans music?
Learning how to play an instrument is different than playing music. I learned from my Dad how to be a musician. In music you have to hear sound differently than other people. You can’t teach that. I listened to such a variety of music all my life. In music, people talk about ‘analyzation,’ but in fact, the great composers were writing about what they heard, not what they learned.
Q: How did you and Harry Connick Jr. come up with the idea of Musicians’ Village?
Watching Hurricane Katrina on television in North Carolina I was disappointed, upset and very angry. Harry said he wanted to start a school, but I didn’t want to deal with the school board. Harry then said we had to connect with Habitat for Humanity and build houses for local musicians. He brought the idea to his manager and it took off from there. I, in my limited way, and he in his large way made it happen. You can stand on the sidelines and bitch about what happened, but we said this is what we are going to do. Six months later I heard the first birds come back and then the ice cream truck. It was unbelievable.
Why was preserving the musical heritage of New Orleans important to you?
New Orleans is the only reason I’m a musician. Growing up there makes a huge difference in how you hear and see the world. No other city has an Ellis Marsalis and a Doctor John. They don’t have the Fat Man or an Aaron Neville, or The Meters. I’ve been listening to the sounds of funk, jazz and classical music since I was five. Growing up, I wanted to be with these great musicians whether they could read music or not. You have to hear the music to play it. The purpose of a musician is to move people with your sound.
What does the NORDC award mean to you?
It’s a great honor. The city is a large part of my identity, so I’m happy to be a part of any organization that helps our citizens thrive.
Marsalis will receive the award on March 6 at the foundation’s Champion’s Gala. For additional information, visit NordFoundation.org.
At a Glance
Age: 57 Occupation: Musician, Composer, Bandleader, Teacher Born: New Orleans, Flint-Goodrich Hospital Education: Eleanor McMain Junior High, De La Salle High School, New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts, Southern University, Berklee College of Music in Boston. Favorite Book: I don’t have one, but I’m reading Rhetoric by Aristotle Favorite Movie: I don’t have one, but I enjoyed “Atomic Blonde” this year. Favorite TV Show: “Game of Thrones” Favorite Food: Anything that is full of flavor and spice Favorite Restaurant: Mugaritz in Gipuzkoa, Spain