Regarded as the preeminent modern jazz figure in New Orleans, Ellis Marsalis would have had a sweeping impact as a musical innovator and longtime educator even had he not parented a series of famous jazz-playing sons in Wynton, Branford, Delfeayo and Jason Marsalis. That gives Ellis Marsalis both unique insight into the music’s history, and some interesting opinions on where it’s headed.
Born in the early 1930s, the elder Marsalis began formal studies at the Xavier University Junior School of Music when he was just 11. He would eventually graduate from Dillard University, then earned a master’s degree from Loyola University in New Orleans. Over his lengthy tenure in education, he’d eventually mentor trumpeters Terence Blanchard and Nicholas Payton, saxophonist Donald Harrison and pianist Harry Connick Jr., among many others.
Along the way, Marsalis has also played with Al Hirt, Cannonball Adderley, Courtney Pine, David “Fathead” Newman, Eddie Harris, Nat Adderley and Marcus Roberts, while recording more than 20 albums both on his own and with his sons — most recently 2011′s A New Orleans Christmas Carol, with Jason. Last year also saw the Marsalis family honored as group recipients of the NEA Jazz Masters Award.
NICK DERISO: Your former student Nicholas Payton has been outspoken in saying that jazz ought to be referred to now as Black American Music, saying the old term may have outlived its usefulness. Does it need rebranding?
ELLIS MARSALIS: First of all, that’s not any kind of original thinking. As far as branding is concerned, branding of music or any other pop idiom only lasts for a certain amount of time anyway. I remember Down Beat magazine actually tried to sponsor a renaming of jazz years ago, asking people to send in alternative names. So, you know, I don’t even know to an appreciable extent if that is worth a conversation. Music can never be changed by a name. If it could, jazz would not have existed. Music gets changed by people. That’s some naïve thinking. I think right now, too often, we are trying to create things that go in a straight line – like a course with a syllabus and an outline. When it comes down to it, I think people are more palatable to things that are neatly packaged, because there’s a certain amount of flair to it. And then it becomes basically known for whatever that flair is.
NICK DERISO: Well, it’s certainly started a conversation about jazz, right? And that’s a good thing.
ELLIS MARSALIS: I’d rather them listen to jazz, than to talk about it! (Laughs.)
NICK DERISO: Payton, of course, is part of a string of signature products from your time in jazz education, going back to the late 1980s. Have the students changed over that time? What do you see as the impact of the program?
ELLIS MARSALIS: I don’t think the students changed at all. I think the opportunities changed. See, the further back you go, the more difficult it is to find any form of structure in what is now called jazz studies. When I was in school, there were people in other universities that were getting kicked out because they were playing jazz. You couldn’t even play it in the practice rooms on campus. Over a period of time, an evolution occurred. People in positions of authority began to see a plus in having students who can play jazz, or know something about it. Universities started developing jazz programs.
NICK DERISO: It’s coincided with a wider acceptance of improvised music as something to be studied. Is that good for the music?
ELLIS MARSALIS: Well, there’s a pragmatic side to that. I was on the faculty of a university where the chairman of the music department had at least 20 or 30 rock ‘n’ roll guitarists listed as jazz studies majors, because when he turned in the enrollment, if affected his budget. Consequently, he didn’t care about jazz one way or another! Rather than say it’s a jazz studies program, I think we can look at it as a jazz presence. (Laughs.)
NICK DERISO: Recently we’ve seen the opening of the Ellis Marsalis Center for Music in the Katrina-ravaged Upper Ninth Ward of New Orleans. Can music help lead that area back?
ELLIS MARSALIS: The emphasis is on music, because Branford – our oldest son – and Harry Connick Jr. got together when they saw the conditions that existed in the city, not just in the Ninth Ward. There was something that they wanted to do. The spot that it was built on at one time had been a public school. The deal was worked out to use that property in the Ninth, and the space was named for me – a gratuitous act! (Laughs.) I’m not directly involved with running it, or on the faculty or any of that. And that’s fine; I’m too old for that, anyway. (Laughs.) Eventually, I do think it will reflect more of a community center than a music school. Even though there are people who are being hired to teach music, it’s more like a community center in the way that it functions.
