It was obvious when Mr. Ellis Marsalis took a seat in the center of a sold-out audience last night at Loyola’s Louis J. Roussel Performance Hall that the evening would be a special one. No one could have guessed that the performance by his son, Wynton, would turn into the once-in-a-lifetime event it became.
The younger Marsalis, 51, performing as part of Loyola University’s Presidential Centennial Guest Series, opened the set with his composition “Free to Be.” Accompanying the nine-time Grammy-winning trumpeter and Managing and Artistic Director of Jazz at Lincoln Center was a world-class ensemble featuring Loyola alum Victor Goines (clarinet and saxophone), Carlos Henriquez (bass), Ali Jackson (drums), and Dan Nimmer (piano), who traded solos to resounding applause. Marsalis was thoughtful and gracious, grabbing a towel at stage left for Jackson, and musing at length on the importance of his upbringing, and the basic values of integrity and equality instilled in him by his father.
Wynton then invited Ellis to join them on the bandstand, to a standing ovation. The New Orleans patriarch guided the ensemble through a liltingly phrased “All of Me,” before Wynton turned pensive once more.
As Wynton went off the planned program to introduce the “New Orleans Function,” discussing the city’s communal approach to music and ability to deal with death because, as he explained (to considerable laughter), “everybody was [buried] above ground,” you could sense something remarkable was afoot. He went on to praise the character and giving spirit of “this man,” still unnamed, whose mother passed away earlier Monday.
The New Orleans matriarch was “Althea Pierce,” Marsalis revealed, to audible gasps; “this man,” her son Wendell.
Marsalis had stepped into an alcove early in the set, while his band played, to warmly embrace a figure in the shadows. Now, to another standing house, said gentleman Pierce joined Marsalis Senior and Junior and co. onstage for “Just a Closer Walk With Thee,” which swelled to include other players in the hall invited to pay their musical respects.
Head turned downward, wiping away tears with his white handkerchief after every solo, the visibly moved, grateful Pierce swayed in dirge-like fashion with Marsalis, until the tempo changed.
Pierce looked up and danced, cathartically and to a flood of love back from those around him both onstage and in the crowd. An impromptu second line followed through the venue as concertgoers echoed the jazz funeral exclamation, “Oh, Didn’t He Ramble?!”
My heart goes out to Wendell Pierce whose wise, loving, mentoring Mother crossed over tonight. He, is a testament to her Greatness.
— clarke (@clarkepeters) October 23, 2012
At the start of the evening, Loyola Dean of the College of Music and Fine Arts Dr. Donald Boomgaarden recapped a two-hour master class conducted by Marsalis with enthralled students Monday morning, during which “you could hear a pin drop.” He noted that students’ lives were changed, and that regardless of the evening’s program, he considered Marsalis’ visit a success. By the close of the night, audience members of all ages were out of their seats and in the aisles, doubtless a few more lives changed.
Our thoughts are with Pierce and his family, and our gratitude is with both Pierce and Marsalis for sharing such a personal, emotional exchange with the public.