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Branford Marsalis Brings Authenticity to Adaptation of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

The saxophonist and composer talks about his work in the Netflix film based on August Wilson’s play

Branford Marsalis with actor Glynn Turman, who played Toledo in "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" (photo by David Lee/NETFLIX)
Branford Marsalis with actor Glynn Turman, who played Toledo in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (photo: David Lee/Netflix)

For the acclaimed Netflix film Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Branford Marsalis played an outsized role, albeit offscreen, in bringing August Wilson’s award-winning play to a different medium. The saxophonist and composer not only wrote the score for the film but also coached the actors who play blues and jazz musicians in a Chicago recording session with the renowned singer Ma Rainey, played by Viola Davis. Written by Ruben Santiago-Hudson and directed by George S. Wolfe, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom features Chadwick Boseman’s last performance on screen, for which he won a Golden Globe award posthumously for his portrayal of Levee Green, a talented but troubled trumpeter.

Marsalis recorded a soundtrack album for the film featuring his own compositions. This foray was not his first cinematic collaboration; in 1990 he was a part of Spike Lee’s jazz film Mo’ Better Blues, which coincidentally starred Denzel Washington, one of the producers of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. Marsalis talked with JazzTimes about the process of composing and arranging music that not only worked for the film but also was performable for the non-musician actors and authentic to the time.


JazzTimes: You had done the music for August Wilson’s play Fences on Broadway in 2010. What did you learn from that experience that helped with doing the music for this film?

Branford Marsalis: Nothing helped with this. It was a completely different thing. Because for one of them [the play] you are writing music that happens in between acts or scenes. You’re writing music that either presages what’s going to happen or confirms what already happened, emotionally, in the piece. In a movie, some of it has that feeling, when they have a lot of exteriors—similar to writing incidental music. This movie took place in two rooms and it had a compressed [setting] with very few externals.

One challenge for you must have been to make sure that the music was authentic and of its time, which is the 1920s. Did you have to avoid certain modern sounds or instruments?

It depends. The Knick was a TV series that took place in the 1900s and Cliff Martinez did an all-electronic score that was fantastic. Like that famous [Vangelis] score for Chariots of Fire. That took place in the 1920s. So it can be done. It’s possible. But because it was August Wilson and I knew his writing, I wanted to have something that had a certain emotional authenticity. It’s not really possible to have the technical authenticity because then the musicians would have had to treat the score the way actors treat learning dialects. You’d have to listen to the music of the period for months because the articulation is so different. And a lot of the musicians who specialize in 1920s music spend so much time making sure that it’s technically exact that it lacks the emotional optimism that the music represented at that time.

When I listened to Vince Giordano’s work on Loudon Wainwright III’s recent album of mostly ’20s music, the sound was so different, whether because of the instrumentation or the arrangements. Even though it was recorded in 2020, the sound immediately harked back to the days of the Victrola.

It’s the arrangements. It’s the era. With the exception of some of the Black musicians, bands in the 20s didn’t use dominant-7th chords. They used dominant-6th chords, which are almost unheard of now. When you listen to all those bands, you never really hear a dominant 7th. We’re so accustomed to that dominant-7th sound. Rock & roll sits on that dominant-7th chord. In jazz from 1940 on, everything is a dominant-7th chord. The dominant-6th chord just disappears. When you hear it, it definitely hearkens back to an earlier time.

Who was the trumpeter who ghosted the parts for Boseman? Was it Chuck Findley?

No, it was Wendell Brunious from New Orleans. Chuck gave him [Boseman] trumpet lessons. You’re not going to get someone to play. When you listen to Louis Armstrong or King Oliver, they didn’t play on changes the way guys do now. They played arpeggios. Louis Armstrong was one of the few guys who used rhythm to play through songs, but in terms of harmonic structure, a lot of what he played was close to the melody of the song and everything else was various verses of arpeggios with a couple of his personal notes. Everything is so linear now. If they’re thinking of not playing linear lines, then the emotion is kind of raggedy. But if they’re not thinking about it, then they start playing shit that’s inappropriate. The great thing about the New Orleans musicians is that they don’t play a lot of those linear lines anyway. It was eliminating having to deal with that.

