Looking Back: Interview with Ellis Marsalis and Sons (2003)
Note from the Editor: This interview took place on February 20, 2003, by Nippertown author, Don Wilcock. This comes from Don’s extensive archive of interviews.
Ellis Marsalis, jazz pianist, educator, and patriarch of the Marsalis family, died yesterday at the age of 85. His death was announced in tweets from New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell and Jazz at Lincoln Center, where his son Wynton is managing and artistic director.
Ellis Louis Marsalis Jr. was born on Nov. 14, 1934. He graduated from Dillard University in New Orleans with a B.A. in music education, and that was the field to which he devoted himself. Despite playing with such notable jazz musicians as Cannonball and Nat Adderley, he was most proud of his work as an educator. His music students included Terence Blanchard, Donald Harrison, Harry Connick Jr. and four of his sons: Wynton, Branford, Delfeayo and Jason Marsalis.
Ellis Marsalis Passes His Talents to His Sons
Nah. Not necessary says Ellis Marsalis who performs with his four sons on Thursday, February 27 at Proctor’s Theatre, Schenectady, in a show co-produced with The Troy Savings Bank Music Hall.
“It’s not unlike an all-star game,” says the elder Marsalis. “When you’re a promoter and somebody comes to you and says, ‘Look, man. We got (basketball greats) Kobe and Shaq and Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming and the guys.’ You ain’t gonna be worrying about that. Why should you be worried? It’s not going to happen.”
And what an all-star team it is. Pianist, composer and educator Ellis will be accompanied by sons Branford on tenor and soprano sax, Wynton on trumpet, Delfeayo on trombone and Jason on drums, each a giant in jazz. Ellis isn’t even nervous about the eight-city tour that begins the 23rd. Schenectady is the fourth stop.
“Once we get the dates squared away and know where we’re gong to be, it’s not a problem. It’s not as though each individual has to go into the closet and dust the cobwebs off his instrument.”
The concert tour coincides with the release of The Marsalis Family A Jazz Celebration” on Marsalis/Rounder Records earlier this month. That CD was recorded live a Kiefer University in New Orleans Lakefront Arena in 2001.That performance celebrated Ellis’ retirement from the University of New Orleans and establishment of a chair in his name. They didn’t rehearse for that show either.
“We really didn’t have rehearsal time pe se. It wasn’t that I was too worried about it. It’s just that I wasn’t as comfortable as I might have been. I had played with the individual sons enough that it would work.”
But never ever at the same time.
“Branford left high school in ’78, and by that time Jason was one year old. Wynton left that following year, and Delfeayo left about three or four years from then. So, it wasn’t from the musical kids’ standpoint. Jason wasn’t really around then. He played with them at different times during his growing up years.”
With sons of my own in the arts, I’m trying to imagine the thrill it must have been for Ellis to make music with all four at the same time at that first concert in 2001.
“Well, I’ll tell you, I didn’t really have much of an opportunity to enjoy that because it was my last year at the school. And I was in the process of retiring from there and getting involved with trying to wrap up things, prepare for a concert, being snatched and pulled in different directions by people whose charge it was to make sure this thing came off right.”
This time, things are a little less hectic. “I am enjoying the anticipation,” says the senior Marsalis. “For one thing, I’m no longer teaching school. So, it means I can more single-handedly approach it. I’m still in the throes of writing music for stuff that we do.”
Nowhere in music is there a family more accomplished and with as many siblings as well known in their field as the Marsalis family. I asked Ellis who is less well known than his sons whether he ever regretted going into the academic world instead of performing. Ellis recalled a colleague telling him once, “Man, it ain’t nuthin’ anywhere near close to what people say it is. It ain’t that big a deal.’ Ellis is philosophical about it.
“Once I started to see the value in what was taking place at education, then I said, “Well, man. I’m glad in a way I didn’t succeed at it ’cause it wasn’t that I didn’t want to do it, it’s just that I couldn’t figure out how to do it. And after a while I said there must be a power a lot greater and smarter than me who prevented that, because if I could have figured out how to go (to New York to perform) I definitely would have done it.”
Of course, Ellis is proud of the role he played in raising children who have made the Marsalis name the gold standard in jazz. “I think the reason they were successful,” he says, “had to do with the old adage of preparation meets opportunity. If you happen to be prepared well enough for whatever it is, and you’re willing to stick to it, the chances for being successful as we call it are increased 10-fold.”
Another bit of sage advice he gave his sons was, “You set yourself up for a problem when you try and wear too many different hats, and both of them look the same. When Woody Allen used to go to Woody’s Pub and sit in with the band on Monday nights, nobody was going to come in and ask him to act.
Wynton chose to concentrate as a classical trumpeter player. Now, when he was in front of Orchestra X doing Mozart, nobody in the audience was going to say, “Hey, bro, why don’t you play some jazz?”
In class his students called the elder Marsalis by his first name. And that looseness translates into his relationship with his sons. “Essentially, the democracy is built into the music itself,” he says. “The more important aspect of the music itself comes from the improvisation of the individual in the band, most coming from each individual soloist. And basically, that’s the crux of the whole thing.”
Does that mean the father sometimes becomes the son in a reversal of the paternal situation?
“Well, I’ve gotten suggestions from my kids. Everybody is really optimized. Like right now, for example, my wife, my youngest son and I, we have a record label, Elm Records, and Jason, the youngest son, he’s very good in the studio. So, he’ll come in the studio and make recommendations of doing this and doing that, and let’s do another take on doing this. Jason comes closer to giving advice than any of the other kids possibly because not only is he still here, but we also function in a group as a trio together when he’s not out on the road with Marcus Robbins which is where he is right now. He’s in Japan right now.”
Ellis and his sons should have eight days of incredible bonding that will create an incredible feeling. “Yeah, it is,” says Ellis, “and I hope at some point I can begin to get the feeling that one gets once when things get underway and it gets rolling.”
Ellis Marsalis and Sons featuring Branford Marsalis, Delfeayo Marsalis, Jason Marsalis, Wynton Marsalis and Reginald Veal perform live at Proctors Theatre, Schenectady on Thursday, February27th a 8 p.m. Tickets are on sale at Proctor’s Theatre Box Office at 518-346-6204 and Troy Saving Bank Music Hall Box Office at 518-273-0038 or at www.proctors.org.