Tag Archives: Ellis Marsalis

Encouragement, Support, and Exposure – The Lessons of Ellis Marsalis, Jr.

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.”

EMarsalis_CCortello 01bYet 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.

The Continuum of Jazz: Article/Profile of Ellis Marsalis, Harold Battiste, and Irvin Mayfield, Jr.

This week my cover story for local entertainment publication Where Y’at magazine’s  New Orleans Jazz Fest issue: Interview/profile of legendary jazz musicians/educators Ellis Marsalis, Harold Battiste, and Irvin Mayfield.

Read “The Continuum of Jazz” from Where Y’at magazine

Thanks again to Laura Tennyson, Communications Strategist for the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra for arranging this interview and to Josh Danzig and the staff at Where Y’at magazine for the assignment. Photo credits: Romney Photography

(From left to right: Ed Petersen (standing – recent performance paying tribute to the music of Harold Battiste), Harold Battiste, Irvin Mayfield, Jr., Victor Atkins (standing – recent performance paying tribute to the music of Ellis Marsalis, Jr.), and Ellis Marsalis, Jr.

My profile of Irvin Mayfield, A Golden Trumpet and a Midas Touch (2010)
My profile of Ellis Marsalis Encouragement, Support, & Exposure: The Lessons of Ellis Marsalis, Jr. (2007)

Ellis Marsalis, Harold Battiste, and Irvin Mayfield: Interview/Article Preview

If those of you living outside of New Orleans want to know why natives like me love it here, one reason is the plethora of and accessibility to great artists. The artistic ability per square mile in this city is astounding. I wrote an article that will appear in local entertainment publication Where Y’at magazine during New Orleans Jazz Fest in late April/Early May, and had a chance to interview legendary jazz musicians/educators Ellis Marsalis, Harold Battiste, and Irvin Mayfield.

I never get tired of speaking to great musicians and artists, particularly about the creative process and the courageous nature of developing your artistic gift in the face of daunting challenges. Here’s an excerpt from my interview – a quote from Irvin Mayfield, Artistic Director of the GRAMMY Award-winning New Orleans Jazz Orchestra and of the New Orleans Jazz Institute at the University of New Orleans, regarding his esteemed predecessors in jazz and music education:

“Nobody starts to play basketball because they had a great coach. They play basketball because they saw Michael Jordan. As much as I have respect for all of the classroom time that these gentlemen (Marsalis and Battiste) have spent, I would never have been interested in them if they couldn’t play. We call these guys educators, but was Louis Armstrong any less of an educator? Was Cannonball Adderley any less of an educator? Was Miles Davis?”

– Irvin Mayfield

(Pictured left to right, Myself, Irvin Mayfield, and Ellis Marsalis)

My profile of Irvin Mayfield, A Golden Trumpet and a Midas Touch (2010)
My profile of Ellis Marsalis Encouragement, Support, & Exposure: The Lessons of Ellis Marsalis, Jr. (2007)

Thanks to Laura Tennyson, Communications Strategist for the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra for arranging this interview and to Josh Danzig and the staff at Where Y’at magazine for the assignment.

Jeff Bridges, The Fabulous Baker Boys & Cross-Artist Learning

I’ve always been a fan of the actor Jeff Bridges, and in particular the movie The Fabulous Baker Boys. Jeff portrayed half of the sibling piano lounge act who struggles with the reality that he’s selling out in Tiki Bars and hotel lounges every night when he yearns to play a more progressive form of jazz that’s more true to his talents and passion.

It’s the story that strikes the core of artistic work of any kind – Staying true to your self in your work.

I’ve also found fascination in listening to artists of all vocations speak about their craft and gaining insight into how they approach their work and the creative process. I’m a fan of the television show Inside the Actor’s Studio, because I love listening to artists discuss their approach to the creative process.

On the music front, I’ve had the privilege of interviewing some of the great musicians of my hometown like Ellis Marsalis, Jr., Pete Fountain, Henry Butler, and Irvin Mayfield (It’s great to be a New Orleanian!).

