September 27, 2005

Branford Marsalis, Class Act

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Too much of anything is usually a bad thing. At Cornell, I find this to be true in that there is too much happening on campus at any given time. It seems as though, at any given moment, there are 50 different guest speakers on campus. I sit here in my junior year having been to barely any extracurricular events; however, I was lucky enough to hear about a question and answer session with jazz legend Branford Marsalis, which I attended last Friday.

The session was more intimate than I would have expected. Then again, I wouldn’t be surprised if there were more people like me who simply were too overwhelmed by the tremendous amount of quarter cards and fliers on Ho Plaza to differentiate between any of the nine million goings on at Cornell last week.

In total, there were no more than twenty people in Barnes Hall Auditorium, which provided for a relaxed atmosphere in which Marsalis could be both candid and comical. The small audience, along with the help of Professor Steven Pond, allowed for anyone in attendance to ask questions without a long wait. The questions varied widely, ranging from current events to the state of the popular music scene and the best way for a musician to practice.

I was pleased at the ease with which Marsalis answered any question thrown at him. It became apparent that he was not only familiar with an abundance of material, but also comfortable speaking about nearly anything, which is rare. His eloquence was demonstrative of his immense musical knowledge and formal education. The son of a professor, Marsalis is truly a learned man, especially when it comes to discussing music. He was quick to call Kanye West stupid and say that modern jazz musicians were nerdy. He also boasted of how he found it a waste of time to ever rehearse with his band. Yet throughout the duration of the session he was quick to refer to the fact that he always had room for improvement in his own playing, especially with regard to playing classical music, which he has opted to do several times in the past decade.

My own personal highlights were hearing Marsalis refer to some of my favorite musical acts. He said that the Grateful Dead, with whom he played with several times in the early 1990s, were “cool.” He called them scholars of the music they played and loved, commenting that they were able to conjure up any number of songs onstage, not because they had rehearsed them, but rather because they were tremendous fans of music. Marsalis also made reference more than once to the late Jeff Buckley. He said that Buckley’s album Grace was “as good as anything I’ve heard,” and that good music, like Buckley’s, needs no categorization.

In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, it was also fascinating to hear Marsalis, a Louisiana native and veteran of the New Orleans music scene, speak about the future of New Orleans music. He said he has no doubt that the music will soon revitalize in the Crescent City. He also noted that if there were truly an effort to clean up the “Disneyland for Drunks” that New Orleans has become, in a similar fashion to how New York’s 42nd Street, the city would lose much of its tourism. “People would rather go to a superior city like New York – people come to New Orleans to see jazz.”

It would be most difficult for me to in any way sum up the entire hour-and-a-half in which Marsalis spoke. What I can do is affirm the fact that we do have a lot of interesting things happening on campus. I wish now that I had taken the time in the past to seek out more guest lectures and information sessions. I will in the future, and I would urge anyone to do the same. I finished up the experience by attending Marsalis’s concert at the State Theater. The show was more valuable to me having seen him speak of his music and interaction with his band. The incredible musicianship displayed at the concert firmed up for me what I had begun to realize at the question and answer session: Branford Marsalis is truly a class act.

Archived article by Scott Eisman
Sun Staff Writer