Growing up in the rich environment of New Orleans as the oldest son of pianist and educator Ellis Marsalis, Branford was drawn to music along with siblings Wynton, Delfeayo and Jason. His first instrument, the clarinet, gave way to the alto and then the tenor and soprano saxophones when the teenage Branford began working in local bands. A growing fascination with jazz as he entered college gave him the basic tools to obtain his first major jobs, with trumpet legend Clark Terry and alongside Wynton in Art Blakey’s legendary Jazz Messengers. When the brothers left to form the Wynton Marsalis Quintet, the world of uncompromising acoustic jazz was invigorated. Branford formed his own quartet in 1986 and, with a few minor interruptions in the early years, has sustained the unit as his primary means of expression. Known for the telepathic communication among its uncommonly consistent personnel, its deep book of original music replete with expressive melodies and provocative forms, and an unrivaled spirit in both live and recorded performances, the Branford Marsalis Quartet has long been recognized as the standard to which other ensembles of its kind must be measured.
Branford has not confined his music to the quartet context, however. Classical music inhabits a growing portion of Branford’s musical universe. A frequent soloist with classical ensembles, Branford has become increasingly sought after as a featured soloist with such acclaimed orchestras as the Chicago, Detroit, Düsseldorf, and North Carolina Symphonies and the Boston Pops, with a growing repertoire that includes compositions by Debussy, Glazunov, Ibert, Mahler, Milhaud, Rorem and Vaughn Williams.
Under the direction of conductor Gil Jardim, Branford Marsalis and members of the Philharmonia Brasileira toured the United States in the fall of 2008, performing works by Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos, arranged for solo saxophone and orchestra. This project commemorated the 50th Anniversary of the revered Brazilian composer’s death.
Making his first appearance with the New York Philharmonic in the summer of 2010, Marsalis was again invited to join them as soloist in their 2010‐2011 concert series where he unequivocally demonstrated his versatility and prowess, bringing “a gracious poise and supple tone… and an insouciant swagger” (New York Times) to the repertoire.
In 2013, Branford served as Creative Director for the Ascent Series of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra which included two week-long residencies as well as a number of concerts with the CSO.
Once again partnering with an esteemed ensemble for a tour of the United States, Branford joined the highly celebrated Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia in Marsalis “Well-Tempered” on a 20-city US tour in the fall of 2014, performing Baroque masterpieces by Albinoni, Bach, Handel, Vivaldi and others.
Raising the bar yet again, Branford took on the challenging Saxophone Concerto by composer John Adams, performing the piece with the Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Maestro Edwin Outwater, in October 2015.
To begin 2016, Branford traveled to Germany for a concert with the prestigious Bayerische Staatsoper at the National Theatre in Munich performing an array of selections including Ter Velduis’ Tallahatchie Concerto.
He then returned to Asia twice in the spring of 2016, first for his debut collaboration with the City Chamber Orchestra of Hong Kong, followed by a trip to Kuala Lumpur where he performed two concerts with the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra at the Petronas Twin Towers.
The fall of 2016 saw Branford returning to his home state of Louisiana where he was invited to be a guest soloist with the Baton Rouge Symphony Orchestra, presenting works by John Williams and Heitor Villa Lobos.
Broadway has also welcomed Branford’s contributions. His initial effort, original music for a revival of August Wilson’s Fences, garnered a Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Music in a Play and a Tony nomination for Best Original Score Written for the Theater. Branford also provided music for The Mountaintop, starring Samuel L. Jackson and Angela Bassett, and served as musical curator for the 2014 revival of A Raisin in the Sun. Branford’s screen credits include the original music for Mo’ Better Blues and acting roles in School Daze and Throw Momma from the Train.
Branford formed the Marsalis Music label in 2002, and under his direction it has documented his own music, talented new stars such as Miguel Zenón, and un-heralded older masters including one of Branford’s teachers, the late Alvin Batiste. Branford has also shared his knowledge as an educator, forming extended teaching relationships at Michigan State, San Francisco State and North Carolina Central Universities and conducting workshops at sites throughout the United States and the world.
As for other public stages, Branford spent a period touring with Sting, collaborated with the Grateful Dead and Bruce Hornsby, served as Musical Director of The Tonight Show Starring Jay Leno and hosted National Public Radio’s widely syndicated Jazz Set. The range and quality of these diverse activities established Branford as a familiar presence beyond the worlds of jazz and classical music, while his efforts to help heal and rebuild New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina mark him as an artist with an uncommonly effective social vision. Together with Harry Connick, Jr. and New Orleans Habitat for Humanity, Branford conceived and helped to realize The Musicians’ Village, a community in the Upper Ninth Ward that provides homes to the displaced families of musicians and other local residents. At the heart of The Musicians’ Village stands the Ellis Marsalis Center for Music, a community center dedicated to preserving the rich New Orleans musical legacy containing state-of-the art spaces for performance, instruction and recording.
Some might gauge Branford Marsalis’s success by his numerous awards, including three Grammys and (together with his father and brothers) his citation as a Jazz Master by the National Endowment for the Arts. To Branford, however, these are only way stations along what continues to be one of the most fascinating and rewarding journeys in the world of music.