Branford Marsalis interview: ‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom’ composer
When Branford Marsalis was announced as the composer for Netflix’s “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” which stars Viola Davis as the legendary “Mother of the Blues” 1920s singer Ma Rainey, it seemed like a perfect fit — and he felt so too. A music historian, Marsalis, who leads the jazz band the Branford Marsalis Quartet, was familiar with the sound of 1920s blues and knew exactly how to approach the score for the Netflix film.
“I had done a couple of 1920s-style deep dives,” Marsalis tells Gold Derby during our Meet the Experts: Film Composers panel (watch above). “We were doing most of the music in New Orleans because that’s a place where a lot of musicians still have parades — they have these outside voices that musicians in the ‘20s would’ve had and they understand the style.”
Even with his familiarity with the material, it wasn’t entirely smooth sailing for the Grammy winner. For one, he had to ensure his original compositions mixed well with Rainey’s real catalogue of songs, and he was unexpectedly handcuffed in a way by August Wilson, who penned the play on which the George C. Wolfe film is based. In real life, Rainey had a large band, but in the play and film, she’s backed by a quartet of musicians, including hot-headed Levee, played by Chadwick Boseman in his final screen role.
“I started sending George the temp tracks and he said, ‘Too many musicians. Read the play. There’s only cornet, trombone, piano and bass, and Ma.’ So I was like, ‘Well, throwing that out!’” Marsalis recalls. “So it was more the idea of listening to the music and figuring it out in my mind which musicians to hire and how to space out the instrumentation so that it works. I landed on what August Wilson landed on: cornet, trombone, piano and acoustic bass.”
And then when they recorded the first Rainey song, “Deep Morning Blues,” which is also the first song in the movie, something didn’t sound quite right. “I walked in the studio for about 30 minutes, scrolling through my head about what did they have that we don’t have,” Marsalis shares. “And then it hit me. We have a 9-foot grand piano out there. It needs to be an upright piano and as out of tune as possible.”
Marsalis swapped out the pianos and called a piano tuner with what he thought was a “special request” to detune it. “And he says, ‘Hell, almost every club in New Orleans has an upright and almost all of them are out of tune, so I know exactly what that sounds like!’ So he came over and detuned the piano, and I said, ‘Man, that’s perfect,’” Marsalis continues. “And as soon as we started playing, everybody said, ‘That’s the sound!’ So it’s really funny how important the upright piano was to the sound in the ‘20s and not being perfectly in tune.”