Tag Archives: Ellis Marsalis

Jason Marsalis heads to San Francisco with Vibes Quartet

by Andrew Gilbert
San Jose Mercury News
December 2, 2014

For a jazz musician, hailing from the Marsalis family carries obvious benefits, and certain specific challenges. With the achievement bar set dauntingly high, Marsalis siblings risk being ridiculed or simply ignored if they don’t measure up.

Jason Marsalis, the youngest of the illustrious New Orleans clan of musicians who were collectively named NEA Jazz Masters in 2011, defied long odds by racking up a singular set of accomplishments unequaled by his father, pianist and educator Ellis Marsalis, and his older brothers, saxophonist Branford, trumpeter Wynton and trombonist/producer Delfeayo.

A standout drummer as a teenager who went on to play an essential role in two celebrated ensembles, the Marcus Roberts Trio and Los Hombres Calientes, he’s come into his own as a bandleader playing an entirely different instrument, the vibraphone. The Jason Marsalis Vibes Quartet opens a four-night run at the SFJazz Center’s Joe Henderson Lab on Dec. 4.

Marsalis credits his father with planting the seed for his instrumental transformation. “He suggested I take up the vibraphone when I was in high school, but that was in a classical context,” says Marsalis, 37, from his home in New Orleans. “Years later, I became more serious about exploring my own music on the vibes, and I started to hear a sound that I wanted.”


Marsalis recently released his second album with the Vibes Quartet, “21st Century Trad Band” (Basin Street Records), and the project is something of a manifesto. Featuring an excellent but still evolving young band with pianist Austin Johnson, bassist Will Goble and drummer David Potter, the group is very much a reflection of Marsalis’ chronologically encompassing aesthetic.

In jazz, “trad” means traditional New Orleans jazz from the first decades of the 20th century. While the style came to be called Dixieland when it experienced a popular revival decades later, in New Orleans the polyphonic group improvisation associated with trad was never eclipsed by later developments like big band swing and bebop.

But few jazz musicians of Marsalis’ generation (or the two or three previous) are familiar with trad. He found his current crew, all of whom hail from North Carolina, as impressionable undergrads at Florida State University, where he was an artist in residence with the Marcus Roberts Trio in 2003.

“Musicians today are not going to be comfortable with trad, but these guys had a certain respect for that style,” he says. “When I would call a trad tune like ‘Hindustan,'” a piece first recorded in 1918, “they enjoyed playing it. They don’t look down on it as an old style that doesn’t pertain to them.”

More than anything, Marsalis’ beautifully calibrated group approach flows from his formative experience with pianist Marcus Roberts, who spent nearly a decade in Wynton Marsalis’ band. Jason joined Roberts’ trio at 17 as a drummer, and he’s played a crucial role in the development of the group’s balletic control of dynamics, tempo and texture.

If Roberts instilled in Marsalis an orchestral and narrative approach to the trap set, his experience in Los Hombres Calientes, which he cofounded with Headhunters percussionist Bill Summers and trumpeter Irvin Mayfield, provided a high-performance vehicle designed to explore the African rhythm continuum from the motherland to the vast New World African Diaspora.

“I was interested in world music, Afro-Cuban, Brazilian and Haitian music, and Los Hombres came at the right time,” Marsalis says. “As a drummer, it helped open up my drum playing.”

Just because he’s turned over the drum kit to another player in the Vibes Quartet doesn’t mean he isn’t acutely attuned to every rhythmic detail.

He took drummer Dave Potter under his wing when the young percussionist started asking him questions. It’s a high-pressure situation for a young player, but Potter has embraced the challenge, and most nights he’s flourishing. And if the drummer’s taking care of business, a jazz band is more than halfway home.

“Jason’s concept of the group is definitely like an amalgamation of all the groups he’s played with, and also his family,” Potter says. “From Marcus, there’s the focus on dynamics and variation, with arrangements that are extremely tight and well orchestrated. But Jason also gets a lot from Branford’s and Wynton’s earlier groups, being very spontaneous when the improv sections begin. He wants the group to have the freedom to go any direction that the music takes us.”


Jason Marsalis’ Eager Curiosity Drives the Constant Student

by Geraldine Wyckoff
offBeat Magazine
November 1, 2014

When drummer/vibraphonist Jason Marsalis and his brother, trombonist Delfeayo, met with noted journalist and musician Leonard Feather in 1992 to participate in a “Before & After” article for JazzTimes magazine, the two knowledgeable musicians were more than ready for the challenge: Name the artist heard performing a selection of Feather’s choice.

Jason Marsalis, Photo by Elsa Hahne, OffBeat Magazine, November 2014“This is how the test started,” Jason recalls, smiling at the memory. “He said, ‘Okay, here we go,’ and presses the play button and in two seconds I turned to Delfeayo and said, ‘That’s the late Art Blakey, you know that, right?’ Leonard Feather was very surprised by that. Then Delfeayo and I were trying to figure out who was in the band—that was our whole thing.”

Those who remember reading the article know that Jason and Delfeayo nailed every tune and artist that Feather presented. That Jason jumped in so quickly doesn’t come as a surprise to those who know him and have followed his career as a drummer, vibraphonist, composer and producer. He’s a constant student with an eager curiosity to absorb all there is to know about the music and particularly about the jazz musicians who came before.

Marsalis is quite emphatic when it comes to the importance of looking back to the masters in order to really play jazz as it should be played. He frowns a bit on those artists who don’t do their homework.

“I feel to get to write the best music that you can, the more music that you study and the more possibilities that you are aware of, give you the knowledge that you can create anything you want to create,” Marsalis explains. “Let’s say you have a musician who is influenced by Wynton’s [his brother, trumpeter Wynton Marsalis] first quintet but they’re not studying Miles’ [trumpeter Miles Davis] second quintet or John Coltrane’s quartet. They fall short. I’ve always been interested in what it is that the musicians checked out. To me, that’s how you get to the greater substance.”

Marsalis’ formidable knowledge can also be attributed to being a member of the musical Marsalis family. As the son of pianist and educator Ellis Marsalis and the brother of saxophonist Branford, Wynton and Delfeayo, music, and particularly jazz, has always been central to his everyday life. Jason also had access to an in-house demonstration on the discipline that is required to play jazz.

