by Fred Jung
Having the last name Marsalis amounts to having the distinction of being a Kennedy in American politics. There is a good deal of pressure that comes with being a Marsalis and a certain amount of preconceived biases and expectations. It comes with the territory being the son of Ellis and the younger brother of Branford, Wynton, and Delf. But Jason, the drummer in the family, seems to be handling it all in stride. I spoke with the young Marsalis from his home in New Orleans about being a Marsalis and his new album on Basin Street. It is a portrait of a Marsalis, unedited and in his own words.
FRED JUNG: Let’s start from the beginning.
JASON MARSALIS: I got started playing jazz as a kid when I was six years old. That is when I started playing drums. Jazz music was always something I loved. I loved listening to it and knew that it was something I wanted to play as well. Plus, I had great family support. That was how I really started out playing in New Orleans.
FJ: Was it by process of illumination, with your father Ellis playing piano, Wynton playing trumpet, Branford, saxophone, and Delf, trombone?
JASON MARSALIS: Well, that had nothing to do with it, as far as what my other family members were playing (laughing). The first instrument I played with the violin. That was really my first instrument. My father got some sort of deal through the elementary school that I was attending at the time. When I was three, my mother and father used to play this game with me. They actually had a toy drum set. They had a toy drum set and they would always introduce me like I was on some performance stage or something. They would say, “Ladies and gentlemen, we now present to you, the great, wonderful Jason.” I would start banging away. I guess that maybe stuck in my mind somehow, but I eventually choose that instrument a year after playing the violin.
FJ: In a past life, I played the violin, so I am empathetic to your switch.
JASON MARSALIS: Well, when I first started playing the violin, it was hard to play, but I kind of liked playing it. I wasn’t the most serious musician, but I liked playing it. Years later, when I was about twelve years old, a lot of things happened. The instrument got more difficult and I was losing interest and I was also more interested in classical percussion. That had to do with us moving to Richmond, Virginia for three years, which had no jazz scene. I had always played in these student orchestras and I believe it was my last year in Richmond. I was in this youth orchestra and I believe it was the first orchestra that I was in that actually had a percussion section. I was upset that I wasn’t in the percussion section because that is where I wanted to be. To make matters worse, one of the guys playing timpani didn’t know what he was doing. He was playing all kinds of wrong notes and the conductor couldn’t hear it. The violin was getting more difficult as far as playing second position and I was getting less and less interested in playing the violin. I wanted to pursue percussion and so when we moved back to New Orleans, which was the summer of ’89, that is when I decided that I was not going to play violin anymore. However, Fred, I did want to study percussion in classical music.
FJ: Did you feel any pressure at all from the expectations of being a Marsalis?
JASON MARSALIS: Nope. None what so ever. The only time when there is pressure is if I was doing music and I didn’t want to and I only felt like I did it just to either please the family or I felt like I had to live up to something, but that wasn’t happening at all. I loved playing music. Music was something I loved doing. The only pressure that could be possible is maybe living up to a certain legacy and even then, that didn’t affect me at all.
FJ: You worked with your father’s trio for a lengthy period of time, what knowledge did he impart upon you?
JASON MARSALIS: The first thing I learned playing in his trio was how to play on a ballad and how difficult playing on a ballad was. That was one of the first things. The second thing was how to play in a jazz trio, which took me a minute to conceptualize. I also gained a certain respect for standards.
FJ: Is that an aspect many younger musicians are ignoring?
JASON MARSALIS: Oh of course, absolutely. That is a lot of the problem with a lot of younger musicians today is that there is a lack of knowledge as far as jazz history is concerned across the board. I have to do more work on it myself, just learning drum solos and learning more drum vocabulary. You find musicians now who don’t know a lot of standard songs.
FJ: Why do you feel that is?
JASON MARSALIS: The reason that is, is because those standard songs were the popular songs of my father’s day, which is why it is that he and my mother, who does not play music, knows those songs better than I do. Those were the popular songs of their day, coming from those musicals. I learn part of this from playing with my father. A lot of the younger musicians don’t know a lot of those songs.
FJ: Is that detrimental to their progress overall as musicians?
JASON MARSALIS: It can be. You have to have some sort of historical background in order to really play the music. If not that, than definitely learn the vocabulary of the music and the history of the music. Even when learning the vocabulary of the music, eventually, you will have to learn standards. Those are the songs and tunes that those musicians play. Be it Louis Armstrong or Bud Powell or Charlie Parker, the songs that they were playing were all standards anyway.
FJ: Let’s touch on Los Hombres Calientes.
JASON MARSALIS: First off, I want to make that straight off the bat because there are a lot of misunderstanding that it is my band, which it really isn’t. It was a band that was put together by Irvin Mayfield. He was the one who put the band together. I remember he called me one day. It was like January of ’98 and he told me about this gig that he was going to do. When he told me about it, “I said that is great.” Bill Summers would have these percussion meetings every Saturday at his house and other percussionists would get together and play Cuban rhythms and I learned a lot from those meetings. When Irvin called me about that gig, I asked him if he had been to Bill’s house and he said, “No.” I said, “Well, that is something you need to go check out before you even do the gig.” He went over there and he was really the one that put the band together.
