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05 September 2009


Dave Lisik

"The idea of what you are is more important than you actually being that." He nails this. It's like his visited my college and met my students. I was showing this to everyone I knew last year.


Surprised to see you defending Branford here, Dave! Due respect, naturally, but I honestly found his comments kind of appalling. Curmudgeonliness has its place, certainly, and I'm sure lots of students need to learn to eat some crow. And unlike yourself, I'm not in the trenches of academia on a regular basis so I have no real frame of reference for that. At the same time, it's hard for me to see how taking it way over the top like that, in this context, is supposed to be motivating.

Really, Branford, you haven't learned anything of consequence from a student, ever? I don't believe that. I also don't believe for a second the phenomenon is anything new. Remember Socrates's classic complaint about the youth of Athens:

"The children now love luxury; they have bad manners, contempt for authority; they allow disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise. Children now are tyrants, not the servants of their households. They no longer rise when elders enter the room. They contradict their parents, chatter before company, gobble up dainties at the table, cross their legs, and tyrannize their teachers.”

Josh Sinton

Excellent! Another grumpy old man is born. Sounds like Branford should take some time off from the classroom.

By the way, what on earth did he mean with that "And like the generation before them..." comment? So Branford's peers are spoiled children also? I don't understand.


Hi Josh,

Branford was born in 1960, so there's been at least two distinct generations of kids who have come up through the music schools since then. (Keep in mind that the current batch of college freshmen were born in 1991... )

Chris Kelsey

It seems as if Grumpy Old Man Branford might be happier in another line of work ... I hear the Bronx Zoo is looking for people to feed rats to snakes.

Matt Rubin

In the words of Don Draper, "Kids today, they have no one to look up to - cause they're looking up to us."

My recent college experience causes me to agree with Branford. Many students ARE full of shit. Of course, that isn't to say that their teachers aren't full of shit as well. I found that the least shitty teachers attracted the least shitty students...

Matt Rubin

Cont. from above...

Actually, Branford talks about the poor quality of teachers in this interview from 2007. So I guess he's just an unhappy dude.

"Where I lay the blame on universities is in holding their jazz teachers to a much lower standard than their law instructors, math and English professors. That’s a fact. Actually, you would be hard-pressed to find as many people in other areas of university life who have spent less time actually doing what they are supposedly qualified to do. Can you imagine teaching law if you never practiced it?"
Alex W. Rodriguez

What a horribly cynical and misguided rant. This sort of adversarial attitude towards students isn't going to help anything. Of course students want to be told how good they are -- they're 18 years old and have probably been told that their whole life! The important thing is to know that it's a phase and help them to get through it.
I feel bad for any of Branford's students today. It's unfair for him to rip on them as a group -- I am sure that some of his students are very hard-working and not bratty egotists.
This brand of cynicism is especially harmful. Like Mr. Teachout, it feels like whining for the sake of whining and offers no positive suggestions for ways forward.
Like it or not, jazz and the academy are going to have to get along for the music to have any institutional support in our society. Branford's irresponsible comments will only make that more challenging.

Dave Lisik

Branford sounded exactly like this 20 years ago so I don't think it's a matter of him becoming old or grumpy. I also don't think that he is talking about Darcy's peers from McGill or NEC. I know many of the students currently studying, and recently graduated from Indiana University in Bloomington, and they are some of the most prepared, hardest working young people with a perspective that nobody I knew had when I was in college. Branford's assessment isn't universal (in my mind, or likely in his considering his recent use of young players in his group) but the students he's talking about do exist in large numbers and I appreciate his ability and willingness to express this observation with such clarity.

Josh Sinton

Hi Darcy,

I was taking the word "generations" a bit too literally I guess. I was thinking of the 30-year definition of it.

Yes, students can be full of shit because they're human and humans are notorious for being full of such things. And it's fine to remind folks of this, but I'm a fan of nuance, and it would've been nice for Branford to balance his statements with something about how some students (even if it's a minority of them) DO work hard and more importantly, WANT TO IMPROVE.

I'd be willing to lay odds that for every three students that want only praise from Branford, there's one student who wants real information (no matter how it's delivered). Rather than concentrate on the students that piss him off, why not give a balance of time to the students he has fun with?

