Music, Jazz, Obituary

Music, Jazz

Jazz great Ellis Marsalis Jr, who died of Covid-19, was more than a musician

For decades, Marsalis made music that was elegant and intelligent, playful and poignant. RIP.

9/4/2020 11:15:00 AM

For decades, Marsalis made music that was elegant and intelligent, playful and poignant. RIP.

For decades, Ellis Marsalis Jr. made music that was elegant and intelligent, playful and poignant. But just as importantly, he also enabled many other people to have a career in jazz as well.

For many years, pianist Ellis Marsalis Jr. did not think of himself as having a"jazz career."Finally, during a lecture/performance in the early 1980s, a student asked him about it."It caught me off guard, because I had never thought about what I was doing as a career," Marsalis recalled during a 2001 interview."Had she said 'teaching career, ' I probably would have answered commensurate with what I was doing there.

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"But when she said 'jazz career, ' I'm thinking, 'I got a career in jazz? Well, I guess maybe I do.'"Ellis Marsalis most definitely had a career in jazz. For decades, he made music that was elegant and intelligent, playful and poignant.

But just as importantly, he also enabled many other people to have a career in jazz as well.Marsalis, who died last Wednesday at age 85 of pneumonia that his family believes was brought on by the novel coronavirus, spent countless hours in high school and college classrooms, empowering students to shape their own sound and destiny.

His lessons went beyond musical notes and chord progressions. Jazz is not just about music, he emphasised – jazz is about life.He taught by example. By his presence. By his modesty. By his devotion to his craft and his students. By his seriousness. By his intellectual curiosity, accompanied by a sly wit and smile. By his convictions. By his quiet authority that inspired both respect and a desire to excel.

Many of his former pupils went on to excel at the highest levels, including multi-disciplinary star Harry Connick Jr. and Oscar-nominated trumpeter and composer Terence Blanchard.The Late Show With Stephen Colbertbandleader Jon Batiste considered him a mentor, as did so many more musicians.

He and his wife, Dolores, who were married from 1959 until her death in 2017, raised six sons. Ellis Marsalis III is a photographer and poet. Another son, Mboya, has special needs. The remaining four carved out their own musical careers: saxophonist Branford, trumpeter Wynton, trombonist Delfeayo and drummer and vibraphonist Jason.

The sons now inherent a profound legacy.Their grandfather, Ellis Marsalis Sr., operated the Marsalis Motel in Jefferson Parish from 1943 to 1986. During segregation, it hosted the likes of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Ray Charles.Ellis Marsalis Jr. charted his own course in music, from playing saxophone in high school to playing jazz piano on the side with fellow classical music students at Dillard University.

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His approach over the years was both philosophical – he was famous for long monologues that could encompass many topics -- and practical.During the mid-1970s, he was hired to play in the atrium of the Hyatt Regency hotel, even before the upper floors were complete. While some musicians might have thought playing"background music" in such a setting wasn't important, Marsalis believed otherwise.

"That job helped me to appreciate that an audience doesn't have to be somebody who is sitting there in a chair, completely engrossed in whatever it is that you think is great about your playing," he once said."If you can play and it enhances an activity -- conversation, some kind of work, whatever -- this is part of what it is you are about. Don't go play in an atrium or a club with a concert hall mentality and think that people are supposed to be paying attention."

Years later, he passed on that lesson to his young charges at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts. In the real world, he emphasised, their precious music more often than not would not be performed in a pristine environment. So he coached them to remain focused even when visitors popped into the classroom.

"I'd tell them, 'If you can't concentrate on what you're doing just because that door opened, you're in the wrong business. How are you gonna make it in a club when people are clicking glasses, jingling cash registers and all the rest of that?'"

He practiced what he preached. In the 1960s, he was in two different combos that performed at the Playboy Club on Iberville Street in the French Quarter. Years later, he'd claim he was so attuned to the music that he didn't notice the Playboy"bunnies" working the room.

Making a living as a jazz musician, then as now, was not easy. Marsalis released his debut album of modern jazz,Monkey Puzzle, in 1963 on Harold Battiste's AFO Records. But to make a steady income, he hit the road as a member of trumpeter Al"Jumbo" Hirt's band.

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That job paid an unexpected dividend. Hirt had an endorsement deal with LeBlanc trumpets; Wynton Marsalis' very first trumpet was a LeBlanc horn from Hirt.In the mid-80s, New Orleans' oil-busted economy depleted music clubs; musicians fled the city in droves. When Virginia Commonwealth University offered Marsalis a teaching position in 1986, he moved to Richmond.

Two years later, Gregory O'Brien, then the University of New Orleans' chancellor, recruited Marsalis to help build a new degree program in jazz studies. The offer brought Marsalis home for good.For 13 years, he led the UNO program as it moulded scores of young musicians. He was a hands-on professor, inviting students to sit in during his weekly Friday night gig at the Frenchmen Street jazz club Snug Harbor.

Meanwhile, Columbia Records and Sony released a steady stream of his albums: Read more: The Star »

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