It’s easy to understand why Ellis Marsalis seems almost gratified by something his students almost take for granted. “Growing up in New Orleans, there was always some opposition, especially at the university level, to any kind of jazz,” said Marsalis, the city’s foremost jazz educator. “There was also a kind of fundamental opposition in academe to certain kinds of experimentation—anything that wasn’t by the book. Seemingly, a lot of that either has changed or is changing.”
As a pianist, Marsalis has always been a modernist with a sense of history. For years, Marsalis toiled in the city’s musical trenches before joining the staff of the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts (the public school system’s arts high school) and putting his mark on virtually an entire generation of New Orleans musicians (including his own celebrated sons Branford, Wynton and Delfeayo). Now, with more than three decades in the music business and several documented raving successes among his students, he is the director of the newly-created University of New Orleans Jazz Studies Program.
Talking to Marsalis, it’s clear that the program he hopes to establish as “a real solid model” will be one that includes hard work and sound history.
“We want to make the whole process as scholarly as possible without turning it into something sterile,” he said. “There are important things that one needs to know beyond learning to solo over the changes on ‘Cherokee’ or ‘Giant Steps.’ What I’ve discovered since I’ve been here is little or no opposition to doing anything constructive. We have good students from out of state. We’d like to put our ducks in a row and plug into the public-school kids here.”
Since his arrival at UNO, Marsalis has lined up Steve Masakowski to teach guitar, David Lee to teach drums and Harold Battiste, former record producer and recent emigre from Los Angeles, to handle the big band. Marsalis himself will concentrate on developing rhythm sections. “I think the rhythm section is the single most important aspect of jazz,” he said.
“I once heard a high school band right outside of Cleveland. And those kids sounded great. They were doing a Stan Kenton tune that Bill Holman had arranged. Trombones were blasting, trumpets were popping those notes. But the rhythm section—PLUNK. Nothing. And it wasn’t the fault of the kids. And it wasn’t the fault of the band director. There just aren’t that many that know how to build great bands. A lot of these band directors come from marching bands. There’s nothing wrong with that. But from a professional point, it becomes the law of diminishing returns. Especially with the electronics in pop music these days.”
One thing that Marsalis tries to establish early with his students is that education is a life-long process, not just a stairway to a better job. “I think that students should begin to discover, before they get to college, what an education is,” he said. “There are things that I wish I had the time to study. I’d like to get involved in a course on physics to get a good understanding of the physical aspects of the universe. There are literature courses I’d like to take. I might one day. I don’t buy the idea that colleges are just for young people.”
The celebrity status of his sons and other former pupils hasn’t gone to Marsalis’ head. He has always maintained that his sons’ skills are the product of learning more than breeding. He does offer a theory about Wynton’s remarkable backtracking to traditional jazz on his “The Majesty of the Blues” album.
“It could very well be that there’s some kind of cultural inertia which says that you can only go so far,” he said. “I really didn’t have anything to do with Wynton going back and checking out Louis Armstrong or anything. I sent him some tapes of Louis, but the decision was his. And there are lots of other kids out there who are doing the same thing. It may be that we can only go so far in one direction until we just have to come back. It doesn’t matter what I say, or what the New York Times says, or what Billboard says, or what Rolling Stone says. But I do think that we as educators have the responsibility to give as comprehensive a view as possible.”
When discussing his 11-year-old son Jason, a drummer, he again illustrates how culture and education have changed in recent years. “My son Jason is very unusual,” he said. “I don’t think there’s any way to explain him. He’s just musically gifted. More so than my other kids. He came home from school with a social studies book. I looked in the book and there’s this picture of Charlie Palker in it. And a statement of Charlie Parker’s involvement with bebop and how it reflected the mood of the country at the time. Beneath that is a photograph of a painting by Jackson Pollock, and it discusses the same aspect from a visual arts standpoint. I’m saying to myself, what was the chance of me seeing a picture of Charlie Parker in any book that I had in school for the 20 years that I went? Here we are in 1989, and they’re using Charlie Parker in textbooks. My older children didn’t even have any books like that. It feels great to be part of change.
“I was in Washington about a month ago, and I went over to the Smithsonian to see the Duke Ellington Collection. There are about 50,000 pieces of memorabilia. Some if it’s music and some of it’s not. To show you how massive the project is, there were at least nine people who were working full time. The head of the project had each one introduce himself and explain what part of the project he worked on. I had to put on the white gloves to handle some of the original scores. Just the fact that it’s happening in our lifetimes with Duke Ellington is so great. There are so many opportunities now. I know of one guy who got his Ph.D. on the music of Clifford Brown. Loyola let me get a Master’s on the development of a rhythm section, something for which I’m eternally grateful.
History promises to be kind to Marsalis. Besides his noted sons, his other former students with national reputations include Harry Connick, Jr., Terence Blanchard, Donald Harrison and Kent Jordan. Some had soaked up jazz a bit before Marsalis got his hands on them, other were just exceptional students. Whatever the case, he always takes a fair view of what young people know of jazz and its history.
“I was at Snug Harbor one night a few years ago when a guy came up to me and said, ‘Man, I’m 25 years old and I just discovered Charlie Parker.’ And he felt bad about that. I said, ‘Hey, you should celebrate—there are people 50 years old who have never heard of him.’”
He has had students who were serious about jazz careers and others who simply wanted to pick up on jazz education before moving to something else. But generally his kids have a common musical denominator.
“To put it bluntly, the average 17-to-20-year-old only knows what’s on the radio. The personal decisions that one makes about entertainment should be based on as comprehensive an understanding of the chosen medium for the time you’ve been on earth. There are exceptions, like there’s a young drummer from Baltimore whose father has jazz records piled up to the ceiling. But the average kid knows what is on the radio and what is on MTV. And I think they should. All of us should be products of the cultural experiences of our time.
“I think that responsibility of those of us who refer to ourselves as educators is to say, ‘That’s great, but check this out.’ If the kids grow up totally ignorant, then it’s our fault.”
Editor’s Note: Ellis Marsalis will play at Snug Harbor, 626 Frenchmen Street, every Saturday during October. Call the club at 949-0696 for more information.