I would imagine Branford doesn't need the money from a teaching job (but who knows?), so given this luxury, why not concentrate on ALL the students, not just the annoying ones.

And that thinly veiled 'those-who-can't-do,-teach' comment from the '07 interview? That's serious bullshit. If he isn't old or grumpy, then he's just a mean sonofabitch.

That being said, I'm glad he's still playing. He is one of the most serious and important saxophonists of the past 20 years.

Kevin Laskey

I feel Branford's comments say more about himself as a teacher than about the students he claims to talk about. While I'm not going to debate him about the prevalence of cocky students with bad work ethics, I will say that working with such students is part of pains (and sometimes joys) of being an educator. My favorite teachers have been the ones who do not seek anything in return from their students; the students do not need to somehow prove they are "worthy" in order to receive care and attention from the teacher. In the end, it seems that these kinds of teachers are the ones that end up learning the most from their students. No matter how much I respect Branford as a player, I don't know how much I would like to have him as a teacher. It seems that some people who can "do" don't necessarily make good teachers.

Brent Jensen

A bigger question is why do we even continue to pump out jazz players from our universities? They have NOWHERE to go! There is no job market and yet we continue to ignore the whole supply/demand model and keep producing more & more players each year. What we need to be creating is more AUDIENCE for the music not more PERFORMERS.
In an effort to become part of the solution (and not a part of the problem) I quit teaching private lessons and directing ensembles at my college several years ago to focus exclusively on my jazz history (Gen. Ed.) lecture classes which introduces jazz to college students who would otherwise never discover htis music for themselves. Check out Bill Anschell's "Careers in Jazz" article posted at www.allaboutjazz.com for more insight into the dilemma.

David Adler

Sweeping generalizations are a bad thing. Condemning entire generations of students is a bad thing, an unhelpful thing, and probably an untruthful thing. No doubt, arrogance exists among students and needs to be swatted down, for the benefit of the students themselves. But Branford's comment reveals he has an axe to grind, a kind of hostility that I saw him display in person when he visited the New School in the late '80s.

Sam Stephenson

You can listen to some of Branford's students from North Carolina Central on NPR's site, recorded in performance at Newport a couple of weeks ago.


Justin Mathews

I'm not sure how much this generation's jazz students differ from those of Branford's.

It's worth mentioning that the cost of attending a jazz school has exploded, and that those that do attend often see it as a continuum of something they began as young children -- when there was always a "right" and "wrong" way to do everything, when everyone was special, and when your jazz recital made your parents quite proud.

The kind of rebellious, subculture-seeking outlier-type that used to be into jazz has in many cases been replaced by, well, a nerdy, parental-approval-seeking Dockers-wearer type.

If Daddy Marsalis has a point, it's disgust at how weak his children have become; unable to admit they need help, flailing to find the words to ask.

Unfortunately, flaring up and calling them "full of shit" rather than addressing the underlying lack of self-esteem and identity just makes Branford look like he's got problems of his own.

Worse--it's possible he doesn't see any of this, which is why for a lot of people, music school is a big, lonely money sink.

Mo money mo problems!

Michael J. West

I won't deny that Branford has a little bit of a chip on his shoulder, and a bit of dogmatism mixed in too. But I also have to say that in summer 2008, I was interviewing jazz studies department heads all over the country, and this is a complaint I heard a LOT. One of them referred to the students he'd taught for about the last six or seven years as the "Everybody-Gets-A-Trophy Generation." Another told stories of students who had their fathers call to complain - to a college professor, mind you - when their kids made less than stellar grades. So rightly or wrongly, the broad perception of a generation as overly coddled isn't unique to Branford. But the issue I'm hearing is not lack of self-esteem, as Mr. Mathews above says - it's that parents are so afraid of lowering their childrens' self-esteem that they refuse to tell them that anything they do is less than superlative. The problem that has been suggested to me, in other words, is too much self-esteem.

Justin Mathews


I'm aware it's quite the cognitive leap to go from "overly coddled" to "low self-esteem."

But those kids aren't stupid. They seek the approval of somebody like Branford because they know the world around them is contrived.

