Branford Marsalis worries that when people hear he is playing the music of Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos, they might get the wrong idea.
"I think a lot of people think Brazilian music and they think the beat," he said while driving to the airport in New York City. "They say, 'Oh, I LOVE Brazilian music.' Although there are elements of that music implicit in his music, it's classical music."
While Marsalis came to fame as a jazz man, his musical repertoire transcends the genre and his interests have reached from pop to classical.
With his Branford Marsalis Quartet, the multiple Grammy Award-winning musician has focused his attentions on jazz, classical music and education.
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Marsalis will play a celebration of the music of Villa-Lobos, one of the best-known Latin American composers of this century, with members of the Filharmonia Brasileira (Brazilian Orchestra) and its conductor, Gil Jardim. The co-presentation with Capital Public Radio is in honor of the 50th anniversary of Villa-Lobos' death.
Marsalis spoke from Manhattan on his way to Durham, N.C., where he and his quartet are the artists in residence at North Carolina Central University.
Q: While you're most widely associated with jazz, you've had wide-ranging collaborations (with Sting, the Grateful Dead, the "Tonight Show," etc.). How did those styles come together for you?
A: Just growing up in New Orleans and being exposed to different styles of music. Musically speaking, we didn't really have those kinds of categories. You studied classical music, played in wind ensembles, marching bands, R&B bands, jazz bands, pop bands. When I got to New York, I realized they had all these specialists who only did one thing or played music with one sensibility. But that's not how we grew up It was really a good training ground.
Q: Is it frustrating to have people try to put you in just one box?
A: What I found amusing is how uncomfortable it made other people. Almost everything that we see, the empirical we, we view it through the lens of our personal experience. That is why for the most part, the partisan differences in our country are so big. People's life experiences are so different, it makes it impossible to see other people's point of view.
But Baroque composers were doctors and scientists — renaissance men. But by the time you get to 20th century, people are jacks of all trades and masters of none. The way that most people live their lives, they didn't know what to do with me Get back in your box. Why won't you stay in your box? I understand that now.
It wasn't frustrating, per se, but what was frustrating was other musicians couldn't see that all I was doing was using these (other genres) to make myself a better musician.
Q: The concert is a tribute to Villa-Lobos. What is it about his music that you enjoy?
A: The thing I like about Villa-Lobos' music was that his feet were planted in two different worlds. It's the uniquely American story. He studied and was rooted in European classical music, yet his music has a certain sound you wouldn't automatically identify with that. I think that much the way certain Russian composers talk about being influenced by the peasant music, growing up with the sambas and music of Brazil, must have had a profound influence.
Q: How is it working with the Brazilian Orchestra?
A: We won't play together for two weeks. But the styles should work well. My job is to play classical music and make it sound classical. I am not hybridizing the music. I am not bringing jazz phrasing or jazz inflection. But what I do bring is a certain jazz sensibility.
Whenever I play music that is separate of what people think they know me as, the first thing is that it has to be done as authentic as possible. Hybrid sounds tend to be an insult to both of the things they tend to leach onto. Musically speaking, not culturally.
Q: You've also become very involved in education. Why is that so important to you?
A: One reason, I grew up in a family with educators. Also, one thing that really stuck in my head is when I was going to the Berklee College of Music in Boston, back when the airlines were still regulated and you couldn't get nonstop flights, this kid got on the plane from Atlanta and was going to a college of music to study jazz.
I asked who was his favorite jazz player. I asked if he liked Wayne Shorter (the influential American jazz saxophonist and composer) and he said he had never heard of him. He named this trumpet player. I was only 19 years old, but I knew he wasn't going to stay very long in school because he was completely ill-prepared.
You can't be an architect and not know anything about architecture. I often think in music there is a dereliction of duty on the teaching side. We need people to become advocates Trying to make music education nonperformance based doesn't work. You have kids with musical talent, but that doesn't assure that they'll get into music school. Most music schools don't demand that students have a listening list. Asking if you have a degree in music is like asking if you have a degree in basketball. The ultimate goal is performance.