“Everybody, at the end of the day, is serious about their craft and they believe in getting to the substance of the music, or whatever they’re trying to do,” Marsalis explains. “I think that comes from my father, because he has a holistic view of music and life. There were definitely words about the importance of practice and of being thorough.”

Marsalis chuckles a bit when he adds that his father always comes forth with a lot of sayings and offers a few examples. “He always says, ‘There are those who have a view of the world and those who have a world view.’ Oh and also, ‘There are those who do know, there are those that don’t know, and there are those who don’t know there is something to know.’”

Marsalis, 37, began his musical journey at age seven studying classical violin. He’s quick to point out, however, that he was “reading classical music, not playing classical music. I wasn’t interpreting Bach’s music—I didn’t understand its importance.”

He did bang on a toy drum set when he was three and a few years later graduated to a legit set and began studying with New Orleans master-drummer James Black, who regularly played with his father. Because Marsalis was so young, his primary memory of the experience was Black recommending for him to read Stick Control, a book that Jason now calls “the bible of drum books.” Black’s lessons ended when the Marsalis family moved to Virginia in 1987 and didn’t move back to New Orleans until 1989. Black died on August 30, 1988.

Regulars at Snug Harbor remember Marsalis napping with his head on his mother Dolores Marsalis’ lap during his father’s gigs and then jumping excitedly to the stage when Ellis invited him to sit in. By 1984, he was already playing regularly with his dad as well in his brother Delfeayo’s band. The year 1992 marked his first recording appearances, performing on Delfeayo’s outstanding Pontius Pilate’s Decision, followed shortly thereafter on Ellis’ solid Heart of Gold.

An important development in Marsalis’ career came in 1995, when he began working with pianist Marcus Roberts, who had previously played in Wynton’s band. Jason’s drums are heard recording with Roberts for the first time on the pianist’s 1996 album, Portraits in Blue.

Marcus was very interested in presenting that jazz trio in a different way—he wanted to feature everybody,” says Marsalis, who continues to perform and record with Roberts. “That’s why I stayed with him so long. One of the things I’ve learned from him is about the use of space in music. I’ve learned, in a different way, of how to let the music take over.”

His desire to intensify his work with Roberts and be available to tour with him led to Marsalis leaving the very successful Los Hombres Calientes, a band he co-led with percussionist Bill Summers and trumpeter Irvin Mayfield. Marsalis, who in 1998 and 2000 performed on two albums with the group, credits Summers for his first introduction to the “details” of African and Afro-Cuban music. It was in 1998 that Marsalis put out his first album under his own name, Year of the Drummer, which, like the Los Hombres’ albums and his next three solo endeavors, were released on Basin Street Records.

Marsalis is at the top of his game on his new album, The 21st Century Trad Band, as a vibraphonist and composer. He digs into his deep wealth of musical knowledge to produce a fresh sound with deep roots. Like the rest of his musically talented family, Marsalis has strong opinions and shares them here.

The title of your new album, The 21st Century Trad Band, is rather unusual and, considering the music, could be misleading to those who might interpret it as performing New Orleans traditional jazz material in a modern way. That actually is not quite the case.

It’s really inspired, honestly, by a lot of debate that people have had over the music for the last 30 years—maybe even longer than that. I think that it is about this whole idea of people who talk about moving music forward. What they say is that it is important to move forward; you must never look back. I think it’s possible to do both things. I don’t think one is mutually exclusive from the other.

From my experience, [that philosophy] really intensified in the 1980s, following the jazz-fusion period, when you had musicians who wanted to deal with more swing and acoustic music. Then you had those, especially coming out of fusion, who hated that. Their criticism of it was interesting because they felt this was moving backwards. I even heard one person complain, saying, ‘In the ’70s, those musicians had their eyes on the future. Everything was great until you young lions came and messed it all up. It was fine until y’all showed up.’”

If you’re from a place that has its own music—whether it’s New Orleans or Brazil—you believe in passing the traditions on. And you then believe in what you can do new with those traditions. Other places that may not have their own folk music, so to speak, then the conversation is, “What’s the next thing?” I think any debate about music is about that.

The album art is really fun with the depiction of all you guys as superheroes. It reminded me of Wayne Shorter saying that he had all these action figures in his studio—a hilarious image. How did y’all decide on that?

The drummer in my group, David Potter, was offering these suggestions about what the next record cover should be. He said, “Yeah, we ought to do a real crazy album cover, maybe something like Branford’s cover for Crazy People Music.” I said, “Yeah, I think maybe I will do something animated, maybe superheroes or something.”

So my wife was asking what we’re going to do about the cover since when the band was in town we didn’t take any photos. I said, “I thought we’d use artwork, have it illustrated or something.” “Are you all going to be superheroes or something?” she asked jokingly. I said, “Yeah, that’s it.”

Your last two albums have been with your Vibes Quartet. Though in New Orleans you lead your quartet, Drums Unlimited, on drums. It appears, at least from this perspective, that you’re getting more national attention as a leader on vibes and as a sideman, particularly with pianist Marcus Roberts, on drums.

That is mostly true. I’d say the difference, though, is mostly that I do have music that I’m writing for a band [the Vibes Quartet]. This album is saying that I have a band now and we have a repertoire of music and you will be hearing from us. I do think with the vibes I am getting more attention, because it is a melodic instrument and also it’s an instrument that’s still rather rare. Next year, that is going to change, because I’m writing the music for a documentary entitled Heirs and it’s music on drums and vibes.

It seems that there are more vibraphonists on the jazz scene. Do you think the instrument that for years many people associated just a few artists, like Lionel Hampton and Milt Jackson, is enjoying a rebirth?

Jason Marsalis, Photo by Elsa Hahne, OffBeat Magazine, November 2014It was 2000 when I decided I needed to start playing vibes—I had the instrument since high school after my father suggested that I take it because mainly I was heading in the direction of studying percussion. When I discovered percussion in classical music, the next year the violin came to an end. What studying classical percussion means is not just snare drum but tympani, triangle …

I was talking to my father [around 2000] and he said, “Have you heard this vibes player from UNO? His name is James Westfall.”

Then I was in Houston and someone told me about this vibes player, Roman Skelkun, who was coming to New Orleans. It went from zero [vibes players] in the city to three in a year.

That told me that, yeah, this instrument is coming back. There has been a national resurgence of those playing the vibes, including people like Stefon Harris, Mike Dillon, Warren Wolf and others.

