Branford Marsalis holds no illusions.
The Grammy Award-winning jazz and classical saxophonist knows that when the audience of a university performance series comes to hear his jazz quartet, they very likely won't be fans of the musical genre. They'll come because they assume the concert is a worthy cultural event and because his name might ring a bell. And he agrees that a general apprehension about jazz - that it's all a crazy mash-up of musical notes that make no sense; a verbal assault on the ears - can keep audiences at bay.
"That's the problem," he said Thursday from Seattle, where he performed later that night. "They don't need to intellectually follow it; they need to emotionally follow it. They need to hear with their eyes. The operative verb in music is see, not hear. 'I'm going to see such and such.' In Germany they say hear, but they have thousands of years of instrumental music."
He never expects his audience to leave with a newfound appreciation of jazz and doesn't want to change the way our society speaks about music. But he does hope a few aspects of the show will resonate with concert-goers.
"We enjoy ourselves visibly and play with heart and intensity," he said. "All of our songs have melody. We don't get lost in the data. You can get lost in it."
The Branford Marsalis Quartet will present "An Evening with Branford Marsalis" on Tuesday at Ent Center for the Arts.
It seems inevitable that the Louisiana-born Marsalis created a life around music, what with a jazz singer for a mother and jazz pianist and music professor for a father. The name Wynton Marsalis might ring a bell - he's Branford's brother and an accomplished trumpet player in his own right.
Branford's decades-long career has taken him in dozens of directions, including a regular gig in the '80s and '90s performing alongside pop star Sting in the studio and on tour, and a stint as music director of NBC's Tonight Show Band on "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno" from 1992 to 1995.
What he learned from Sting: "What it takes to be a great songwriter. How curious he is. He has the ability to absorb music organically so it doesn't sound inauthentic or cheesy. He's not trying to duplicate the rhythm of a place; he's incorporating elements of style from a place."
What he learned from "The Tonight Show": "Naked entertainment isn't for me. All musicians are entertainers. Then there's straight-up naked entertainment where you figure out what people want and give it to them. The financial rewards for that are quite great, but I couldn't be that way."
While Branford's father taught him to be a musician, the saxophonist learned that to be successful, he needed to hear sound differently than most people. It wasn't a skill anybody taught him, though. It sprang from an innate ability to hear music without pre-conditions.
"General pre-conditions are wanting music to sound like what I already like and know, and if it doesn't I'm predisposed to dislike it," he said. "Most of my friends in high school, if I told them I was going to the symphony, they'd say, 'Have fun with that. I'm not going.' They were predisposed to not liking it."
That philosophy can be applied not only to music (perhaps those who believe they don't like jazz?), but also to life in general.
"People are predisposed to not liking people who don't look like them or think like them. Urban centers are the antidote to that. You are surprised and find out people have more in common with you than you thought. There are others who can't stand that notion and move to rural areas so they don't have to encounter things that make them uncomfortable. This also bleeds over into music."
That curiosity might be the musician's most valuable trait, allowing him to cross borders and develop as an artist. He gives the example of friends around his age, 57, who still listen exclusively to classic rock stations and wonder why he doesn't listen to '70s music anymore.
"You don't drive the same car you did when you were 17. You don't aspire to the same type of house you did at 17. Your outlook on life is vastly different at 52 than 17. It's the same with music," he said. "That was not me and continues to not be me. I don't know why that is. I heard classical music and was intrigued and not repelled by it. I heard Iranian music and was intrigued and not repelled. I've been more interested in finding things that made me uncomfortable. Through uncomfortability is the only way you learn anything."