• During your formative years, how did radio serve as an influence?
I learned a lot about listening as a result of the radio. From the popular standard fare such as Tommy Dorsey, Helen O’Connell and Glenn Miller to the mystery shows such as Lights Out, The Shadow, Superman and the Lone Ranger, whose theme song came from Rossini. Later, I heard a modern show that was programming the music of Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker and I said Wow! What is THAT? That experience caused me to move into the direction that I would ultimately pursue.
• Do you regret not going to New York?
I almost did go in 1958 when I got out of the Marine Corps. I often think, had I really been successful in getting to New York, I’m not sure how successful I would have been. I remember telling Miles that I wanted to come to New York and play with his band and he said, “You ought to be glad you didn’t, everybody who played with me is dead.” So, I think in a way, it was a blessing being born in New Orleans.
• Has your path as student and later as educator evolved organically or by design?
Many influences that I had through institutions happened in spite of, not because of those institutions, including my experience at Dillard University, even though I learned a lot there. My loyalties were divided however, given the attitude that some of the instructors had towards jazz music. This kept me from learning a lot that would and was beneficial at that time. This experience was a reminder of what effect racism can have on an individual, as it can prevent you from learning things that you really need to learn in order to go beyond it.
Initially I had no interest in being a teacher and my interest changed only when I found that credentials allowed me to do that as a means to an end. There were circumstances around me that came into play such as President Nixon making the GI Bill retroactive to Korea, thus allowing me to pursue a Masters degree at Loyola University. Upon completion, my longtime friend and educator Alvin Batiste and Dolores, my wife and divine inspiration, urged me to audition and interview at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts which was just getting under way. NOCCA gave me the chance to do two very significant things, 1, to learn a lot more about the creative process and 2, to pass it on to younger kids.
• When did you decide to dedicate yourself to jazz?
When I decided to dedicate myself as a jazz musician, I had to stop listening to pop radio and stop buying pop records. Because of my other endeavors, I was so behind everyone else that I had to employ a certain level of tunnel vision. When I told my dad that I wanted to be a jazz musician, he laughed and said, “You don’t want to play jazz, man, you’re not serious about music.” Then I said, “Oh it’s different now. I want to do it.” So I just started buying records like Cannonball Adderley and the Land of Hi Fi, records by Wayne Shorter, Clifford Brown, Miles Davis and Sonny Rollins, basically everything that I could get my hands on. Between the ages of 19 and 24 that’s all I listened to because I had a lot of catching up to do.
• Did you have any kind of pressure because your father was in the music business?
My father wasn’t in the business that we’re in. In New Orleans, when you play music, the only people who really notice are other musicians. The musicians are very close-knit, not very competitive, and they support each other. When Wynton and I went to New York, the whole idea of a musician being able to establish a professional pay rate had been a foreign concept in New Orleans. You did your gig, took your 40 dollars and went home. That’s what my dad did. People in New Orleans didn’t really think of musicians as being anything serious. Of course, people talk about the “great Marsalis family” and what it must have been like to grow up in that family and the level of expectation – there was no level of expectation. In New York, we were just two punks from New Orleans to other musicians. So there was no pressure at all.
• What was it like going back to New Orleans to perform after being in New York?
The first time that we went back was to play the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival after Wynton had won a Grammy and had become a national figure. We were surrounded by 300 people, and I knew 200 of them personally. I was amazed at how proud and supportive they were. It was really nice to go home and see that many people were genuinely happy for you. It wasn’t like we were pop stars. It was clear that we didn’t have anything to offer them, no huge parties, limousines, and money flying off of boats and stuff. They spent their money to come to the Jazz and Heritage Festival to just show their appreciation. It was a great thing.
• How would you describe your early style as a jazz musician?
In the beginning, I was trying to work from music that I could understand. So, in the first records, I played music similar to Ornette Coleman, Miles and Mingus. I tried different things with grooves. Then, I started to write more tunes and became more sophisticated, like Monk’s music. For me it was always a matter of knowing the artistic terrain. It was natural to me as I went along to deal with more sophisticated forms and more sophisticated sense, because above all, I have artistic sense. What I’m into more is the art of the music and what the music has to say about the people that it comes from.