Let’s talk about your quartet on The 21st Century Trad Band and 2013’s World of Mallets. One thing that stands out is that all of the instruments here are essentially rhythm instruments. What makes that work so well?

I do tend to think rhythmically for all of the instruments when I write. Studying drums and studying rhythms means you can use syncopation and accents in different ways compared to someone who doesn’t. Also, having played drums, I have a better understanding of what to do with the rhythm section or what to tell the drummer.

The 21st Century Trad Band has a very upbeat mood as did last year’s In a World of Mallets. Of course, the most obvious realization of that is your wonderfully quirky tune, “The Man with Two Left Feet,” which you also played with your Drums Unlimited band recently. Is there any explanation why happiness feels so pronounced?

The reason is that I’ve found musicians who want to play the music that I’m playing and who are dedicated to playing it. We were on tour before we did the record—the first one and the second—so the guys are seeing that I’m really into this for the long haul. Also, the guys are hungry. They’re hungry to play and they’re hungry to succeed. That’s why there’s an upbeat sort of aura to the record.

I believe that all moods in music should be captured—happiness, sadness—but the point is that I do have a more upbeat perspective on where things are going with my music and the music in general. There’s a lot to be done. I’ll admit seven or eight years ago I didn’t have that same view. I’ve gotten to see more alternatives here and there.

You tend to quote [putting snippets of other tunes in a song] quite a bit when you play. Your father adds quotes a lot, too, and I noticed that pianist Austin Johnson also does. Decades back, in the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s, quoting was quite popular in jazz, so it’s kind of old school. It often brings a smile.

Yes, there is a good bit of quoting. I think it’s important to do that because you’re playing melodies. It shows that you have a sense of humor and also shows the music that you’re aware of. You’re not just thinking of only playing the correct notes, or the correct harmonies, or the correct chord changes. You’re trying to create music and create melodies. [Quoting was used more back then] because musicians then knew more music and they learned more music. Unfortunately, in my generation, you find musicians don’t learn as much music. A lot of times, they learn what’s on the gig and they don’t learn to become a better musician.

You accomplish many different tonal qualities from the vibes though, as you explained, you did utilize a few “disciplined overdubs” of other instruments to create a “percussion ensemble” effect.

In terms of the sound of the vibraphone, it did take me a while to develop a really pure tone and I’m still working on it. Sound is something that Marcus Roberts and I used to talk about a lot, because that’s very important to him. I remember practicing scales and I was playing really light and I liked the sound. I said, “Okay this is what I need to do.” So I started working on playing relaxed and not hitting the bar as hard—you don’t hear the attack, you hear the tone.

Many New Orleans jazz fans have watched Jason Marsalis, who graduated from the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts (NOCCA) and attended both Loyola University and the Eastern Music Festival, grow from a promising young drummer to a talent to be reckoned with on drums, vibes and as a composer. His skills merge mightily on the adventurous The 21st Century Trad Band, a comprehensive album that pops with spirited virtuosity from, as Jason describes them, all of the “hungry” guys in the band.

Jason believes that his, as well as Marcus Roberts’, continued hungry approach towards the music can be attributed to the belief that “there is a lot of success yet to come. For us, the enthusiasm is still there because there is still something to achieve.”

Currently, Marsalis’ focus is primarily on the Vibes Quartet, though in October he played several dates at Snug with Drums Unlimited that included pianist Johnson and two recent New Orleans transplants that were one-time students at Florida State University. With the usual bounce in his step, Marsalis bounded onto the stage and the group opened with the standard “After You’ve Gone” before heading into some original material. With Marsalis behind the drums, it was up to pianist Johnson to supply the melodic quotes.

A versatile artist, Marsalis is wide open to all music. In recent years, he’s been performing traditional New Orleans jazz more often at meccas of the music like Preservation Hall and Palm Court. He continues to play and record with saxophonist John Ellis’ jocular jazz band, Double Wide, and he stepped back a bit to his classic roots in 2011, when the Marcus Roberts Trio performed George Gershwin’s “Concerto in F” with the Saito Kinen Orchestra.

Marsalis’ encyclopedic brain, which served him so successfully for Leonard Feather’s “Before & After” test, was revealed in the classical genre one day when he stopped into OffBeat Managing Editor Joseph Irrera’s office. They chatted about classical music, as Irrera is a knowledgeable fan. Much to Irrera’s amazement, Marsalis began vocalizing nearly the entire first movement of Mahler’s “Symphony No. 2—The Resurrection,” reproducing all of the orchestra sounds with his voice and smacking his lips for the timpani part.

Marsalis’ head is full of music—be it jazz, classical, or any other genre that is built on a solid foundation of knowledge and played with a hungry spirit. He’s up for the challenge.

The Joy of Violent Movement

by William Ruben Helms
The Joy of Violent Movement
September 24, 2014

There are certain artists who are immediately synonymous with a particular location. You think of Bruce Springsteen, you immediately think of New Jersey, and of the venerable, Stone Pony in Asbury Park, NJ; The Ramones, The Talking Heads, Television and Blondie should bring to mind the grittiness of the old, Lower East Side and of CBGB’s; Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden and Mudhoney should bring to mind 1980s and 1990s Seattle, WA; and as soon as you think of the venerable Marsalis clan, you should immediately think of New Orleans.

Certainly, if you know anything about anything about jazz — hell, about music over the past 50-60 years or so — you know that the Marsalis family have made a tremendous impact on jazz and on music. Patriarch, Ellis Marsalis is a legendary pianist and educator; Branford Marsalis is a world-renowned saxophonist who has not only played alongside Sting, but has long been known as a forward-thinking and brash giant of contemporary jazz; Wynton Marsalis has made a name for himself for his attempts at preserving and honoring jazz’s tremendous history; Delfeayo Marsalis is a renowned trumpeter; and the youngest of the clan, Jason Marsalis has toured with Bela Fleck and pianist Marcus Roberts. (Interestingly, if you consider how both Wynton and Bradford Marsalis come off in interviews and in public appearances, you’d think that Wynton was the eldest of the the incredibly talented family — wrong. It’s actually Bradford. You can use that bit in a trivia night, if it comes up.)

With the release of Jason Marsalis’s third album In a World of Mallets the youngest of the Marsalis clan returned to his role as composer and bandleader — and it served as the debut of the Jason Marsalis Vibes Quartet, featuring Will Goble (bass), Austin Johnson (piano) and David Potter (drums). And what made that album interesting was that the album’s material was comprised of incredibly complex but playfully witty compositions which managed to twist, turn, dart, flit about and play with pauses, time signature changes and key changes in ways that put a modern twist on classic jazz.