It's easy to essentialize a group of students for being affluent or approval-seeking; but if you really want to educate said students you have to address them as they actually are -- not as the hungry diamonds-in-the-rough a teacher might prefer they'd be.

Anyway, I don't mean to suggest pandering to the lowest common denominator will save the "everybody gets a trophy generation."

But if jazz educators can't reach that generation -- then they're not really good at what they do, are they?

Bill Kirchner

I’ve had a slight e-mail acquaintance with Branford Marsalis, and through that I know that he has high standards and is as hard on himself as he is on his students.

Otherwise, for the past two decades, I’ve taught in four major university-level jazz programs in the NYC area, and have done clinics all over the world. I’ve had probably a thousand classroom students, so I have a large talent pool from which to make judgments.

Occasionally, I’ve had students who for various reasons are “full of shit,” to use Branford’s terminology. Let’s face it: a substantial percentage of the general population is self-absorbed, lazy, and/or stupid, so it’s only natural that X number of jazz students should be likewise.

Much more often, though, I’ve found my students to be bright, genuinely eager to learn, and, to varying degrees, willing to work. If they want to be told that they’re good, I can’t say I blame them. Jazz is, to put it mildly, an insecure profession, and becoming ever more so. Much of the journeyman work that sustained musicians in generations past (e.g., road bands, studio work, pit orchestras, weddings/bar mitzvahs/private parties) has sharply diminished in recent decades, so simple survival is much on the minds of students. The approval of their peers and teachers is often a major incentive to keep pursuing their dreams.

Thankfully, there is still reason to pursue those dreams. I won’t bore you with namedropping, but I’ve had a good number of students who have had successful careers in jazz in the past 20 years. They've achieved their goals through exceptional talent, hard work, determination, luck, and desire. Others have found varied ways of sustaining themselves and hopefully to make music. I hope that their jazz educations have not been wasted, but only they can make those judgments.

Meanwhile, all we as educators can do is to deliver information and esthetic guidance as best we can, and encouragement when it’s warranted.


Being a student in a good high school music program with many of my peers around me set on college/university level education in jazz studies, I felt the need to comment from our perspective.

I watched the documentary a couple months ago, and I thought Branford's words, while perhaps deliberately provocative, were right on target for the students of my generation. Many kids treat music like going into a middle-class occupation, or as a way to escape the academic marks and higher EXPECTATIONS of their other teachers. A slightly cynical perspective that I heard from one of my old band directors was something along the lines of, "You get a mix of students in the classroom. Some are genuinely interested in the music, some are talented, some are in it for easy credits, and then some are misfits who aren't particularly adept at academics or sports, so they enjoy the classroom environment of music class and choose to persue that instead". While those are blunt words, they seem to typify the types of students that you can expect to find in a music program (especially jazz).

In the program over here, students that would otherwise be 'normal' or average, go into jazz band, and suddenly people are clapping for their solos, and teachers are complimenting them on their playing. Suddenly, there's a real sense of approval that ties in with the neediness of my generation of kids who are used to the 'everybody gets a trophy' phenomenom. From then on, I think they associate music with a sense of pride and perhaps a bit of arrogance, and to the future on, they'll continue to expect the type of pampering and care that they received from their junior high/high school band directors.

The problem is, teachers are so used to apathy in their music classes which causes mediocre playing, they whole-heartedly embrace those individuals who have identified with the jazz music scene and refuse to say a bad word about their students. While this type of coddling is great for the students' self esteem, it presents an unrealistic idea of a future in music, and eventually the idea that little practice/work = approval settles in, and the reassurance ties in with both their need for more reassurance in the future, and a bit of cockiness in their composure. While Branford certainly could've 'sweetened' his words, 'full of shit' is an apt phrase to describe the view that students take towards music today.

Lucas Gillan

Being a recent jazz studies graduate, I empathize with both sides of the argument. I think the following analysis by professor Guilfoyle rings true for many of my peers, and regrettably, for myself at times:

"To return to Branford's quote, "the idea of what you are is more important than you actually being that" -- the students want to be great players, but often can't seem to make the connection that much of the responsibility for being great players is [theirs] alone, not the responsibility of the teachers."