FJ: Let’s touch on the two volumes you recorded for Basin Street.
JASON MARSALIS: Well, I hated Volume One and I still do to be honest with you, Fred. The reason for that was because that record was done straight out of the band’s first gig. We did one gig and bam, we were recording. At the time, I thought it was a little rushed and I was like, “Hold on. We just got started. We can’t just start recording.” The way recorded it, a lot of the musicians we not comfortable. We did a lot of overdubbing more so than live playing. Also too, the sound wasn’t that great either, which I think had to do with the equipment that was being used. Also, the spirit of the band was not captured on Volume One. That is something that a lot of people did hear when they heard the band live and then heard the record. They would always comment on how the band was better live and how we needed to do a live record and I would say, “No, we just need to get better. That is all it is.” So when we did the second record, which is much better, the band had been playing for a long time and we were more prepared to do the second album. Also, another thing is that we explored more genres. The first record is mostly Cuban based. So I told him that for the next record, we need to expand on that. We need to have a reggae tune, some samba stuff, funk tunes, and expand beyond the Cuban sound.
FJ: And your own debut, Year of the Drummer.
JASON MARSALIS: There was still some experience that I still needed to gain in working in the studio, which comes through time. Other than that, I was comfortable in some aspects because I had done some studio work and so I was pretty prepared. As far as how the album came out, I thought it came out pretty good. There were still some things that needed to be worked on, such as sound production and so forth. That is something you learn over time.
FJ: Let’s talk about your latest, Music in Motion.
JASON MARSALIS: My new album is coming out tomorrow. That record is also better than Year of the Drummer as far as sound production and as far as the band is concerned. The band on the last record wasn’t quite as prepared as the one on the new one. The difference is we had a lot of chances to play it and we did a lot of gigs.
FJ: It is comprised entirely of your own compositions.
JASON MARSALIS: One of the advantages that I had is fortunately I have had brothers who have made a lot of records and they can do whatever they want. On Basin Street, I was able to do whatever I wanted. Mark, the owner of the label, trusted me and so I did do that. But I did want to go in and record original music.
FJ: You also produced the recording. What were some of the non-musical tick tacks you had to concern yourself with?
JASON MARSALIS: Well, I had to oversee the sound. What order the tunes went in. The artwork and so forth. The actual putting together of the CD.
FJ: Do you enjoy producing?
JASON MARSALIS: Yes, I do. I learned a bit about if, obviously from Delfeayo. I do think that as far as producing goes, there is still some things about the sound and technical things that I am still not as quite knowledgeable with. The engineer would run the board and I would guide him as to how I wanted it to sound.
FJ: What is the role of a good drummer?
JASON MARSALIS: The role of a drummer is to keep the groove. The drummer supports the band. This is the same thing whether it is jazz, rap, R&B, whatever. The drums is what supports the group. The drums is what drives everything. In jazz music, the drums can go beyond that role. In order to go beyond that, you have to understand it. You have to understand the original role. There are things that the drummer can do within that role that can change. Sometimes, there have been instances that drums can be really flexible with the time and as far as one, two, three, four and as far as the pulse is concerned. There are some people, particularly horn players who don’t like that. There are horn players out there who want you to keep everything the same. They just want something that is comfortable for them to solo over.
FJ: How would you describe New Orleans?
JASON MARSALIS: The music. I will give you one example, Fred. I was watching Boomerang in North Carolina, visiting some friends and there was a scene where Eddie Murphy is at a club and the Rebirth Brass Band was playing. I was like, “Rebirth, oh man, OK.” The people that were watching were like, “Who?” Rebirth is big in New Orleans, but they don’t know what I am talking about. The funny thing is, the next day, I was at a CD Superstore and one of the guys that worked there and said, “You have seen the movie Boomerang. What was that band?” I said, “Rebirth Brass Band. Their records are on Rounder Records.” That has happened again, with that same band. In New Orleans, they are just really big and that is how it is in New Orleans, period.
FJ: What is the coolest thing about being a Marsalis?
JASON MARSALIS: I never thought of that as meaning anything. To be honest, Fred, family is just family. That is all that is. And plus, there are people that identify things with “Marsalis,” that frankly, doesn’t make much sense and is a waste of time. Especially like philosophical views in music. This whole nonsense about being a purist musician and what not. Some people associate that with Marsalis and that is really stupid, but there are fools out there doing it. I remember when I was in college, I was listening to some fusion records, the real fusion not that Eighties trash, like Return to Forever and Weather Report. Some other college student, who was a jerk to be honest with you, he says, “Yeah, man, it is good to see that you are into fusion.” I asked him why that was and why that was an issue. He said, “You are from a purist family.” I was like, “What with people like Branford? He is a purist?” There are these views that people associate with Marsalis and family. That is really just a waste of time. The family is full of individuals.