Ellis Marsalis makes it clear that his impressive, 60-year-plus career as a musician was not planned. The noted pianist, educator and patriarch of the musical Marsalis family still remembers years ago when a young high-school girl interviewed him and her first words were, “During your career… ”
“When she said that, I paused in my mind and I thought, ‘I have a career?’ My understanding of what a career was and what I was doing didn’t mesh. See, from the beginning we [he and his musical peers] never thought about careers in a holistic manner.”
Marsalis, who celebrated his 80th birthday on November 14, 2014, was singing the same tune 25 years ago in an article in JazzTimes, telling the magazine: “I’m just a survivor in this. I didn’t design any of this and most of it wasn’t supposed to happen anyway. I don’t really consider myself a success; my children are successful because what they did was by design.” Marsalis was, of course, referring to his now-renowned musical sons, saxophonist Branford, trumpeter Wynton, trombonist Delfeayo and drummer/vibraphonist Jason. Ellis and his wife, Dolores, are also the proud parents of photographer/poet Ellis III and Mboya.
“There’s no logic to how I got into music,” Marsalis says, noting that neither of his parents played an instrument. “There was only one radio station in the city of New Orleans and its call letters were WJBW and I listened to that whenever I could.”
Marsalis offers that maybe the Gert Town neighborhood where his family lived before moving to Jefferson Parish made a subliminal impression on him. “Later on, I realized our landlady’s brother, Narvin Kimball, played bass and banjo. Papa “Albert” French lived in the middle of the block where we lived at 1300 Telemachus Street. I didn’t know any of these people at the time—I was only 10 years old.”
While living in New Orleans, his father, Ellis Marsalis, Sr., managed an Esso station and in 1944 he bought property at River Road and Shrewsbury Road in Jefferson Parish. The land included a house, a barn and satsuma and plantain trees. “Basically, when we moved to Jefferson Parish it was literally like going back in time. My sister, Yvette, was under the impression [our father] wanted to be a chicken farmer—he did buy a lot of chickens,” Marsalis says with a laugh. “So at some point he divested himself of that filling station and started to think about what he could do with the land.”
A man suggested to the elder Marsalis that, if the property were his, he’d build a motel on it. It sounded like a good idea, so he did. At first it was just four or five rooms but eventually grew to 35 rooms. The motel was known as the Marsalis Mansion.
“It became a place for people who knew about it, because in those days blacks couldn’t stay downtown,” Marsalis explains. “Martin Luther King stayed there and Ray Charles’ band stayed there because Ray played all these little small towns.
“My father did develop a serious interest in politics,” he continues, “and was involved in helping to get black people to register to vote in Jefferson Parish and they formed an organization called the Boosters Club.”
In recognition of Ellis Marsalis, Sr.’s political activism and his much-needed service of providing a place where visiting African Americans could stay, at 11 a.m. on January 9th, a marker will be placed at the site of the Marsalis Mansion that has long been demolished. His namesake, Ellis Marsalis, Jr., plans to attend the ceremony honoring his father.
“My daddy was somebody who didn’t want to work for nobody,” Marsalis declares. “I think that’s why I always wanted to have my own group like he always wanted to have his own business.”
Perhaps Marsalis’ career as a musician and teacher wasn’t as clearly laid out as that of his sons, but its fabric was being shaped since his own youth. Infatuated with clarinetist Artie Shaw after hearing him on the radio, he began playing the instrument at age 11. His formal education started when his mother enrolled him and his sister at Xavier University Junior School of Music, a preparatory institution of sorts with many of the teachers majoring in music at Xavier University.
“There were people I started to meet there,” Marsalis says before mentioning a few that would play an important part in his life: “Edward Frank [known later as an exquisite jazz pianist] was playing violin in the orchestra and Germaine Bazzle [now renowned as a vocalist] was playing the string bass in the same orchestra.”
By the time Marsalis went to high school, he realized the saxophone, rather than the clarinet, was “the thing.” It was on tenor that he played his first paying gig with a band composed of fellow students including saxophonist Ernest “Doc” Watson [later a longtime member of the Olympia Brass Band] and assembled by pianist Roger Dickerson to perform at the YWCA. After that show, the teacher who organized the performance passed the hat and each musician received $1.25. “I consider that my first engagement,” Marsalis declares, adding that they played what passed as R&B. With the incentive of money, the group decided to form a band called the Groovy Boys. “The first tenor solo I learned was on Roy Brown’s ‘Good Rockin’ Tonight,’” Marsalis recalls.