Basin Street Records will be releasing the second Jason Marsalis Vibes Quartet album, The 21st Century Trad Band on October 27, and with the release of the album’s first single, album title track, “The 21st Century Trad Band,” the album will continue to cement Marsalis’s reputation for playfully witty compositions that manage to be dense, complex and yet incredibly accessible. At one point, you’ll hear Marsalis playing the melody for “When the Saints Come Marchin’ In” for a few bars — right in the middle of the song that really swings and bobs with a sweet, amiable charm.

In a World of Mallets – liner notes by Philip Marshall

Jason Marsalis Vibes Quartet In a World of MalletsTradition. But not just tradition.

How do you pay serious and reverent homage to what has come before, and yet further all forms of music while teetering atop the shoulders of the giants who came before you? This is the question that Jason Marsalis addresses every waking moment of each day. However, this should not be surprising for one of the junior elder statesmen of jazz. And before you decry such a notion in your mind that anyone at age 35 could be an “elder statesman” as laughable at best, consider some of the more glaring fine points of his career. Jason Marsalis is the youngest member of what is considered to be New Orleans’ “First Family of Jazz”. To that end, he had the benefit of exposure to all forms of music and the wisdom and knowledge that had been distilled through his father, a performer and a university professor, and three musical brothers of the five in his family.

Jason Marsalis started taking drum lessons at age six with legendary New Orleans composer and drummer James Black. At age seven, he started playing publicly, sitting in with his father, as well as playing the 1984 World’s Fair with his brother, trombonist Delfeayo Marsalis. By 1986, he was playing Delfeayo’s recital at the Berklee College of Music; around which time he also first appeared on television, as well as taking the first of three lessons with Alan Dawson. By 1990, he was playing full shows, and was on TV again, this time doing a guest spot with Delfeayo, and their brother, saxophonist Branford Marsalis, and their father, pianist Ellis Marsalis, on Mister Rogers Neighborhood. His first recording was in 1991, for Delfeayo’s album Pontius Pilate’s Decision. It was also in 1991, that he covered for drumming force of nature, Jeff “Tain” Watts, on several of Branford’s gigs. This was followed by an appearance with Delfeayo in 1992, on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno; a show on which Branford’s quartet with Robert Hurst on bass, Kenny Kirkland on piano, and Watts on drums, were the “house band.” It wasn’t until 1994, that he played a full gig with his brother, trumpeter Wynton Marsalis’s septet; filling in for another native New Orleanian, the soulful, Herlin Riley. But that was not the highlight of that year, for 1994 was the first year that he joined pianist Marcus Roberts as a full time member of Roberts’ trio; the same trio that would, in 1996, begin working with Maestro Seiji Ozawa, addressing the George Gershwin compositions, Rhapsody in Blue, and Concerto in F. – A performance major at Loyola University in New Orleans, he dropped out of college in 1998 because he was too busy performing! It was also that same year he released his first album, Year of the Drummer, and co-formed the group Los Hombres Calientes, with trumpeter Irvin Mayfield and percussionist Bill Summers. As well that year, he produced his father’s Columbia Records release, Twelve’s It. In addition, he started playing traditional styles of jazz that year with clarinetist, Dr. Michael White. In 2000 he took to seriously studying vibraphone; an instrument he first obtained in 1993. Around the same time, he released his second album, Music in Motion. A last minute call from Wynton in 2001 to cover for Herlin Riley, resulted in the album with the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, All Rise. A televised 2003 concert in Berlin w/Seiji Ozawa and the Berliner Philharmoniker of Concerto in F, was turned into a DVD; then followed by a recording of the same piece with Ozawa and the Saito Kinen Orchestra, that was released only in Japan. In 2008, less than ten years after he started taking vibraphone seriously, and just over fifteen years after meeting and playing with Lionel Hampton for the first time, he was asked to fill Hamp’s roll on vibes, in A Celebration of Lionel Hampton, which has included such luminaries as, Dianne Schuur, Candido, Red Holloway, and Curtis Fuller. He recorded Duke Ellington’s Such Sweet Thunder, in 2009 with Delfeayo’s big band, following that with his first release as a leader on vibraphone, Music Update. In 2011, Ellis, Branford, Wynton, Delfeayo, and Jason, were collectively presented the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) Jazz Masters award; the first and so far only family of musicians to be presented with such an honor. By the close of 2012, he had recorded yet again with the Marcus Roberts trio, on collaboration with banjoist extraordinaire Béla Fleck, entitled, “Across the Imaginary Divide.”

It has been said, that, “birds of a feather flock together.” It has also been said, that “people judge you by the company you keep.” Judging from the company Jason Marsalis has been keeping, and adding up just these select few highlights of a career that is just shy of thirty years, the sum total shows that he is, without a doubt, a “junior elder statesmen of jazz.” – If you should disagree, then just go back and do the math again; it will come to you. So back to the question: How does one “pay serious and reverent homage to what has come before, and yet further all forms of music, while teetering atop the shoulders of the giants who came before you?” – For Jason Marsalis to even begin to answer such a difficult and loaded question, all begins with one word: discipline.

Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary, (in part), defines discipline as, “a field of study; training that corrects, molds and perfects mental faculties or moral character; self-control.” Jason Marsalis defines it as, “The ability to focus on one element that holds everything together.” Laying the foundational elements at each end of the recording, is the character of “Discipline,” who was introduced to us on Mr. Marsalis’s first recording and has appeared several times on each recording thereafter. Until now, the “Discipline” tracks have been a series of drum and percussion pieces, comprised of singular drum parts, recorded one on top of the other, (a process known as “over dubbing”), to form a one manned percussion ensemble. Each piece of music in the series, explores a different theme within the rich and varied world of rhythm and percussion.

