Article originally appeared as “Where Y’at” magazine’s 2007 Jazz Fest cover story, reprinted here on the learning of his passing (November 14, 1934 – April 1, 2020).
It would be logical to speculate that there must have been something in the water at the Marsalis residence. How else would you explain the fact that five of the most talented jazz musicians on the planet and a name that has literally become synonymous with the genre emerged from under one roof. Ellis Marsalis, Jr., the father of New Orleans’ first family of jazz is modest about his influence on the lives of his six children and on the musical careers of four of them, preferring to credit his wife Dolores. Clearly the couple had instilled in their children the consummate balance of enlightenment and respect.
“A responsible role model,” is how Jason Marsalis, percussionist extraordinaire and the youngest of six children, describes his father. “He’s someone that had command over being not only a father, but [with emphasis] a man…Someone you could go to for either information or advice. He’s someone that understands very clearly what is needed of any individual.”
Yet to simply give credit to the elder Marsalis for spawning virtuosos would erroneously trivialize the monumental role that he himself has played in the history of modern jazz in New Orleans, and ultimately worldwide.
You see it was the events that preceded the musical careers of his children; his persistent search to find the instrument and the music that inspired him, his commitment to the nurturing of the development of modern jazz in a city that more readily embraced traditional players, his dedicated search for contemporaries who shared his exuberance for that music, and his commitment to a continuous dedication to lifelong exploration and excellence that made it all possible.
During our recent interview, he quoted the likes of George Carlin, Denzel Washington, and Marilyn Manson to illustrate his points. Throughout, there was a sense of a man who at the age of 72 retains an infectious curiosity – an unending desire to continuously re-conceptualize his thoughts and philosophies based on his observations.
Those qualities give a sense of how he has instilled in his children an approach to music that is not simply an attempt to add a new twist to what their musical predecessors have achieved, but rather an impassioned quest to understand the nuances of all players, styles, and settings related to the jazz genre and beyond. Such an approach enables each of those musicians to bring the complete arsenal of talents and understanding to every musical performance, conversation, and education experience.
“He always tries to be on top of what’s going on rather than letting the music pass him by, even if it’s watching American Idol, which I don’t watch, but he does,” added Jason. He also noted that Ellis made an appearance with Snooks Eaglin on a CD that was released recently (Sonet Blues Story, Verve 2005, recording date 1977), emphasizing that he knows about a lot of different styles of music.
Of the importance of having such a legend on the regular performance rotation, Snug Harbor’s George Brumat stated, “He’s the man who put this place on the map. He’s the franchise.” I had the privilege of sitting down with Marsalis prior to a recent Friday night performance, his recurring gig at the iconic jazz venue. I asked him to pick a defining moment when he knew that music would be his vocation.
“If I were to pick a…musical experience – in 1949, I think in the spring, I was in high school and the Dizzy Gillespie Band, the big band came through here, and I went to that concert,” he said. “I knew that that was what I wanted to do. I mean I didn’t have any idea how to do it. I wasn’t sure what they were playing. I just knew that that was what I wanted to do,” ending the statement with resonant laughter that punctuated our conversation periodically.
Early on, he stayed busy by playing R&B gigs, alternating saxophone and piano as required. Overwhelmed by the talents of tenor saxophone player Nathaniel Perrilliat during one of those jam sessions, Marsalis decided to cast his fate with the piano. He honed his skills considerably during his tenure in the Marine Corps, joining a quartet called the Corps Four that had a steady job with a TV show and later on radio in Los Angeles.
When his enlistment was up, he returned to New Orleans and reconnected with the guys with whom he had played previously.
“Very few places really accepted any modern jazz. The one place I started to play…was a place on Dauphine St. called Dominic’s Jazz Room,” he said. It was there that Marsalis, through a twist of fate, joined Ed Blackwell (drummer), Otis DuVernay (bass), and eventually Perrilliat.
