NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Branford Marsalis, the jazz saxophonist and composer acclaimed for his movie scores, Grammy-winning recordings and his stint as the leader of The Tonight Show band, is taking on the role of educator in a return to his hometown of New Orleans.
Marsalis was named Tuesday as the new artistic director for the Ellis Marsalis Center for Music, a donor-supported education and community center and the cornerstone of the Musicians' Village, a Habitat for Humanity housing development that benefited displaced musicians after Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005.
The center is named for Branford's late father, a pianist, teacher and patriarch of an accomplished family of New Orleans musicians that also includes Branford's brother, trumpeter and composer Wynton Marsalis. The elder Marsalis served as the artistic director when the center opened in 2012 until his death in April 2020.
“I didn’t move back to do this. I moved back to move back,” Marsalis, who has lived for years in Durham, North Carolina, said in an interview with The Associated Press ahead of the formal announcement. “This is the icing on the cake.”
Marsalis will be carrying on a legacy of music education in the tradition of his father at the center, where on Tuesday afternoon he played “Do You Know What It Means To Miss New Orleans” before turning the stage over to a group of students.
“Most of them are probably not even going to be musicians,” he said of the young people who attend programs at the center. “But I think that much like most high school kids playing football are not going to become professionals, we're going to use the discipline of music and the philosophy of hearing and all these things to help them ascend in whatever, they decide they want to do, to do in the future. And, I mean, both of my parents were kind of like that.”
The center provides music and cultural education programs — and not just for young people.
“One of the funny things that started with the center — these kids were coming home, and then the parents came up and said, ‘Well, what about us? Can we get some lessons too?" said Marsalis.
He was sitting in the control room of the center's recording studio, where musicians who live in the Musician’s Village can record for small fees. “So, we have a lot of musicians who are making records here, recording here, doing concerts here,” Marsalis said.
Branford Marsalis and fellow New Orleans musician Harry Connick Jr. spearheaded the development of the village to provide housing for New Orleans musicians who lost their homes after levee failures during Katrina led to catastrophic flooding.
Connick, Marsalis said, wanted to do more than just help musicians attain home ownership.
“Harry said, ‘You know, I’ve always wanted to start this school.’ And I said, 'A school's impractical.' And then it just very quickly became — Harry brought up the idea to our manager, Ann Marie Wilkins — and it became a community center where music was kind of used as the driving force, but not the main force. We were going to use music the way that a lot of these community centers use basketball in sports.”
As the project developed, so did the idea of naming the center for Ellis Marsalis, who took an immediate interest in the center. “He had all these ideas,” Branford Marsalis said. “And he communicated a lot of those ideas to Ann Marie — for hours.”
Marsalis said he is proud to step into his father's shoes at the center. He described his role as part of a tradition of New Orleans musicians continuing the city's musical legacy. “We're doing what we're supposed to be doing,” he said.
And that is a legacy, he said, that even the Katrina disaster could not have ended.
“No, we’re talking about 120 years of musicians who have done this for each other. Katrina was just a bump in the road,” Marsalis said. “Really. I mean, there was never any question in my mind that the city would rebuild and that the musicians would come back because, quite frankly, they can’t be anywhere else.”
___ An earlier version of this report gave an incorrect year for when Ellis Marsalis died.