June 17, 2009
It wasn’t easy, but New Orleans jazz pianist and patriarch Ellis Marsalis managed to cram a few words in edgewise as the annual Duke Ellington Jazz Festival drew to an exuberant close at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall on Monday night.
Dubbed “Celebrating a Jazz Master,” the sold-out concert found Marsalis surrounded by family and friends onstage, all eager to toast and roast him. The salute was peppered with tunes designed to evoke various aspects of Marsalis’s five-decade career and prominently featured musical collaborations with four of his sons.
The evening opened with some Louis Jordan-inspired jive and closed with guest (and Marsalis protege) Harry Connick Jr. leading a fulgent Crescent City parade up and down the aisles, complete with a twirling umbrella.
In between were reminders of Marsalis’s abundant gifts: his winning way with a ballad (eldest son Branford called him a “closet sentimentalist”); his natural affinity for swift bop tempos; his understated way of creating elegantly re-harmonized accompaniments (he and Connick, in fine voice, were warmly paired on “Stardust”); and his mastery of traditional New Orleans rhythms and funk offshoots.
And certainly among the evening’s great pleasures was the chance to hear Marsalis and special guest Billy Taylor turn “Body and Soul” into a haunting rhapsody for two pianos. Marsalis, 74, also got a chance to team up with pianist Connick when “Sweet Georgia Brown” acquired a sharply syncopated accent.
Playing with sons Branford on tenor and soprano saxophones, Wynton on trumpet, Delfeayo on trombone and Jason on drums and vibes — and with the support of bassist Eric Revis and drummer Herlin Riley — Marsalis was in typically relaxed form, contributing to moods tinged with various shades of blues and bursting with jubilant polyphony.
The sons were armed to the teeth with family anecdotes — some heartfelt, some uproarious — and Connick, who recalled being “traumatized” by the Marsalis brothers in his youth, was quick to add a few more.
Branford and Wynton recalled early childhood encounters with the jazz life (“old men telling nasty jokes”) and witnessing their father’s unwavering dedication to his work, no matter how small or inattentive the audience. During one noisy and poorly attended hotel gig, Wynton leaned over the piano and asked his father if all the chatter bothered him, only to be told: “Shhh!”
By far the most stirring and eloquent spoken-word tribute was delivered by Wynton’s younger sibling, writer Ellis Marsalis III, who recited a poem he recently composed for his father. It not only drew a standing ovation from the crowd, it left his brothers utterly speechless — that is, until Wynton finally broke the silence. “Now I’m sorry I used to beat you up, man,” he said.
When it was the honoree’s chance to speak, Ellis Marsalis quickly deflected the attention. Receiving the festival’s Lifetime Achievement Award, he thanked his wife, Dolores, for always being “next to me, or out front, leading the way.”
Dolores, who attended but declined to appear onstage, was also hailed by her sons for her sacrifices and fortitude — as well as her unambiguous approach to parenting.
Indeed, Wynton recalled complaining once too often about having to eat spaghetti for dinner, back when he was a youngster, full of himself and totally oblivious to the demands placed on his mother’s time and energy. After scooping the plate off the table, his mom dumped the spaghetti onto her son’s Afro. “Every king deserves a crown,” she quipped.