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.

Is that why Bearden’s work is so widely loved by jazz musicians?

In all fairness, I think a lot of jazz musicians admire him because he was into jazz, he was black and the paintings are hip. In order to say you like Bearden’s work you need to know something about art, and I openly admit that when I first met Bearden I didn’t know shit about painting. My wife at the time was friends with a couple who owned an art gallery and they were basically giving away paintings by Bearden for $2,500. The deal was that if you bought one you got to meet the artist. My ex-wife said you should invest and get a Bearden. I told my dad that if I bought the painting I could meet Bearden, and my dad said you better go meet that man. So I bought one and those were the best $2,500 I ever spent. My wife and I are divorced, and she has the painting. But I got to meet Bearden, and it opened up a new door for me. He taught me how to look at art.

What were your impressions of him as a person?

He was a very quiet man, with a smile on his face all the time. And he was obviously quite voyeuristic. You could always see him watching. When I first met him I was knocked out by how insanely curious he was, and how he could talk more intelligently about music than most musicians. He furthered my quest to slowly and deliberately develop my musical and even my personal identity.

What does Bearden’s work have in common with jazz, in aesthetic terms?

His use of collage, which is a kind of improvisation. The collages, especially the late ones, are so fluid. You don’t get the sense he spent two years on one painting. He’d put some things down and look at them and then build on them. Collage was meant for him. I especially love The Apprenticeship of Jelly Roll Morton, a collage painting of a man playing in front of a naked woman, because Jelly Roll used to play in all the brothels in New Orleans–it’s funny and it’s beautiful.

And then there is Bearden’s interest in black life. He came from Charlotte, and he was part of the black migration from South to North. And even though he was from North Carolina, I get the sense that he was more into the Mississippi Delta blues–you know, Sonny Boy Williamson, Robert Johnson, Lightnin’ Hopkins–than the Piedmont Sound, the Carolina-Virginia sound, which is less of a slide sound and more of a picked sound.

Is there something musical about his use of color that has echoes in the use of timbre?

I don’t know if it’s musical. It’s obvious that the black Americans are the descendants of Africans, and Africans wear very colorful clothing. Now, because I am very successfully colonized, I can’t go around wearing no yellow suit. There was a time when I came to New York and I was less colonized and I could wear a blue suit and red shoes, but if you understand culturally the role that color plays in African society, Romare’s colors make perfect sense. They express a relationship to a culture, and Romare naturally understood that.

If you had to compare Bearden’s work to that of a jazz composer, who would it be? Ellington? Monk? Mingus?

It would have to be Duke. Monk’s compositions were brilliant, and Mingus’s were too, but that was mainly the group interplay, which is why his compositions don’t usually come off when they’re covered by other musicians. But Duke had such a worldview. Monk had a worldview too, and when you listen from song to song, the melodies are genius. But when you listen to Duke, the stuff he wrote in the 1920s was so different from what he wrote in the ’40s and from he wrote in the ’50s, and that’s what he shares with Romare, that emphasis on process over product.

One of the things that strikes me about Bearden’s work is that even when he’s depicting people who live in difficult conditions, there’s nothing bleak or fatalistic about his vision. It’s very affirmative of the African-American experience in all its rich diversity, alternately sorrowful and joyful. Do you see a connection here with black American music?

I think that’s life in general. In the last five or ten years I’ve gravitated more to German classical music more than anything else, because composers like Brahms and Mahler have been able to illuminate the beauty of melancholy, even when they’re writing in a major key. And Mahler has the double whammy of being Jewish, and Jewish music also has that beautiful sense of melancholy. It was only when I heard Uri Caine’s Mahler record [Urlicht/Primal Light] that I realized how uniquely Jewish Mahler’s music is. Even Wagner’s crazy ass has that same thing, and there’s Schubert and Schumann–particularly the lieder, simple melodies that are so melancholic and so beautiful. What the German composers and philosophers understood–and what Bearden also understood–is that one cannot be a complete human being without embracing the melancholy in oneself. Bearden had some rough times. He had a nervous breakdown, he stopped painting and started writing songs. He had a crisis of conscience. And then he got on the other side of it and said this is what I am.

Albert Murray said Bearden’s work was the visual equivalent of the blues. Do you agree?

I don’t think so. Bearden’s paintings are the visual equivalent of a combination of things, and once you start talking about Bearden’s work being the equivalent of the blues you start pigeonholing him as a black painter, and I don’t accept that. When I first saw the show at the National Gallery, a woman came up to me and said, “Don’t you think it’s time the National Gallery gave some space to black artists? Isn’t this overdue?” And I said no, because this show isn’t about Bearden’s blackness, which I find ironic in the first place because he was damned near white in his appearance, although he wasn’t in his persona. Bearden belongs here because of his work as an artist. This is not the National Gallery’s version of affirmative action. He was a student of painting, period. He wasn’t just a Negro historian, he was a student of the world. And so the blues was captured in his work, but so was the experience of European art. He was a polyglot and absorbed everything around him and didn’t limit himself, and that makes him exceptional in a world that too often prizes limitation.