Ellis Marsalis on the term 'jazz': "Music can never be changed by a name"

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.

[SOMETHING ELSE! INTERVIEW: Trumpeter Nicholas Payton talks about his new groove-focused recording, and breaking out of the strictures of jazz tradition.]

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.

[SOMETHING ELSE! INTERVIEW: Delfeayo Marsalis talks about working with his brothers, even while he established his own musical philosophy away from them..]

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?

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Nick DeRiso

Over a 30-year career, Nick DeRiso has also explored music for USA Today, All About Jazz, Ultimate Classic Rock and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the nation by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Contact him at nderiso@somethingelsereviews.com.
  • http://www.smsjazz.com mort weiss

    YEESSS!!! MR. MARSALIS IS SO RIGHT ON!! THe ABOVE SOULD BE REQUIRED READING –acadamitions-students -or any one interested about jazz & from whence it came. you can feel the sadness in his answers. but of course no one- including his sons would understand-this is a strong point for my giving up in any way of trying to explain what I’TS all about . mort weiss p.s. mr marsalis -sit back and enjoy the kids they have the ball now -let them run with it. M.W.

  • Douglas R. Ewart

    These are very insightful responses form Mr. Ellis Marsalis, and it gave me an opportunity to glean another side of a great man, great artist and historian. I do think that names are important and that the term Jazz will change with the insistence of individual artists and organizations, and by them naming the music/their music for themselves. The name Jazz was most likely not placed on the music by the people that created/originated it.

    The names ***** and Colored changed to Black and African American, and the name Cassius Clay to Muhammad Ali. Those are excellent examples of names being changed even with ubiquitous use and sustained and virulent opposition to changing them.
    The great conceptualist, composer and musician John Coltrane also had the question about the name of his music posed, and his response was (paraphrase) I do not make up these terms. In the conversation he seemed more concerned about playing and talking about other aspects of music than the nomenclatures. He said he listened to a wide variety of musics/sounds and said we all dip into the great reservoir of sound/music to find our individual building blocks of/for sound/music. And that sometimes our music resembled each other’s because we quaffed from the same or similar sources. The great composer, musician and bandleader Charles Mingus said that Jazz meant “******” to him. Composer, bandleader and trumpeter Lester Bowie said (paraphrase) that Jazz meant/connotes ****ing, irresponsible conduct, unreliable, dope taking, disrespect and inadequate pay” and more.

    The name Jazz has many connotations and many people; musicians and composers find the term limiting, erroneous, confining and derogatory. Many musicians see the term Jazz as an economic barricade, one that prevents them form being adequately compensated, respected, presented and treated commensurate with their learning and musical acumen.

    Some musicians and public say that there are only two kinds of music: good and bad music. Some call their music Creative Music, Great Black Music, Improvised Music, American Classical Music, Black Classical Music, Noise, Joyful Noise and the lists goes on. Some forms of music are becoming increasingly difficult to categorize, as new amalgams are being forged and more complex collaborations comprising various art forms are being proffered.

    In Louis Armstrong’s’ book, “Swing That Music,” the inscription section reads: “To the memory of the original Dixieland Five,” to “King Oliver, to Bix Beiderbecke and Eddie Lang, now gone, and to those other pioneers of a quarter century past, known and unknown, who created and carried to the world a native American music, who created Swing. And, finally, to the young musicians of today who will carry it on.”

    I increasingly just ask my audiences and new acquaintances to attend the performance because it will be a good one. However, many are bent on having a category attached to the music/performance. Composers find this particularly when they are marketing their recordings and seeking performances. I have asked the record stores and the distributors to place my music in every category so that the listener can hear what I am doing. Of course that is not done and I am often placed in Jazz, World Music, Experimental Music, New Music, Avant Garde etcetera. I am not interested in genres! I truly love every kind of music/sound, some more than others. Every form of music has its creative, inspiring, soul stirring and visionary progenitor/practitioners.

    Make the music/art strong and pass it on!!!
    Appreciate them deeply.

    Peace and Love!
    Respectfully,
    Douglas R. Ewart

  • Douglas R. Ewart

    I am not sure why the words ***** and ****** were removed from my response to Mr. Ellis Marsalis comments on Jazz. The contexts in which these words are used are crucial for scholarly understanding and eleminating them makes understanding history impossible.

    • http://www.somethingelsereviews.com Nick DeRiso

      I think everybody understands those words, and their history.