Art can be many things to many people. For Nicole and Branford Marsalis, it’s personal. The Durham, North Carolina home the couple shares with their two daughters is filled with works that have a story to tell, shining a light on parts of their lives. One piece in particular provides a good jumping off point for Branford’s story. Titled "House of Swing: Portrait of the 1st Family of Jazz,” it’s a limited edition 19-color serigraph by artist Paul Rogers that became the official poster for the 2016 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. Pictured in the windows of Rogers’ rendering of a New Orleans Garden District home are jazz legend Ellis Marsalis Jr. and his four musician sons, Branford, Wynton, Delfeayo and Jason.
Growing up as the eldest son of that musical dynasty, Branford didn’t waste any time making a name for himself as a saxophonist and jazz evangelist. He attended Boston’s Berklee College of Music, founded the Branford Marsalis Quartet and served as music director for The Tonight Show when Jay Leno became the host in 1992. The Grammy-award winning musician, composer and educator also starred in Spike Lee movies, wrote Broadway scores and started a record label. And his collaborations with symphony orchestras, the Grateful Dead and Sting only heightened his appreciation for artists of all stripes.
“We have something that is unique. We have our craft. We have our art. We have our desire.” - Branford Marsalis
A piece of art that holds special meaning for Nicole, a marketing specialist who holds degrees from Harvard and Duke, is a painting by Harlem Renaissance sculptor and painter Richmond Barthé. It’s a portrait of her grandfather, whom she never met. “He died when my father was not yet even 20 years old, but through this portrait I’ve felt incredibly connected to him,” says Nicole. “Barthé truly captured him. I love his limited use of color, but it’s just this that makes the portrait come alive. It’s stunning in its simplicity.”
That piece notwithstanding, Nicole says she’s typically drawn to works that buzz with vibrant color, which is probably one of the reasons she resonates with the work of King Godwin, a Raleigh artist with autism who creates texture and pattern using repeated numbers. “I love [King’s] use of orange, and the detail,” she says. “It’s almost as if he has invented his own interpretation of pointillism.” Branford, who met King when he was just a young boy, says he felt an instant kinship with the artist because one of his own brothers is autistic. “It’s great for King to be able to express himself through his work,” says Branford.
In the dining room, a copy of King’s book, The Artist is Having a Very Good Day, sits atop one of Nicole’s favorite collectibles, a pair of George Foreman’s boxing gloves Branford received as a gift from the boxer himself. “One night back when I was working on The Tonight Show, George Foreman came on. And when I spoke with him, I brought up a quote of his: ‘Boxing is like jazz. The better it is the less people understand it.’” recalls Branford. “We had a long discussion about it, and afterward George said, ‘I’ve got something for you.’ Soon after, he sent me the gloves.” Encased in a glass box, they’re a red leather reminder that there is no substitute for hard-won mastery. Whether it’s art, music or boxing, the truly remarkable almost always begins with an unwavering dedication to craft.
Is there a certain type of art or style that makes you sit up and take notice?
“While I love art, I must admit that I haven’t been the type of collector I aspire to be. But I do love to surround myself with items that inspire me or, honestly, are things that I just enjoy looking at, or colors that make me happy.” — Nicole Marsalis
Tell us about the Jazz Fest poster.
“The New Orleans Jazz Fest typically chooses a prominent New Orleans artist (or artists) to be featured on their annual print, and in 2016 Branford, his father Ellis and three of his brothers (Wynton, Delfeayo and Jason) were chosen. The work was created by an artist named Paul Rogers and is called the ‘House of Swing.’ We both love this one. It really captures the flavor of NOLA architecture and the fact that the Marsalis family is filled with talented musicians. It’s truly an exceptional keepsake for all the children and grandchildren.” - Nicole Marsalis
Can you tell us about some of your favorite pieces?
“I really love my Jane Filer paintings. The colors are so warm, yet vibrant. I’m drawn to the works every time I walk by!” — Nicole Marsalis
What can you tell us about Raleigh artist King Godwin who has autism?
“When I met King he was just a young boy. I was drawn to him because I have a brother who is autistic. I’ve been impressed with his development as an artist. The detail and time he puts into it is apparent.” - Branford Marsalis