Marsalis remembers that moving from saxophone to piano was a gradual transition. There was a piano in their home, as Yvette was taking piano lessons. “I was always foolin’ around with the piano,” he explains, “and I started taking lessons in school even when I was playing clarinet.” After hearing Ed Frank practicing at Xavier, he was impressed and Frank obliged him by teaching Marsalis some chords. A major breakthrough on piano came when he began studying privately with Jean Constance Maloney, Marsalis states: “One day she said, ‘I want you to play some jazz.’ Well, in those days, when a piano teacher said that, you had to wonder if he or she was trying to trick you, but Jean was a different kind of piano teacher.”
Marsalis went on to attend Dillard University and graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Music Education, an important element in his “no design” career as a musician and educator. After service in the U.S Marine Corps, in 1964 he moved to Breaux Bridge to become the band director at Carver High School. From 1966 through 1974, Marsalis played gigs at spots that, considering his esteemed position in modern jazz today, seem strange: Bourbon Street’s Playboy Club and trumpeter Al Hirt’s club. Lu & Charlie’s, a still missed and much talked about modern jazz mecca on North Rampart Street, was also a regular spot to find Ellis at the piano and a place he could let his jazz chops shine. Son Wynton still fondly remembers going to Lu & Charlie’s with his father to hear him play.
The year 1974 was a landmark time for Marsalis, who then earned his Masters degree from Loyola University. He also that year joined the faculty at the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts (NOCCA) to head the jazz department, where he would spend the next 12 years. It was at NOCCA that Marsalis’ reputation as a jazz educator grew, particularly after his now-famous sons and students like Harry Connick, Jr. began hitting the national jazz scene.
“NOCCA was a workshop for me,” Marsalis, a constant student of the world, says. “It helped me put together a concept of understanding of what people do when they are in the process of dealing with improvised material.”
It was a shock to most people in the New Orleans music community when Marsalis left his hometown in 1986 to take a position at Virginia Commonwealth University as the coordinator of jazz studies. Simply put, he was frustrated with the local school system and was offered more money by the Richmond institution. On the announcement of his departure, no inducements to stay were forthcoming.
“No, I didn’t feel under-appreciated—I knew it,” Marsalis says with a laugh. “It wasn’t a case of expecting something and something else was there. When you really think in terms of people being appreciated, it is when whatever they represent becomes a part of the means by which you transfer what they do to the next generation. That’s where the respect is.
“It’s not about me being appreciated or not appreciated,” he continues, “and more about what I represented. I grew up at a time when musicians trying to play jazz music who were listening to the more modern people—Miles, Charlie Parker, Dizzy—the older musicians didn’t care about that. We became the current jazz musicians of the moment. The people who really weren’t appreciated were not so much us, but some of the older musicians, because they were limited to places like Preservation Hall to play.”
Marsalis offers up several examples of hidden treasures that were later acknowledged for their true worth. Jazz historian Dick Allen once showed Marsalis what lay behind the doors on the ground floor of Tulane University. “It looked like a pawn shop,” Marsalis remembers. “That was the beginning of the Hogan Jazz Archive,” says Marsalis, who tells of a similar situation at Rutgers University, which now boasts one of the most noted jazz research centers in the country. Likewise, he says, when the first Modern Jazz Quartet performed in Europe, leader/pianist John Lewis sat behind an old, junky piano. After hearing the performance, the appreciative European audience protested in saying, “He needs to have a grand piano.”
Bassist Chris Severin was at NOCCA at a time when Marsalis’ jazz classes were dwindling. Marsalis remembers that Severin attended John McDonogh High School and when the bassist went back there, he asked a group of music students, ”Man, why don’t y’all come and audition for NOCCA?” And they said, “No man, they’re too serious over there.”
“I don’t attribute that attitude as anything that’s personal against me,” Marsalis says. “I think that the biggest problem is that this is not a very serious country—it’s a young country, it ain’t even 500 years old. So what it really takes to get to a certain point where you can appreciate any indigenous art form—or even acknowledge that it could be an art form, whether you like it or not—is a certain amount of time.”
