June 18, 2009
The patriarch of New Orleans’ most well known jazz family was honored during a sold-out concert at the John F. Kennedy Center this week that culminated the Fifth Annual Duke Ellington Jazz Festival.
Educator, composer, and musician, Ellis Marsalis, father of musicians Wynton, Branford, Delfeayo and Jason Marsalis, was honored during a 2½ hour concert that included family anecdotes by his sons and tributes by jazz master Dr. Billy Taylor and pianist Harry Connick, Jr.
A highlight of the emotional evening was the reading of a poem, “The Ocean and the Man,” by son and poet Ellis Marsalis III. Comparing the humble, talented 74-year-old jazz great to a beacon that had guided, not only his sons, but numerous fledgling musicians that Ellis Marsalis tutored over the years, the poem elegantly captured the life of the family man, respected musician and renowned jazz educator.
Opening with greetings from Mitch Landrieu, the lieutenant governor of Louisiana, and ending with a rousing Second Line procession down the Center’s Concert Hall aisles, the evening was a mix of amusing stories, fond memories and top-notch jazz. A historical moment, the rare assemblage of Marsalis family members, was a treat for jazz lovers, who reveled in being a part of the Concert Hall crowd that included celebrities and jazz historians.
According to Branford Marsalis, he and his siblings worked up until the final day finalizing the songs and concept for the evening.
“We drove the producer crazy. Wynton, however, had said that we should tell stories that reflected our Dad’s life,” he said.
During the evening, each brother told intimate tales about their father and his impact on their youth. Noting that at one point, the elder Marsalis was working three gigs to feed his then family of five.
“We were poor, but I never heard my father complain. He always maintained his integrity,” Wynton Marsalis said.
The trumpet master pointed out that the brothers also wanted to include music that had been meaningful in their father’s life, so audience goers heard music ranging from the first song that family matriarch Dolores heard when she first met her future husband to Marsalis’ own swinging compositions.
During a piano duo featuring Ellis Marsalis and Taylor, the pairs’ deft tickling of the keys on “Body and Soul” draw a standing ovation. Later, a piano duo with the pianist and Connick, Jr. on “Sweet Georgia Brown,” drew equally thunderous applause, as the brothers continued to interject stories about a man who once played a gig with only two drunken patrons in attendance, but nevertheless, continued to play as if the room were filled with hundreds.
For many, the evening was an unforgettable moment in jazz history.
“If only for the stories themselves,” said Willard W. Jenkins, a long-time jazz lover and events producer.
Katie Whitely, a native of New Orleans, said, “When they talked about the Dew Drop Inn, where Ellis played, I could relate. I used to live not far from there.”
For Taylor, the moment was special, because he reveres Ellis as one of the master of jazz.
“He has been so underrated. I am so happy that all of his family could be here tonight. For the hundreds that he has mentored, like Harry Connick Jr., it is wonderful that he is receiving this recognition,” Taylor said.
During the concert, Connick noted that he and Branford Marsalis recently paired up to create the New Orleans Habit Musicians’ Village in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The centerpiece will be the Ellis Marsalis Center for Music, which will be a meeting place for musicians of all ages and proficiency.