By Steve Jones
For the past 20 years, the name Marsalis has been synonymous with jazz.
Wynton, artistic director of Jazz at Lincoln Center, has become a cultural icon with his critically acclaimed records and performances and jazz-education efforts. Older brother Branford is highly respected for his music and well-known for his work on TV and with pop bands. Their father, Ellis, is renowned as a pianist and mentor to many of this generation’s important jazz players. Younger brothers Delfeayo, a trombonist, and Jason, a drummer, have made names for themselves both as bandleaders and sidemen.
But even with their prodigious output and occasional intermingling of talents, all five never came together on stage until Ellis’ retirement as director of the jazz studies department at the University of New Orleans in August 2001. That event was documented on an album, The Marsalis Family: A Jazz Celebration, due for release today, and a PBS special of the same name, airing Feb. 20. A DVD is due in March.
They also are gearing up to hit the road together for the first time. They will play eight dates beginning Feb. 23 in Ottawa, Ontario, and go to Toronto; Montreal; Schenectady, N.Y.; Syracuse, N.Y.; Newark, N.J.; and Philadelphia before wrapping up in Boston March 3. There might be other dates later in the year.
Considering their jammed concert and recording calendars, finding even a window as limited as this one was no easy feat.
“I’m glad we were able to do this, because I never did get to play with my kids collectively,” Ellis says. “The two oldest kids left right out of high school to go to New York, and our fourth son, Delfeayo, left out of high school to go to Berklee in Boston, so I only played for any amount of time with our youngest son, Jason.”
All the sons see the tour as an homage to their father, who is determining the repertoire. There likely will be a mix of early New Orleans-style music, as typified by Louis Armstrong, as well as more modern pieces and family compositions.
Last-minute musical menu
“He’ll probably present it to us on the day of the show, and we’ll put it together,” Delfeayo says. “It forces us to really be professionals and step up to the plate. I know one composition of his — the backbone of all of our musical compositions — that we’ll probably play: Nostalgic Impressions. Even with the most extended works Wynton composes now, you can hear elements from that song.”
Wynton adds: “We’ve all been doing different things, but we all come from the same source. I know one thing: He is going to insist that we rehearse. I know we are not going to stand up there just jamming.”
Branford says he’s excited about the family gathering for another reason: He’ll get a chance to see his kin in a way that has been logistically impossible for a long time.
“With all of us on one bus, it will be like all of us living in the house together,” Branford says. “We are going to be hanging around each other, watching movies, arguing, playing video games, whatever. The music is nice, and it will be fine, but I’m looking forward to that other thing.”
That other thing wasn’t really possible at the University of New Orleans event at the Kiefer/UNO Lakefront Arena, which also was witnessed by wife and mother Dolores and non-musician sons/brothers Ellis Jr. and Mboya. The hoopla surrounding the event, which raised money to endow a chair in Ellis’ name at the university, kept them from enjoying the moment as they would have liked. Ellis didn’t set out to build a musical dynasty. In fact, the elder Marsalis never sought the same kind of musical career now enjoyed by his sons.
The New Orleans native moonlighted on local gigs with the likes of R&B stars Big Joe Turner and Big Maybelle while earning a degree in music education at Dillard University. He also recorded original music with such peers as drummer Edward Blackwell and clarinetist Alvin Batiste. After a stint in the Marine Corps, he married Dolores Ferdinand, and Branford and Wynton were born in 1960 and 1961. But with two young children, there was no thought of trying to do what most ambitious jazz musicians did: Move to New York.
“I was aware there were other opportunities out there,” says Ellis, who played in New York while touring with New Orleans trumpeter Al Hirt. “I began to understand that a lot of what the musicians in New York were looking at was really a facade. Even some of the musicians would tell you it’s the same old (stuff), just different-colored lights.”
Missing out on making a big name for himself as a recording artist or performer, however, didn’t bother him or his sons.