Since Bridges is a musician and an actor who has starred in critically acclaimed movies about musicians, he has a unique perspective on the common threads of both artistic outlets. Here’s a brief excerpt from one of his post-Oscar interviews on that subject: 

“Movies are more than just entertainment, they are connecting us. And music is the same way. We have a movie about music here, but music and movies are a common link for all of us. I am hoping that this will kind of raise my profile, and I am all about getting us all together, getting the world healthy. Sometimes I’ll think of movies as a great example for the way the world can work. You have all these different opinions, and all these different ways we can work together. And we can make the most beautiful movie we can make, and we have the opportunity to make this the most beautiful world too. So I hope that furthers that idea.”

The brief post-Oscar interview at BuzzSugar.com

Ellis Marsalis: “Finding Your Musical Inspiration”

When I interviewed Ellis Marsalis, Jr., the patriarch of the great Marsalis family of jazz, he recalled vividly the music that spoke to him and inspired him to hone his skills as a musician:

“When I was really developing as a piano player, I had one recording that I would play periodically. It was Stratford-Upon-Avon with the Oscar Peterson Trio (Oscar Peterson Live at the Stratford Shakespearean Festival). Once I put that on it would let me know immediately where I was. But you see I found that. And everybody who’s serious, they find it. And it’s different for everybody.”

For me and thousands of jazz guitarists, it was Joe Pass. There was none smoother and more melodic in his artistry. Here’s the link to my tribute to Joe Pass at AllAboutJazz.com And here’s Joe in action

Wynton Marsalis on Jazz, Romance, and He and She

Wynton Marsalis’s album He and She is music interspersed with poetry, and a poignant take on relationships and romance. In this excerpt from an interview with Achievement.org, Marsalis discusses the respectful approach that jazz takes toward courtship:

“There is so much in jazz music to be studied and to be learned, and so little education. I could go on and on and on, just about what Duke Ellington did. And, also the romantic connotations of the music. The music had the effect of liberating a lot of the people from this Victorian image of sexuality. But, for some reason people still think they need to be liberated from that. This is something jazz music was doing around the turn of the century. And, now it’s degenerated in the modern era to the type of vulgarity that is represented by rock and roll, which parades under the guise of giving you sexual freedom, when it’s really, truly, sexual repression.

“Sexual freedom is found in the sensuality and the romance and the lyricism of the great songwriters like George Gershwin and Cole Porter and Duke Ellington, and of the great instrumentalists like Louis Armstrong and Lester Young. These people had a truly romantic conception that was based on elevation of the relationship between a man and a woman, rather than the denigration of it into just some abusive adolescent sexual discoveries.”

To read the entire transcript go to Achievement.org.
To sample Wynton Marsalis’s He and She album, click here.
To read my review of He and She for Where Y’at magazine in New Orleans, click here.
To read my interview with Wynton’s father, Ellis Marsalis, Jr., including his thoughts on raising children, click here

Mentoring – Passing On the Lessons of Music

Listening to the CD Last Train Home, a collection of duets by jazz guitarists Davy Mooney and John Pizzarelli, I’m struck once again by the unselfish manner in which musicians share their talents and knowledge of music with younger generations. Pizzarelli is more than 20 years older than Mooney, and the two actually met when Mooney entered a jazz guitar competition in which Pizzarelli was a judge.

With more than 40 feature albums and 140 as a contributor, Pizzarelli’s resume is impressive. It speaks volumes of the selflessness of Pizzarelli that he would lend his talents to this project with an “up and comer” such as Mooney, though I don’t want to suggest that Mooney’s talents are anything less than exceptional. It’s simply not something you’d always expect of a tenured professional – yet in music it happens all of the time.

Musicians are outstanding when it comes to sharing their expertise and grooming young talent. Ellis Marsalis, the father of the renowned jazz musicians and a great jazz pianist himself routinely allows young jazz artists to sit in with him during his regular Friday night gig and nurture their skills. I see and hear it all of the time with regard to the musicians I’ve met, followed, spoken to, and interviewed throughout my career.

Other professions should take note. In corporate settings and in other professions, it’s not always a given that talented tenured employees will openly share their knowledge and expertise. It’s generally a matter of fear and insecurity, yet it’s the greatest way to accelerate productivity.

They could learn a lesson from the music world.