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Interview: Ellis and Wynton Marsalis
Publication: NUVO News
Author: Scott Shoger
Date: March 26, 2014
Ellis Marsalis, Jr. — the paterfamilias of the jazz-playing Marsalis clan — says he was “never big on family bands.” Maybe that’s why even after the Marsalis family performed together for the first time during a retirement celebration for Ellis in 2001, they still don’t play as a family all that often. The sole date on their online schedule is their Clowes Hall show. And then they’ll go their separate ways: Wynton with his Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra; Ellis, Branford and Jason with their respective quartets; Delfeayo with the Uptown Jazz Orchestra; spoken word artist Ellis III to wherever it is that he issues his oracular judgments on American life (Wynton will have more on that in a minute).
In short, all the Marsalises lead busy professional and personal lives, so it’s only when Ellis is “interested in doing it,” according to Wynton, that they get together for another show. “He’s at the stage now of his life where we try to get together and touch base with him,” he adds. I talked with both Ellis and Wynton this week: Ellis from New Orleans; Wynton from somewhere on the road between San Francisco and Ames, Iowa (he prefers not to fly when he has a choice). The results are as follow, but a quick bio seems in order:
Born in New Orleans in 1934, Ellis Marsalis, Jr. came up as jazz pianist, playing in a modern style that wasn’t obviously indebted to Dixieland and R&B, before moving into education, eventually teaching on both a high school and university level, notably at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts. He and his wife, Delores, have six sons, five of whom will perform at Clowes. There’s Branford, an adventurous saxophonist who’s worked with Art Blakey, Sting and the Grateful Dead and briefly served as musical director for The Tonight Show. Wynton, a nine-time Grammy winner, long-time artistic head of Jazz at Lincoln Center and notorious contrarian. Ellis, who contributes spoken word monologues to some Marsalis Family gigs. Trombonist Delfeayo, who has followed directly in his dad’s path in becoming a New Orleans-based educator. And drummer Jason, the youngest Marsalis, who has spent more time performing with his dad than any other son.
Feel free to consult Wikipedia or, hell, the Grove Dictionary of Music for more information; for now, to the interviews!
NUVO: So, who calls the shots at a Marsalis Family show? Your dad?
Wynton Marsalis: Yeah, we go along with him, whatever he wants. He sacrificed for us so much, we have so much respect for him that it’s not a problem.
NUVO: Is there any different sort of chemistry when playing with your family vs. playing with other talented musicians?
Wynton: We all grew up listening to our father’s music. But for Branford and I, it’s different because we grew up playing together. We didn’t play with Delfeayo so much because he’s younger than us. And Jason was two when I left home. He’s such a talented musician, with his hearing and the understanding of the concepts of what we play. He grew up playing with my father, so I’m sure there’s a chemistry between them.
Jason was at a much higher level at a much younger age than we were. In high school, Branford and I played in funk bands, played more popular music, and we would sit in with our father every now and then, but we weren’t really qualified; he would just let us play. Whereas Jason at 13 or 14, he really could play; he could play a gig.
To read the rest of the NUVO News interview with Wynton and Ellis Marsalis, please visit their website.