Interview with Branford Marsalis

There’s often no pressure cooker like a recording studio where the clock is running, and the egos are flaring. Add to that the rage of racial injustice and the diva behavior of an ego that’s earned and it’s a session ready for an eruption. The tortuous, yet tuneful process of getting that song sung opens up a bigger Netflix stage for a musically themed work by “Fences’” iconic playwright August Wilson  with “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.” As co-produced by “Fences’” star and filmmaker Denzel Washington, “Ma” belts out a powerhouse performance that adaptation’s actress Viola Davis, here playing a real-life jazz chanteuse who suffers no fools to the desperation of the white label owners trying to drag the tune out of her. Matching her intensity is Chadwick Boseman in his final role as an explosive sax player who won’t be stifled, no matter that his fellow musicians (exceptionally performed by Colman Domingo and Glynn Turman) just want to get through this gig from hell – even though their dignity hasn’t been intact for a long time.

But perhaps the most important player when it comes to “Ma Rainey” is the one behind the scenes, as Branford Marsalis has not only coached incredibly believable musical performances from the actors but has also created a swingingly rhythmic and dramatically impactful score. While “Ma Rainey” will likely be the first time many jazz fans have heard of its trailblazing singer, Marsalis’ name is certainly not lost to time among the music’s admirers. Reaching back to the boisterous sound of the movie’s 1927 Chicago setting, it’s a score that accompanies vintage tunes with  a roaring 20’s blues energy that not only captures the period spot-on, but the frustration and the passion that helped create America’s distinct art form, no more so than in its boom time when white producers couldn’t get enough of the stuff without giving those who created it their respect or financial due. 

Branford Marsalis (photo by Palma Kolansky)

As the Louisiana-born son of family steeped in music, Marsalis’ gifts for the saxophone saw him in the company of Sting on his Grammy-paved way to leading numerous bands of his own, one of which saw him do a tenure on “The Tonight Show.” As much as he was in tune as a musician, Marsalis’ offbeat comic sensibilities landed him memorable big screen acting gigs as Billy Crystal’s bemused roommate in “Throw Momma from the Train,” then as a fraternity pledge in Spike Lee’s “School Daze.” Marsalis then brought his rhythmic sensibility to the screen as he scored projects that ranged from “The Color of Love” to “Tales from the Crypt, “ “Goosed” and “Once in the Life.” Then after scoring the taxicab omnibus “3 A.M.” in 2001, Marsalis segued to jazz performances, creating concert works, teaching, founding his own record label and writing for a theater production of “Fences.”

It wouldn’t be until 2017 when Marsalis returned behind the screen with his score for the HBO film “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” the true story of a black woman who unknowingly has her cells exploited for eternal medical breakthroughs. The film’s director was George C. Wolf (“Nights in Rodanthe”), who thankfully wouldn’t have Marsalis take so long a sabbatical before calling him to score “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” a movie for which Marsalis was perfectly cast. 

Bringing brassy drollness to the music and the throaty jazz-blues songs he accompanies, Marsalis uses his ensemble here as weapons of literal irony, capturing a devil-may-care sax humor and soft-shoe vibrancy that’s a jaunty mask for his deeply angered characters. It’s in Blanchard’s straight-up emotional scoring for strings, brass and piano that “Ma Rainey’s” real melancholy comes out. From an elegiac solo piano rhythm to angered percussion and evocative film noir-ish vibes, it’s music that conveys musicians’ weight of years spent struggling while also showing Marsalis’ exceptional growth as a composer in the intervening time. It’s an exceptional jazz age soundtrack that hears the far bigger picture going on in lyrics and instrumentals, all while cleverly turning the screws for everything that can go wrong in yanking out magic from a most reluctant legend.   

MA RAINEYÕS BLACK BOTTOM (2020) Branford Marsalis and Glynn Turman. Cr: David Lee/NETFLIX

When you began as a jazz artist, was film composing on your radar? 

No. When I began as a jazz artist, I was moving away from my focus on popular music.  But I still retained my love for classical music and thanks to a film class I took in high school I always paid attention to film scores.  

You had memorable parts in “Throw Momma from the Train” and “School Daze.” In a way, do you think those experiences set you on a path as a Hollywood composer? 

Not really.  Spike Lee and I are good friends, and he cast me in the role on “School Daze” because he wanted an authentic non-actor in the role, and I was not an actor. Danny DeVito and Billy Crystal saw me in Sting’s movie, “Bring on the Night”, and wanted me for that role. I was wide-eyed and adventurous but don’t think those moments led me to composing for film. 

What soundtracks or movies struck you when growing up, and what kind of jazz-born composers did you look up to?  