“If commercial success is the standard by which we judge music, then my father’s career up until now has been an abysmal failure,” Branford says. “People have only heard of him because of Wynton. He’s this great teacher sitting in New Orleans teaching a bunch of snot-nosed kids how to play. But having grown up in a household where a man had the potential to be one of the established musicians in New York but stayed at home to raise his kids, I have a very different interpretation of success and ambition.”
Ellis made his living by working as a musician and putting his college degree to work. He became band director at a small-town Louisiana high school in the mid-’60s. From 1974 to 1986, he taught and created curriculum at the magnet high school New Orleans Center for Creative Arts. After three years at Virginia Commonwealth University, he returned to create the jazz program at the University of New Orleans. Trumpeter/composer Terence Blanchard succeeded him as director when he retired last year.
Ellis’ influence, however, extended far beyond New Orleans. Besides his sons, Blanchard, pianist/singer Harry Connick Jr., bassist Reginald Veal, trumpeters Nicholas Payton and Marlon Jordan, saxophonists Donald Harrison and Victor Goines, and flutist Kent Jordan are among his seemingly countless students.
“He has both directly and indirectly impacted the shape of jazz music over the past 20 years because his students have been the guys at the forefront of what’s going on,” Delfeayo says. “He has never been fazed by stardom or fame or money. I’ve produced him accompanying at least five or six different artists, and he has always made them sound better than they are.”
Branford marvels at his father’s skill as a pianist, something he says subconsciously kept him from appreciating other players. He says that while others show great proficiency on the instrument, almost none of them can match his father’s “gargantuan sound of the piano.”
Jason says his father was pivotal in revitalizing the New Orleans jazz scene in the 1990s. “When my father came back, it just grew,” he says, “because a lot of these college students came to UNO because it had a jazz program.”
Wynton says everyone his father tutored was left with an indelible mark about learning and checking out different kinds of music. Wynton says when he was younger, Ellis encouraged him and Branford to take every gig that came their way.
‘Get out there and play’
“Sometimes we would come home at 1 in the morning and it was always cool,” Wynton says. “We were young, 14 or 15, and New Orleans can be like the Wild West sometimes, so it was no Disneyland. But he was like, ‘You have to get out there and play.’
“When I left New Orleans to go to New York, a lot of my schoolteachers were saying you ought not waste your brain on music. My mom was worrying about me going. My daddy said, ‘Go to New York, but one thing you’ve got to remember: Don’t have anything to fall back on.’ “
Ellis explains, “Most teachers would say you should go to school to get your degree to have something to fall back on. Aside from being a huge lie, it also creates a very high level of mediocrity, because nobody who really believes that is going to bother to take the leap of faith that is required to be a serious artist.”
Marsalis never pushed his sons into music and had no idea what directions they would take. Branford, he says, was always a big fan of pop music. Wynton, on the other hand, had a more classical bent, though he also had a great enthusiasm for jazz.
Branford says that although much of the emphasis is placed on his father’s role in their development, their mother was just as important. He says both parents were critical thinkers and did not allow their children to have unsubstantiated opinions, whether discussing religion, politics, race, class or anything else.
“If you start something at the dinner table, you couldn’t just say I don’t want to talk about it any more,” Branford says. “No, you were going to sit your ass down like a man and either say you were wrong or go back to the drawing board and get some more proof. I feel fortunate about that because it has made me the musician that I am.”
Jason, who is 12 to 17 years younger than his musical
brothers, has a different perspective. They were all just about gone when he started playing instruments. He says the gift of a toy drum set when he was 3 set him on his path.
“My parents would play a game with me where they would introduce me as ‘the great and wondrous Jason,’ and I would want them to introduce me all the time.”
They will all get their introductions when they are onstage together during the tour. But despite their varying levels of fame, the unquestioned authority will always be Ellis. Wynton says the respect between father and son never changes. He recalls an incident a few years ago when they were stopped by the police as he was driving his father home in the wee hours after a gig.
“I said something smart to one of the cops and made him mad, and he took my driver’s license and registration,” Wynton says, laughing. “My daddy looked over at me and said, ‘Boy, that was the dumbest thing I’ve heard in my entire life.’ At that moment — and I was 37 then — I felt like I was 11 years old.”