Music master Jason Marsalis helps students hone chops for competition
by Kia Hall Hayes
New Orleans Times-Picayune
March 6, 2008
Gearing up for a national competition next month, the Fontainebleau High School Jazz Band on Wednesday got a visit from a music master and a lesson on “the groove.”
The band has been invited to compete with 11 other bands in the Swing Central Jazz Band Competition, which is being held April 3-5 during the Savannah Music Festival in Georgia. Band Director Lee Hicks said it will be biggest competition in which the 20-member band has participated.
“Some of (the schools) are very well-known,” Hicks said, citing the New World School of the Arts in Miami, Fla. “We’re not going up against lightweights.”
To help the participants, the festival organizers dispatched professional musicians to rehearse with the various bands and offer constructive criticism. Jason Marsalis — a son of jazz great Ellis, brother of fellow musicians Wynton, Branford and Delfeayo, and a member of the Marcus Roberts Trio — was assigned to Fontainebleau.
A jazz drummer, Marsalis has played with world-renowned musicians such as Joe Henderson and Lionel Hampton and co-founded the Latin jazz group Los Hombres Calientes. In addition to playing on numerous group recordings, Marsalis has two albums under his name and continues to play with his famous family.
Hicks, who plays professionally with the John Mahoney Big Band in New Orleans, said he hoped Marsalis, who also is one of the competition judges, would help “improve the groove.”
“Just to get another opinion on how to make the music feel better,” he said.
Hicks said competing with accomplished music programs and receiving feedback from musicians such as Marsalis will be a valuable learning experience for the band, which won the Fiesta-Val Music Festival in Chicago, Ill., last year. The winning band will receive up to $5,000 for its school’s program.
To raise money for the trip, the Fontainebleau Jazz Band will perform with local musicians in a benefit concert at the high school on March 14 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $10.
Jazz pianist Ben Alleman, 17, said he was excited about Marsalis’ visit. He has seen the world-renowned drummer and his father perform in New Orleans and bought the Ellis Marsalis Quartet compact disc.
Alleman was grateful for the performance advice from someone of Marsalis’ pedigree.
“The groove,” he said, is very important for jazz bands. “That’s what gets the people up and gets them dancing,” he said.
Jazz guitar player Sam Chin, 16, said “the groove” is kind of like “the Force.”
If you feel it, you feel good,” he said. “It’s like ‘clean.’ It’s something you feel when you play well.”
Marsalis wasted no time getting band members attuned to his directives.
Bobbing his head along as the band rehearsed Jerome Richardson’s “Groove Merchant,” Marsalis had the different sections of the band work on shortening and then broadening their notes. He encouraged “flexibility with the rhythm” that they embraced.
“The name of the piece is ‘Groove Merchant,’ and that’s what you guys are going to have to do, is groove,” he said.
After having the reed, brass and percussion sections go through the piece separately, and at one point jumping on the drums and playing with band, Marsalis had the young musicians play the song together.
Heads bobbed, and toes tapped. The 1968 song was full of swing, bounce and brass.
In a word, it grooved.
Marsalis said the song sounded better, and that the broadening of the notes had helped.
Hicks said he noticed a definite improvement.
“I mean the groove wasn’t bad before, but I think the groove is going to get even better,” he said.