How Branford Found Ma Rainey’s Sound
The jazz icon on finding the perfect singer to voice Viola Davis’s title character, working with the late Chadwick Boseman, and a career filled with unexpected twists and turns.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is a story in which the music has to be authentic and the details need to be correct. It requires the musical oversight of someone who has this history in his blood. It requires Branford Marsalis.
While George C. Wolfe’s new adaptation of August Wilson’s classic play isn’t a biopic per se, Viola Davis does play real-life “Mother of the Blues” Ma Rainey during a stressful, fictionalized recording session in Chicago in the late 1920s. Chadwick Boseman, representing the next step in jazz’s evolution, is the eager horn player Levee, who butts heads with Ma, the rest of the group (Glynn Turman, Colman Domingo, and Michael Potts), their not-quite-righteous record producer (Jonny Coyne), and Ma’s harried manager (Jeremy Shamos).
Marsalis wrote the film’s score and produced the tracks we hear being recorded in it, giving vocalist Maxayn Lewis (who performed most of the title character’s singing) the unenviable task of sounding like Ma Rainey without mimicking her. Marsalis was more than up for the task: the three-time Grammy-winning saxophonist and composer shot to notoriety in his early 20s and has spent the last three decades exploring various genres (straight jazz, fusion-pop, Western classical, even jam-band-style grooves) with starry collaborators like Sting, Gabriel Prokofiev, and his brother Wynton, another member of jazz’s first family. (Their brother Delfeayo plays trombone; their brother Jason plays drums; their father, Ellis, who died earlier this year from COVID-19 complications, was a pianist and educator after whom the Ellis Marsalis Music Center for Music in New Orleans is named.)
Below, we speak with Marsalis about his work on Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (and other matters) as the film makes its bow on Netflix.
Branford Marsalis: I’ve been aware of it for 30 years, but I never had an opportunity to see it. When it came out I was 22, and not a lot of 22-year-olds are hanging out at the theater, unless they’re actors. I didn’t do a lot until my mid-30s. That’s when I started paying more attention to the wider world. Never too old to learn.
Was the plan always for you to both do the score and produce the tracks we see being recorded, or did one lead to another?
George wanted the combination, but he is a minimalist. He doesn’t want a lot of underscore. He comes from theater and believes in the sanctity of the written and spoken word. Also, he wanted me to consult with the actors so they could look like musicians physically.
The tracks you produced include covers of historic songs in the world of jazz and blues. I don’t want to suggest this was intimidating—you did recently perform your version of “A Love Supreme”—
[Warmly] Yeah, I am a few decades past being intimidated…
But a track like “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” is still a biggie. What’s your strategy to re-record something so well-known?
I have an advantage. It was well-known, but it isn’t well-known now. After that, it’s a matter of listening to the song to find its sonic intent. Many times we pass off a song’s intent by the lyrics, but there’s always an inherent conflict. If you listen to that first Alanis Morissette record from the ’90s, the word at the time was, she’s writing fiery, pro-women, “angry” songs, when in fact, she was writing fiery, pro-women, “angry” lyrics. But with very happy, traditional, poppy [melodies].
It was that combination. If the songs had lyrics like Nick Cave and sounded like Nick Cave, it would be received like Nick Cave—for the hard-core fan, not the casual person. I was also somewhat hamstrung by August Wilson. In the play, there are only four musicians, whereas on the original version, there’s at least eight. So you have to find the right musicians and the right singer.
Maxayn Lewis is not a household name. Then you look at who she’s worked with—Bonnie Raitt, Van Morrison, Smokey Robinson, Donna Summer—and it’s, “wow!”
It was mid-May when I got the call, and I working on a project in Australia. I didn’t have time to wait, so, since I have super-talented friends, I called Bruce Hornsby. I’m like, “Dude, I need a singer who can channel Ma Rainey stuff without sounding like she’s from 1920.” He said to call Maxayn, and that was it. Called her on a bus on my way to Canberra. Then we all met in New Orleans and she knocked it out.
