The Marsalis Gang: Growing Up To Become Masters

Recently reread this story I wrote for DownBeat on the Marsalis family. Fun! The time spent together was short that morning – their big National Endowment of the Arts concert took place that night – but the guys were up for some reminiscing. I like the part where Ellis schools Wynton and Branford on the rigors of playing the changes to a Crusaders tune, and get a kick out of Branford meeting up with Michael Steele’s “blue suit and red tie” aid. Here’s the start of the show. Jump to DB for the full Q&A.

Jason Marsalis looks serious as he fiddles with his drum sticks at  Manhattan’s Apple Store. He’s sitting at his trap set, paces away from his dad, pianist Ellis, getting ready to hit. But then again, Jason often looks serious. Perhaps the snap he brings to his music demands it…or perhaps not. As the father and son start to ignite with bassist Jason Stewart, the drummer begins to get his grin on. The spry way he delivers his swing pretty much demands a smile or two. Goading his dad’s glide over the keys, he helps bring an élan to the room. The Marsalises have a way of quickly connecting.

But with five busy careers in play at once, the Marsalises don’t manage to connect all that often. So this evening is somewhat special. During an informal set celebrating the iTunes arrival of Ellis’ An Open Letter To Thelonious, the pianist’s other sons jump up and blow a bit as well. Trombonist Delfeayo, saxophonist Branford, and trumpeter Wynton arrive at the store one by one, taking the stage in a casual way, and enjoying the heck out of standing shoulder to shoulder while kicking around some standards. All of a sudden, those grins are everywhere.

The quintet did something similar in a much more formal setting two summers ago at the D.C.’s Kennedy Center, a show that was turned into Music Redeems, a live disc benefitting the nearly-complete Ellis Marsalis Center for Music back in their home town of New Orleans. That was a year and a half ago, and the five musicians haven’t been in a performance together since. This little Apple gathering, which found Delfeayo throwing down some exquisite ‘bone lines, came about because they were all in town to participate in the National Endowment for the Arts’ Jazz Masters ceremony. Along with Hubert Laws, Dave Liebman, Johnny Mandel, and Orrin Keepnews, the five Marsalises were receiving the prized designation and performing at a high-vis concert the following night at Lincoln Center. You could call this a rehearsal of sorts. And yes, it was worth it. They rather killed with some high-flying polyphony when the big night came and they smoked their way through Jason’s “At The House, In Da Pocket.”

During this two-day stretch, all the Award-winners, especially Team Marsalis, were part of panel discussions, photography sessions, and interview spots that examined the impact of their careers. DownBeat thought it was a great time to grab the guys, who span in age from Ellis’ 76 to Jason’s 33, for a chat about family dynamics and the way jazz has impacted their lives. Convened in a meeting room adjacent to Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola, the guys laughed and chatted. Ultimately, it turned into a trip down memory lane while managing to include a bit of controversy, too. I began by addressing Ellis as “Master Marsalis,” echoing a fawning audience member who made a mark at the panel discussion the day before. Some brothers cracked up, some winced. Dad had the final word, though. “It’s cool if you call me that…as long as I don’t believe it.”

DownBeat: You guys went to the funeral service for Dr. Billy Taylorlast night. Was it thought provoking?

Wynton: I thought it was extremely soulful. The diversity of the people who showed up? Wow. He did a lot to unite people. I knew him, but I didn’t have a real understanding of the ways he touched people until I saw that community come together.
Branford: When you grow up in New Orleans, people talk about death all the time. Some of my boys used to go and hang out at the St. Louis Cemeteries in the middle of the city, and ponder why roaches used to sit on the sides of the tombstones, you know?


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