Many have tried, but prior to the evening of August 4, 2001, none had succeeded in bringing Ellis Marsalis and all four of his music-playing sons together on the same bandstand. Dovetailing schedules is no simple matter for the members of the most prominent and active family in jazz. It was not until the University of New Orleans scheduled a tribute concert to mark Ellis’ retirement from its music faculty and the establishment of a chair in his honor that the much-anticipated conjunction took place. The event was guaranteed to be memorable, but could it live up to the expectations that had been building for the better part of two decades?
The thing that stands out in my mind about the concert is that it was an accurate representation of our family, collectively and individually. – Delfeayo Marsalis
The eloquent, intense and infectious music on this disc is evidence that the concert was one of those rare occasions when potential is fully met and talented performers respond to an obvious challenge. We could credit the professionalism of each Marsalis, the sense that whatever the surrounding hullabaloo there was music to be played and played well, and this attitude no doubt permeates all of their music making. Yet it is clear that the guiding power and spirit of Ellis Marsalis also elevated the collective effort, turning the evening into not just a family celebration but a reminder of all that Ellis has meant to the hometown he loves.
That type of outpouring of love and support for my father has never happened in New Orleans before. It was great that so many people from the city showed up to pay respects to him, because I can remember all of the times when nobody came to the gigs. – Wynton Marsalis
At his core, Ellis Marsalis is a modern jazz musician. The term may seem dated in the music’s second century, but it carried particular weight when Ellis was coming of musical age in the 1950s and ‘60s – especially in a city where tourism determined that the vast majority of jazz musicians had no choice but to be traditionalists, and the vast majority of pianists sought security in the burgeoning field of rock and roll. Ellis was different, more attuned to jazz’s future than its past or pop’s present. His harmonic and rhythmic language and his sense of compositional possibilities were up-to-the-minute and on the same wavelength as those of the era’s celebrated innovators. This was common knowledge to the Adderley Brothers, Ornette Coleman and other leading players who crossed Ellis’ path, but a virtual secret in New Orleans, where jazz was still supposed to deal in direct homage to such favorite sons as King Oliver, Jelly Roll Morton and Louis Armstrong.
Ellis has no problem with the notion of paying tribute to these immortals, as the present celebratory version of “Struttin’ with Some Barbecue” makes abundantly clear. His own musical concepts were totally contemporary, however. Not only did he develop a lean and quietly commanding approach to the piano trio, captured here on “The Surrey with the Fringe on Top” and his original “After,” but he also helped create a modern movement in New Orleans through his work with the collective American Jazz Quintet and his own quartet. He even opened a club, the Music Haven, to give these local renegades a place to be heard. “Swinging at the Haven,” “After” and “Twelve’s It” were all composed in the early ‘60s, and find Ellis dealing with the colors and forms that such pioneers as John Coltrane and Wayne Shorter were investigating at the time. Each of these pieces possess the melodic strength and structural challenges that give tunes extended life, and any or all might have become jazz standards had Ellis chosen to raise his profile by touring more widely or relocating to New York. Instead, he remained at home, and the performing world’s loss became jazz education’s gain.
Learning has always been more important to my dad than the sense of established order. His quest with students was all about taking them to a better place intellectually, not teaching them to know their place. – Branford Marsalis
In over a quarter-century of teaching that began at the high school level (most notably at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts) and ultimately led to his faculty appointment at the University of New Orleans, Ellis has been one of the most tireless and inspirational jazz educators to be found anywhere. If the number of world-class musicians he has mentored is any indication, he may be the most successful as well. Terence Blanchard, Donald Harrison and Nicholas Payton are among the notables who have benefited from his guidance, as have Roland Guerin (the bassist who completed the family band in this concert) and Harry Connick, Jr. (who performed the “St. James Infirmary” heard here with trombonist Lucien Barbarin in the concert’s opening set, and who plays the second, bass-clef centered piano solo on “Twelve’s It”). This illustrious group of alumni gained a thorough grounding in jazz fundamentals, an overriding commitment to the music, and the confidence to pursue their own creative paths. Nowhere is this clearer than among the four talented players linked to Ellis by both biological and aesthetic bloodlines.
My first impression of the Marsalis family was an incredible seriousness for the music. A passion for it. – Harry Connick, Jr.
If it took the emergence of tenor saxophonist Branford and trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, and the subsequent appearance of trombonist Delfeayo and drummer Jason Marsalis to bring attention Ellis’ way, there is no question that the father’s example set the sons on the path of international influence and distinction. There were no gimmicks like a family band in the Marsalis siblings’ childhoods, and no demands that they follow in their father’s footsteps. By all accounts, it was Ellis’ wife Dolores who saw to it that the youngsters practiced, and who ensured that they were exposed to the widest variety of cultural and intellectual stimulation. Dolores was essential in molding her talented sons (and that goes for Ellis III and Mboya as well as the four who play music), while Ellis provided the example of vision and dedication that allows a musician to pursue his or her chosen path. The success of both Ellis and Dolores as role models permeates these performances.
I do have a lot of pride in my sons. They were able to make music work as a profession by playing what they choose to play. – Ellis Marsalis
The source of Ellis’ pride can be heard throughout this collection, though it stands in bold relief on three particular tracks. Drummer Jason sets the mood for “The Surrey with the Fringe on Top,” then extends it in a dramatic solo in which virtuosity is at the service of musical content. Delfeayo honors the trombone’s storied heritage and adds his own assertive stamp to “Sultry Serenade,” composed by Tyree Glenn and Duke Ellington for the Ellington Orchestra in 1947. The trumpet of Wynton and the tenor sax of Branford provide the clearest example of family affinity as they sustain a dialogue through the course of Branford’s blues “Cain and Abel” that is by turns, witty, funky and fierce. These Marsalis brothers worked side by side 20 years ago in Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers and Wynton’s first band, before striking out on distinct and sometimes divergent paths. They recorded “Cain and Abel” once before (on Branford’s 1991 album The Beautyful Ones are Not Yet Born), and the rareness of their empathy was notable then. Ten years later, the connection is even stronger, reinforced by the presence of the proud papa who enjoyed this incendiary performance from the piano bench.
The only rehearsal we were able to schedule was really rough. A lot of slips, starts and stops. It looked as though the show might have been a disaster. But once everybody got on stage, everything came into focus. The music just took off. – Jason Marsalis
Often as not, family reunions will produce angst rather than art. Such was not the case when the Marsalis clan gathered on August 4, 2001. The common spirit and collective eloquence on display was the finest tribute a father could receive. This family came together, and as the enclosed music affirms, they played together brilliantly.