Jason Marsalis and his quartet in a world of malletsIn the first track, a “through composed” piece entitled Discipline Discovers a World of Mallets, Mr. Marsalis takes the character into territory, personally uncharted heretofore, and is a very adept story teller. While the opening strains sound like the cacophony heard in a music room filled with first year percussion majors, this is actually the calculated intent. While the students practice, each lost in his own “world of mallets”, the tubular bells twice sound the notes of a clock’s chimes that signal the top of the hour, and therefore, the start of class. The students continue to play, until the bells sound the notes of a traditional New Orleans trumpet call; a signal to all musicians in the first line to pay attention to the leader, as the song is about to begin. – As the actual melody begins, we begin to get a glimpse of the wit, humor and irony that continually peppers Mr. Marsalis’s writing. Ever the merry prankster, both in his compositions as well as his soloing, this piece blends various musical ideas and sources that might not normally co-exist. Yet in the mind and hands of Mr. Marsalis, they tend to do so in a most harmonious fashion; both literally and figuratively. A non-traditional take on a traditional I – IV – V progression blues in the key of C, some of the more interesting interwoven elements happen within the second statement of the melody. The xylophone playing a key part of the overture from George Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess” (a ubiquitous percussion audition piece), the vibraphone playing a Lionel Hampton-esque boogie woogie, and hidden in plain sight, the glockenspiel playing the chorus of Enya’s “Orinoco Flow.” In January 2010, a video was uploaded to YouTube, in which Mr. Marsalis discusses what he terms the Jazz Nerds International, otherwise referred to as the “JNI.” As you might imagine would happen just by the mere virtue of having the last name “Marsalis”, the video caused a bit of a stir. In a post on Facebook, Mr. Marsalis defended his position and sought to further explain his terms. Blues Can Be Abstract Too, is nothing short of a repudiation of the idea that such things as blues, and swing are passé, and cannot be relevant within the current trends of jazz. Mr. Marsalis considers this to be nothing short of what he commonly refers to as “innovation propaganda.” – The tune, written in 4/4, explores abstraction in part, through tempo changes. Mr. Marsalis achieves this by alternating sections and phrases that are not “in time,” thereby capitalizing on the freedom from time just long enough to reset the tempo to something that is faster or slower. The first solo has Mr. Marsalis playing with a wild, yet calculated abandon, at a tempo that is around 300 beats per minute, or “bpm.” As the tempo changes to a medium swing feel for the second solo, pianist Austin Johnson, comes out of the gate sounding as if Thelonious Monk had been hired for the session. As the piano solo ends, at 3:30 Mr. Marsalis, (in what would be a seeming musical incursion to most), quotes the melody from the chorus of New Orleans’ rapper Mystikal’s Shake Ya Ass. Blues Can Be Abstract Too, is however, not the whole of the statement to the JNI, but merely a calling card; and one of many musical points to be made within this recording.

Ballet Class is the first of three compositions that have been re-recorded. The song’s classical influence is unmistakable, and is based upon the C-Major scale. While having a “classical” perspective, the tune is also improvised within a jazz context. Mr. Marsalis wanted to emphasize that, “classical music is rhythmic music.” (In point of fact, the song is loosely based on the feel of a “bolero”.) As well he wanted to note that classical music, as such, was not only a rhythmic music, but as well and at one point in time, “dance” music. In speaking with Mr. Marsalis, he told me that he felt the rhythmic aspects and complexities within classical music to be vastly misunderstood, under emphasized and undervalued; especially within educational circles, as it relates to the teaching of rhythm with regard to various “classical” styles. Mr. Marsalis wanted to take the classical elements of harmony, melody, and (in particular) rhythm, and approach them from a jazz perspective, thereby allowing the ensemble to move the music in various directions. Mr. Marsalis has found while performing this particular piece in various situations, and with various musicians, that anyone, of any musical background, can play within the framework of the song. In this particular musical setting, there is an effortless flow between the straight rhythmic feel of classical music, and the swing of jazz. Once again showing his ability to reference other pieces of music, thereby showing musical relation, as well as a wry sense of humor, look for quotations from: Sergei Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf, the main melody of the 2nd movement of Symphonie Fantastique by Hector Berlioz, and The Celebrated Chop Waltz by Euphemia Allen, more commonly known by the title, “Chopsticks.”

It has been said, that “inspiration is where you find it.” I am reasonably certain that many of us have some form of childhood association with the aforementioned tune, “Chopsticks.” And for many American children born after 1940, the Tom and Jerry cartoon series produced by William Hanna and Joseph Barbera, are equally as much a part of the childhood experience, if not more. In 1963, noted animator Chuck Jones, (late of Warner Brothers), took over the “Tom and Jerry” franchise. The release of the animated short feature, Puss n’ Boats, on April 4th, 1966, was the first of the Jones’ series of Tom and Jerry cartoons to feature the music of composer Carl Brandt. It was this “incidental” music that inspired Mr. Marsalis to compose the next piece, Characters. (The title is short for the term “cartoon characters.”) – As the story was relayed to me, Mr. Marsalis was watching the aforementioned cartoon, when he heard a motif that he found to be very interesting. However, as is the nature of such scoring, the motif in question did not last very long; much to his personal chagrin. So, Mr. Marsalis appropriated the motif, and built upon it. [The passage of music used as the basis for this piece can be heard between, 0:53-1:07 of the cartoon.] The result is this beautifully crafted ballad.

Blues for the 29%ers is the last of the three tunes previously recorded on Mr. Marsalis’s album, Music Update. The song’s title is in reference an article on the website crooksandliars.com, dated June 14th, 2007. The basic premise of the article was that America’s 43rd President’s job approval rating was down to an all-time low of 29%. At the same time, of the same over all group polled, only 19% believed America was “headed in the right direction.” In theory, this means that 10%, of the 29% who felt that Mr. Bush was “doing a good job,” seemed to feel that he was doing equally as good a job taking the country down the wrong path. As the “blues” is considered music of the people; and in particular, oppressed people everywhere, and therefore has inherent universality, it seemed only fitting to construct the tune within a blues framework. Hence the title of the tune, Blues for the 29%ers (Down to 19).