Two years after Marsalis took the position in Richmond, Gregory O’Brien, then the chancellor of the University of New Orleans (UNO), made the trip up to Virginia to ask Marsalis to return to New Orleans and become UNO’s Coca Cola Endowed Chair and Director of Jazz Studies. “I didn’t expect any of that,” Marsalis explains. “Dolores kept me from selling this house [which they purchased in 1975]—I tried to. Though by that time I had figured out that Richmond was not a place whose history would embrace this music culturally and there were no clubs to speak of.”
One of Marsalis’ first moves upon taking the position at UNO was to call in his old friend, saxophonist, producer, arranger and educator Harold Battiste, for assistance in developing the program. Though Battiste had long enjoyed a successful career in California, he stepped right up to take the job. Battiste’s AFO (All for One) label produced Marsalis’ first recording session, playing piano with the American Jazz Quartet on the great drummer Ed Blackwell’s album Boogie Live, 1958. Though recorded in 1958, it wasn’t released until 1992. In 1963, the Ellis Marsalis Quartet recorded Monkey Puzzle on AFO, featuring young drummer James Black, who would become a fixture in Marsalis’ bands.
It would be over a decade before Marsalis recorded as bandleader again, releasing a solo album, Reflections, on his own ELM Records label. Recording wise, things have certainly picked up from back then, with Marsalis releasing a string of albums under his own name with his sons—individually and collectively—and masters such as saxophonist Eddie Harris and trumpeter Nat Adderley. In 2014, his ELM label put out the Ellis Marsalis Trio’s inspired On the Second Occasion, which was recorded in 2003. The pianist is also featured on son Delfeayo’s new album, The Last Southern Gentlemen.
With Marsalis at the helm and aided by his ace faculty, UNO gained a reputation as the place to go to study jazz.
It’s location in the birthplace of jazz, plus this city’s welcoming music community and active club scene, drew many talented students to the school’s doors.
There was a period when they poured in from Texas with a present-day influx coming from Florida. That’s due, in part, to son Jason’s long association with pianist Marcus Roberts, who teaches at Florida State University. Marsalis was integral in establishing the popular Jazz at the Sandbar concert series held at UNO that brought together veteran musicians and eager students.
Marsalis retired from his position at UNO in October 2001.
Marsalis, of course, hasn’t retired from playing or from his interest in progressing the way music is being taught. He has a standing gig at Snug Harbor on Friday nights where he, as he’s always done, makes every note count. Hearing the pianist at this gig offers a taste of history—jazz history, New Orleans history. As well as playing from his own strong, self-penned songbook, Marsalis often performs tunes like the late James Black’s “Magnolia Triangle,” keeping them alive and bringing them to new audiences, especially the students in the audience. Marsalis’ old-school flavor emerges when he sprinkles a tune, like true jazz beboppers often did, with musical quotes, a trait that has especially brushed off on Delfeayo and Jason.
In January 2015, he plans to expand his quartet to a quintet to further investigate some of the great music from five-piece groups from the past, mentioning pianist and composer Horace Silver’s quintet in particular.
On the educational front, Marsalis is in the process of working on a book called A Curriculum, which he describes as a structured series of exercises that will include his instructional writings, musical notations and “required listening.”
“I need to have it in such a way that it is presented as an approach to the study of Western music, not to jazz,” Marsalis explains of his book. “Essentially, when you start thinking more and more about the academic prism, you have to put jazz into perspective. And when you put jazz in perspective you realize that the term was created by the media. If it’s going to be valid, then anybody who listens to Louis Armstrong and John Coltrane, they hear that that’s jazz—both of them.”
Marsalis gives an example of who A Curriculum might be directed at when he relates a story of a guitar player who came to NOCCA: “I listened to him play and told him that this is a serious program. I got a recording of [guitarist/vocalist] George Benson with [trumpeter] Miles Davis. I put that on and I let him listen to that. When it finished, I said, ‘What did you think about that?’ He thought for a minute and said, ‘Man, I don’t know. I just thought all there was to George Benson was “Breezin’.”’ The whole approach that I’m trying to take in dealing with A Curriculum is to try to correct that. It’s not about trying to get you to like or dislike anything. It’s just that is unfair for any student to be the best on their block and think that what they’re playing is the best, even if they’ve never heard anybody else.”
