02/11/05 — Branford Marsalis tells students abut his musical journey

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Branford Marsalis tells students abut his musical journey

By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on February 11, 2005 2:24 PM

Marcus Croom, the band director at Goldsboro High School, wants his students to be open-minded about all types of music and, in turn, to develop a passion for it.

When he met world-renowned saxophonist Branford Marsalis in a hotel elevator during a seminar in Chicago two months ago, a friendship began that brought with it a chance to energize Croom's music program.

Marsalis drove from his home in Durham this morning to speak to Croom's first- and second-period band classes about his own musical experiences. Marsalis told them he was never really sure what he wanted to do for the rest of his life and that his career has been "all over the place."

Branford Marsalis

News-Argus/Dennis Hill

Branford Marsalis

Marsalis grew up in New Orleans. It was a good environment to learn to play an instrument, he said, because, "everybody played music."

He is the brother of famed trumpeter Wynton Marsalis.

He said he has played jazz, rock-and-roll, and performed with symphony orchestras. He has played with musicians as diverse as Public Enemy and Sting. The Grammy-winning musician has written movie scores, performed on soundtracks, given concerts around the world, and in 1992 was asked to join the "Tonight Show" as musical director. Television was not where he wanted to stay, he said, so he left after two years.

Not that the job wasn't lucrative. Marsalis said the pay for performing on TV is "five times" what he could make elsewhere. But the most important thing to him, Marsalis said, is enjoying what he does. One reason he has been able to do that is because he has tried different things.

"The world's a wide canvas," he told the Goldsboro High students. "Don't turn down opportunities."

Marsalis said that he held an variety of jobs in his younger days, from being an intern in a law firm to driving an ambulance and running a summer camp. But he said he always continued to play music, starting with the clarinet and piano before turning to the saxophone.

He told the students that he was raised in a suburb of about 600 people and remains thankful to have grown up in a small city. His brothers were also musical and when one asked him to move to New York to further his career, he was hesitant at first.

"I was afraid to go because it was so 'big city' and they had great musicians there," he said.

Even though he would later go on to further his education, he said his father's encouragement helped him make the decision.

"Dad had gone to college and gotten a degree, but said he wished he had gone to New York," Marsalis said. "'School will still be here,' he told me. 'You'll have this adventure that you would never have had if you didn't go.'

"It's still kind of crazy when I think about it."

He sprinkled his remarks with advice he received from his father, who was a teacher.

"Select from a wide palette," he said, quoting the elder Marsalis. "You can choose what to do with your life."

Goldsboro High School Principal Pat Burden asked Marsalis what he would suggest to help motivate students to achieve.

"You can't really motivate someone," he replied. "My father used to say, 'You can lead a horse to water but you can't make it thirsty.'"

He said he would recommend helping students broaden their interests, and even their world.

"There's nothing wrong with the world you come from," he said to the class, but you should travel to other places and see how other people live. If travel isn't feasible, he said, listening to music from other places can give people a feel for how other cultures view life.

"The music can bring them closer," he said, "as an introduction to other cultures."

Marsalis and his band are currently artists-in-residence at North Carolina Central University, where they are under a one-year contract to supplement the school's music program. He says it has been an enjoyable experience and he will do it as long as the university will have him.

"I believe I'm playing the saxophone better now than I ever have," Marsalis said. He attributed the improvement to being able to play different kinds of music and play with a variety of other artists.

One student asked Marsalis if he enjoyed listening to his own music.

"I don't really spend much time liking my music," Marsalis replied. "Listening to your own music, when you can be listening to somebody else's music who's better than you seems like a waste of time."

Croom said Marsalis wanted to share his experiences with the students.

"He just really wanted to be a help to the kids and to the program."

Croom added that said he has been impressed with Marsalis' openness whenever he speaks about music.

"He's very serious about making sure that he does not get into the mode of entertainment," Croom said. "It's about the art."