Playing His Own Tune

In poetry and photos, Ellis Marsalis III makes a different kind of music

Instrument of Change

Using words and pictures instead of music, Ellis Marsalis III composes a symphony of the street.

Cover Story

December 05, 2004|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,Sun Staff

Ellis Louis Marsalis III cooks bacon and biscuits for his 13-year-old son Django's breakfast in their house on the north end of the Belair-Edison neighborhood. Django's eyes are drooping and his hair is tousled after sleeping late, but he manages a languid handshake for a visitor to his block.

Django and his father and sister, Maria, who's 12, are just back from Thanksgiving in New York at Uncle Wynton's.

Uncle Wynton, of course, is Wynton Marsalis, the brilliant jazz trumpet player, composer, artistic director of the new performing arts center for jazz at New York's Lincoln Center -- and leader of the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra.

Django, it turns out, is named for a piece on his grandfather's first album, the great requiem for the French guitarist Django Reinhardt written by John Lewis, the pianist of the Modern Jazz Quartet. Granddad Ellis L. Marsalis Jr. is the premier modern jazz pianist in New Orleans -- and the patriarch of the Marsalis family. Uncle Wynton has recorded Django, too, along with a tune he composed called Maria after his niece. The Marsalis family jazz quintet rounds out with brothers Branford on saxophone, Delfeayo, trombone, and Jason, drums.

It is a close-knit family that embraces equally the two non-musicians in the family, Ellis III and his younger brother, Mboya.

Ellis III says his father never encouraged his sons to play. But once they did, he insisted that they practice and play well. Ellis III gave up the flute in grade school, but found his music in poetry and his vision in photography. He also found that he had a knack for computer electronics and he makes his living as a network engineer. He's even done work for The Sun. A backup income is a very good thing, indeed, for a poet who loves photojournalism.

Marsalis barely paused in Baltimore last week, just long enough to drop off the kids with his former wife, before heading back to New York. He lectured -- on photography and the process of publishing a photo narrative -- before student photographers at his alma mater, New York University, where in 1987 he earned a bachelor of fine arts degree in photography.

He ricocheted back home at midweek for a talk at the Enoch Pratt Central Library about his newly published first book thaBloc, which puts together photo narrative and poetry in a kind of meditation on his neighborhood. In the 10 years he has lived here on Ramona Avenue, he has become embedded in Belair-Edison -- like a permanent correspondent in a half-forgotten frontier outpost.

Honest views of life

His book recalls the classic photo- poetry work that focused on Harlem in the middle of the 20th century: The Sweet Flypaper of Life, with words by Langston Hughes and photos by Roy DeCarava. Marsalis credits both as sources who inspired him. He's even fashioned a friendship with DeCarava, whose photography he likes but doesn't imitate.

Marsalis' pictures challenge the classical form of older black photographers such as DeCarava, James Van Der Zee and Gordon Parks with more edgy contemporary composition and an insistence on showing life exactly as it is lived, jagged edges and all. He wants to reinvent the photo narrative as a viable medium of communication for common people.

His influences include an eclectic bunch of poets and photographers from Tupac Shakur, the late rapper who paused briefly at Baltimore's School for the Arts, to W. Eugene Smith, the exemplary photojournalist. "Eugene Smith believed photography could change things," Marsalis says. "In his lifetime, it didn't. He bankrupted himself chasing that dream down. But he created some unbelievable work."

Smith was an incomparable combat photographer in World War II, and his late pictures of victims of mercury pollution at Minamata, Japan, established a new standard of excellence in humanistic photojournalism.

"When you look at the image, you felt this guy's trying to tell me something," Marsalis says. "And that's what I'm trying to do with my work. I actually am trying to say something."

And that's what he likes about Tupac: "What he's trying to say, not how he says it. The point he's trying to make. I think I'm trying to make the same point ... that being on the bottom sucks."

He spits out the word as if it tastes bad.

"And the way out of the bottom is really by opportunity, not by force, not by maze, not by luck, not by going to church on Sunday, or showing off your morality."

The hip-hop thug life that Tupac professed has provided Ellis and his brother, Wynton, a decade of friendly disagreement. Wynton, the virtuoso jazz trumpeter, doesn't simply dismiss hip-hop as music: "He tends to see it as something a little sinister that can do damage," Ellis says. "I don't believe that at all. I think it's the result of damage, not the cause."

Call him Mr. Luce

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