It was 1980 or thereabouts, and 20-year-old saxophonist Branford Marsalis had just arrived in New York. His musical attention was turning to jazz, and he picked up a little advice from a veteran musician: You need, the veteran told the youngster, a business card.
So Marsalis called his father, Ellis, and said he needed $100 for business cards.
Ellis didn't mince words, his eldest son recalled in an interview this week: "He said, 'I'll give you $100 for a sax lesson, but I won't give you a nickel for a business card.' He said, "Your sound is your calling card. If you play well, people will hire you. ... You don't know what you're doing. Go learn how to play.'"
Nearly four decades later, nobody doubts that Branford Marsalis has learned how to play the saxophone. The Grammy-winning musician comes calling Sunday night at The LaSells Stewart Center, where the Branford Marsalis Quartet is set to perform. (See the information box for more details about the concert.)
Over the years, Marsalis has made his mark in musical worlds other than jazz: One of his first albums, "Romances for Saxophone," was a classical album, and he continues to record and perform classical music. He was part of Sting's band for 15 years and continues to be a sought-after performer in the popular music world, including dates with The Grateful Dead.
And his musical journey started the way it started for so many musicians: as a way to meet girls.
"I was playing clarinet in a youth orchestra and I turned 14 and suddenly girls were attractive," Marsalis told The E. One night, he was following some girls who were going to a dance.
At the dance, there was a band playing — "this was in the '70s, early '70s, the DJs hadn't taken over yet, so nightclubs had bands in them." And he couldn't help noticing that the girls were paying attention to the players in the band. "I'm naturally shy," Marsalis said, "so I said, 'well, this is how I can meet girls. So I went home and I said, 'I want to play saxophone,' and my dad said, 'Well, we'll see about that.'"
But that first sax, a Yamaha, eventually appeared, allowing Marsalis to stop his efforts to learn the piano: "Once I got that saxophone, I said, 'Great, I can get the hell off this piano.' Being 14 years old and slugging around a 110-pound Fender Rhodes suitcase is not ideal."
By the time he got to New York five or so years later, though, the saxophone had fallen into disfavor in popular music, and Marsalis' musical interests had turned to jazz. He attended the Berklee School of Music in Boston (he earned C grades in his improvisation classes; "I didn't follow the rules," he said) and landed a job with the Lionel Hampton Orchestra in 1980. His first recording as a bandleader, "Scenes in the City," followed in 1984.
Sting called, out of thin air, in 1985. Marsalis was a featured performer on Sting's first solo album, "The Dream of the Blue Turtles," and continued working with the onetime Police bassist until 1999. Jazz purists might have balked at Marsalis' leap into pop music, but Marsalis has little patience for that kind of criticism.
"It wasn't anything about, 'oh, I have to break off the shackles of the jazz label or that s---,'" he said. "I don't give a damn about any of that, you know?"
Instead, it was a chance to play with Sting and the great musicians he had assembled — a group that included Kenny Kirkland, the longtime pianist in Marsalis' quartet until his death in 1998.
"It was a great musical experience," Marsalis said, and it was a timely one for him: "Because jazz has so many harmonic and melodic possibilities, as a soloist you (sometimes) try to play all of them at once. I was never good at self-censorship when I started playing jazz. Suddenly being reindoctrinated into the idea that I have to say whatever I had to say in 1 minute and 20 seconds was really great for me. When I went back to playing jazz, my solos had more specificity and more discipline, and I wasn't just roaming around. Not that I regret my roaming around."
Maybe some of that musical roaming goes back to watching his father teach young jazz musicians. He still has a vivid memory of one particular lesson that he overheard: His father was talking to a student about expanding his aural vocabulary, "and the guy said, 'Well, you're wasting your time on me, because I know what I like.' And my dad said, 'No, son, to know what you like, you would have to know all the music in the world, and you don't even know one-one thousandth of it. A more accurate phrase for you is, you like what you know, and you don't know much.'"
"That's been a mantra for me going forward: You like what you know, and you don't know much. So let's try to know everything there is to know, which is impossible, but let's try. ... What I've tried to do, which is what my dad did, is to take all of the things I've learned in music and try to translate that into a language that is relatable to laypeople."
These days, much of Marsalis' jazz work is done with his quartet, which features three players he's worked with now for many years: Bassist Eric Revis has been in the quartet since 1997. Pianist Joey Calderazzo has been in the ensemble since 1999. The newcomer is drummer Justin Faulkner, who joined in 2009. That kind of longevity in a quartet can make for inspired moments — "Joey will just throw something out there, and I'll just attack it, I'll go right after it," Marsalis said — but the ensemble also is interested in stretching out: Its most recent album, 2016's outstanding "Upward Spiral," featured vocalist Kurt Elling, who toured with the band afterward.
"In the same way that working with Sting helped me a lot, working with Kurt has helped everybody in the band," Marsalis said. "Singers have a way that they have to sing the song, and you have to be mindful of that, you have to be supportive of that."
And the changes Elling triggered in the quartet have continued: "After doing that for a year and a half, we went back to trying to go back to playing the way that we had played before Kurt, but that way is gone."
That played a factor in the recording sessions for the quartet's next album, due next year: "We had to record this record twice. We had to figure out what the new way was for us. So now, what it is, the songs have more structure than the songs prior to Kurt, so you have to play with that same kind of reckless abandon but within a structure. ... So the new record, it's going to be good. There is clear and noticeable and identifiable progress in the development of the group without having to invent a new concept to do it."
Marsalis isn't someone to hop into the studio on a set schedule to work on a new album: "When it feels new, then we'll record. I don't believe in every two years, let's make a record just to see where we are. If you don't know where you are, then you shouldn't be making a record. So for me, when it feels like there's something is happening, do the record — and it felt like something was happening."
On tour these days, the quartet starts each concert with a basic structure that the musicians can change on the spot if necessary. In fact, Marsalis recalls a show a couple of years ago when the band opened with two of its tunes, "and no one in the audience was feeling anything we did. And I turned to the guys, and I said, 'hey, man, we're doing the '40s show.' The last hour and 15 minutes was just swing-era tunes. The audience loved it. ... And we had great time playing that stuff. The great thing about learning how to play early music is it's great to do when we don't have to do it all the time."
Marsalis doesn't buy into what he calls "the continuing idea that jazz can only move forward if it rejects its past. I'm not even interested in arguing against that, because it's a waste of time anyway, it's kind of like talking about politics. ... But how I feel about that is indicated by what we play and how we play it. Learning early music has helped us play modern music much better and with much more emotional density that we could ever have had if we had pretended that it wasn't there."
So what's on tap Sunday night at OSU?
"We're just going to come out here and we're going to play jazz. ... We know how to play it. We're going to play it."