Editor’s Note: Delfeayo Marsalis has a unique insider’s perspective on the contemporary jazz world. Born into the New Orleans family that has become a musical dynasty, Delfeayo got his start as a grade-schooler, helping brothers Branford and Wynton record demos. At 17 he debuted as a producer with father Ellis’ Syndrome. Later, he attended the Berklee School of Music in Boston and earned a bachelor’s degree in production and engineering while honing his trombone chops.
It was as a producer that he first made a mark on the national scene. He’s crafted the sound of some two dozen major-label albums, including works by Ellis, Branford and Wynton, Harry Connick, Jr., Courtney Pine, Marcus Roberts, Kenny Kirkland, Terence Blanchard, Donald Harrison Quintet and others.
The 27-year-old “trambonist” has since become a recording artist in his own right, releasing Pontius Pilate’s Decision, an ambitious 70-minute passion play, earlier this year.
For this issue, we asked Delfeayo to contribute an essay that worked his own experiences and observations into a statement on the “State of Jazz” as it applies to local artists in their quest for artistic and commercial success in the jazz world.
Marsalis is no stranger to prose. Between recording sessions and gigs, he is pursuing a Master’s in English at the University of New Orleans, and is an avid writer of fiction. Outside the academic world, he has authored extensive track annotations and liner notes for many of the albums he has produced, including his debut and Branford’s new blues album, I Heard You Twice the First Time.
In deference to “history and comedy” Delfeayo’s writing bears certain trademarks, including his use of jazz music’s historic first label, “jass. (which, Delfeayo says, stems from a contraction of “jive-ass music”). And he favors the New Orleans colloquial spelling “trambone” to “trombone, as did Louis Armstrong and Jelly Roll Morton.
Critics have not always appreciated these linguistic flourishes. “I’ve read a lot of reviews of my album, and it amazes me how these guys get incensed about that,” marvels Delfeayo. “It’s unbelievable. They can’t imagine a musician joking about it. They don’t know history and they don’t have a sense of humor.”
Tight-ass critics notwithstanding, Delfeayo oversees a burgeoning musical enterprise from the carriage house apartment behind the Uptown mansion his family is having refurbished. The morning after he completed this essay, Delfeayo flew to Los Angeles, where he would produce Branford’s next record-a live trio album-and work on a videotape project with Wynton. Also, Delfeayo’s quintet was to lay down demos for his second album, and re-open Kimball’s West Theater in San Francisco with a week-long engagement.
He returns to New Orleans just in time for a fiction writing dass at UNO (as his schedule tightens, keeping him away from the classroom, the degree is becoming something “I almost certainly will not get”). Two days later, he’s off to New York to work on a big band project with Wynton. In upcoming months, he will record his next album for a projected February ’93 release, and produce another project by father Ellis. And he’s started taking acting lessons.
Obviously, business is good for Delfeayo.
But he has had his share of disappointments, including problematic stints at area clubs. What follows are the thoughts, opinions and perceptions of one musician who is more successful than most but still finds the jazz world — and New Orleans especially — to be a tough racket for young artists.
The role of the musician/artist has always been a peculiar one in society. Both W.A. Mozart and Charlie Parker had to accept being considered second-class citizens, while each one knew that he was unequivocally the most ingenious musician of his generation. For Mozart it was the idiosyncrasies of the royal buffoons who employed him; for Parker it was the harsh reality of the racial climate which has always plagued Americans in one form or another.
In New Orleans today, the struggles of young jazz musicians are less overt, but one must accept the compromise betwixt commercial/financial success and artistic gratification. While many club owners appreciate the talents and intentions of our young musicians, few are willing to extend the financial support that is often necessary. To what degree are the club owners responsible for sacrificing their wealth as a means of financing musicians, though?
While classical musicians are able to obtain corporate sponsorships and artistic endowments, jazz musicians are afforded very few, if any of these concessions. My eldest brother, Branford, pointed out that he began making money from his classical album starting with the first sale, whereas his seven jazz albums (which sold nearly 100,000 units each) never make any profit for him. Thus is the plight of the jazz musician: perfecting a skill which reaps a modicum of credibility and very few ducats.
The major misconception about jazz musicians is that media exposure and a major label contract guarantee financial stability.
Although Branford was the pre-eminent young saxophonist of the 19805, he was not recognized as such until he began playing with a rock star [Branford recorded and toured with ex-Police leader Sting in 1985].
The fact that people enjoy pop music and appreciate any musicians lending their credibility to it made Branford Marsalis a genius virtually overnight. Even with the recording contract, the magazine articles, and the designer suits, in 1986 Branford was playing jazz venues that barely paid enough to cover his band’s travel accommodations. I have first-hand knowledge, because I was his road manager at that time and it didn’t make sense to me then.