I've had some friends from college tell me how mad they are at their alma mater, how it should have offered them so much more, how their careers would be so much better if only they had attended that other jazz program.

My thought is generally along the lines of what professor Guilfoyle articulated: when it all comes down to it, you're pretty much responsible for your own success, or lack thereof. Why some students get this and others don't is surely a deep and complicated issue. I don't think the aggression and cynicism in Branford's comments are particularly helpful, but maybe they'll kick some young'uns into shape (like, perhaps, myself).

The truth is, there is also a huge number of hard-working jazz students and young professionals who clearly GET IT. I know them. Sometimes we hang out.

Jason Parker

This is a fascinating discussion! I saw this clip a while back and just chalked it up to Brandford's curmudgeonliness. But The responses here have me thinking.

Let me start by saying that I'm not in any way against jazz education. I do a bit of teaching, and many of the cats I play with came out of music schools (I did not).

What is interesting to me is the difference between jazz education in the schools vs. jazz education on the bandstand.

Those players that came up before the explosion of jazz programs in the schools had to cut their teeth on the stand. In many cases, one had to put in the work before on hit the stand or risk being cut/embarrassed by the cats already on the scene. This produces a player who is probably much farther along in his/her abilities and knowledge for the mere sake of survival and/or desire not to be made to look a fool.

But schools are a place where people begin to learn about their chosen subject. Some stick it out, some don't. Some are motivated, some are not. Some choose their subject for reasons that are honorable and some don't. This is not unique to music. I'm sure law professors, medicine professors and history professors think some of their students are full of shit too. But isn't that what college is all about? It's a place to dive deep into a subject to see if it suits you. To think that students of music are going to be any different than students of any other subject is foolish and shortsighted.

And while I wholeheartedly agree that it is up to each individual to find the drive, desire and motivation to succeed, I also believe that as a teacher it is your responsibility to call out those students who are full of shit. And not in the acerbic and bitchy way that Brandford does, but in a way that tells them the truth. That they should either step up or step off.


Shit makes good fertilizer.

I am in jazz academia and can honestly say that I learn things every day...from my students and of course from the process of teaching itself. And this includes from (and to) the spoiled, weak, culturally deprived flotsam that wander aimlessly into my classroom more interested in Tuesday at 2:00 than anything related to jazz.

Nearly all of my teaching is in history/cultural studies, though..and this is somewhat different, but not as much as you might think. Students want and deserve a few "magic bullets" ... like, "don't put your thumb there" or "stop using so much tongue" (the history magic bullets are much less sexy, but can be useful... like "slavery ended, but racism did not" etc.)

All that stuff is just the beginning of teaching. The raw material. Now, the students have to go do something with that (or figure out how to do it differently). Can I make my students do that? Can I make them do something great? Probably not. Can I try? Absolutely. And this not by forcing them to do it my way, but by challenging them to do it for themselves, to foster those kind of subversive, independent thoughts that inspire me. So, I am constantly coming up with new ways of subverting what they think they know, of tweaking their perspectives...and if I am not learning how each next generation...how each individual!... sees things, I would not be doing a very good job teaching...all I would be doing is communicating those "magic bullets" (which aren't so magical..isn't there some sort of story about beans applicable here...) and ultimately, those bullets would be killing the whole learning process, the end of the whole thing. Did you do it right? What percentage of correctness? Ta-dah, you are educated.

I honestly think that almost the entire academic system is flawed because it institutionally focuses on grades and that tiny, almost insignificant aspect of learning. Students have grown increasingly skilled at gaming this system, and well they should as long as that is the way the system works. Yet, many of them actually walk out of that classroom having a new perspective on things, thinking differently and that may or may not be reflected in their grades, but it is (I hope) reflected in their character.

This is more or less true of all academia. You think engineers learn everything in school? They too have to get in there and get their hands dirty, just like musicians or anybody else. Greatness and innovation are not things that can be boiled down to grades.

