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Branford Marsalis on His Brief Time as an Angeleno Playing The Tonight Show

Branford Marsalis Quartet - Marsalis (seated)
Branford Marsalis Quartet - Marsalis (seated)
Eric Ryan Anderson

New Orleans-born saxophonist Branford Marsalis has been a household name since the early 1980s. Alongside his younger brother Wynton, he set the jazz world ablaze, earning his stripes on the bandstand with Art Blakey. From there, he found work in pop music (the Grateful Dead, Sting) and acting (Throw Mama From the Train, School Daze).

His unpredictable career found its highest profile when, just over 20 years ago, he became the bandleader for Jay Leno's incarnation of The Tonight Show. He spent his weekdays on late night television, smiling politely at Jay's Bill Clinton jokes and most of his weekends jetting to New York to see his young son. Marsalis did not last on the bandstand too long. He left two and a half years later to focus on his saxophone, releasing a handful of terrific records in the process including his most recent release Four MFs Playin' Tunes. We spoke to Marsalis by phone about his brief tenure as an Angeleno, ahead of his show at Cal State Northridge on Saturday.

How would you define your time in Los Angeles?

Branford Marsalis: I found people's social interactions to be very different than what I was used to. L.A. was a lot like New York where you suddenly find yourself surrounded by the people that are in your profession. Lawyers date lawyers, musicians date musicians, doctors date doctors. It's just this weird kind of social thing. There was that other side of L.A., the normal side, that I didn't really didn't get to experience except in dribs and drabs. I had great experiences there, man. The guys on the crew of The Tonight Show had barbecues and softball games and I'd go to as many of those things as I could but most weekends I spent on a plane commuting to New York which was very physically and emotionally draining.

Were you hesitant to take the gig?

When we got The Tonight Show offer, the guys in the band really wanted to go. They were calling. Their wives were calling. I thought about it and the only way to really, really know is to do it. The band was really popular with guests. Garth Brooks left his band so he could play with us. Willie Nelson left his band at home. They really dug the sound of the band and the way we treated the music. That was awesome.

People say "How come you don't play on the show anymore?" It's not the kind of thing where you hire a band to get on a plane and spend that kind of money to play on a TV show for three minutes. We don't play L.A. very often.

Did you find many places to perform in Los Angeles outside of The Tonight Show?

We found a couple of places to play. It was hard to find places where people would actually listen. The only place we could get people to really listen was Billy Higgins' spot, the World Stage. Other than that we played in a couple of restaurants but it was more of a hang.

Everybody who played jazz in America knew that Billy Higgins had a jazz club in L.A. and I thought it was important that we actually play there. That's one of them things. It's similar to us doing a show at the Lenox Lounge in Harlem which just closed. We were playing a club downtown but we went there and played a show. The economics have changed a lot since the '60s. I'm glad for those changes, don't misunderstand me, but this was our opportunity to bring some music to the people.

Seriously playing jazz music, it's hard to show up on the weekends and play. It's hard when you are not dealing day in and day out. It is hard to maintain a certain level. Doing something that was the extreme opposite of what it is I normally do forced me to come to a decision pretty quickly about what I wanted to be and I wanted to do.

Was it a difficult decision to leave?

My dad and I had a conversation once I made the decision I was going to leave the show. He said once you leave the show you really can't bitch about anything ever because you've been put in a situation where you could have had a very, very lucrative career without the pressure of the expectations from the music community. Once you decide you want to get back into this, you have to take the bitter with the sweet. I thought about it and he was right. You won't hear any complaining from me and I've mostly kept my word on that.

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