• Can you give a few comments on what you think of each brother as a musician?
Branford is a great musician. He has very good ears, and he catches onto things very quickly. He’s into a lot of styles, like Miles was, imitating rock. That took a lot of his desire to really sharpen his talent to a certain level; but he has such an overwhelming amount of ability that he still makes an important statement on his horn.
Delfeayo is multi-faceted and a very facile writer. He’s a good music producer because he knows the technology. From a musical standpoint, he’s more dedicated to art. He has a very interesting sense of drama and balance.
Jason has perfect pitch and natural timing. Though he has an abundance of talent, he has some personality things to work through to really allow his art to flourish to the maximum of its potential. He’s very serious about what he does.
• You don’t seem have a problem with people approaching you about the music.
That’s just the way that I am. I like for people to come up, it doesn’t matter if they like or don’t like the music. Some of the best stuff I’ve learned was from people who didn’t even like jazz or weren’t into music. You don’t really have to know about something to tell what’s wrong with it.
• How did you chose the trombone as your primary instrument?
When I was in the 5th grade, there was a man who came to my school with all of these instruments. I saw the trombone and I said, “No one would want to play that particular instrument.” I don’t know why, but I was attracted to it. There was something about the way the trombone looked - unique and different. So when the man said, “Anyone who wants to play an instrument, raise your hand,” I was too shy to raise mine. It wasn’t until the 6th grade, when the man came back to the school that I decided “I want to play that trombone.”
• What is your role as a jazz producer?
As a jazz producer, I’ve been fortunate because I’ve been able to work with some accomplished musicians, such as Branford, Wynton, Marcus Roberts, and my dad. So in working with these great artists, my job is to make the recordings sound like they’re in a very big hall, in an intimate setting, or just like they’re in your living room. Nowadays, the producer has to do what the artist requires. Sometimes that means writing a lot of material and making the arrangements, or it’s just making sure the mics are set up right, sitting back and rolling the tape.
• What is it like to play with your father?
You know what they say about John Coltrane - he would just get musicians who could play and he wouldn’t tell them anything. That’s kind of what my dad is like. He’s not the kind of guy that wants to spend a lot of time dictating what’s supposed to go on. He gets you, you play, and that’s the end of it. But if you’re not cutting your part, then he lets you know.
• What kind of support did you get as a musician from your parents and from your brothers?
I’ve always gotten support from my parents. My mother really wanted me to play the violin, more so than the drums. She kept real quiet about it, but I think that’s what she wanted me to do. So she was upset when I gave up the violin, but she wasn’t going to stop me from playing the drums. She supported that all the way, and now, she definitely doesn’t mind at all. So they’ve always been supportive of anything I’ve wanted to do.
My brothers were all supportive, but since Delfeayo was living here in New Orleans when I started playing jazz at thirteen, he was the most supportive. We saw each other a lot more and played and practiced together. The support from Branford and Wynton came from a distance, talking on the phone or when they came to visit. A lot of the support came from their records, too. I mean, that is something very important when you have brothers that are actually making music and putting out recordings on a national level. It is going to make an impact on you in a certain sense. So their support came through that way.
• What has your musical experience been like in New Orleans?
Growing up in New Orleans has been a fruitful musical experience. New Orleans has always been painted as a city known for traditional jazz, but what I’ve come to find out is that there’s a lot more to it than that. There have been a lot of different groups that I’ve played with through the years. I’ve known and worked with musicians that play Irish Celtic music, and I even played in a fusion band whose music was influenced by Frank Zappa and Chick Corea’s Return to Forever. I’ve also done traditional gigs and brass band performances. So I’ve learned a whole lot being here, and I’ve definitely done a lot of musically diverse things. I’ve even experimented with Brazilian music, so there’s a lot to offer here.
• How did playing with your father help you grow as a musician?
The strongest musical connection I have among my family members is definitely with my father, because we have played in a group for eight years. I learned how to play drums in his trio - and how to play in a trio setting. I mean, playing drums is one thing, but playing in a jazz trio is different.