Harry Connick,Jr. was certainly one of the most talented pianists for his age in 1987.
After his first CBS recording, he was playing for union scale and tips at a NYC restaurant — no one cared about him or his talent. The succeeding year introduced Harry to millions with the movie When Harry Met Sally. Just like Branford, Harry Connick had suddenly become a genius because of a move into a popular format. Unfortunately for the music, however, Harry chose to abandon his contemporary piano playing for a popular vocal styling which has served him very well financially. He had told me during his first recording, “Man, I want to combine the harmonies and ideas of Herbie Hancock and McCoy Tyner with the stride piano of like (Thelonious) Monk, James P. (Johnson) and all them older cats.” My dad, Ellis, commented, “If anyone could have done that, it would have been Harry…” Can we really blame him, though, for not wanting to play to a disinterested crowd of 100 at the Village Vanguard, after selling out to 90,000 screaming fans at the Paramount? I think not.
Who could await such a drab and foul reality with bated breath? Is it the fault of the audience, the musician, the club owner, television and soap operas, or the educational system in America? How much can we blame on the people of New Orleans for not supporting jazz music? Come to think of it, most musicians leave New Orleans in order to gain national prominence or just to escape its lack of support. Louis Armstrong, Branford and Wynton, Terence Blanchard, Donald Harrison, Harry Connick are the ones who come to mind immediately, though I’m sure there are others. After.all, New Orleans has failed to support a winning basketball team (the Jazz — how ironic), a baseball team, a major symphony orchestra, and probably a host of other entertainment-related organizations. Why not fail jazz music?
Was Harry Connick, Jr. correct when he spoke of New Orleans as if it were a city not worthy of being respected? The world over, New Orleans is known as the birthplace of jazz, yet what remains in the city is an over-prostituted array of tourist-oriented Dixieland venues and very few places for youngsters to sharpen their talents. Although this writer has moved back to New Orleans, most of my gigs and production work take me out of town, with no signs of steady work in the city. In fact, I had been told so many times of my predestined fortune — based on my last name — that I couldn’t understand not having a recording contract by the age of 25. Even after signing with a major label, I found that there was limited interest in jazz artists. I had to spend $3700 of my own money in order to accurately reproduce my album artwork and was greeted with a generally lethargic attitude. I have recently played to capacity crowds for one week in Los Angeles, two nights In NY and D.C., yet there is no guarantee that a gig in New Orleans would receive the same type of treatment.
What about young musicians interested in performing contemporary jazz on a consistent basis, Without a major label contract? The opportunities are few and far between. Let’s take a look at some of the clubs.
Snug Harbor is probably the most well known establishment in the city, and we find young artists performing there on a consistent basis, although students who do not already have a reputation or a local following are rarely given a chance to prove themselves. A similar club is the newborn Charlie B’s. Although we might find major talent coming onto Charlie’s stage, local youngsters were limited to playing a jam session from 3-6am. Needless to say, this didn’t last very long.
Both Charlie B’s and Snug Harbor try to support young lions, but are hard pressed to maintain a local audience. Charlie’s jam session with Lionel Hampton featured many of these musicians and was quite successful, even though it was thrown together at the last minute. We heard young Nicholas Payton – trumpet, Brian Blade-drums, Davell Crawford-vocal, Kermit Ruffin-trumpet, Jason Marsalis-drums, Greg Tardy-sax, and a host of others.
Saxophonist Greg Tardy was a regular at the Crescent City Brewhouse until he refused to accept $75 for a trio for four hours of background music for businessmen and tourists. That is less than the guys made working for tips at Caf~ Brasil or Kaldi’s. The crowds at both of those places are particularly nice because they check out the music, but respect is never enough to keep food on the table and the light bills paid.
I had to stop playing at Snug Harbor last year because I felt that the cover charge was too high and there was no provision for college students who wanted to check out the music, but couldn’t afford the $15 cover plus drinks. We created a gig at the Crescent City Brewhouse which lasted eight months, but there were problems. The only positive point was that we were allowed to work for the door and charge $7 cover ($5 for students); thus we had a substantial following by the time we parted company.
How much can a musician be expected to accept in order to perfect his craft and provide entertainment for his audience? Therein lies the dilemma.
In addition to entertainment, New Orleanians must understand that we have a responsibility to support the music and the young lions who are playing. European music-which can be as boring as watching ice melt-receives support the world around. We must now legitimize our own music as we have that of dead Europeans. There are few pleasures in the music world equal to the energy of young musicians trying to express themselves on top of some hot-ass swing. You will undoubtedly do yourself and America a great service by checking out some live music, especially if it’s swinging.