Blues in the Night

updated 11/21/1994 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/21/1994 AT 01:00 AM EST

THE HOURS ARE REASONABLE, THE exposure unbeatable and the salary could keep you in reeds forever. So why did Branford Marsalis, now in the third year of a five-year contract that reportedly pays him $1 million annually, announce that come January he'll be taking an indefinite leave of absence from his gig as The Tonight Show's musical director?

The official explanation: the Grammy-winning tenor saxophonist wants to tour, cut albums and spend more time with Reese, his 8-year-old son (by ex-wife Teresa), who recently moved in with him in Los Angeles.

Insiders are betting he won't be back. "Branford will never, ever return," predicts a friend. That seemed clear from a recent interview with the music magazine BAM, in which Marsalis said that he and boss Jay Leno would never achieve "what Dave [Letterman] and [bandleader] Paul [Shaffer] have because I'm not...gonna kiss Jay's ass." The problem is not just a lack of chemistry—as evidenced by what Washington Post critic Tom Shales has called the pair's "painfully forced repartee"—but Tonight's restricted musical repertoire. Marsalis has said that NBC Entertainment president Warren Littlefield urged him late last spring to play less jazz and no rap. Now, Marsalis told BAM, "we play the music exactly the way they want, but we're laughing the whole time."

Leno, reportedly, isn't laughing. A Tonight Show insider recalls how, last August, the normally amiable Leno was "really pissed off' by Marsalis's chronic public complaints and chastised him in private. Last Monday there was no sign of strain between the two—or much rapport either. "Say, Branford, did you bet on the Foreman fight?" Leno asked after his monologue.

"No, I didn't," said Marsalis. Love that patter. Leno retreated to his desk, and the band played on.

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