It’s interesting to me that three recent movies with jazz figuring large in the score were all composed by New Orleans musicians: Jon Batiste with Soul, Terence Blanchard with One Night in Miami, and you with Ma Rainey. The play and film seem to be about musicians from New Orleans, like Armstrong or Oliver coming north to record.

The premise of recording in Chicago was that the record company was based there. But she’s from southern Georgia. She behaved that and brought that with her.

Was the character based on King Oliver in some way?

King Oliver had a certain kind of optimism, but Ma Rainey was just a tough bitch. Levee was way too angry for King Oliver. He was from New Orleans and I don’t know that the tragedy with his parents was rooted in any musician’s reality. It was just one of those realistic stories of a Black family from that time.

The challenge with a film about music and musicians is making it authentic so it doesn’t look ridiculous or somehow obvious that it’s an actor and not a musician on screen. How do you do that?

There’s a trick to it. Forget about your romantic caricatures in your head about what musicians are like. Deal with the physicality of the instrument. You need to have a certain kind of physicality. Your fingers can’t move when there ain’t no sound. This is the fundamental thing. When there is no sound, your fingers shouldn’t be moving. You have to learn the solos. You have to sing the solos. From the musicians’ side, the solos have to be singable. You guys have to play something mindful that the actor has to learn it, so don’t go into your flights of fancy. It needs to be believable. That’s the stuff I learned from Mo’ Better Blues. We weren’t thinking of that. And Denzel and Wesley [Snipes] did a fantastic job of fingering those complex-ass solos that Terence and I were playing. I guess it was necessary for the movie, but for this, we didn’t need to go through that.

Branford Marsalis with actor Glynn Turman, who played Toledo in "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" (photo by David Lee/NETFLIX)
Branford Marsalis with actor Glynn Turman, who played Toledo in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (photo: David Lee/Netflix)

The performance by Chadwick Boseman as Levee Green was remarkable. And made more remarkable by the fact that he was literally dying of colon cancer at that point. [Ed. note: Boseman died during postproduction.]

But we didn’t know that. No one knew. If you think of it from a practical sense, if that had been known, he would have been uninsurable. And if he’s not insured, there’s not going to be a movie. That’s all epilogue. Everyone was shocked.

Who played that Levee character in the original production?

Charles Dutton played it originally. He played it very differently. He was hard and pissed off and angry. He was a sinister fellow from the beginning. He doesn’t draw you in with his charm. With Chadwick, the way the script was written, he draws you in with jokes and charm and so when he snaps, it’s shocking. Whereas in the play, it was utterly predictable. You weren’t surprised by what happened. It’s still shocking. But when Chadwick does it, you don’t see it coming. Shit, I knew it was coming, and I still jumped when it happened.

With this film, the production was an adaptation of the play rather than strictly adhering to Wilson’s writing.

I think that’s one of the things they may have learned when they did Fences. Movies aren’t plays and plays aren’t movies. Ruben Santiago-Hudson is adept at both television and theater, so he knows the difference. He and Denzel are a formidable team. And George Wolfe. They did a fantastic job to give the actors the space they needed to make a great piece of work.

Just like with One Night in Miami, which mostly takes place in one room, you know with Ma Rainey that this was originally a play. Did you get input from Denzel, Ruben, or George on the music?

