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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.

Pete Fountain (1930 – 2016): Every Note Has a Smile

In 2008 I had the pleasure of interviewing Pete Fountain for the cover story of Where Y’at magazine. One of the most accomplished musicians in the history of New Orleans, Pete passed away this morning at the age of 86 (Photo credits Carlton Mickle Photography).

fj2-2008_Pete-FountainIt was the mid-1970’s, and the applause from the audience was electrifying. The band members’ smiles hinted of both joy and respect for their dazzling colleague. What I remember most was the reaction of the host, iconic Tonight Show legend Johnny Carson. For the 30 years that the show ran, Carson had a distinct affinity for great comedians and great musicians. His reaction to this performance, one of roughly 60 Tonight Show invitations that Pete Fountain would ultimately oblige, was genuine. Johnny Carson, a man who you would think had seen it all, was quite simply blown away.

For more than a half century, Pete Fountain has been the face and the sound of traditional New Orleans jazz, though he has taken that genre to another level. His alluring demeanor and engaging smile give audiences an uncanny sense that Fountain is amenable and approachable, and his music has that same endearing quality. As clarinetist Tim Laughlin states it, the first time he heard Pete Fountain play, “It was like every note had a smile on it.”

I sat down with Pete Fountain and his agent/son-in-law Benny Harrell recently to reflect upon an extraordinary career, one cultivated at the “Conservatory of Bourbon Street,” as Fountain describes his music education. After Hurricane Katrina destroyed most of what he owned and heart bypass surgery sidelined him shortly thereafter, Fountain is living proof that the greatest fuel for resilience is the satisfaction of a life spent in the pursuit of that which you love.

Pete Fountain 0005Fountain recalled with fondness his memories of the Broad Street Carnival Club from the age of 8 or 9. The group marched every Mardi Gras and planted the seed that would inspire him to form his own Mardi Gras marching group years later, the Half-Fast Marching Club.

Fountain’s father played drums and a little violin, but leaned more toward country music. His love for music was infectious however, and he took satisfaction in Pete’s progression as a student of music. “He never did push me, but he enjoyed me playing,” said Fountain.

A testament to his rapid progression in music, Fountain was invited to play in the Warren Easton High School Band even before he was old enough to attend the school.

Fountain describes his style as a cross between New Orleanian Irving Fazola and Benny Goodman. One of his earliest breaks was his stint with Lawrence Welk’s band from 1957-59, a move that granted him the recognition that would pay dividends for years to come, especially in terms of album sales. “It was a good thing for me,” he said. “From then on it just blossomed.”

After two years in North Hollywood, however, the pull of the Big Easy began to overwhelm Fountain and his family. He had three small children, he and his wife Beverly were homesick, and the inevitable return to New Orleans followed.

Pete Fountain 0009
(L-R) Pete’s Son-in-Law/Manager Benny Harrell, Craig Cortello, Pete Fountain, and former Where Y’at editor Chris Thacker

Fountain had a live music club at 800 Bourbon St. throughout most of the ‘60s, and he played a frenzied schedule of three shows a night, six days a week. He later moved to 231 Bourbon St., a club that held nearly 300 people, allowing him to pull back to a more manageable two shows a night.

Harrell added that Fountain and trumpet player Al Hirt had a great mutual respect for each other’s talents. If Fountain finished his set first, he would often head down to Hirt’s club to join him on stage, and vice-versa.

“If they [musicians] could keep up with Al Hirt, they could keep up with anybody, because he was a player. He was a gorilla,” Fountain said with a laugh.

It was a magical time for jazz on Bourbon Street, an era of “good feelin’,” as Fountain recalled.

In 1978, Fountain moved to his club at the Hilton Hotel, a venue that seated 500 people. Throughout that era, Fountain’s guest appearances on the aforementioned Tonight Show helped increase Fountain’s visibility and drive album sales. Fountain has released an astounding 96 recordings during his career.

Now semi-retired, he plays Tuesday and Wednesday nights at the Hollywood Casino in Bay St. Louis, MS.

Harrell is a first hand witness to the love and admiration that Fountain’s fans share with him after each show, as he accompanies Pete.

People come up to him afterwards and say, “You brought me back to another time,” said Harrell of Fountain’s fans. “People are so gracious with their memories and what Pete’s music has meant to them.”

Don’t be fooled into thinking that this is simply a nostalgic encounter, however. Fellow musicians affirm that Fountain still has the magic in his clarinet.

Laughlin is one of those musicians, and perhaps the person best qualified to articulate Fountain’s musical impact. Laughlin was invited to join Fountain’s band at Jazz Fest a couple of years ago, an invitation that he was honored to accept. In the same manner that Fazola influenced Fountain, jazz historians might view that Jazz Fest performance as a symbolic “passing of the torch” to Laughlin.

“There’s no better clarinet player in the country now,” said Fountain of Laughlin. “He’s all New Orleans. Whenever I have the opportunity, I like to bring Tim on stage. They love to hear both of us playing.”

Laughlin’s first encounter with Pete left a lasting impression on him. “The first time I heard Pete (age 9), I knew he didn’t belong in any category like traditional jazz or any other category for that matter,” said Laughlin. “He wasn’t trying to be a ‘throw-back.’ It was such a great, unique, and swingin’ sound, but I knew he was from New Orleans.”

“The thing I do try to copy is his professionalism and class,” he added. “He comes to play… not to tell jokes and stories between songs. His charm onstage is his clarinet and the things he does with it. I simply loved hearing one great tune after another. That’s really respecting your audience. It’s what they came to hear.”

“Once you get to know him, you get the feeling it’s not all about him,” said Laughlin. “It’s about the music. Anybody that knows him feels lucky to know a legend and such a good and decent man.”

Fountain’s Half-Fast Marching Club is approaching 48 years together, with 200 members and a 17 piece band. “He lives for Mardi Gras,” said Harrell, adding that passing up this Fat Tuesday ritual is one bit of doctor’s advice with which Fountain simply can’t comply.

Fountain was also recently inducted into the Delta Music Museum in Ferriday, LA, which focuses on the history and culture of the Louisiana-Mississippi Delta region’s music. He was honored with an exhibit dedication and a star on the museum’s “Walk of Fame,” with the induction taking place at the Seventh Annual Delta Music Festival on April 5th.

As for the upcoming Jazz Fest performance, Fountain said that Laughlin will likely join him again. In terms of what the audience can expect, the answer was simply, “A great band and happy music.”

Every note with a smile.

Remembrances of a New Orleans (Music) Community: Henry Butler, Evan Christopher, Pete Alba

As we approach another Hurricane season in New Orleans nearly 5 years removed from Katrina, I am thankful that the dedicated efforts of Louisiana musicians to bring back the music, our city’s greatest asset. Many musicians have returned, many commuted from cities like Houston and Atlanta for occasional gigs until they could re-plant their roots here, and many remain displaced.

In May 2007, I interviewed pianist Henry Butler, clarinetist Evan Christopher, and guitarist Pete Alba, all of whom were displaced after the storm, and asked them to reflect on the New Orleans music community and to articulate what makes it so special and why they miss home (Christopher has since returned to New Orleans).

Here’s what they had to say about the wonderful community of New Orleans musicians.