Finally, I am less concerned with "jazz" education than with "music education" and less concerned with music education than I am with just education. If jazz or music in general is to live, really live and grow and change, in academic institutions, it is up to the students to use the opportunity to play their asses off, practice constantly, stay up all night jamming in the practice rooms, to make dreadful mistakes unfit for human ears in their recitals, etc. Can I as an educator foster an environment that encourages that kind of behavior? I hope so, and to do so I have to keep understanding what makes them tick.

Maybe its time for Branford to leave the farm, as it were, cause I, for one, am convinced that if enough of us keep watering, something beautiful is going to grow in this dust bowl.


I believe this clip comes from a documentary called "The Day The Music Died" or something similar that came out a few years ago. I haven't seen it so I'm wondering if the context in the doc makes any difference. Obviously, Branford's an outspoken guy - and always has been. When I saw this clip last year, it made me take a step back. (Full disclosure, I consult his label but do not deal w/ him directly. I wish I could provide more insight here.)

But his students at the Newport Jazz Festival were a highlight, and seemed to have a great rapport. Regardless of what he says about "those darn kids today" on tape, the results he's getting at NCCU are impressive from what I've heard.



Little late to this one, but...

HA! He looked like he was going to give a passive answer like "humility" or something Then that!

Out of the education scene myself, but I know what he is talking about just from thinking back to the music school I went to. Lots of posturing and pretending from those "chosen ones."

But it sounds like he needs a new student roster. I wonder if he gave any of those 'B's he talked about.

Gabriel Johnson

I think he should show us all how it's done by making another tribute record. Stick it to em Bran.

cbj smith

"The children now love luxury; they have bad manners, contempt for authority; they allow disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise. Children now are tyrants, not the servants of their households. They no longer rise when elders enter the room. They contradict their parents, chatter before company, gobble up dainties at the table, cross their legs, and tyrannize their teachers.”

Darcy, the fact that kids haven't changed in a couple of millennium is no reason to stop giving them the gears so that they shape up and get it together. Sure, it's their "job" to slack off and give adults crap and demand rewards they haven't earned, and it's OUR job as responsible adults (parents and educators!) to refuse them those rewards until they have earned them.

Now, if someone had asked ME what I had learned from my students, I wouldn't have given Branford's answer as my first response. But it might be a sign that Branford has his students first in his mind. He didn't give a self-centred answer (which is what the question was), he gave a student-centred answer, which I think is a pretty good indicator that he is a conscientious teacher with his students' best interests in mind. He might be a pain in the ass to his students, and some of them might hate his guts and/or give up music entirely, but I haven't really noticed that that reduces student success in the least, and he appears to be pushing them to their limits.

Gary Buss

I LOVE what he says. I wish that more music educators had his way of thinking, then maybe more students today would be prepared for the music industry. Most of the young players I run into today are not prepared at all for the business of music.

Josh Sinton

Re: the Socrates quote "The children now love luxury...".

I think Darcy quotes this not because of what it says about students as much as what it says about teachers' perception of students. Sure, college students can be little snots, but hell, anyone can be a little snot.

The larger issue is that just as music-students walk into a classroom with expectations ("they're going to love me, and make me a star, blah, blah, blah") so do the teachers ("these students should care about the same music I care about and demonstrate that love in the same way, blah, blah, blah"). Neither mind-sets are constructive, but the teacher hopefully has enough practical experience in the classroom to recognize when these preconceptions are interfering.

That being said, it most certainly does suck when people don't care about what you're saying and doing with them. But again, students aren't the only ones guilty of that annoyance. That's a human thing.

btw, I personally believe this distinction being made between "school"-trained musicians and "street"-trained musicians is nonexistent. Every musician outside of school creates their own school and every musician in school is still living in the world at large.

Larry Kart

My response would be this review of Branford himself, which I wrote for the Chicago Tribune in 1984, reprinted in my book "Jazz In Search of Itself" (Yale University Press, 2004):

Any way you look at it, twenty-four-year-old saxophonist Branford Marsalis is a significant figure in contemporary jazz. One year older than his brother, trumpet whiz Wynton Marsalis, Branford exemplifies today’s neo-conservative style, which tries to tame, codify, and toy with the music of the radical jazz innovators of the 1960s: John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, Wayne Shorter, and Ornette Coleman.