“Innovation propaganda,” (in Mr. Marsalis’s terms, and as it relates to jazz music), is the idea that the music must change, and that innovation (somehow) comes about, by almost completely foregoing all that has come before; in particular, blues and swing. If Blues Can Be Abstract Too was the opening musical salvo in eschewing such ideas regarding proposed “innovation” as non-sense, then the updated version of Blues for the 29%ers is only a further exposition of Mr. Marsalis’s point. Given the overall rhythmic complexity of this 4/4 blues in D-Flat, there is little doubt that card carrying members of the JNI, if actually trying to play or transcribe the tune, would find it harder than they had ever imagined a “blues” could be. – For starters, the form is 16 bars, and not the standard 12 bars. While the melody is being played on the vibraphone from the very start of the tune, (beat 1), the rhythm section does not come in until the 4th beat of that first measure. To further rhythmically challenge both player and listener, the entrance of the rhythm section is directly followed on vibraphone by one ¼ note triplet, which ends on beat 2. To the listener, beat 2 actually feels like beat 1, and therefore feels like the actual “top of the form” of the tune; though in reality it is not. This is one of the changes incorporated into this composition, which differentiates it from the previous recording. – Despite the rhythmic oddities, the song’s form resolves itself, back to beat 1, every second time through. As well, Mr. Marsalis realised that during the solos, he could use any of the melodies from the last 8 bars, as a cue to the rhythm section that there was about to be a break. During that small break for the rhythm section, Mr. Marsalis could chose to play one of the three melodies at a different tempo, thereby changing the feel and mood of the song. – Mr. Marsalis explains it this way, “During the last 8 bars, there is a riff that is repeated three times, in different keys. And what I realised was that I could play any three of those riffs to let the rhythm section know that when we get to bar 15 of the tune we will break for 2 bars, and within those two bars I’m going to play the melody to the tune, (the opening statement), but I could play it at whatever tempo I wanted to play it at.” In fact, as he changes the tempo, Mr. Marsalis (whether consciously or unconsciously) engages in metric modulation. This is in short, taking the current tempo, and subdividing the note’s value, (for example: cutting the note into one half or one third of its pulse value to make things slower, or possibly doubling the note’s value to make it faster), and thereby establishing an altogether different tempo, while still maintaining a linear and traceable basis from which the original tempo came. Mind you this is not a new device to be employed within a jazz context. Examples of metric modulation can be found on such recordings as Charles Mingus recording of Prayer for Passive Resistance from Mingus at Antibes, Bill EvansMy Bells from The Interplay Sessions, as well as the tune Father Time off Mr. Marsalis’s brother Wynton’s title album. This changing of tempos is the other change made to this song. – Still, it is the change back, from the 1/8 notes in the original version that allowed the melody to always resolve back to beat 1, to the ¼ triplet figure that now lands on beat 2, (thus causing it to feel as though it were beat 1), that is the conundrum to the ear. An aural “sleight of hand,” if you will. So much so, that due to the rhythmic displacement, someone trying to transcribe this tune, would not perceive it to be in a 4/4 time signature. In fact, what they would hear would be: two bars of 7/4, followed by 3 bars of ¾, two more bars of 7/4, a singular bar of ¾, followed by 3 bars of 4/4, one bar of ¾, one bar of 5/4, and lastly one bar of 4/4. – And if this makes the music more palatable for members of the JNI to absorb, incorporate, and thereby invigorate their music, by adding these elements of blues and swing, then so be it. However, if they should wish to break the music down to mere number crunching in the hope of it being edgy and “innovative,” they have missed the point. To that end, the music will continue to suffer, and will cease to have even the faintest shreds of being a musical form that people from any country and all walks of life can relate to.

My Joy, is a composition by vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson from his 1967 Blue Note release Oblique. While not an official piece in the ongoing “Discipline” series, (the use of the word “Discipline” in the title implies an original composition by Mr. Marsalis), it is likewise comprised of percussion “overdubs.” This was the first piece of music by Mr. Hutcherson, to catch Mr. Marsalis’s attention, and he wished to record this selection, and place it in the context of a percussion ensemble. It is interesting to note, that this number, as well as the two “Discipline” cuts, were all recorded without the use of a metronome; otherwise known as a “click-track.”

In the first of three tunes, each written by the other individuals within the group, Ill Bill is the contribution of 29 year old drummer Dave Potter. Mr. Potter has studied under the tutelage of Professor Leon Anderson, the director of the Jazz Studies program at Florida State University. This song was originally written as an assignment during his Masters Course work. The task at hand was to write a piece of music in the style of Thelonious Monk. While I would love to tell you the backstory of the song’s title, I have been sworn to secrecy by Mr. Potter. Still, it may be said that the song is dedicated to all the “William’s” in Mr. Potter’s life. – The backing rhythm section, comprised of Mr. Johnson, Mr. Potter, and bassist Will Goble, has been performing as a trio since 2006. Mr. Marsalis first heard this tune when Messrs.’ Johnson, Potter and Goble sat in on one of Ellis Marsalis’ gigs at Snug Harbor, in New Orleans. As he listened, Mr. Marsalis thought to himself that the melody and groove would work well on vibes, and set about to learning it; then decided to record it.

Like the hot sauce that is its namesake, Louisiana Gold is a spicy number from 28 year old pianist Austin Johnson. The idea for the song came about while Mr. Johnson was heavily immersed in listening to Harry Connick, Jr.’s album Lofty’s Roach Soufflé. Mr. Marsalis first heard this song in its formative stages, and was interested to play the number once Mr. Johnson had finished composing it. When all was said and done, despite his musical prowess, even Mr. Marsalis felt the tune to be most challenging. (Then again what’s not to find challenging about a song whose chords change every two beats?) Still, it didn’t stop him from sneaking in a quotation from the Harry Warren and Al Dubin tune, “Lulu’s Back in Town.”

As the story was relayed to me, Mr. Johnson once had a truck that was affectionately known as, “Big Girl.” Sadly, Big Girl’s life was cut short in a tragic accident. In memoriam, bassist Will Goble composed a ballad, “Big Girl’s Last Ride.” In the course of performing the piece one night, they announced the name of the tune. An audience member came up to him after the show and gushed about how much they had enjoyed the song, Big Earl’s Last Ride. Recognizing the potential tawdry implications of the original title, (especially in light of such a beautiful and poignant melody), Mr. Goble chose to defer to the misheard title, and rename the piece. Mr. Goble’s solo effectively conveys a bittersweet melancholy, and shows a great range of sensitivity. Indeed the composition itself is very contemplative; just as any effective ballad should be. This tune was also featured on Mr. Goble’s 2012 recording, Some Stories Tell No Lies. – For his part, Mr. Marsalis sought the opportunity to play slowly, thereby exploiting the natural sustain of his instrument. He furthermore desired to have a solo where the mood clearly reflected that of the song’s melody.

