The eldest child of "The First Family of Jazz," Branford Marsalis has forged his own musical identity, incorporating a vast scope of genres thanks to his remarkable versatility and innovative spirit. As a sideman, the saxophonist has played with some of the giants of jazz: Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Herbie Hancock and Sonny Rollins. The accomplished artist also assumes a mentoring role, supporting a new generation of musicians through his work at his record label, Marsalis Music, and as a frequent guest lecturer at universities across the U.S.
Band of brothers
Born in New Orleans, the birthplace of jazz, with a musically distinguished heritage (father Ellis is a pianist and brothers Wynton, Delfeayo and Jason play trumpet, trombone and drums, respectively), Brandford Marsalis heard his calling from a very young age.
In 1979, the 19-year-old saxophonist attended the Berklee College of Music in Boston and went on a European tour with Art Blakey's big band the following summer. After a brief stint with flügelhornist Clark Terry, he once again teamed up with Blakey, playing baritone in the drummer/bandleader's Jazz Messengers group for five months.
Between 1982 and 1985, Marsalis became a member of his brother Wynton's influential quintet. During that fruitful period, he also joined Herbie Hancock's V.S.O.P. II tour, which made a stop at the Festival in 1983, and recorded with Miles Davis on the legendary trumpeter's 1984 album Decoy.
In 1985, Marsalis left his brother's band (resulting in a temporary rift between the two siblings) to join Sting, who had been, until recently, the headman for the Police before the group dissolved at the peak of its popularity. Although Marsalis didn't stay with the pop star for long, he played on two of Sting's albums and appeared on an international tour.
Charting new music
By 1986, Marsalis had already formed his own ensemble and issued Romances for Saxophone, his first all-classical recording. Armed with his soprano sax and accompanied by the English Chamber Orchestra, the multi-talented musician had his instrument "sing" in the Rachmaninov Vocalise as well as in works by Debussy, Ravel and others.
That same year, the saxophonist released Royal Garden Blues, teaming up with his brother Delfeayo, who acted as producer, and his father, Ellis. The album earned him a Grammy nomination for Best Solo Jazz Instrumental Performance.
Marsalis explored yet another musical genre on Jazz Thing, the closing track of Spike Lee's film Mo' Better Blues (1990), which was co-produced by DJ Premiere and performed by rap artist Gangstarr. Released as a single, it was one of the first songs to successfully merge rap and jazz.
In 1992, the crossover artist debuted as musical director on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, but didn't keep his post as the comedic host's sidekick for long. That same year, Marsalis teamed up with the venerable bluesmen B.B. King and John Lee Hooker, as well as his brothers Delfeayo and Wynton, on I Heard You Twice the First Time.
In 1994, he formed the influential group Buckshot LeFonque (a pseudonym used by saxophonist Cannonball Aderley in the 1950s) and released the group's self-titled debut. Touted by critics as a musical breakthrough, the album featured an eclectic line-up - from poetess Maya Angelou to trumpeter Roy Hargrove - and fused a new sound with hip-hop beats, jazz licks and spoken word.
Musician to mogul
Returning to his roots, Marsalis joined his father onstage at the Festival in 1996. Presenting excerpts from their album Loved Ones, which paid tribute to some of the remarkable women in jazz (including mother and wife Dolores Marsalis), the duo proved that the saying "like father, like son" had a certain ring to it.
Having recorded with Columbia for nearly two decades, the saxophonist founded his own independent label, Marsalis Music, in 2002, with a focus on nurturing emerging artists such as Harry Connick Jr.
Into the 2000s, Marsalis remained active in the recording studio, issuing a string of successful albums: Footsteps of Our Fathers (2002), Romare Bearden Revealed (2003), Eternal (2004) and Braggtown (2006). During this time, he also appeared as a featured soloist with several international orchestras, establishing his presence in the classical music realm.
In 2009, the saxophonist's quartet, which also includes pianist Joey Calderazzo, bassist Eric Revis and drummer Jeff Watts, marked its tenth anniversary with the release of Metamorphosen. That same year, Marsalis celebrated another milestone, visiting the Festival for its 30th edition.