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Branford Marsalis riffs on sports

Question : Who is saxophonist Branford Marsalis?

A) Older bro' of trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, keeper of the jazz flame.
B) Star of TV (The Tonight Show) and cinema (Throw Mama from the Train).
C) Rock 'n' Roll sideman extraordinaire (Sting, Grateful Dead).
D) Record company head-honcho (Marsalis Music).

Marsalis is all of the above and more, a world-class saxophonist who has been living rather anonymously in Durham since August 2002. Although he's been gigging in the neighborhood occasionally, we really haven't gotten to know Citizen Branford--yet.

Among the fraternity of jazzheads, he's renowned for two things: his off-beat but sabre-sharp sense of humor and his unfailing awareness of all things sports. Indeed, Marsalis offstage is just another guy with a remote in one hand, sports page in the other--and an opinion.

So to prepare for his upcoming guest-shot with the Duke Jazz Ensemble Friday (Jan. 30) in Durham, the jazzcrit and the saxophonist talk about, natch, nothing but sports.

The Independent Weekly: The last time I heard you play in person was seven years ago at Camden Yards, home of the Baltimore Orioles. It was the night Cal Ripken broke Lou Gehrig's record for consecutive games played. You and Bruce Hornsby performed the anthem. Do you have any memories of that special night?

Marsalis: When Hornsby called me, I was shocked. I'm sure they just wanted him and he dragged me along. I thank him for that. There were probably 40-something-thousand people at the stadium. Now, of course, maybe 150,000 people claim to have been there. Peter Angelos (Orioles owner) sent me an autographed picture of Cal standing next to the scoreboard with a little note thanking us for helping to make it a special day. It was pretty amazing to me that the owner of a major league baseball team would take the time to do that.

I vividly remember Ripken's victory lap around the field, when he reached out and touched the hands of the fans in the front rows. It was so poignant. I wonder if such a moment of intimacy is even possible anymore in a big ballpark in the post-9/11world?

Of course it is. Americans tend not to look at the big picture. People all over the world have experienced horrific atrocities on a personal level for centuries, yet we must carry on. A tragedy like 9/11 reminds me of the sanctity of life and how it can be snuffed out at any moment. So I think we should spend our time doing the best that we can for as many people as we can. Americans live so much of their lives in a vacuum, watching celebrities, star athletes and way too much TV instead of getting off our asses and doing something.

As a kid, did you play sports?

I'm from Louisiana, you know, so that would mean football, football and football.

Did you play in the Pop Warner League?

Yeah. I played for a team sponsored by Pellerin Dry Cleaners. Since we lived in a poor-ass area of town, our uniforms were hand-me-downs from other teams. Our jerseys wouldn't have Pellerin written on them; they might say, oh, Lion's Club. Our coach would sit on the hood of his car and pop open beers while we practiced. The kids made up the plays we wanted to run on our own. We were unbelievably disorganized.

What position did you play?

I played linebacker. Sometimes I played running back. And sometimes I sat on the bench. In football, I actually spent a lot of time on the field. In other sports, I sat on the bench almost exclusively (laughter).

Was your brother, Wynton, an athlete as a little boy or was he a music nerd from the git-go?

He was a basketball nerd from the git-go. He could play football. He had a good arm and he was smart. He has a great mind for sports anyway, but basketball was the thing that got him.

I was the handyman around the house. So me and my dad (pianist Ellis Marsalis) got some quick-drying cement, measured out a couple of poles and built a basketball goal for Wynton. And he would go out every day and shoot 100 free throws. Every day. Even when he was practicing trumpet for three hours a day, he would find time to shoot his 100 free throws. And to this day, he's got a dead eye.

Is there such a thing a Branford vs. Wynton one-on-one hoops game as adults?

Naw, man, I'm old and crippled. I've got a herniated disc. I'm in decent shape, but I can't run. The older you get, the smarter you have to get--and I can't be playing hoops.