In the late 1990’s, there was a contingent of musicians from Baton Rouge, Louisiana working and/or living in New Orleans. Keyboardist Brian Coogan was one of them. Mr. Marsalis began hiring Mr. Coogan to play piano on gigs where Mr. Marsalis was playing drums. Around 2003, Mr. Marsalis began calling Mr. Coogan regularly for gigs with the vibes quartet. On one such gig, Mr. Coogan brought in an original composition entitled The Nice Mailman’s Happy Song to Ann. Mr. Marsalis felt the tune to be upbeat, and enjoyable to play. Equally as important, he felt the tune to be a perfect vehicle for vibraphone. The concept for the solo came to him the very first time he played the song. The first part of the idea was to play his solo out of time and against the time of what is being played by the rhythm section. The second facet was to play any melodies he could think of over what the rest of the band is playing behind him. The final piece in the equation was to play said melodies, starting very slowly, gradually increasing the tempo to a very fast pace, then ending his solo in a climactic flurry of the abstract and avant-garde. All the while never once playing “in time” with the rest of the group. – Amongst the various melodies that are randomly quoted are, Vince Guaraldi’s Linus and Lucy, Poinciana, Tiger Rag (for the LSU Tigers), and Something’s Coming from West Side Story.

The 1971 Miles Davis offering Live Evil, included a guest appearance by Brazilian musician Hermeto Pascoal. Mr. Pascoal, is not only a talented musician, proficient on a variety of instruments, but he is also a celebrated composer. One of his songs from that album, Nem Um Talvez, (Not Even a Maybe), is contained herein. However, it was not the recording on Davis’s album through which Mr. Marsalis first became exposed to this piece of music. It was instead though father Ellis, who used to perform it unaccompanied. It is no wonder in the least that the younger Marsalis should wish to do the same; but with a slight twist. The twist in this instance, results in the second song performed by Mr. Marsalis under the guise of a percussion ensemble, but not composed by him. Despite its brevity at only 1:37, we are again challenged if we dare to stop and think about it. Not only by the music itself, but the skill that it takes to play a variety of percussion based melodic instruments, all without the aid of a metronome to ground the music in time. Indeed the piece is not “in time” in the least, despite the forward motion of the melody.

“Incidental music” is a term most often applied to music composed for film. This form of background music is often used to establish a mood in relation to a set of visual images. Almost from the very moment that audio and visual mediums were married, musical themes have become a part of our collective culture. For example: If I ask you to think about the music played as Miss Gulch rides her bicycle over to Dorothy’s house to take her dog Toto away in the movie The Wizard of Oz, you are apt to think of it as the wicked witch of the west’s theme. Some themes during the opening credits of a film have become nothing short of iconic. From the eeriness of the cellos in the first strains of the theme from Jaws, to the majestic splendor in the brass during the opening crawl of Star Wars. And what tune leaps to your mind when you hear the phrase, “Bond. James Bond?” Still it only stands to reason why the better and sometimes more grand motifs in this realm register with us; if only for one reason. These sound designs usually occur during the opening credit sequence. How often do you pay attention to the closing credits? My guess would be that not unlike most of the movie going public, once the movie itself is over, you get up and leave. (You are probably not that interested in the foley artists, and are unlikely to hire the people in craft services to cater your next event.) So then, who does stick around for the closing credits? In this instance, the answer to that question would be Jason Marsalis. – Closing Credits was inspired by the rhythm of the music of Klaus Badelt, as featured at the end of the 2003 movie, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl.

Written in 6/8, Closing Credits springs with vibrancy from the very first note. The interplay between the piano and vibraphone at the very beginning, (where in the piano is playing the melody underneath a repeating line from the vibes), is vaguely reminiscent of the late Dave Brubeck. The melody then switches from the piano to the vibraphone, and is then played another time through. As we then start at the top of the batting order of soloists, we find Mr. Goble leading off with a “one bass hit.” His tone, not unlike that of his mentors Jimmy Blanton and Milt Hinton, is huge. His ideas are both refreshing and very swinging. After the melody is again restated by Mr. Marsalis, it is Mr. Johnson’s turn at bat. His solo is forceful, clearly driving down the line of people like McCoy Tyner, Kenny Kirkland and Marcus Roberts. At this point Mr. Marsalis (like any good manager) seems to take the briefest of melodic moments to confer with his players, before sending drumming powerhouse Dave Potter to the plate. While Mr. Potter’s turn at the mound musically evokes all the tension of a full 3-2 count, he promptly proceeds to load the bases. It is now left to Mr. Marsalis to be the “clean up” man. To that end, he comes fully prepared and loaded for bear; wielding four mallets on this tune as opposed to the two mallets used on other pieces. With his solo acting as a cadenza, and the tune reduced for the briefest of moments to solo vibraphone, we feel all the slow motion sensibilities of watching a ball tumbling through the air; all the while holding our breath in eager anticipation of the impending home run. This is followed by a musical celebration, as if the rhythm section were greeting their newest hero as he steps onto home plate. The mood on the field has indeed changed. Unlike the beginning of the song where the melody is played over hits and chord changes, this time the melody is played once again, but over the groove of the rhythm section. – Of all the pieces on the recording, this is one that truly stands out; a hint, if not almost promise of greater things to come from this group of musicians.

Not everyone is musically inclined. Not everyone can play a musical instrument. Indeed, most have never seriously tried. But somewhere, at some point in time, most everyone has tried to whistle. I am certain that I don’t have to tell you the difficulty involved in carrying a simple tune. Never mind improvising like an instrumentalist over jazz changes! – Whistle for Willie is a children’s book written by Ezra Jack Keats, and first published in 1964. As a boy, Mr. Marsalis owned this book; and it was this book that spurred him to learn how to whistle. In homage to this particular work by Mr. Keats, Mr. Marsalis gives us his Whistle for Willie. The genesis of the song was a bit of a happy accident, one might say. One of the tunes in a normal night’s set was the “Great American Songbook” classic That’s All; which was normally performed on vibraphone. (In fact, Whistle for Willie is based upon the chord changes to That’s All.) During the 2011 Festival Internacional de Jazz de Barquisimeto in Venezuela, on the spur of the moment, Mr. Marsalis decided to whistle the melody to the song. As a result of the positive response he received, he decided to incorporate a whistling feature into the set. – Mr. Marsalis is both incredibly adept, and displays amazing technical prowess. It is even more stunning to note than the entire tune is improvised! The breadth of his musical knowledge, as well as his ability to weave quotations from one song into another, is again at work as he manages to quote from The Magic Song (also known as Bibbidi Bobbidi Boo), as well as saxophonist Wayne Shorter’s Witch Hunt.

