Ellis Marsalis, patriarch of America’s First Family of Music
Author: Diane Kubiak
Date: April 6, 2012
If recent reviews are an indication, ticket holders can expect a musical treat from jazz master Ellis Marsalis, headliner of the Valparaiso University 27th annual Jazz Festival on Saturday, April 14.
Jazz reviewer Dean Shapiro of “Where Y’At” magazine had high praise for the elder Marsalis’ release of “Jazz at Christmas in New Orleans” last fall. “It invites the listener to tune in with a fresh set of ears,” he wrote.
Although the selections were familiar, “only a master composer/arranger like pianist Ellis Marsalis, patriarch of America’s First Family of Music, could have pulled off such an astounding transformation,” Shapiro wrote.
Marsalis’ musical transformations in other works are done both with respect for the original and with the entire history of the genre at his fingertips. Consider his CD “An Open Letter to Thelonious Monk.” The song “Deceleration” does more than put one into a relaxed mood; the music requires one to relax in order to appreciate the subtle harmonies and dissonances as they keep the listener in that delicious place between surrender to the lyrics and anticipation of its next nuance.
His command of the history of his genre comes forth, too, in the CD “Homecoming,” a reissue of the famous 1984 recording session of Ellis with Eddie Harris on tenor sax. In Ellis’ left hand one can hear the rhythm of New Orleans in the beat of people striding down “Hickory and Cognac Streets,” as the song is entitled.
Marsalis recently shared some of that New Orleans history in a phone interview that included insights into his craft, his teaching, the upbringing of his six sons and the struggle to “make a living” in times that were transforming both musically and socially.
A new Orleans native
Born on Nov. 11, 1934, at the height of the Great Depression, Ellis Marsalis began his formal music studies at age 11 when he attended the Xavier University Junior School of Music. “I was fortunate enough to be born in New Orleans,” he said.
He was also fortunate enough to come of age after Korea and before Vietnam. Following his graduation in 1955 with a bachelor’s degree in music education from Dillard University, and after a year of working in his father’s motel business, he joined the U.S. Marines Corps. His musical talents didn’t get him out of basic training, but they did earn him a place with the Corps Four, a Marine jazz quartet that performed on the “Dress Blues” television show and “Leatherneck Songbook,” a radio program.
At the end of his tour of duty, he married Dolores Ferdinand, a New Orleans native. “I started to work for my father again,” said Marsalis, who eventually found a teaching job in 1964 at Carver High School and with four sons in tow, moved to the rural town of Breaux Bridge, La. The birth of two more sons followed.
“I wasn’t really conscious of building a career,” he said. “You just took whatever kind of job you could.”
Segregation opens doors
Marsalis recalled getting a gig in the early ’60s at the New Orleans Playboy Club because of the flip-side of a segregation law involving musicians: “White players couldn’t back up black musicians,” he said. And since the featured artists from the Chicago Playboy Club were black but their back-ups were not, Marsalis, the drummer and the bass player were hired locally. “That gig lasted as long as the black performers from Chicago did,” he said.
The codes soon fell. “After Lyndon Johnson, they all (segregation laws) kind of crashed and burned.”
He would return to the club for a second time in 1966. In 1967 he would join Al Hirt in his nightclub. “I got a call that summer from Al Hirt’s clarinet player for the gig,” he said. There he played through 1970. “When I left his band, I did a lot of freelance,” Marsalis said.
He played for two years at Lu and Charlie’s before joining the Storyville Jazz Band and eventually following Bob French’s band to Crazy Shirley’s.
During this time he also returned to teaching as an adjunct professor of African-American music at Xavier University, where he had first begun as a student at age 11.
Jazz education takes root
A master’s degree would follow in 1974 and a new teaching position posted for the fall captured his attention: The New Orleans Center for Creative Arts, a new magnet high school for the arts, was looking for an instrumental music teacher with jazz studies emphasis.
New Orleans as well as the rest of the country was recognizing jazz as a truly American art form and while students at NOCCA were studying it formally, two of his students — his sons Branford and Wynton Marsalis — were off into funk.
“Once I had to throw them out (of class),” their teacher-father recalled. To add insult to injury, the sons’ funk band was at one time making more money than dad’s was.
“That was an interesting school. It was an arts school, but not a school you could graduate from. The students used all of their electives (at NOCCA) but had to go back to their — what would you call it — their home school for their diplomas,” he said.
Music was changing
The world and music were changing, he said. “I think it’s part of a natural evolution,” he said.
He recalls walking at night and hearing only guitar band music spilling into the streets of New Orleans. “There was not one acoustic piano,” he said. When calls did go out for musicians with jazz skills, “they were basically playing the blues,” he said, recalling such attractions as Big Mamma Thornton. Jazz combos sometimes played before or after main acts, however. “I was a pretty good jazz player. I’d try to get together with like-minded souls.”
After 12 years at NOCCA, Marsalis in 1986 accepted a teaching position as coordinator of jazz studies at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond.
The Crescent City got its treasured pianist back in 1989 thanks to a chair endowed by Coca-Cola at the University of New Orleans, where he served 12 years as the director of jazz studies.
His retirement was celebrated with a concert that included his four musical sons, who had returned to jazz and had emblazoned their own stellar careers.
He since has been feted with honorary doctorates and the dedication to him of a jazz studies and performance center at Musicians’ Village, a post-Katrina development. There from open front porches inhabited by musical returnees one can hear the engines for this truly American musical form still turning.