Branford Marsalis has always been a jazz musician. But in the 1990s, he was also known to the general public for the work he did outside of the genre, acting in films ("School Daze," "Throw Momma From the Train"), making music with Sting and leading "The Tonight Show" band. Now, Marsalis at 47 is starting to behave like an elder statesman of jazz and doesn't have time for pop music or revisiting his earlier triumphs.
"Do you still speak to your parents?" he says, from his home in North Carolina, when asked if he stays in touch with the former Police frontman. The saxophonist is as patient and charitable as anyone would be answering questions from a stranger before 8:30 a.m.
After the rhetorical joust, he explains that he speaks with Sting on occasion, but that there won't be a reunion of the jazz unit that created the music for Sting's first two solo efforts.
"We did that. There's no musical reason to do it," he says. "I'm in a different place."
How about another record from Buckshot Lefonque, his funk and rap band that toured nationally and released two acclaimed CDs?
"Buckshot was fun," he says, recalling his tours with the group after his exit from "The Tonight Show." "I didn't leave the show to have a hybrid hip-hop funk band define me."
"I don't have the kind of time that I once had," Marsalis says after speaking firmly to one of his children.
It's easy to see why he may not have time for a side project. In 2002, he founded Marsalis Music. The record company has nearly a dozen artists, including Harry Connick Jr.'s instrumental works. Marsalis makes it clear that the record company isn't operated the traditional way.
"I'm actually stupid enough to be in for the music and not for the money," he says, adding that the label doesn't pay for limousines or fly their artists first class. "We're not in the entertainment business, we're in the music business."
As CD sales decline and the sales of digital music increase, Marsalis, who says he listens to mp3s regularly, says that people who love music will always want something to hold on to. "Compressed music doesn't sound as good as music that is not compressed," he says. "Anybody who's a serious audio fan knows that vinyl is better than CD."
Releases on Marsalis Music haven't made it to wax yet, because of the expense of pressing records. Expect this to change in the future. "We will have vinyl," he says.
Marsalis is a man of his word. But the Louisiana native didn't have much to say to the press in 2005 after the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, despite many inquiries. He recalls a conversation with his manager, in which he explained his strategic silence.
"I'm not making a statement until I figure out what we're doing," he says. Marsalis and Harry Connick Jr joined forces with Habitat for Humanity International and New Orleans Habitat to build "Musician's Village." More than 60 homes have been built for musicians as well as for people who can only play the radio, with plans for thousands more.
"It's something that needed to be done," he says. "It's working out well."
On and off the stage, Marsalis continues to blaze trails as a prominent jazz artist and a socially responsible citizen. He's a leader, but he also sees himself another way.
"I'm a jazz guy," he says. "I play a horn for a living."
Branford Marsalis talks about leadership and creativity at St. Christopher's School at the "Building Leaders from the Inside Out Symposium" Saturday, April 12 at 1 p.m. and performs at 2:30 p.m. The symposium runs April 10-12 at the Andrew Jackson Bolling III Field House in Kemper Athletic Center. Tickets are $50-$75. 282-8306.