NICK DERISO: How close was the city to losing some of these invaluable traditions in the wake of the storm?
ELLIS MARSALIS: Here’s the thing about it: New Orleans has for a long time been a city in which the culture comes from the people – from the bottom up, instead of top down. For example, when the automotive industry in Detroit collapsed, the city collapsed. That pretty much defined the culture, those corporate groups. In New Orleans, the tourists are the primary economic engine that drives this town. Tourists have made listening to jazz music a part of the reason to come here. Not only that, of course. But this is a city where you find people playing on the street. There is an engaging situation, when it comes to musicians. It’s always been a user-friendly place for musicians to play. It used to be a 24-hour town and, as far as I know, it still is. New Orleans, they call it the Big Easy – and that’s a good or a bad term, depending on your point of view. But there are ways in which to function which transcend music. People love to come here when they want a good time. It’s a small town, in some ways, because of the way it was built around the river. You can just about walk everywhere, if the weather is good. And every where you go, there is music. That will hopefully always be the case here.
NICK DERISO: Describe growing up in New Orleans in the 1940s, and hearing the music of Bird and Dexter Gordon for the first time. That must have sounded otherworldly.
ELLIS MARSALIS: It really wasn’t, from the description of otherworldly, the way that that term is used to describe things. It usually means that there is some degree of organization. That wasn’t the case. For example, if you listened to more modern musicians, there can be an otherworldy nature, say, to Ornette Coleman, Henry Threadgill or the World Saxophone Quartet. There’s some organization there. But the experiences that we had were a lot more happenstance than anything that was part of a movement. There was no outlet for us to hear the music. Early on, it depended on what school you were in. Every once in a while, they might bring in a local group to play. These were not formal tours, but just a dance situation. Then there was what we called record hops. The teachers were interested in socialization of boys and girls at this point, in elementary school. So they would play records, in an effort to keep us boys from being wallflowers. (Laughs.) That music was the current popular music of the day – people like Louis Jordan, Charles Brown, things that were considered rhythm and blues. But in those bands, I later found out, where some extremely competent musicians, even though what they were playing was primarily made for dancing. Now, when people look back at it with an historical eye, they look for levels of organization – some of which is just not there, especially when you are dealing with subculture. And believe me, in any sense of the word, black Americans were a subculture. For example, as a young adult, I began to discover that I had been around a lot of musicians who were playing traditional jazz, and I didn’t know anything about that as a child. I didn’t understand what they did. We grew up in racial segregation, so most of the time these guys were playing in white nightclubs. They were playing music that was part of the social life of younger whites. It was the same thing in the clubs where blacks went, but there was a separation there. The growth potential for being a musician was happenstance. There was no institution at all to deal with non-European music.
NICK DERISO: In many ways, the Internet has provided some common ground there. It seems today, cultures are closer than ever — though, I’m not sure we understand each other any better.
ELLIS MARSALIS: The further back you go, the more you find that the various indigenous groups and, to certain extent, the country’s subcultures were indeed separate. I remember riding around as late as the 1960s in Detroit and you’d turn the radio in the car — and there is a radio station totally in Polish! I think things were a lot more ethnically oriented in the earlier days, because radio hadn’t come in that strong until sometime in the early 1930s. The Tennessee Valley Authority put electricity into many parts of this country around the same time. Before that, people were dealing with music based upon the ethnic groups where they were functioning. So, there was no such thing as hit records and TV contracts. Consequently, nowadays it’s very similar to going to a doctor for a check up, and you see all of these machines. Most of the people who operate them they don’t have any idea what it was like before they came along. You see?