Marsalises stand unchallenged as America's first family of jazz

February 13, 1992|By Howard Reich | Howard Reich,Chicago Tribune

The rain has been pouring for three hours straight, the air is thick enough to slice, the temperature is climbing to unbearable levels -- but the crowds just keep on coming.

By the score, they're packing a small New Orleans church, its every pew and aisle jammed to capacity.

And up near the pulpit, the most celebrated young trumpeter in jazz is fielding questions from the audience, which welcomes his words like a devout congregation.

Clearly, the applause and "amens" suggest the crowd is pleased to see the most famous member of New Orleans' most beloved musical family back in the city where jazz, blues and Wynton Marsalis himself were born.

"Why do you think jazz is getting so hot?" asks a fan, pointing to the crushing turnout for this concert-seminar by Wynton and his dad, hometown pianist Ellis Marsalis Jr., 56.

"Because African-American music goes back thousands of years," says Wynton, "and because hearing it reminds people of something they need to be reminded of."

That idea -- the crucial importance of musical and cultural tradition -- seems to have become the central theme of Wynton's life. It's a lesson he first learned from the fellow sitting a few feet away from him at the keyboard. And it's a concept that has bound the Marsalis family as tightly as any bloodline could.

Maybe that's why the Marsalises now stand unchallenged as America's first family of jazz.

(Ellis Marsalis will be performing Saturday night at Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts in Annapolis. Tickets are still available. For more information call (410) 263-5019.)

It's not just that recordings by Ellis and his sons Wynton, saxophonist Branford and producer/trombonist Delfeayo routinely ride the top of the jazz charts. More important, the very philosophy of this family -- a reverence for cultural traditions that stretch across centuries and continents -- has become one of the driving forces in jazz today.

Not only are today's young jazz stars developing this idea, but even the avant-gardists who balk at the Marsalises' approach tend to define their objections, and their work, in terms of this remarkable family.

But 40-odd years ago, when a young Ellis was discovering jazz on New Orleans radio, he could not have imagined that his interest someday would spawn something akin to a cultural movement.

Certainly by the 1960s, when Ellis was coming of age as a pianist-saxophonist, the jazz world was beginning to lose ground, with large segments of the audience alienated by far-out, avant-garde experiments.

By the '70s, the still-shrinking jazz scene seemed dominated by electronic fusion that made great concessions to pop and rock.

By contrast, the acoustic sounds of be-bop, swing and traditional jazz that had defined Ellis Marsalis' musical vocabulary appeared headed for extinction.

"Let's put it this way -- there wasn't much work you could get, except maybe on the Fourth of July and Christmas," recalls Ellis Marsalis, a pianist who supported his wife, Dolores, and six kids by playing strip joints, touring with Al Hirt, taking low-pay teaching gigs and the like.

"It was rough on daddy all the way," adds Wynton. "There was hardly any place to play the music. And it wasn't easy sitting behind screens on buses."

But Wynton and Branford, now 29 and 31, respectively, also felt the blows of '60s racism.

"We went to a Catholic school with 1,500 kids in which 20 were black, and it was strange," recalls Branford. "The teachers weren't openly hostile, but their ignorance was even more detrimental to us than if they had been.

"To them, the word 'nigger' was an accepted part of the English language. "So when a guy would call me 'nigger,' and I'd slug him, it would be my fault.

"Then the teachers would start giving us motivational speeches about how Jesus was called names, too -- as if I ever could be J.C."

Yet, somehow, from these grim circumstances the young Marsalises found a measure of self-worth. Each says he found it as much in his father's music as in his parents' way of life.

"There are a couple ways you can come out of that scene," says Branford. "You can come out really embittered and angry and spending the rest of your life trying to kill the person who has dominated you, or you can come out very subservient, emulating the dominator.

"I think Wynton and I and my family straddled the fence between the two.

"See, my parents taught us how to deal with the situation."

Specifically, says Delfeayo, 26, "they taught us that whatever you do, if you're not going to be the best, don't do it. That was how you survived -- by being the best.

"And we did it with music because of my dad. Wynton had a little trumpet, so Branford said, 'What the hell, I'll play saxophone.'

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