One of the pieces you wrote is called “In the Shadow of Joe Oliver.” Could you explain that title?
The two musical subjects during all this time were Paul Whiteman’s band and King Oliver’s. Louis Armstrong is the father of jazz in a lot of ways. He does what everyone wants to do. A lot of what he played, he borrowed from King Oliver, which he openly admitted. But he played with a better trumpet sound and tons of more charisma. That factor helped him communicate with a much bigger audience.
So, much like Bessie Smith is Ma Rainey 2.0, Louis Armstrong is King Oliver 2.0. So since that piece has a cornet, I had this in mind, but I called it “Joe,” not “King.”
I’m glad you brought up Paul Whiteman, a bandleader often criticized for neutering, and whitening, early jazz. The last scene of the film, with the very Whiteman-looking guy stealing the song Boseman’s character wrote, is maybe the greatest jazz-movie diss ever.
I don’t think of it as a diss! First, in the play, it isn’t Paul Whiteman. George may have decided it was a person similar to Paul Whiteman, but Whiteman hired a lot of great arrangers and writers—some of them Black. I spent a lot of time listening to Paul Whiteman and still do. It wasn’t my intention to say, “Let’s go get that bastard.” Also, there’s no record of him being part of the system that would steal songs from musicians for $5.
But there were hundreds of guys like Sturdivant [the film’s record producer character]—guys looking for songs and preying on economically disadvantaged people who didn’t know the business. You know that old Cheech & Chong skit [“Blind Melon Chitlin’”] where they pay the bluesman $10, a bottle of booze, and a hooker?
There’s a scene in which Viola Davis does a short talk-sing to her girlfriend about her aching feet—
Were you involved in working her in the vocalization on that?
It was all her. She just did it. She had to learn the song [“Those Dogs of Mine”], though, because it was one that was potentially going to be in the film.
I was listening to her sing it, and it was perfectly in time. She did it wild mic, then I realized we could get a piano player in there at a slow tempo and it would work.
You also helped Chadwick Boseman out, yes?
A little. The good ones are self-contained; they don’t need hand-holding. He asked me for a fingering chart. I hadn’t seen one of them in 30 years, but I wrote it up for him. The trumpet has only has three fingers, so it lends itself to much better choreography than saxophone or piano; fewer keys, fewer options. He had a little coaching from me and from Chuck Findley, who was my old mate on The Tonight Show.
This isn’t really a biopic of Ma Rainey—it’s a story that involves her. Are there some films about musicians where you think, This really got it?
Not really. If you want to see that kind of stuff, there are plenty of great documentaries. Movies function in mythology. That’s why we can have a guy from the planet Krypton with an S on his shirt and we’re in it. And more often than not, when the story is about a musician, it isn’t that interesting. It might be great to see another movie about a drug addict who overcomes it, but it’s overplayed.
Ray was really good, because the performances were spot on. A lot of my friends who are rock-and-roll musicians hate Bohemian Rhapsody, but I dug it. The performances weren’t an imitation. You can quibble about what they wore, or if they actually said this or that—and I know it’s a slippery slope. When an English teacher says read a book, we buy the CliffsNotes. So movies become the historical narrative. But still: it’s not the job of a filmmaker to place accuracy over the storyline.
I know you revere John Coltrane. Eventually, some day, someone will make a biopic about him.
What are they gonna talk about? He was shy, he was introverted, an incredible saxophone player who briefly had a drug problem, found spirituality. That was the problem with [Miles Davis film] Miles Ahead: There was no conflict, so they invented one about stealing a reel at fucking gunpoint from the record company. Then you hear the reel and it sucks. That’s an hour and a half I’ll never get back. I’m pissed off about that.
You did some acting back in the day—Throw Momma From the Train with Billy Crystal. You have fond memories of this?
Yeah, yeah, of course! I just sucked! They were nice and patient with me, but I was very limited. [The director] Danny DeVito says to me, “I want another look.” I didn’t know what he meant. So I just did what I did last time. Then a year later I’m like, “Oh, ‘another look,’ I get it.”
