by Bill DeYoung
August 31, 2010
In New Orleans music circles, if your last name is Marsalis (or, for that matter, Neville) you have a reputation to live up to.
Jason Marsalis is well aware that his family name carries certain expectations. The youngest of Ellis and Delores Ferdinand Marsalis’ six sons, the spotlight swung to him when he began playing jazz professionally at the age of 12. He’s 33 now, and clear of the shadow of his famous dad – and of his brothers Wynton, Delfeayo and Branford.
He’s an expressive, innovative drummer, and composer, and a restlessly creative musician, and on Sunday he’ll introduce a new quintet at a concert inside the Mansion on Forsyth Park. With this group, Marsalis plays the vibraphone.
(The Jason Marsalis Quintet also has a gig Friday and Saturday nights at the Jazz Corner in Hilton Head.)
Recently, heads turned and eyes bugged when Marsalis made a tongue–in–cheek “public service announcement,” in the form of an online video, in which he railed against “Jazz Nerds International,” young musicians who are into pushing the boundaries of jazz for what he believes are all the wrong reasons.
Your mantra has always been “jazz has got to keep moving forward.” What do you mean?
Jason Marsalis: If anything, there are probably those who are accusing me of trying to move it backwards right now!
I’ve caused a lot of buzz lately in the jazz world because of this Internet video. The thing about it is, the music is always going to move forward. It may not be in mainstream culture right now, but it’s always going to move forward, and there’s always going to be people bringing in other ideas. So it’s going to happen whether we want it to or not.
The video has to do with music students who reduce the music of jazz to an intellectual exercise. And they’re only attracted to the abstract elements of the music. That’s all it is.
For example, if a nerd was to hear the music of James Brown, their response would probably be “Oh, this has two chords. So what?” They’re not gonna get that there’s a strong groove, and that there’s people dancing to it. All they want to hear is the complex elements while ignoring the simple elements.
There’s music students like that all the time.
That’s the opposite of what music is, don’t you think? It’s supposed to make you feel.
Jason Marsalis: Exactly. My whole point is that there’s a lot of things that jazz music can do, and will do. Whether it has to do with swingin’ out, or a groove, or a ballad, or mellow or angry, there’s a lot of emotions that the music has. My view is that all of those moods should be explored.
But the nerd tends to look at one thing: How can we play as abstract and innovative as possible, and we’re not interested in anything else. Because it’s already been done, and we need to move on as quick as possible.
Why did you start playing vibes? You’ve described the instrument as “melodic percussion” – was it a logical step from the drums?
Jason Marsalis: I wanted to do it because there was a lot with vibes that hadn’t been said. There’s a lot that has been contributed, but there’s much more to be done. There haven’t been as many jazz vibraphonists as there have been jazz trumpet players, or jazz saxophonists, or jazz pianists.
There’s other possibilities with that instrument that you cannot explore on drums. Now I will say that on drums, there’s vocabulary that can be contributed in terms of rhythm, and in terms of space – which not a lot of drummers are really addressing.
But with vibes, there’s a lot that you can do with a melody that you can’t do with drums. A lot of the songs that I write for my vibes group, it’s different from the music I write if I’m playing drums leading a group. Because I have the melody, and I have to be sure I’m playing the melody correctly. With drums, that isn’t the case.
Why do you think some people find a direct line to music, as opposed to, say, dreaming of becoming a doctor or some other career?
Jason Marsalis: The stories I’ve heard are that I was into music as a kid, I mean age 3. According to my parents, I was just loving music as a toddler.
As I grew up, my brothers were making records – and I actually liked those records – and after a while I started to love the drums. And I wanted to play the drums.
I was around it a lot, but I believed it and I wanted to contribute something to it.
And being in the city of New Orleans, there’s a lot of music and culture that isn’t available in other places. In defense of those jazz nerds, they don’t get a lot of access to jazz as a fun music; jazz as a way to make people dance.
You had a family name to live up to. Did your parents ever say “Aw, you’re just the little brother”?
Jason Marsalis: Not in the music sense. Now, in the life sense, that’s a little bit of a different story!
I think it’s because I played a rhythm section instrument. So if anything, that was seen as being different from Wynton and Branford. From what I was told.
That’s one. Two, I had the belief and talent in music at a very early age.