Reflective thinking is a term Marsalis uses often throughout a conversation, though he says it wasn’t a part of his or musical peers like clarinetist Alvin Batiste’s early considerations. “We never really talked about what we did,” he recalls. “For the most part, the mindset that we had, peers who ultimately were involved in music, it was like a hustle. Even the adults that I knew were in some form or fashion victims of the slave/segregation mentality, which means that anything that they did to make a living was right at the level of a hustle. New Orleans was a great place to be if you were comfortable in an urban setting, because all of the things you needed to function were within financial reach. There were just all kinds of things people could do to pick up a buck—shine shoes, fix cars.
“Reflective thinking,” he continues, “means you have come to a point in your life where you are able to see a picture and come to some conclusions—even spontaneous conclusions—like scientists do with theories. The whole concept of reflective thinking revolves around trying to answer the eternal question of why. Why is it that jazz wasn’t popular with people? Why is it that club owners won’t fix up their pianos? Now once you get to a point of reflective thinking, you can perceive some of the answers.”
With five of sons grown with families of their own, Ellis and Dolores live with Mboya in the modest Uptown home they have owned since 1975. The same one, save for Dolores’ insistence, Marsalis would have sold in the mid-1980s.
Appreciation for his lifetime dedication to the music and advancing it through education has been demonstrated in some significant ways: On January 11, 2011, the musical Marsalis Family—Ellis, Branford, Delfeayo and Jason—received the prestigious National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Masters Award, marking the first time a family was so honored.
Just seven months later, on August 25, 2011, the Ellis Marsalis Center for Music, a performance, education and community venue, opened in the heart of the Musicians Village in the Upper Ninth Ward. Though he’s not actively involved in the Center, which was established by a cooperative effort of Branford, Harry Connick, Jr. and Habitat for Humanity, Marsalis’ name on the building stands for integrity in all things and a great love of the music.
Ellis Marsalis has certainly transferred, as he puts it, what he represents onto the next generation. That generous gift has brought him the respect, appreciation and admiration of not only jazz and music fans from his hometown but those around the world.
In celebrating the life and career of Ellis Marsalis as a musician and educator, his role as an influence on his four very successful musical sons cannot be disregarded. His wife, Dolores, of course, also played an equal part in raising the famous offspring, trumpeter Wynton, saxophonist Branford, trombonist Delfeayo and drummer/vibist Jason as well as the couple’s other sons, Ellis III and Mboya.
How are you—musically, philosophically and/or spiritually—most like your father? Or not…
Branford: I had no intention of playing jazz in my teenage years, yet my interactions with my father are the basis for my career; more than any music school I attended. When I would agree to play a song with him, I’d ask him what key he wanted to play it in, to which he responded, “There are no notes, son—only sounds.” At fifteen, I took it as an ear training exercise. It took a few years more for me to realize what he was saying; that notes, much like words, don’t actually exist. Walking into music school, the embodiment of notes, with an idea like that was pretty subversive, but it started me on a way of thinking about what I was doing that was different than all my colleagues at that time.
We have our disagreements. Dad believes that you have to know the lyrics to a song to understand the emotional import of it. I believe that, like all quality classical music, the emotion is actually written into the melodies and the harmony that support them. He was a complete post-bopper. I am not a fan of that sound. There are other things as well, but they all pale in comparison to the role model he was, and is, in regard to thinking about what you are doing, and not being afraid to criticize yourself, or fail in front of others.
Wynton: When I was growing up, I was always at the gigs with him. So I always went to everything from the gigs he played at the Chateau Rose to LeClub and the Atrium of the Hyatt Regency and all the gigs he played at Lu & Charlie’s. It was just continuous seriousness year after year no matter who was there. He was always serious about playing.
His seriousness was self-generated. He didn’t depend on crowd excitement or the number of people [in attendance] to make him be serious. From watching him it made me be like that.
In terms of announcing tunes and letting people know what you’re doing, I think I picked up a lot from him. Also, his directness in communicating information; that’s how he was as a teacher, so a lot of the core concepts that I try to teach come from him.
The main thing about his style is that he doesn’t assume that he knows what something is until he hears it. He likes to talk but he can listen too. He listens very carefully when someone is talking to him. He’s not predisposed to a position, he lets the truth of a thing reveal itself to him as he goes along. I picked that up from him.
I think there’s an overall concept of sound from all those years of hearing him that influenced me a lot. There’s a certain type of attention and emotional depth. His sound is more of his personality than if you talk with him.
