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The Evolution of the Music of Branford Marsalis

Jazz great Branford Marsalis joins the State of Things to speak about his work.
Palma Kolansky

Grammy-award winning artist Branford Marsalis is one of the world’s leading jazz artists. In a career spanning more than three decades, the saxophonist has collaborated with some of the biggest names in music across an array of genres. 

At the tender age of 23, Marsalis seized the opportunity to collaborate with jazz icon Miles Davis on the album Decoy

“[Miles Davis] wants you to react to what’s going on around you and not just play every chord verbatim,” Marsalis said in an interview on The State of Things. Working with Miles Davis opened the door for Marsalis to step out onto the world stage. 

He started his own group, The Branford Marsalis Quartet, but continued to branch out and collaborate with other great musicians.  In 1985, Marsalis worked with Sting on the former Police frontman’s first solo project, The Dream of the Blue Turtles

“He’s one of the most prolific songwriters in the history of popular music,” Marsalis said of Sting. “Really secure as a person, which is the opposite of other guys.”

Marsalis admired the singer’s ability to take constructive criticism. “Mick Jagger came to one of the rehearsals, and he was watching the banter between all of us, and it just drove him crazy,” Marsalis recalled. “After rehearsal was over, he looked at Sting and said, ‘How can you stand that?  How can you stand them talking to you in that fashion?’  Mick found that unconscionable.”

Working with musicians outside of the jazz genre, like Sting, gave Marsalis the chance to refine his own work.

“I was kind of a jazz neophyte, and the one thing that I couldn’t do was end a solo.  It would just go on and on.  There is an amazing discipline to playing a 30 second solo that works,” Marsalis said.  “When the tour [with Sting] was over and I went back to playing jazz, my solos were more direct and to the point.”

With more than 80 appearances on various albums and three Grammy awards under his belt, Branford Marsalis is still an active artist.  He lives in Durham, North Carolina and continues to tour.  

Shawn Wen joined the staff of The State of Things in March 2012 and served as associate producer until February 2014.
Longtime NPR correspondent Frank Stasio was named permanent host of The State of Things in June 2006. A native of Buffalo, Frank has been in radio since the age of 19. He began his public radio career at WOI in Ames, Iowa, where he was a magazine show anchor and the station's News Director.