“One day the piano player got in an argument with the club owner, and at some point left the piano, left the gig, the whole thing,” said Marsalis. Blackwell convinced the club owner to hire Marsalis to play there with the trio. Eventually, Blackwell also convinced the owner to hire Perrilliat and they formed a quartet. Those four musicians were among the players that would later form versions of The American Jazz Quintet, which also at times included legendary locals Alvin Batiste and Harold Battiste.
With a limited market for modern jazz locally, Marsalis later supplemented those aspirations with work in Al Hirt’s band, as the house band at the Playboy Club in New Orleans, and as an educator with the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts (NOCCA), the University of New Orleans, and Virginia Commonwealth University.
Throughout, Marsalis remained true to his vision of modern jazz, as evidenced by a session recorded in Las Vegas in 1968, later released as a CD entitled Afternoon Session. The impromptu gathering during his tour with Al Hirt was a result of Marsalis’s friendship with Drummer Lee Charlton and provided a brief interlude from the traditional formats that put Hirt on the map.
And that persistence was critical as the next generation of aspiring jazz artists emerged. Ellis Marsalis and his peers had laid the foundation for a new era of New Orleans jazz, had formed a network of mentors to provide guidance on every instrument, and had exhibited the passion for the music that would inspire young students (including his sons) by example.
Regarding the temptation of some parents to attempt to pressure children to follow a specific career he stated, “My view of that had to do with first understanding that being a professional musician is difficult enough without trying to make somebody do that.”
“I don’t believe in making them do it anyway. I think what needs to occur is the encouragement, the support, and the exposure,” condensing the magical formula of parenting down to its essence. “But when they [Branford, Wynton, Delfeayo, and Jason] decided one by one that they wanted to do that [pursue music careers], then I was in a position to know from a local standpoint, who was probably the best teacher to get to really learn the instrument.”
“My wife was a lot more involved in the discipline aspects of what was taking place in the house, and for the most part, I spent a lot of time consistently trying to learn how to play this music, which is a very narcissistic and selfish endeavor,” he added. “So consequently, I would be cooperative on the periphery.”
Expanding on the topic of parental guidance, Jason said of his parents, “They raised us to be successful at whatever it is we wanted to do, but it wasn’t like we had to play music. It was just something the four of us chose.”
“To me there’s nothing wrong with somebody who has played a musical instrument and is not going to do it for a living becoming the CEO of a major corporation, and there’s a ton of that,” added Ellis. “There needs to be mandated arts for graduation.”
In terms of the essence of what he wanted to instill in his students, he noted, “Basically, you have to learn how to practice, for whatever your aims are, on whatever your instrument is. I was lucky having teachers that helped me to learn how to practice.”
Ellis and Jason will be working on a CD of Thelonious Monk’s music in a quartet format beginning in April, and Ellis shared his approach to tackling the arduous task of conceptualizing Monk’s genius.
“There are a couple of ways to play anybody’s music in jazz. One is to play the melody of their particular song, and then do whatever you do with that,” he said. “The other way is to develop as much of an awareness of style of playing, and then when you play the solo, you emulate the style, sort of paying homage and respect to the style, realizing that you’re never going to get where this person is. And that’s basically the kind of thing that I try to do.”
“If you’re really serious about trying to emulate the style, it’s a lot of work.”
In making the greater transition from being simply a technically proficient player to a musician who plays melodically and with emotion, Marsalis believes that it’s important that each individual finds something that inspires them and speaks specifically to their musical soul.
“When I was really developing as a piano player, I had one recording that I would play periodically,” he confided. “It was Stratford-Upon-Avon (Oscar Peterson Trio at the Stratford Shakespearian Festival, Polygram 1993, original release 1956). Once I put that on, it would let me know immediately where I was. And it’s different for everybody. But you see I found that. And everybody who’s serious, they find it.”
Yes, Ellis Marsalis found it indeed. And the New Orleans community should be extremely grateful and proud that he did.