Delfeayo: We both believe that the groove is the most important aspect of music. We believe that it is as important to know the lyrics or words of the song as the actual notes of a melody. He is a true romantic and of my brothers I would say I am the most romantic when it comes to music.
Jason: The way we are most similar is that a lot of time music becomes the number one focus—sometimes when it shouldn’t be. I think we’re both interested in the history and the future of the music. We always check out things from the past and things in the present—we don’t stick to one era of music. And not just one genre of music actually, contrary to popular belief.
In conversations at some point he’ll talk about self-analyzing. He’ll say, “Well, it’s like the great philosopher Michael Jackson once said, ‘You’ve got to take a look at the man in the mirror.’”
What is the greatest gift that your father gave to you?
Branford: I heard him say to a student who insisted that he knew what styles of music were best for him, “To know what you like, you will have to hear all the music in the world, which you clearly have not done. A more accurate description is you like what you know.” Just hearing him say that changed the way I criticize music. I always listen to it before I say anything. In addition, I have tried to listen to as much music as possible, and have done a pretty good job of it.
Wynton: I think his greatest gift was courage. I’ll never forget when I was leaving home, I was 17, and I had all my stuff in a box and I was walking out of the door. And he said, “What you got in that box?” I said, “I’ve got some jeans, some tapes, some books.” And he said, “Is that all your stuff?” and I said, “Yeah.” And he said, “Are you all right?” And I said, “Yeah, I’m alright.” And he said, “Just remember you can always go back down to having [only] this and you’re alright.”
Delfeayo: The desire to question all things and to not accept just because. I remember as a child him reading the Times-Picayune and commenting on some of the facts of the story and the way that it was written. It sticks in my mind and I was like seven or eight and I’m like, ‘What are you talking about, this is the newspaper?” I remember him teaching me to play chess by saying, ‘Move a piece’ and the lesson began.
Jason: Actually, fatherhood and support—he was there. That was it. He was somebody who was around and he and I were pretty close. He made sure I had the right teachers and helped me in whatever direction I wanted to go. My father being there has helped me be a father to my own children as well.
How did your mother fit into/inspire this serious bunch of guys?
Branford: My mother was the disciplinarian in the house. With dad in charge, we could have gotten away with almost anything, save burning the house down. Mama didn’t play that shit, at all. She has a good ear for music, even with no training. When we sounded like crap, my dad would just laugh, understanding it as part of the process. Mom would let us have it. I remember playing with Buckshot LeFonque in 1996—I was 36 years old. We had a strange issue; the first concert of every leg of the tour would sound terrible and my mother was at one in New Jersey. When it was over, she asked me, “Did you guys rehearse before you played?” The answer was no. Her response was, “That’s what it sounded like too. Those people gave you their money so you could rehearse. It was a paid rehearsal. That’s a damned shame.” And I was 36 year old! My dad would simply have said, “Yeah.” We had a good balance growing up.
Wynton: My mother is really intelligent and she also has a lot of integrity and creativity—everything she did would be original. Her way of talking was original, the food that she would cook was original and the way she would joke around or mess with you would be original. She also had kind of a mystic quality so she would just know things. She worked a lot to keep everything going. He worked a lot too and didn’t have that much money. He was struggling—trying to make it playing jazz was always difficult especially during that period in the ’60s and ’70s. There were always a lot of kids and a lot of activity. She made sure we ate a certain way and that we were educated. She was busy all of the time.
She would encourage us in art in general—art, music, poetry—whether she liked it or not.
Delfeayo: We are all more like my mother than my father. My dad played music and brought home the bacon and my mother did, basically, everything else. It was always important to her that we had a strong male figure in the house. She was strong as well but many times we would have to wait for him to come home to have certain questions answered—with homework. Not that she couldn’t answer. She always left room where we would have to interact with my dad.
That goes back to the old Southern woman/Southern man. Typically, the man is more laid back and the woman is more fiery. Then when you have people of color who had to ride in the back of the bus and came from segregation that was amplified even more. It was the woman who was allowed to have spirit. So I think we have a lot of spirit much like my mom and we’re just ornery—that comes from my mother, not my dad. Uppity, as they would say in the old days.
The way that we are creative comes more from my mother.
Jason: Mother was the one who basically kept everything in line. Her personality is definitely one of those strong women that does not play at all when it comes to her kids. And you needed that, especially with the older ones—they were insane. She really needed it then. Dad honestly would sometimes think more about music than other family issues—like money.