Publication: Kansas City Star
Author: Joe Klopus
Date: February 9, 2011
You have to bloom where you’re planted.
For Ellis Marsalis, pianist and patriarch of a musical dynasty, that meant blooming as a creative modern-jazz pianist in the traditional-jazz soil of New Orleans, where for a long time there wasn’t much demand for what he was putting down.
The conditions weren’t favorable, but Marsalis, who brings his quartet to the Folly Theater on Friday, still managed to become something of a local legend in the Crescent City, even before his kids became famous and the whole jazz world started paying attention. He bloomed as a teacher and mentor, and not just to his own family.
About the New Orleans of the 1960s: “There wasn’t any scene for our music. … A lot of us did other things. My friend Nat Perrilliat, a great sax player, was a cab driver. And all of us played R&B gigs. And I didn’t play as many gigs as I would have if I’d played another instrument, because a lot of the R&B leaders were piano players … Allen Toussaint, Fats Domino.”
Marsalis, now 76, was just out of the Marines then and back home in New Orleans, trying to get something going for modern jazz. He taught for a couple of years and worked in his father’s motel for a while.
“I even tried my hand at running a club. That was a total disaster. We probably made it six months.”
So he was almost like a musical exile in his own hometown. He took jobs in a theater band, at the Playboy Club and in trumpeter Al Hirt’s Dixieland band. It wasn’t the music he really wanted to play, but it put food on the table. (Let it be noted that it was Hirt who gave Marsalis’ son Wynton a trumpet, and things haven’t been quite the same since.)
After a few years, Marsalis stepped away from the performing scene. He’d been teaching part time, and with the encouragement of school administrators, he went deeper into the field, studying for his master’s degree. In 1974 he took a full-time teaching job at the then-new New Orleans Center for Creative Arts, and there his reputation as a great teacher and mentor was sealed. His students included not only his own kids, but trumpeter Terence Blanchard and Marlon Jordan, pianist and singer Harry Connick Jr. and sax man Donald Harrison.
Come the 1980s, the name Marsalis was the hottest name in jazz, thanks to Wynton, the second son, and Branford, the sax-playing first son. His kids’ fame began to rub off on their father. But Ellis Marsalis didn’t try hard to capitalize on the name.
He accepted a few offers to tour, made a few recordings, but also stepped up to teaching at the university level, where he stayed until his retirement in 2001.
Since then, it has been a working retirement for Marsalis, who has played all over the world by now and is recognized as the master he is. One climactic moment occurred last month when the whole musical Marsalis clan — Ellis Marsalis and sons Branford, Wynton, trombonist Delfeayo and percussionist Jason — were recognized by the National Endowment for the Arts as NEA Jazz Masters. (The ceremony itself turned less than joyous when Ellis’ wife, Dolores, slipped and broke her hip. That’s still weighing on his mind.)
Marsalis’ show at the Folly will be a family affair. It has Dad at the piano and son Jason on vibraphone. “I don’t ever get a chance to play with Jason, he’s got so many irons in the fire,” his father says. There’s also a pair of young Southern cats, New Orleans bassist Jason Stewart and Mississippi drummer Darrian Douglas.
It wasn’t a quick journey from hometown hero to international recognition for Marsalis, but it’s not bad for a guy who once feared that he might never be heard.
“When I was young, I used to think about going to New York all the time,” he says. “Now sometimes when I look back, I think it wasn’t for me. I wasn’t supposed to do that.”