The first movie that stuck with me was “2001: A Space Odyssey.” I was 9 years old, and my mom took me. She didn’t get it, but I was wowed. I didn’t realize until a few years later, that the music was from orchestral composers, but it really hit me hard. I didn’t look up to any jazz-born composers because I didn’t really like jazz until my late teens. 

What would you say is the difference between performance and scoring? And how hard was it for you to adapt to the demands of Hollywood? 

For me, preforming is essentially unscripted, even when written music is present. There are lots of inside and outside conditions that have a say in how the performance turns out.  In film composing, you have to get used to the idea of the music being in the background and being used as an emotional support for the scene. What ends up in the film is strictly at the pleasure of the director, and maybe the music supervisor sometimes. You have to do what is in the best interest of the movie and work collaboratively with the group to achieve that goal.  Much like there is a director’s cut, the soundtrack album more closely reflects the composer’s cut as the full song is often included on the album. 

What do you think people were looking for when you were brought in as a soloist on film scores, and what do you think your playing gave to soundtracks like “Sneakers” and “Malcolm X?” 

I can’t say what they were looking for, but in every musical situation, I try to figure out really quickly what the musical point is, and then do my best to stay out of the way of that point.  Oftentimes, that means playing the melody as simply as possible, and not thinking of every musical opportunity as an event to bring attention to yourself. 

You wrote the score for the revival of August Wilson’s “Fences” on Broadway back in 2010. What was it like scoring for a play where the “images” are far from locked? What made his work stand out for you?

What I tried to do was use the music an affirmation of the emotional tenet of the prior Act or Scene, or as an introduction to the emotion of the upcoming Act or Scene. The music is rarely used to support dialogue in a play; the words are the thing that make theatre work. 

Director George C. Wolfe

You were fairly active in the 1990’s before you took a nearly 16 year-break, then returned to score “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” for future “Ma Rainey” director George C. Wolfe. What was it like to come back to the craft? 

I was confident that I was better at it, because during the hiatus I continued to listen to music I wasn’t familiar with and added a lot to my sound vocabulary. I thank George for asking for me. My music editor, Jim Bruening, was also incredibly helpful. 

Did you immerse yourself in the world of 1920’s Chicago blues & jazz before scoring “Ma Rainey,” or was it completely natural for you to nail the musical authenticity of that period? 

I was pretty lucky. I have long believed that musicians should listen to all music that is great, not just that which is contemporary. I had checked out a lot of 20s music for decades prior to scoring “Ma Rainey.” Because George called me only a couple weeks before I had to deliver music for the actors to choreograph to, I immediately began listening to music from the period to get used to the sound of it again.  After very long hours spent arranging, composing and recording the songs for the actors to perform I had a few months to get more aural information, and that was really helpful as I began composing the score itself.

As one of America’s unique musical creations, what do you think distinguished the jazz music that was being played in Chicago from the rest of country during the film’s setting?  

I don’t think that it was different in Chicago. The roots of all American music are rural, especially because even the American cities, prior to the 20th Century, were pretty much rural in comparison to their European counterparts. As music developed in the early 1900s, so did the cities; as a result, the rural identity of American music merged with concrete jungles of modern American life. Bars that were open late – and post-Volstead Act, for men and women – dancehalls, subways, elevated trains, automobiles; all of these things changed the way we lived and worked, and as a result, changed us. 

When you’ve got a film that “opens up” a stage work yet retains a “play” intimacy, how important is it for the score to create a sense of a larger world, especially in “Ma Rainey’s” case? 

I think that the score should reflect the times of the setting, especially in external shots. Internally, on sets or on location, the dialogue between the actors represents our humanity in the eyes of the playwright or screenplay writer(s), along with the director, set design, et al. I write the music as I see it represented on film, and the director decides if it works or not. 

Did you work with the actors in terms of getting their musical chops down? 

When necessary, yes. Chadwick, Coleman, Michael and Glynn were excellent; observant, curious, and worked hard. The producers were at first hesitant to me removing the actors from the set on a shoot day, but after they saw the difference my working with them made, they were okay with it. We had a workstation just outside of the set, so if the guys weren’t sure about their physical positions with the instruments, they’d stop by and we’d work on it. They were awesome. 

MA RAINEYÕS BLACK BOTTOM (2020) Composer Branford Marsalis and Glynn Turman. Cr: David Lee/NETFLIX

Have you been at sessions that turned into the kind of emotional meltdowns that we see here? 

Not really.  In most cases, I am hired by someone I know, or I am doing the hiring. We don’t have a singer, so we don’t have front person/backup band issues. It probably happens more in popular music settings. 

In that respect, have you also been in sessions that became exasperating because of diva demands? And if so, how do you think you captured that frustration here? 

