The Marsalis Men: Working With Dad

Happy Fathers Day to all the dads out there. Here’s a chunk of a recent chat I had with the Team Marsalis for DownBeat magazine. 

DB: Sounds like in the back of your mind you knew that’s what your dad would’ve wanted you to do: take care of family.

Wynton: Nah, he wasn’t like that. My daddy was taking care of his situation. Plus, he’s not the type of person to force you do stuff. He did what he was doing. He was a man and you were a boy. It was always clear. He wasn’t going to live his life through you. Like, “You do your thing, I’m doing my thing, and good luck. If I can help you I will. If not, God bless you.”

Ellis: No, I was never a stage door dad. I’m not sure what conditions would have had to existed for me to been a stage door dad. If the music we were trying to play had been in a popular vein, say like Joe Jackson and the Jackson 5, and money was involved, well, who knows?

W: Damn sure there was no money with us. There was less than money.

We were cheap labor, the guys who carried the Fender Rhodes. Like “Okay, pick up this end, let’s move this thing.”

Branford: About 110 lbs, remember?

E: People used to ask all the time: why don’t y’all have a family band? I never wanted no family band. And sometimes it sounded like “Oh man, you’re jealous of them.”  And it’s, “no man, that’s not what it’s about.”

DB: Ellis, do you remember these guys playing together?

E:  I used to go to some of those gigs.

W: He sat in. It almost killed him.

B: He’d just sit and laugh. It was at my high school. We were playing the Crusaders, “Keep That Same Old Feeling.”

W: He came up and played it with us and we’d hit the bridge with all these changes on it, and we’d be bullshitting on the changes and he be like, “Oh, no, no, that’s not the way it goes. You gotta deal with these changes, baby, here it is…”

Everyone: Hahahahahaha!

W: Cats would say “Yeah, man, your daddy can play!”

DB: Were you guys wincing, going “C’mon dad, what are you doing here?” Were you embarrassed?

W: We were so happy to see him show up a gig. And the cats in our band were happy. “Get him to play with us!” They loved it.

B: That’s what I didn’t understand, that strange thing I’d see on TV all the time, like “Jesus, dad, what are YOU doing here?” or “Mom “C’mon, get out of here.” We didn’t have that vibe with our parents. We were happy to see them.

W: Plus, when he sat in, He made something clear.

B: Yeah, “I can play and y’all can’t.”

DB: When did truly realize that he was heavy?

B: When I was 1 year old, 2 years old.

W: We always knew he could play – that was never a question. He’d practice. Plus, when we started playing ourselves, and realized what it actually took, we really knew he could play. Because you hear him and you could hear yourself. No comparison, right? And he was cool about it, so you’d had to be cool too.

E: I think that a lot it had to do the philosophy of teaching that evolved over a period of time…

W: This is before the teaching. I remember clearly. It was in the ‘60s and I remember a gig with the Xavier University band and he played bass on the gig. The bass player didn’t show and they called him up. I might have been nine years old, and we were sitting in the audience because [a friend of ours] Fernandez had some fine daughters, so we were always there.

B: He sure did…

W: And we’d be the only kids at the concert. We said “Damn man, daddy’s playing bass!” I remember it like it was yesterday.

B: Yesterday Cedar Walton told me: “The first time I met Ellis he was playing bass and I was playing piano. It was in 1951.” He can play sax, too.

W: I remember being in bathroom one day and hearing a sax playing Charlie Parker. I said, “Damn, Branford finally learned how to play that thing?” I came into the living room and it was daddy.

B: Lots of kids would say, “Hey, my dad’s a drag.” I’d say, “My dad’s kind of cool.”

DB: Ellis, you were known for trying to play modern jazz in a world where trad was king.  

 E: There are lots of father/son things in New Orleans. I remember a banjo player named Albert French. He played with the old guys. His oldest son was around my age. I knew the family from when we lived in Gert Town. We ran into each other occasionally, and once I saw Papa French and he said “Your guys need to come out and learn how to play this music.”  

 W: My father’s contemporaries, not us kids. French wanted ‘em to play the traditional stuff.  E: He said, “Some of these old guys are passing on, and the younger folks don’t know how to play this music. And I said “Yeah, Papa French, you’re right.” But to myself I was saying, “I don’t want to play that crap.” I was about 40 years old before I really understood the early connection of jazz and what we were trying to do in a more modernistic vein. It wasn’t really that far apart, but when I heard it at the time, well, let’s just say you want to deal with your peers. The reason I got a saxophone, in high school, was because of Roy Brown and the Mighty Mighty Men and Lee Allen playing the tenor with Fats Domino’s band. There were no girls listening to no cats playing bebop, but I could hear it. I could hear the music and do a few little parts. We’d go play the dances.


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