Branford Marsalis has faced the question a few times along his career: which music is harder to play, jazz or classical?

You'd think the answer would be jazz, where notes aren't always written but improvised. Not so. 

"Classical is harder," the saxophonist says. "Jazz is like a story that you personalize, but classical is a story where you can't use your own words. It's like reading Shakespeare or Chaucer. You have to develop the characters to make them believable, but the words aren't yours, and you're not going to change Shakespeare. You can't. In classical music, you don't play your own notes, you play theirs."

Marsalis has made his career in jazz, but he doesn't balk at a opportunities to play classical. He will perform both next week when he joins the Baton Rouge Symphony Orchestra's "New World Concert" at 7:30 p.m. Friday at the River Center Theatre, then the LSU Jazz Faculty at 3 p.m. Sunday at the LSU Union Theater.

The symphony also will host its opening night gala before the concert. It was moved to the season's second concert in the aftermath of the flooding.

Now, here's where Marsalis' credentials are usually listed, how his father is jazz piano great and educator Ellis Marsalis, and he's the oldest among jazz siblings Wynton, Delfeayo and Jason Marsalis. He's performed on movie soundtracks and composed music for Broadway.

He performed with trumpet legend Clark Terry and Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers early in his career. Marsalis formed his own quartet in 1986 and has performed with jazz giants Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Herbie Hancock and Sonny Rollins.

This is where we write how Marsalis is the winner of three Grammy awards, a NEA Jazz Master award and a Tony award nominee.

But Marsalis doesn't talk about any of this. His focus is on his classical music repertoire, which includes works by Copland, Debussy, Mahler, Vaughan Williams and Villa‐Lobos, whose "Fantasia para saxophone" on which Marsalis will solo in the symphony's Friday concert. He'll also join the symphony in film composer John Williams' "Escapades."

"I found classical so difficult, and I was at an age where I was good at something," Marsalis said. "When you become good at something, you cease to learn, and I believe ceasing to learn is equivalent to death. It just takes longer for the mind to deteriorate."

Marsalis likens this scenario by comparing jazz saxophonist Dexter Gordon's recordings made in his 40s to those made in his 70s.

"The recordings he made in his 70s are more complex, because he had more life experience, but they are far worse than those he made in his 40s," Marsalis says. "It's not because of his age, but because he stopped practicing."

He started setting goals and practicing and has since appeared on stage with symphony orchestras throughout the world.

"The New World" concert will be Marsalis' Baton Rouge Symphony Orchestra debut, though he is well familiar with the Capitol City. Southern University's Jazz Institute founder Alvin Batiste was one of his teachers.

"I have a lot of great stories about Mr. Bat, but none that I'll tell for the newspaper," Marsalis says. "But he was a great teacher. He was the kind who would suggest something to you instead of telling you you had to do it. He would say something like, 'Here's an exercise that might work for you,' and if it didn't, he'd give you another."


The Baton Rouge Symphony's concert featuring saxophonist Branford Marsalis.

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Friday

WHERE: Baton Rouge River Center Theatre, 275 S. River Road

COST: $28-$62

INFO: Call (225) 383-0500 or visit

ALSO: Marsalis will perform with the LSU Jazz Faculty at 3 p.m. Sunday in the LSU Union Theater, Raphael Semmes Drive. Tickets are $30 by calling (225) 578-5128 or visit

Follow Robin Miller on Twitter, @rmillerbr.