I think the issues highlighted in Ma Rainey have less to do with diva demands, and more to do with a black woman in the US who is, despite her success, still treated as a second-class citizen, and wants no part of it. I have not really been in proximity to those kinds of divas, though some of my colleagues have. The stories are pretty funny.  

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (2020): Viola Davis as Ma Rainey. Cr. David Lee / Netflix

How did you want to capture Ma’s attitude? And in doing so, do you create a past for the character in your head that’s brought her to this point? 

I think George wanted her attitude to speak for itself, lest the music make it caricature. But, in the times when she is reflective, or even tender, I try to highlight that. 

Which musician character did you identify with the most, and why? 

I identify with all of them, in a way, especially in those times. The fine line between doing your job, versus wanting to change the paradigm. I can relate to all of them. 

Do you think there’s an ironic quality to your often boisterous energy, especially given the dominant role that brass plays? 

If you listen to the music of that time, it was – more often than not – boisterous and happy. 

What other kind of period-specific musical styles did you want to reflect in the score, and was it important that the dramatic moments would refer to that approach? 

I picked the sounds that I thought would work for the scene. String orchestra for the more dramatic parts, big band for Chicago, piano music for Levee and Dussie. It really depended on what I saw. 

What do you think of the nature between white record producers and black artists? And what do you think that “Ma Rainey” has to say about that relationship? 

It’s pretty much the same now as it was then. My experience has been that black artists are paired with producers and the immediate goal is to get a hit record, as opposed to being given an opportunity to build a grassroots audience and a career. For record companies – black-owned as well as white-owned – the music serves a monetary purpose only, and if that ends, the relationship ends. The artists are very aware of this, and while some say nothing, Ma Rainey spoke up. 

When Levee flies into a rage into a metaphoric dead end, you accompany his anger with solo percussion. What lead you to that choice? 

That was George’s idea. He is a big fan of drums as a driver of intensity. 

August Wilson’s work often deals with characters driven to destruction by thwarted dreams of success. What do you think that “Ma Rainey” has to say about the self-destructiveness of musicians, and in contrast, about the “old guard” who stand by their professionalism as opposed to vanity? 

It’s not the thwarted dreams of success that drives the destruction. It was the systematic denial of their humanity, which manifested itself in the music, and the musician’s perception of it, and themselves.

Do you think it takes a rebelliousness to stand out from the crowd? 

Rebellion is not enough to stand out. One has to have a gift for melody, and an ability to deliver it, paired with a ton of charisma. If you have those gifts, the rebellion will be tolerated. The myth of the rebellious musician is very popular. Often times, it’s a way of masking a great hurt.

Chadwick’s passing was a shock to everyone, especially when you see his dynamic energy in “Ma Rainey.” What was it like for you to unexpectedly accompany his last film, and what kind of a legacy do you think “Ma Rainey” leaves behind with him? 

Chadwick was one of our greatest actors. His versatility is shown through his body of work. In addition to being a movie star, he was a great actor. August Wilson’s work is a fitting tribute to Mr. Boseman’s considerable range, as well as being paired with a cast of his peers. It was an honor to work with him, Ms. Davis and the entire cast. 

What do you think movies and television usually get right, and wrong in their depiction of jazz and blues musicians and music? And where do you think that “Ma Rainey” stands in relation? 

I don’t’ think it’s the job of movies and television to get it right, unless the producers and director want to do that. The story is usually the most compelling part of a story, and the jazz part becomes a part of the backdrop. I would love to see a certain level of accuracy when jazz is at the heart of a story, but I doubt it will be consistent. In the case of “Ma Rainey,” Denzel Washington and George Wolfe really cared, as did the cast. They wanted to look as authentic as possible, which made my job much easier. 

What do you think about the state of inclusion for black composers now in Hollywood? 

I think Hollywood is becoming very diverse, compared to when I was a young man 40 years ago. I don’t think of a desire for inclusion, but an honest opportunity to compete. All progress is slow, and incremental, but it’s getting better. 

Branford Marsalis (photo by Eric Ryan Anderson)

Does scoring “Ma Rainey”  make you want to dive more fully back into composing?   

I love composing for film. I will continue to listen to music, and to study, so I can be better prepared should another opportunity arise. 

How do you think “Ma Rainey” stands out in the annals of blues and jazz scores, as well as movies about the art form and the African American angst and joy that went into the music? 

I don’t think of “Ma Rainey” as a blues and jazz score. It’s a score that reflects the time and place where the story takes place. Whether or not it’s good, time will tell. The movie is amazing. 

Watch “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” on Netflix and listen to Branford Marsalis’ soundtrack on Milan Records

Visit Branford Marsalis’ website HERE