A few years ago, Branford Marsalis was an up-and-coming mainstream jazz saxophonist who happened to have a trumpet-playing brother named Wynton.
Now, Branford Marsalis has diversified. Now he's not only known for his heated jazz choruses--he plays with his quartet tonight at the Roxy--but also for his appearances with pop singer/songwriter Sting, and, more recently, for his acting. He has small but not insignificant parts in both "Throw Momma From the Train," starring Billy Crystal and Danny DeVito in DeVito's directorial debut, and in the upcoming Spike Lee film, "School Daze," scheduled for February release.
"I'm one of the fortunate people" is how the affable 27-year-old assessed his life in his Westside hotel room Monday. "I'm in a unique position because I have had the chance to do a whole lot of things and, luckily for me, I've done them all pretty well."
Indeed, Marsalis seems to have the same natural affinity for acting that he has for music. It was his on-camera cutting up and plain straight-talk in "Bring On the Night," a 1985 documentary about the formation of Sting's band and its subsequent premiere in Paris, that led to Marsalis, who has never studied acting, landing his roles in "Throw Momma" and "School Daze."
"Who would have ever thought of me as any kind of film performer?" he asked. "I guess (Lee, DeVito and Crystal) liked my personality."
Lee, who directed "She's Gotta Have It" and who lives near Marsalis in Brooklyn, ran into the musician and told him, "Hey, man, you were pretty funny in that picture. I'm gonna use you in my new film," Marsalis recalled. "I thought, 'Yeah, sure,' but he called me."
"School Daze" is about black college life today and takes place in Atlanta. "I'm in a group called the Fellas," Marsalis said. "I don't have a lot of lines but I'm on-camera often."
While "School Daze" was filming last May, the lanky, relaxed Marsalis received a call to audition for "Throw Momma." "I flew to L.A., read for the part of Lester, a musician friend of Larry Donner's (Crystal), and got it," he said, putting his Reebok-clad feet on the edge of the coffee table and rocking back and forth in his chair as he talked.
"So every day I had a day off on Spike's thing I was flying in (to L.A.) to do Danny's film," he went on. "It was exhausting. After a while, I was shot to hell."
Marsalis said that though his ever-on-the-go schedule--"Besides the films, I have been touring for the last three years, either with Wynton, Sting, Herbie Hancock or my own band"--precludes him taking acting classes, he often confers with his acting coach, Arthur Mendoza.
"We talk about situations, he tells me plays to read and we just talk about acting. My dream is to do some Off Broadway plays and really learn how to control my emotions and physical movement--really learn to act. But being a black man and seeing the number of talented black actors who are much more talented than I am that aren't working, I don't take it too seriously yet."
In the meantime, Marsalis, whose latest CBS LP is "Renaissance," continues to ply his trade as a saxophonist. "I'm playing a lot better than I did two years ago," he said. After his current quartet tour concludes, he joins Sting in January for a "nine-month--probably longer, knowing him--" stint with the former star of Police.
The hornman looks forward to his supporting role with Sting, "a man I greatly admire and who's a great friend," he said. "Sting had a lot of guts, leaving the Police to go off in a completely different direction, hire some Negroes (four musicians and two singers, all blacks, made up Sting's contingent) and play new music. I like that.
"And I love touring, because, for nine months, the pressure's off me," he continued. "No more interviews--they only want to speak to Sting--and the schedule's not nearly as rigorous as with my quartet."
Still, Marsalis found playing with Sting was good for his jazz chops. "Though they were (in bad shape) the first six months I was back to playing jazz," he said, "overall my playing was much more intense and my technique was better, too. I was able to play real intense for a longer period of time. That's because Sting's music was intense for 2 1/2 hours. I was intense each time I touched the horn."
As to whether being a musician or an actor takes precedence at this point in his life, Marsalis said, "I'll play it by ear." Then he added, "What really takes precedence is being a family man. Whenever I'm at home, I spend all my time with (his 2-year-old son) Reece. I'm going to do everything I can to see that he turns out OK."