Inside the Rousing Music Of 'Ma Rainey's Black Bottom'

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom
David Lee / Netflix

(L to R) Glynn Turman, Chadwick Boseman, Michael Potts and Colman Domingo in 'Ma Rainey's Black Bottom.'

"The more music you have in the world, the fuller it is,” declares Viola Davis as the title character in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.

Much of the music heard in the lauded Netflix adaptation of August Wilson’s 1985 Tony Award-nominated play about pioneering blues artist Rainey in the 1920s comes from acclaimed saxophonist Branford Marsalis, who scored the George C. Wolfe-directed film and produced the music Rainey and her band perform in the movie.

Marsalis was in Australia working with the Australian Chamber Orchestra when Wolfe called to ask if he would work on the film. “I say, ‘I’d love to. When do you need it?’ ” recalls Marsalis. “He said, ‘We need to have finished music in three weeks.’ I said, ‘What the f--k?’ ” (While Marsalis had to fast-track preparing the music performed by the actors in the film to coordinate with shooting, he was able to wait to write the score until the movie was completed.)

Though familiar with Rainey, Marsalis, who won a 2010 Drama Desk Award for scoring the Broadway revival of Wilson’s Fences, hadn’t done a deep dive. He had one of her albums, and quickly bought three others to immerse himself in her music.

To find a vocalist who could sing for Davis on such tunes as “Deep Moaning Blues” and “Baby, Let Me Have It All,” he turned to his longtime friend and collaborator Bruce Hornsby. “I call Bruce and say, ‘You’ve got to help a brother out. I need a singer that can sing in the spirit of Ma Rainey because no one in modern times can sing that way — somebody who can sing very soulfully with the blues.” Hornsby suggested singer Maxayn Lewis, whom Marsalis quickly brought up to speed so her vocals were ready by the time shooting started.

In addition to producing the songs, he also coached the actors playing Rainey’s band members on how to convincingly portray real-life musicians. “There’s a physicality to playing an instrument that is often overlooked because we have this mythology about what it means to play music,” says Marsalis. His advice to the actors, including the late Chadwick Boseman, who portrayed cornetist and Rainey antagonist Levee Green, was simple: “Make sure your fingers are never moving when sound is not happening.” He adds that Boseman wanted to learn the fingerings to ensure he was always exact. “He only had three valves — a one-in-three chance of being right.”

When it came to writing music for the film, Marsalis knew from working with Wolfe on 2017’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks that the director was a minimalist with underscores. “He’s a theatrical director; he spent most of his life working without music,” says Marsalis. Plus, with such a stellar cast on board, the film didn’t require much, allowing the characters to lead the way.

“Their performances were so powerful, they didn’t really need any music to help them deliver the emotional punch of the piece,” he says. “It was more like, ‘I’m going to write what I think should be there, and George is going to use what he thinks should be there, and it’s going to be a win-win.’”

A version of this article appeared in the Jan. 30, 2021 issue of Billboard.