Last year, the saxophonist Branford Marsalis made a record titled Romare Bearden Revealed (Rounder Records), to accompany the Bearden retrospective that opened at the National Gallery in Washington, DC, and that is now on view at the Whitney Museum in New York. Performing with his quartet and joined by guests including his brother, the trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, and the pianist Harry Connick Jr., Branford paid tribute to Bearden’s extraordinary collages of blues and jazz musicians by arranging songs that had inspired the artist. The Nation recently spoke to Marsalis about his relationship to Bearden, whom he befriended in the 1980s. –Adam Shatz
How did you end up making a record honoring Bearden?
Robert O’Mealy [a member of the board of directors of the Romare Bearden Foundation and the Zora Neale Hurston Professor of English at Columbia University] approached me to make a record as an accompaniment to the show. I was like, hell no, I’m going to have my first vacation in five years. Then Bob O’Mealy sent me the pictures of the entire exhibit in miniature, while I was on tour with my band. When we saw those pictures we knew we had to do it. Tain [Jeff “Tain” Watts, Marsalis’s longtime drummer] said, “Come on, man, do the record!” I had three weeks to write the arrangements. Bob compiled for me a list of pictures that had titles from jazz songs, most of them from the swing era. Romare was completely modern, but he understood that the modern comes through, not at the expense of, tradition. And other than Wynton’s composition “J Mood,” Bearden didn’t have any paintings named after modern songs, so we focused on the traditional stuff.
It’s interesting that Bearden, despite his own modernism, didn’t name any of his collages after music from the bebop period, much less free jazz.
Bearden understood that the traditional culture is the gateway to the modern ideal. It’s amazing how many people can’t hear that or figure it out. It’s because he was such a traditionalist that he wasn’t shocked when he heard Ornette Coleman. For some critics like Albert Murray, blues and swing are defined by a specific sound, so they have difficulty hearing the blues in music that extends the form beyond the obvious. Romare could hear the blues tradition Ornette’s music was coming out of because he approached the music more as a student. And Romare was a student above all. I think it was Rilke who said that one should always be at the point of beginning. Well, that was Romare. He was always living at the very beginning, and that was why he could live in utter anonymity, just doing his work; and it wasn’t about fame or validation, it was all about the work. An interesting parallel would be with [the late pianist and Modern Jazz Quartet member] John Lewis, who very few would consider one of the mainstays of free jazz, and yet it was John Lewis who encouraged the Erteguns [the brothers Ahmet and Nesuhi Ertegun, the heads of Atlantic Records in its glory days] to sign Ornette. He was the last person you’d expect to do that, but he understood that Ornette and Coltrane were extending the blues form.
What is it about Bearden’s work that you connect to most as a musician and composer?
There’s a phrase a friend of mine uses when he teaches his students, and it’s the importance of process over product. When we live in a situation where artists are eternally struggling to balance their artistic desires with the limited taste of the public, Romare just did his thing. And it’s not insignificant in a spiritual sense that before I was approached to do this record, I saw a Marc Chagall exhibit at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. I was knocked out by the way they set up the show, because you could see his progression from being a classical painter to his interest in Picasso’s ideas, to his adoption of Gauguin, and I was struck by the way he put his work together through these borrowings. When I saw Bearden’s work I saw the same thing, someone who was more interested in the process than in the product.