Ellis: The Elder
Publication: Columbia Daily Tribune
Author: Aarik Danielsen
Date: February 6, 2011
Just two months in, 2011 has already been a banner year, a true benchmark, for jazz’s first family. Last month, the five musical Marsalises — pianist and patriarch Ellis, world-famous trumpeter and composer Wynton, versatile saxophonist Branford, trombone great Delfeayo and dynamic drummer Jason — were collectively named one of the National Endowment for the Arts’ Jazz Masters, the highest honor an American jazz musician can hold. It was the first time the honor was bestowed upon a group. Despite the unbelievable musical wattage each member possesses, when the time came to pick a spokesman for the brood, there was no doubt who would take center stage.New York Times writer Nate Chinen set the scene, detailing how Ellis the elder delivered a humble, wistful acceptance speech that paid tribute to jazz masters “past and passed on.” He and his sons then took the bandstand together for a surprisingly rare collaboration, “a brightly buoyant finale.”
“That transition put an emphasis on continuity, the passing of information from one generation to the next,” Chinen wrote. “It was a genuine jazz moment, and fittingly so in an evening full of them.”
Anyone who has followed the Marsalis family arc knows it’s not just in watershed, career-defining moments that Ellis Marsalis has chosen to pass a well-lit torch from his hand to a worthy successor. As a family man with remarkable offspring and as an educator who has schooled some of modern jazz’s brightest lights, he has spent his entire life passing the spirit of sound and flame of musical knowledge from one generation to the next. In his performing life, each concert hall and context has been different, but the design has been the same.
Each chord Marsalis has sounded on the piano, each grace note he has played, each accidental he has struck has, in itself, been a lesson, a passing of jazz’s heart and soul from his capable hands to audiences who are all ears. In continuing this tradition, his Columbia gig a week from today as part of the “We Always Swing” Jazz Series will be no different than any he has played, no less enlightening than any lecture or lesson he has given, no less intimate than advice whispered to a beloved son.
A FATHER’S PRIDE
Jazz lovers have long wished for the chance to exist as flies on the wall of the Marsalises’ New Orleans home, to glimpse and glean just how such an amazing family grew together and came to maturity as musicians. Indeed, as Jazz Series director and Tribune columnist Jon Poses pondered aloud, could Marsalis ever “in his wildest imagination think that he would be a parent to certainly, in Wynton’s case, probably the most famous jazz musician on the planet and, not far behind, Branford … and to have two other gifted kids who are making a living in jazz?”
Truly the scope of what his progeny has achieved and meant to the world of modern jazz is mind-blowing. “It is not a surprise that the first group award of the NEA Jazz Masters has gone to the formidable Marsalis family — never before in jazz (or most any other art form) has a family produced so many masters of the form,” the NEA website states. “The Adderleys, the Jones, even today’s Clayton Brothers, all produced a few family members that excelled on their instruments — but five?”
Not only is the family’s rise unparalleled, but Ellis’ reach is unprecedented. Beyond whatever guidance Marsalis has given to his sons, he has, at one time or another, given formal instruction to Harry Connick Jr., Terence Blanchard, Nicholas Payton, Donald Harrison and countless other students on the campuses of the University of New Orleans, Xavier University, Virginia Commonwealth University, the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts and several other facilities. It is quite safe to say the landscape of modern jazz would not exist as we know it today without Ellis Marsalis. Yet Marsalis’ gifts and notions about what makes a complete creative being have never been forced upon his students and, by their own accounts, were certainly never imposed upon his family.
“One thing that my father has an understanding of as far as teaching is the art of discovery and the student discovering something,” Jason Marsalis said in a 2001 interview with writer Paul Barrow. “He will tell you some things but not necessarily everything. Some of the answers you have to discover on your own. And that’s when the answers really mean something. And another thing, too, is that, in the family, individuality was stressed. I mean, this was not a case where our father told us to play music. … We could have done anything.”
KNOW THE MUSIC, KNOW THE MAN
Because of his gentle greatness and uncanny ability for illuming the talent in his students without setting even a toe in the spotlight, Marsalis is subject to what Poses called an “oddly reverse situation,” wherein he is lesser known than several of his sons and the most famous of his pupils. Always admired by his peers, it only has been as his students have achieved fame that Marsalis’ star has become more visible in the mainstream music culture.
“More people obviously know who Harry Connick is than know who Ellis Marsalis is,” Poses said. “In a sense, it’s unfortunate that it takes a Harry Connick to bring an Ellis Marsalis to the surface. It’s like Eric Clapton telling everyone who Muddy Waters is.”
Yet, as Poses pointed out, there’s much to appreciate in Marsalis’ work, which spans all the way back to piano performances on Marine Corps broadcasts transmitted during the 1950s and reaches forward to today; while various pairings and arrangements of the Marsalis family have recorded together, the five members the NEA honored recorded their first full-length together last year.
“He’s got a delicate touch, he’s got a melodic touch, he’s got a graceful sense about how he plays and what he can make a piano do musically,” Poses said. “He’s got … great command of repertoire, he’s got great command of harmony. He’s got great command of composition and a sense of arrangement, how to put voices together.”
Poses added some audiences, more aware of Marsalis’ name than his career, will walk away from next weekend’s concert pleased and surprised. In addition to his warm, melodic tones, Marsalis will deliver a vast repertoire that acts as something of a microcosm of his life in jazz, Poses said; no doubt, he’ll perform originals, both lively and tender as well as beloved standards, having recorded entire albums of material by Duke Ellington and Thelonious Monk, respectively, and played with many other jazz greats.
WE BUILT THIS CITY ON JAZZ AND SOUL
No matter where Marsalis plays or lays his head after a show, he brings a little New Orleans touch with him. He is one of the artists synonymous with that city — “in modern New Orleans jazz, he has been a central figure for 30-some-odd years,” Poses said. He has anchored himself there and acted as an anchor, having helped build the post-World War II music scene and then laboring to rebuild the city’s infrastructure, both physically and culturally, after Hurricane Katrina.
Marsalis not only served, literally and figuratively, as an artist-in-residence at several New Orleans clubs, he helped create a model for formal jazz education in the city as he taught at a number of institutions, finishing his career in 2001 as the Coca-Cola jazz chair and director of the Jazz Studies Division at the University of New Orleans.
“Ellis means everything to the program,” then-Chancellor Gregory O’Brien told the Newhouse News Service upon Marsalis’ retirement. “… Ellis really had a vision of what jazz education needed to be. And it wasn’t about notes and half notes. It was about the cultures that feed into jazz and the environment of disciplined innovation that jazz greatness has to have.”
In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, Marsalis, and those who numbered his progeny and protégés, saw that environment crippled and, as a result, those cultures crumbling. Along with principals such as his son Branford, student Harry Connick Jr., and several other artists and partners at Habitat for Humanity, Marsalis has contributed to the creation of Musicians’ Village. The effort has not only provided stability for the city’s musicians through housing but is helping ensure the city’s musical foundation is sound for generations to come; the Ellis Marsalis Center for Music, set to open this year, will provide a performance space and classrooms that are uniquely positioned to “attract an exceptional group of students and teachers devoted to revitalizing the vibrant music scene in the Crescent City,” its website states.
With this effort only beginning, with the careers of his sons and students still flourishing and remaining active himself, it’s hard to accurately measure or even forecast the way Ellis Marsalis will have affected jazz, and the greater American landscape, when all is said and done. We might look back decades from now and realize many a city and many a village owe something of their sound and spirit to this patriarch and pioneer.