I knew I wasn’t going to be an actor. It just kinda lined up. I played in Sting’s band, people saw me in Sting’s movie [Michael Apted’s documentary Bring On the Night], then I’m asked to be in some films [including Spike Lee’s School Daze] and then it was over. But it was fun. Billy and Danny are great.
Your time at The Tonight Show ended a little earlier than was originally planned, but you had some great musicians sit in. Any stand out?
Willie Nelson was fantastic. Garth Brooks was great. We had a great time with, oh, what’s the name, oh…when we were in Vegas, he sang “Help Me Make It Through the Night.” Wayne Newton! Shit was great! He’d say, “Help me make it through the lonely—” then we’d shout, “Yeah!” He’d say something else, we’d call back, “Sticky!” and the director said, “Maybe don’t say ‘sticky’ tonight.” He said he wouldn’t, so I said, “You better use ‘sticky’ or we’ll all come at you.” He used it. We burst out laughing.
I had a great time on that show, but my father had a saying that hit me a year and a half in: “The thing you do most is the thing you do best.” I felt the music part slipping away. Leaving put me in this moment now, writing for films, orchestrating. I couldn’t do that if I stayed.
When the first Sting album came out, it was the great unifier. My father loved jazz, my older sister was into pop. Dream of the Blue Turtles was like a peace treaty entered our home.
My goal is domestic bliss.
You guys knew you were making great music, but did you know it would sell so damn well?
I was so used to making records that don’t sell that it just didn’t matter to me. I didn’t have a lot to lose. Sting had a lot to lose. We just needed to make the music be effective. It wasn’t to say, “I can do this fancy thing here,” unless it was appropriate. We all set aside our talents—our instrumental flexing—and tried to hookup Sting-o’s music as best we could. I think we did it well.
You sat in with the Grateful Dead five times. That first time, March 29, 1990, at Nassau Coliseum, you opened set two with a 16-and-a-half-minute version of “Eyes of the World.” We all have tough days in life, and when things are down for me, it’s my “break glass in case of emergency” track.
I go for mournful shit, man. I go the opposite way. I want solitary stuff—Gustav Mahler, Billie Holiday. If I’m feeling bad, I wallow in it. If friends ask, “How you doin’?” I say, “Horrible, man!” And they say, “What are you doing about it?” and I say, “Nothing! I’m gonna sit here in this shit pile!”
You continue to work with some groups in the “jam band” scene. You’re something like the ambassador from the jazz world.
I didn’t grow up liking jazz, I grew to like it. Wynton started really digging in when he was 12. I didn’t really even think about it until I was 19. I listened to R&B and rock the most, so I already had a pedigree there when I was starting to play with the Grateful Dead.
Something like the Tedeschi Trucks Band, they’re more like a Pentecostal church band than anything else. I grew up Catholic, but a lot of my friends were Pentecostals. I know that sound. You play with them, and it’s a wall. Like Bruce Springsteen’s band. It’s a wall of sound that hits you. “Shit, what was the name of that truck?”
I love being in that situation, but those guys aren’t going to turn around and play jazz. They don’t have that vocabulary. Jazz guys had played with The Dead before. Ornette Coleman came in and did his Ornette thing on top. David Murray came in, did his thing. The Dead didn’t really know me. Well, Phil Lesh knew my records. But when they brought me in, they didn’t know it would work. They figured, we’ll bring him in for the last tune of the first set, so when it sucks we can say, “Okay, thanks for playing!” then get him the hell out of here. That’s exactly what I would do!
Then after, and I said, “Thanks for letting me play, guys,” and they were like, “That was great, stick around, let’s do ‘Dark Star,’” and that’s when the fans went nuts.
They were surprised I could play the sound. Jazz guys are known for playing structure. I’m from Louisiana, thank God, so I had exposure to everything.
Read full article by Jordan Hoffman on vanityfair.com