Does the Marsalis family talk sports?

Do we talk sports? Man, I've got five brothers and three-way calling. We probably talk more during football season than we do the rest of the year. On Monday mornings, we talk about what the New Orleans Saints did on Sunday.

I was on the phone with my brother Ellis when my boy stoinked that extra point at the end of the season. I told Ellis he was gonna miss it. "Watch him," I told Ellis. "He's gonna stoink it." Now, kickers in the NFL just don't miss extra points. They might get one blocked, but they never miss one. So Ellis said, "He ain't gonna miss it." And he missed it. My boy [Saints kicker John] Carney really stoinked it. (Sigh) It was just one of those seasons for the Saints.

In December, Saints receiver Joe Horn turned the football world upside down when he celebrated a touchdown catch by making a cell phone call from the end zone. Can you give me your take on the call heard 'round the world?

Yeah, it was pretty funny, but he should have been fined--and he was. He does not get to make the rules and he knew what the rules were before he did it. On the other hand, Joe Horn is a Pro Bowl receiver, yet no one in the country knew his name before the call. So that says something about the hypocrisy of the sports media, who say we have to cut out this kind of grandstanding, yet there's Horn on the highlight reel, making a cell phone call.

If this is problem, Sportscenter should show (Colts receiver) Marvin Harrison making a catch and simply handing the ball to the referee, not (49ers receiver) Terrell Owens scoring a touchdown, then whipping out a Sharpie and autographing the ball. The kind of media attention that generates is not lost on the players. They're not dumb. Because he pulled out a cell phone, Joe Horn is a household name.

Is there a relationship between what a great improvising musician does onstage and an NFL receiver who runs a precise pass route and then catches the ball with a certain flair? Both players have a certain style.

With certain wide receivers, yeah, that's possible. In order to play jazz, a musician has to have a kind of rote knowledge, where you rehearse specific elements of the music over and over again. There's a popular misunderstanding about jazz that you can play whatever the hell you want to whenever you want. But that's not true. You can play whatever you want to play within the guidelines of certain rules, once you understand those rules. The same thing applies to a pass receiver who runs the same route over and over again, though it's never exactly the same. There are subtle shifts depending upon what the defense does. Along with quarterbacks and running backs, a pass receiver can improvise a little bit -- and make a big play. Of course, the difference between a musician and a pass receiver is that there's nobody on the other side of the line of scrimmage waiting to kill me!

If you had a choice between attending a Saints game or a concert by saxophonist Wayne Shorter's quartet, where would you go?

Hey, that's a messed up question! The Saints only play 18 games a season. Unless it's Wayne's farewell concert, I'm down at the Superdome.

Are you plugged into the Triangle sports scene yet?

Not yet really, but I'll get there. I'm a bigger fan of the pro game, because I'm interested in sports played on the highest level.

Have you been to a game at Cameron Indoor Stadium?

Because of my schedule, I haven't yet. (Duke assistant coach) Johnny Dawkins lives down the street, and he has invited me to a game. I've heard that the atmosphere is manic, so I hope I can make one before the end of the season.

Care to go on record with a Super Bowl prediction?

Funny thing: The Panthers remind me so much of the Patriots two years ago, when they won the championship. They have a solid, aggressive defense. They have a young quarterback who doesn't make mistakes. They run the ball effectively. They have an intelligent coach and a good kicker. See what I mean? Two years ago nobody gave the Patriots a chance against the high-powered offense of the Rams--and look what happened. Secretly, I bet that (Patriots coach) Bill Bellicheck was hoping that the Eagles would beat the Panthers because he probably sees that same resemblance.

Do you realize that nobody is picking the Panthers?

Nobody except me, man. Go Panthers!

Branford Marsalis' three-day residency at Duke includes the Jan. 30 concert at 8 p.m. plus a Jan. 29 artist-led discussion at 5 p.m., free, both at Baldwin Auditorium. For more information, call 684-4444. EndBlock

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