By KYLER SUMTER
“If you’re not afraid to fail, you’ll go far,” Grammy-award winning Jazz legend and saxophonist Branford Marsalis said to music students at Kenwood Academy High School, 5015 S. Blackstone Ave., when he visited on Wednesday, June 14.
Marsalis visited to work with students in piano instructor Bethany Pickens’ class.
Pickens, who is also a noted jazz pianist, credited Marsalis and his brother, fellow jazz musician Wynton Marsalis, for turning her toward her passion: acoustic music.
“That kind of music was not what I was hearing on the radio,” Pickens said to the crowd of around 25 students and faculty. “It was Earth, Wind & Fire and all these different groups that were electric oriented and they were playing some really hip music but they weren’t playing acoustic music, so he and his brother are the reason I’m even dealing with the piano at all.”
Pickens said Marsalis was a musical chameleon in the way that he could, “blend in with any environment. You could see him this week at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, you could’ve seen him as music director of The Tonight Show, you could’ve seen him play with Sting, you could’ve seen him even play with The Grateful Dead.”
The event kicked off with a performance of “Billy’s Bounce” with Marsalis on saxophone, Pickens on drums, recent Kenwood graduate Charles Morgan on piano, and sophomore Steven Bowman on bass.
The performance was spur of the moment as Marsalis remarked he hadn’t played the song in 30 years.
Following the performance there was a Q & A session where Marsalis talked about his journey from starting piano at age 5 to saxophone in his sophomore year of high school, his transition between classical and jazz music, understanding the culture of music, and finding your sound as a musician.
“You already have a voice,” Marsalis said, when asked whether he developed his voice by studying music and transcribing solos. “When I was 7 years old I sounded like me, when I was 17 fortunately I had more vocabulary, I read more books so I sounded like a more sophisticated version of me, and at 27 I sounded like an even more sophisticated version of me.”
Marsalis said, “You play your horn you sound like you, your vocabulary is all jacked up if you haven’t learned any solos.”
Marsalis explained that musicians start to all sound the same when they focus on learning scales instead of learning solos, and only listen to music and artists that they like.
“A scale is the same sound, it’s an OK sound but if you’re vocabulary is 2,500 scales then it’s 2,500 of the exact same thing,” Marsalis said.
Marsalis also talked about how the history of music is not what is most important, but rather it is the culture of music that is.
“Louis Armstrong recorded West End Blues in 1925, that don’t matter, that means nothing,” Marsalis said. “You have to understand the culture he came from to achieve that sound.”
Armstrong’s music is often not taught at music schools because even though everything he played sounded great, it was harmonically incorrect so most teachers didn’t know how to teach students about him, and Marsalis saw this as a flaw.
“How do you reconcile those things in a classroom? You don’t, you just avoid it,” he said.
During the Q & A, Marsalis spotted Kenwood junior Nyree Moore in the very last row holding her saxophone and wouldn’t take no for an answer as he asked her to come down to the front and play.
Moore, caught off-guard, didn’t know what to play and ended up deciding on Scott Joplin’s “The Entertainer”.
While Moore began to play she had a few hiccups and Marsalis jumped in with his saxophone to demonstrate a different way to play the classic and they finished out the song together.
Moore had been anticipating Marsalis’ visit for quite some time after Marsalis’ brother Wynton visited earlier in the school year, but she had no idea things would turn out the way they did.
“What was going through my head was, ‘Was this man going to school me, what did he want me to play?’” Moore said. “I didn’t know what else to think besides I have to play something or else this isn’t really going to go over well for [me].”
While playing with Marsalis, Moore was able to discover a new version of one of her go-to songs that she hadn’t heard before.
“I had never really played “The Entertainer” any other way than the one that I had always been taught so to hear him play it like that,” Moore said. “It sounded more correct to me more than anything else and I was like ‘Oh wow I’m getting schooled at the song I usually always play.’”
Will Curry, a saxophone player, recent University of Chicago Lab School graduate, and soon to be Oberlin College freshman, met Marsalis for the first time eight years ago when he was 10 at a jazz event held by Pickens’ father, pianist Willie Pickens.
“I just spent the night watching him in awe,” Curry recalled. The picture he took with Marsalis that night still sits in his bedroom.
After Pickens, a member of his church, sent him a text late last night saying she invited Marsalis to come to Kenwood, Curry knew he had to go.
“He’s such an inspirational guy,” Curry said. “Especially because I’m going to be headed off to music school next year, I’m trying to figure out how to navigate all that and he’s very much a guiding voice.”