From George as the director. The producers and the screenplay writers didn’t have any say in the music. George is very demanding. He wants multiple versions in multiple styles before he makes a decision on what he wants. That’s one of the cool things about the soundtrack. There’s a song called “Levee’s Song” that I play on, but it’s the same song that comes after “Sweet Lil’ Baby of Mine.” They’re exactly the same song, but we arranged them so that one is an instrumental and it’s more of a blues sound and the other is more of a big-band sound. He didn’t go with that version. There’s another version, the one that’s in the movie, “Baby, Let Me Have It All,” I think, with the singer. There are a lot of songs, like “Toledo’s Song,” where there’s a version that’s through-composed with strings and woodwinds. And then there’s a version where it’s just him [Toledo], playing it as a blues on piano. I like the idea of themes and changing the context around.

For the soundtrack you really had to have your orchestration chops together. How did you train or learn to write for strings?

That came from listening to classical music since I was a kid. I know what the clarinet sounds like. I know how woodwinds function. I’d never had an opportunity to do it. I had one other opportunity on one of George’s films and they didn’t use most of it. I did get a soundtrack in my own little archives. There’s another soundtrack I wrote for a 2001 film called Mr. and Mrs. Loving. They couldn’t afford strings, so it’s all keyboards, but I was surprised by how good the writing was in terms of orchestration. I took harmony classes just like everybody else, but I’ve always listened to a lot of classical music. And when I’m listening, I’m listening for sound. I’m not listening to data. It was nice to be able to do that.

Tell me about the singer, Maxayn Lewis, who ghosted the Ma Rainey vocal parts. Is she from New Orleans as well?

No, she’s from the South, but she lives in L.A. She used to sing with the Ikettes, the Ike & Tina Turner Revue. She had a band called Maxayn in the 70s. She’s been on the scene for a while. She’s sung background with a lot of groups. Bruce Hornsby recommended her to me.

That must have been another challenge. A modern singer pulling off Ma Rainey, who was very much of her time.

You can’t find anybody that sounds like Ma Rainey. There are a lot of women who have voices that can sound like Ma Rainey, but then they can’t sing like Ma Rainey. The one thing about musicians in general is that we tend to be transactional creatures. There’s a limit to how much music we’re willing to learn in terms of sound. There’s a limit to how much music that we’re willing to learn that we cannot conceptualize or monetize. A lot of musicians are listening to modern players, because they’re thinking about gigs. But if you’re going to listen to Ma Rainey, there are no gigs for that. You’re just learning it because it deserves to be heard. It would be impossible to find a singer who really spent the time trying to get Ma Rainey’s sound again. It was 100 years ago. I knew we weren’t going to get anyone to sound like her. If you listen to Ma Rainey’s records and Bessie Smith’s records, they’re incredible, but you can tell that they’re essentially standing still when they sing. If you listen to Tina Turner sing a song from the ’60s, it’s clear that her butt is wiggling. You can hear it in the sound of the voice. But when you listen to Billie Holiday and people like that, you can tell they weren’t moving around, they were just singing.

Cover of soundtrack album for Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom by Branford Marsalis

It seems like that they were singing more from the chest as well.

I don’t know about the technical side of it, but there was very little amplification in those days, so you had to project. And secondly, we weren’t in that era yet where the entertainment had gotten to the point where the singers were dancing around and doing all that stuff. That didn’t start happening until the ’50s. I don’t know how much people would have enjoyed it in modern times if Viola was standing up singing in that statuesque [way] that Ma Rainey had. It was one of the things that George and I discussed. He wanted somebody who sounded more like Ma Rainey. I said, “I don’t think we can find anybody who can sound like her and can sing like her.” You can find someone who can mimic her, but that’s going to come off as pastiche.

As you know, there have been a few modern singers who initially made their mark simply by imitating Billie Holiday.

I think it’s great to learn how to do it, because the Billie Holiday we had … Diana Ross can’t sing like Billie Holiday. You have to find people who can deliver that. I don’t think it’s necessary to find people who sound like her.

Looking back at Dee Dee Bridgewater’s performance and portrayal of Billie Holiday in that play Lady Day, she did an amazing job of becoming Billie without simply imitating her.

