Branford Marsalis on finding the sound of “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”

Branford Marsalis Ma Rainey's Black Bottom Branford Marsalis working with the actors on "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" (Netflix)

Welcome back to the Spool’s weekly interview podcast, More of a Comment, Really…, where editor-in-chief Clint Worthington talks to actors, filmmakers, composers and other figures from the realm of film and television.

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Awards season is upon us, which means all the studios and streaming services are breaking out their big guns. Luckily, one of the best films of the year comes to Netflix this weekend. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, based on the play by August Wilson and starring Viola Davis and Chadwick Boseman in his final role. A fictionalized snapshot in the life of the Mother of the Blues, Ma Rainey, George C. Wolfe‘s film imagines her in a sweaty, muggy Chicago recording studio in the 1920s, trying to record her most popular singles for white Northern audiences, far from her comfortable Black Southern crowds. Of course, tensions rise over everything from artistic freedom,  racial animus, and Coca-Cola.

And all the while, Ma’s trumpeter Levee, played by Boseman, tries to take advantage of their opportunity to stake his own ambitious claim in the music world. It’s a vibrant adaptation of a riveting play, filled with staggering performances from Davis, Boseman, Colman Domingo, and the rest of the ensemble. And it tells a story about Black culture’s impact on popular culture, and those artists’ attempts to secure their own legacy in the face of a white world that wants to repackage it for their own consumption.  

MA RAINEY’S BLACK BOTTOM (2020) Branford Marsalis and Glynn Turman. Cr: David Lee/NETFLIX

The blues thrums at the heart of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, so it makes sense that Wolfe would tap three-time Grammy-winning jazz legend Branford Marsalis to pen the score. The blues is in his blood; he’s a member of jazz’s first family, along with brothers Wynton, Delfeayo, and James and their famous father Ellis. He’s been a fixture in the jazz scene since his twenties as a musician and bandleader, and spent a few years as the bandleader for The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. Not only does he punctuate vital moments in Wolfe’s film with a burst of vivid jazz orchestration to throw us into Chicago in the Roaring ’20s, he was also responsible for arranging every song you see and hear on screen, and teaching the actors how to accurately mimic the playing they hear in the tracks (vocalist Maxayn Lewis has the Sisyphean task of sounding both like Ma Rainey and Viola Davis).

Luckily, I got the chance to talk to Marsalis, who’s spent decades as one of the genre’s foremost saxophonists and bandleaders. He spent three years as the head of the Tonight Show band for Jay Leno, and he’s got plenty of stories to share both in and out of the story of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.

Listen to our podcast interview with Marsalis above, and listen to the soundtrack for Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom on Spotify below.

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom Trailer:

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