As one listened to Marsalis at Rick’s Cafe Americain, it was clear that he not only has memorized almost every lick that Coltrane et al. ever produced but also possesses a technical expertise that allows him to reshuffle these licks in some very shrewd ways. As one fan remarked, “This guy can do anything.” The problem, though, is that Marsalis often seems lost in the midst of all these potential moves, unsure whether he wants to play clever, even satirically mocking games with the recent jazz past or respectfully emulate it.

Satire of some sort might be the more fruitful approach, for it fits the seemingly innate foxiness that Marsalis shares with his brother. But Rollins and Shorter already have taken that route--the former favoring Falstaffian humor, the latter indulging in near-surrealistic distortions--and that leaves Marsalis with the unenviable choice of exaggerating the already exaggerated or, on the other hand, merely toning it down.

Toned-down Coltrane, which is what Marsalis offers the rest of the time, is another matter, because the implicitly romantic, and at times even desparate, aura of quest that permeates Coltrane’s music would seem to call for a similiar approach on the part of his disciples. What Coltrane left behind was not a “hip” style but a drive toward ecstatic transcendence; and when Marsalis fiddles with Coltrane’s techniques while he holds the implicit emotion of the music at arm’s length, the results can be distressing.

Within Marsalis’s music, though, there is a third option, which may be the best way out for him. Given his agile mind and fingers and his basically cool temperament, Marsalis sometimes sounds like an updated Stan Getz--a musical gem cutter who would like to inhabit a world where subtlety of technique is an end in itself. From that point of view, the most satisfying piece Marsalis played Monday night was “Shadows,” a moody ballad written by his pianist, Larry Willis, which allowed the leader to build a solo that relied on an exquisitely shaded purity of tone and some sly harmonic shifts.

When the temperature rose, as it did most notably on “Solstice,” Marsalis alternated between his neo-Coltrane manner and a close-to-the-vest version of Shorter’s and Rollins’s comedy. The latter style worked better for Marsalis, but even here there was little sense of emotional commitment, as though he were unsure whether he wanted to laugh with or laugh at his stylistic models.

The problems Branford Marsalis is wrestling with may be those of youth, and perhaps the passage of time will solve them. But in the midst of his often dazzling virtuosity, Marsalis seems to be playing at playing jazz instead of just playing it--as though his involvement with the music were based on a paradoxical need to fend off its emotional demands.

Larry Kart

Larry Kart

In other words, Branford was (and still is IMO) both the pot and the kettle here. Yes, some of his students may be as well, but who the heck is he to call anyone out?


Larry, he was 24 at the time of your review. He is in his late 40s now. Are you telling me that you're honestly going to negate the process of finding one's voice as a jazz musician, executed brilliantly by literally every single musician that's made any contribution to jazz whatsoever??

But then again, anyone who thinks that Branford at 24 possessed "dazzling virtuosity" and will sign their name to an article that uses the phrase "every Coltrane lick" knows so little about the music that they aren't even aware that the music requires any sacrifice at all. Those who have made the sacrifice can see through this review like grandma's underpants.

The hubris of non-musicians when it comes to learning how to play music will never cease to amaze me.

As for Branford's comment, I would like to say that Branford has been a mentor to me. Taking the time to answer the many questions I have had over the years (I've been to about 40 shows in the last 9 years) has taught me more about the music than the years I've spent in music school. It is always challenging talking with him, as he won't let a single thing go by. Though it is often unpleasant, this has resulted in me discovering capabilities I had no idea were within me (he literally has changed my life drastically), and having a far richer, deeper understanding of the music I dedicate my life to.

Branford is the one that has absorbed the entire history of the music, as well as a lot of other music. The people that get bent out of shape about bold his bold comments have no idea what it means to absorb Sidney Bechet's playing and Sonny Rollins and Mahler and Wagner, etc. If you are a jazz musician or educator, and this offends you, then you have got to look in the mirror and find the personal reason that makes you react this way.
That there are people like Branford unwilling to let this music be corrupted by laziness and ignorance is the only hope for the music's survival. He is a treasure to the community.

P.S. Obviously he is speaking generally, as the drummer he got to replace Tain is 18 years old. Think about that for a second!

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