Dee Dee did a great job. Audra McDonald did a fantastic job [in Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill].

And Andra Day, most recently, in The United States vs. Billie Holiday. Of course, we sometimes forget that most people don’t even know the way the original artists and songs sound. Most people have never heard Ma Rainey at all.

I don’t forget about that. I said the same thing in an interview. They said, “These are famous songs—did you feel any pressure?” I said, “No, sir, they were famous.” I felt no pressure whatsoever, because anybody who remembers this song is not alive. This was basically introducing people to a sound that they hadn’t experienced. It’s almost like playing a contemporary classical piece. You want to play it technically perfect but it doesn’t matter if you don’t because nobody knows the piece. They just assume that’s how it’s supposed to sound.

Look at what Leslie Odom Jr. did in portraying Sam Cooke in One Night in Miami. He didn’t imitate Sam, but he sure sounded authentic and great.

That’s the point. You want to have somebody who can deliver what Sam Cooke feels like, not what Sam Cooke sounds like. I heard Leslie Odom do a Nat King Cole thing at the Monterey Jazz Festival and it was f-ing fantastic.

Funny how some of those great soul singers like Cooke and Marvin Gaye also wanted to sing classic material from the Great American Songbook, but no one wanted to hear that.

Yeah, Marvin’s [interpretation of standards] was great because he was delivering the music emotionally. I listen to bootlegs of that stuff and it was really great. He didn’t come in there and throw in a bunch of soul inflection. He had a vocabulary that was expansive enough that he could sing the music and have a certain kind of emotional authenticity and not just fall into clichés. Like hearing James Brown singing “Mona Lisa,” it’s a nightmare. He sings “I Loves You Porgy,” but he does a little rap at the beginning and he sings as if Porgy is a girl, but you know in the musical or opera Porgy is a man. Anyway, Leslie did a stellar job with the Nat King Cole material.

He’s one of those vocalists who could sing the phone book and sound great. And he sounds like himself, which is the most important thing.

No, I don’t agree with that. There are a lot of people who are themselves. Almost everybody is themself. But if you don’t have an expanded vocabulary, unfortunately you sound like you. Like getting a smooth-jazz saxophonist to play Ornette Coleman’s music—they’ll sound like themselves, but it wouldn’t necessarily sound good. They have a vocabulary that works in a specific idiom. The thing about Leslie is that he’s listened to enough music that he has an expanded sense of idiom. He can adapt what he does on a Broadway stage to what he does in another setting and it works, because he’s listened to that music enough to understand the emotional importance of the lyric.

Looking back, what are you most proud of with the project?

I like the way the soundtrack sounds. I don’t know if I got it right, but it’s over and I’m moving on to other things. I don’t look back like that. I’m more inclined to listen to the things that went wrong so I can address them so it won’t be wrong the next time.

Well, speaking from experience, that’s a good habit and a bad habit. People say to me, “Can’t you take a compliment? Why do you always find the negative stuff?”

No, it’s a good habit. That’s not really my concern. The answer is “No, I can’t take a compliment.” Because I’m not in it for compliments. You don’t want it to be, “I’m a lousy person and I don’t deserve compliments.” But if I’m to use compliments and people’s opinions as a validation for my work, I would have stopped practicing in 1985. And just stayed right there, because no one was saying that you need to learn more, except the guys who I needed to learn from. So I could listen to the roar of the crowd or I could listen to Dizzy or Buddy Tate or Lou Donaldson, who’d say, “Man, you got a long way to go.” And when they tell you, you can say, “Oh you’re just jealous because you’re old and not young.” Or you can listen to them. I chose to listen to them. I can’t listen to them and also listen to those other people telling me how great I am. They’re not compatible. For me, it’s about getting better and it still is. It’s about improving. If I wanted accolades and all that, I would have just stayed on TV. If you choose to play jazz, then play.

Chops: Branford Marsalis and Howard Alden on Ghost Performances in Movies Originally Published