The Influence of Ellis Marsalis Jr.
The Patriarch of New Orleans Jazz
To state that the patriarch of modern American jazz is Ellis L. Marsalis Jr. is no understatement. A distinguished jazz pianist and music historian, educator, and mentor, Marsalis is the father of six boys, four of whom are professional jazz musicians: trumpeter Wynton, saxophonist Branford, trombonist Delfeayo, and drummer Jason, who the senior Marsalis often plays with. He’s also the teacher of some of the greatest musicians to come out of New Orleans, including Harry Connick, Jr. and Terence Blanchard, among many others. And he’s the founder of notable jazz studies programs—in fact, jazz as a formal type of study didn’t exist before the program he began at the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts.
Marsalis is a New Orleans native, growing up in Jefferson Parish where his parents owned and operated a motel. As a boy, he gravitated to bebop and learned to play the clarinet and saxophone before switching to the piano. He attended Dillard University and studied classical music education. After graduating from college, he began to seriously study the piano and moved to California for a brief time and, then, back home when he served as a temporary band director at Xavier University before receiving his draft notice. During his two years as a Marine, he performed as a member of a Marine jazz quartet called the Corps Four on Dress Blues, a Marine Corps-sponsored TV program on Los Angeles channel KNXT CBS2. After that, he moved back to New Orleans once again and married Dolores Ferdinand. He spent the next several years leading the Playboy Club’s house trio and appearing with such performers as Ernestine Anderson, Jimmy Rushing, and Mac Barnes. In 1963, Marsalis released his debut album, Monkey Puzzle.
In the 1960s, he joined trumpeter Al “Jumbo” Hirt’s band, performing in concert halls and clubs across the country. He performed on The Today Show, The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, The Ed Sullivan Show, and The Mike Douglas Show. Marsalis eventually moved to join Bob French’s Storyville Jazz Band.
Around this same time, he began his career as an educator, starting as a lecturer at Xavier University, where he taught African-American music and jazz improvisation classes. He attended graduate school at Loyola University on the GI Bill, then taught music, with an emphasis on jazz, at the arts high school New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts.
By 1986, his reputation as a master jazz educator was spreading, and the Virginia Commonwealth University brought him to Richmond, Virginia to become their coordinator of Jazz Studies. He stayed long enough for the University of New Orleans to recruit him, along with Charles Blancq, to build an undergraduate jazz studies program staffed with other jazz musicians active in New Orleans. That program was so influential that a graduate curriculum was added.
Even while teaching, he never stopped recording music and performing gigs. In 1990, he began a two-year duo piano performance with pianist Marcus Roberts. He’s released nearly two dozen albums, often accompanied by one or more of his sons. 2010’s Music Redeems features the Marsalis family of musicians as well as spoken word by his son, Ellis Marsalis III, which was recorded at The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, DC as part of the Duke Ellington Jazz Festival.
Marsalis continues to contribute to both the academic and performing worlds. In 2011, The Ellis Marsalis Center for Music located in New Orleans’s 9th Ward opened its door to the public. As the center’s namesake, he helped establish the teaching curriculum and is frequently on site. The Ellis Marsalis Quartet regularly plays at Snug Harbor in New Orleans. Each spring, you’ll find him at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, and he plays at other jazz festivals all over the world—most recently in Mexico and Colombia.
Mr. Marsalis took some time to discuss his influential career in music and education and his hometown with American Senior.
American Senior When you were growing up in New Orleans, Dixieland jazz dominated the music scene on Bourbon Street, but you were drawn to bebop. Is that what people in your neighborhood were listening to?
Ellis Marsalis, Jr. No! No one in my neighborhood played music at all. When I started high school, I met and made friends with kindred souls like myself and we were drawn toward bebop.
AS Did you listen to Symphony Sid like so many of us?
ELM Symphony Sid was not broadcasted on radio in New Orleans. We would go to a local record store, and they would let us listen to the latest new 78rpm singles of Bird, Dioz, Miles, and others.
AS You started out on the clarinet as a child, and then played tenor sax as a teenager. How did you settle on the piano as your instrument of choice?
EM Most of the guys played some piano, and I would play some R & B gigs on both tenor sax and piano. I would also go to the Sunday afternoon jam sessions at the Dew Drop Inn night club. One afternoon, at the jam session, I heard a saxophonist named Nathaniel Perrilliat. That experience helped me to decide on the piano going forward.
AS As a college student, you studied music education but then became a professional musician before focusing your career on academia. What happened to make you choose education and advocate for formal jazz education?
EM I did not choose education, it chose me. I had a very circuitous route to jazz education which is complex to detail.
AS You’re a father of six (!) boys. How did you balance being a father when you were touring and recording as a musician?
EM I had a wonderful and dedicated wife who kept everything afloat. Also, I did not tour with bands until late into our marriage.
AS You’ve created quite a legacy—the name Marsalis is synonymous with modern jazz. When you set out to become a jazz professional, did you intend to raise your children to do the same thing?
EM No! Music is too difficult to force children to do. They chose their own paths. I was there to assist them when they needed it.
AS You have counseled and taught countless aspiring jazz musicians during your career at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts, Virginia Commonwealth University, and the University of New Orleans’s jazz studies programs. How has your own life experience translated into your music and teaching philosophy?
ELM Having to develop methods of instruction caused me to do reflexive and improvisational thinking in problem solving.
AS Do you have any recommendations for what we should be listening to?
EM Listen to whatever you enjoy (pop, funk, Latin, etc.) but always keep an open mind and always let your ear be challenged.
AS Any wisdom you can share for a novice jazz musician or someone picking up an instrument again after a long absence?
EM To thine own self be true. Adopt a single-minded approach to listening and practicing.
AS Due in no small part to your influence on many famous musicians and the reputation of the music programs you created at both the NOCCA and UNO, young musicians have flocked to New Orleans. Why do you think New Orleans and jazz are so well suited for each other?
EM New Orleans is a tourist town where the municipal laws are supportive of night clubs and live music.
AS It’s hard to think of New Orleans without remembering the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. How did music play on its recovery?
EM The spirit of the people caused the recovery. The musicians were a part of that spirit.
AS The Ellis Marsalis Center for Music opened in the Ninth Ward neighborhood. What’s its mission?
EM It is a center which caters to young people living in a limited zip code area. They come after school. Some study music, dance, audio visual techniques and, also, assist adults in the neighboring zip coded area.
AS What are you working on now?
EM Refining my piano playing. ν