Most insurers will tell you that there is no such thing as a “happy accident.” Most musicians are apt to tell you otherwise. Such is the case with the last musical offering, Discipline Gets Lost in a World of Mallets. I mentioned before that the Discipline pieces are form of percussion ensemble, with Mr. Marsalis overdubbing all the parts. This piece however, also includes the other band members; albeit in a slightly roundabout way. – The night before Mr. Marsalis was to go into the studio to record all of the Discipline pieces for this album, (tracks 1, 6 and 11), he was in the process of editing the songs featuring the full band. Near the end of Blues Can Be Abstract Too there was a small section of music, (from 3:57 – 4:07), that caught his attention. – [This occurs in a section, known in musical terms as a fermata; and indicates a period of longer duration beyond the notes written value on a sheet of musical notation. Just how long “longer” is, is at the discretion of the conductor or performer.] – Upon hearing this section, the musical wheels of his mind ever turning, he decided in the moment to capture that snippet and make a loop out of it, and then to spontaneously create a piece of music over the top of it. While Discipline Discovers a World of Mallets is “through composed,” meaning that the composition is performed as written, (e.g. without “improvisation”), Discipline Gets Lost in a World of Mallets is a thoroughly improvised and spontaneous musical composition. In contrast to Discipline Discover’s various repetitive 1/16th note patterns, interwoven beneath the tubular bells Oriental tinged melody, Discipline Gets Lost sounds like a Second Line infused Gamelan, this time with the tubular bells leading the parade. (Think about it: When was the last time you heard a “tubular bells” solo?) Mr. Marsalis, in an fit of inspiration, has saved some of his most obscure musical quotations on this album for the final cut. If you listen closely, you will hear passages from the Duke Ellington/Billy Strayhorn composition Half the Fun (from the album Such Sweet Thunder), Ornette Coleman’s Broadway Blues, Mop Mop (also known as Boff Boff), and as voiced on both glockenspiel and xylophone, Roy Ayers Everybody Loves the Sunshine.

Music is the reflection of the human experience. Blues is the musical expression of joy and sorrow within both the singular and collective conditions, within that experience. Swing, bothslow and fast, is the pulse within the condition. (Indeed, a lack of pulse leads to a lack of vitality.) When one ceases to have a vital pulse, one dies. As long as jazz music is still in the hands of people like Jason Marsalis and the fine musicians that surround him on all sides, I have no doubt that the music will always have blues and swing, and therefore, vitality! And to that end, such vitality must be deeply and steadfastly rooted, in the only thing that will produce healthy growth for generations to come: Tradition.

Ellis and Jason Marsalis Talk Back

Alex Rawls talks to Ellis and Jason Marsalis about An Open Letter to Thelonious, teaching and traditional jazz. “When you deal with language to describe music, you’ve got a problem,” Ellis says. “I remember talking to a guy who was a player, and he said, ‘I’m really into traditional jazz,’ and he started rhyming off Charlie Parker, Monk, and all these guys.”

by Alex Rawls
offBeat Magazine
April 2008

While we’re talking, Ellis Marsalis takes two calls and ignores another. Spring in New Orleans is a musician’s busiest time, and not only is Marsalis playing the French Quarter Fest and Jazz Fest, but he’s promoting his new album, An Open Letter to Thelonious (ELM). He and Irvin Mayfield also released Love Songs, Ballads and Standards (Basin Street), and today he’s at NOCCA to teach a master class to his son Jason’s students.

An Open Letter to Thelonious is a family affair. Jason plays in Ellis’ quartet, and both contributed liner notes. Ellis recalls the one missed opportunity he had to meet Monk, while Jason analyzes Monk’s sense of rhythm, dubbing him “the first unofficial funk musician.”

We’re in NOCCA’s performance hall, and Jason was talking about his efforts to teach his students to play traditional jazz just before the recorder started. Ellis is talking about his efforts to document traditional jazz that emerged from playing it with a good band.

Ellis: I started to write down all the things we played, each song. I did it over three nights, so I had a pretty good list. I thought about writing out more than a lead sheet, actually the piano accompaniment; now I’m trying to make myself get started on this project. [laughs]

Part of what Jason is talking about is the inability of those who find themselves in a teaching position to get prepared music to present to students from that idiom. The traditional jazz idiom has a lot of music, and it’s structured in such a way that all of the elements of western music are in it—the key signatures, the modulations, the tempo. Now that I’m confessing that [gesturing at the recorder], I’ve got to do it. I don’t think something like that could be done anywhere but New Orleans.

This goes to something I’ve been thinking about for a while—what does it mean to be traditional? How do you best honor a tradition? Does a player have to play in the idiom, or is it in the composition? How is tradition manifested?

Ellis MarsalisEllis: First of all, when you deal with language to describe music, you’ve got a problem. I remember talking to a guy who was a player, and he said, “I’m really into traditional jazz,” and he started rhyming off Charlie Parker, Monk, and all these guys. It’s not his fault if he’s from Detroit or Chicago or L.A. The documentation isn’t set in such a way so that it will allow him to get a complete perspective.

When you think of European art music, the documentation by the various composers over 300, 400 years helps to understand some of that, at least from the 15th Century on. One thing that may be missing is a certain relationship that those composers had to the gypsies. You found references to dances—Hungarian Dance, number this or that or the other. Talk about Rodney Dangerfield, they don’t get no respect! America is a little too young to have that kind of thing happen. If enough of us can start trying to make certain kinds of documentation…

One of the things that was lost in certain kinds of European music—I don’t know how much time after Beethoven—was the ability to improvise. There are stories about when Czerny, who was a student of his, would be turning pages for him and there would be no notes on the page. He hadn’t even written it down. That improvisational process, eventually, they lost.

If it’s still in Europe, maybe it’s over there, but people who learn to play that music here, they go to the conservatory and improvisation isn’t even part of that. I think that as a part of American history, this is a necessary cog in the wheel. I’ve been telling Jason for years, “Whatever you do, write it down. Make some notes.”

I’ve seen some situations where some of the jazz stars have begun to be used in institutions to come in and do workshops. I look at some of them and say, “I don’t want them anywhere near my students.” They play well, but you have to do a certain amount of reflective thinking or what you end up doing is teaching in the abstract, which is why students can’t read, or why they can’t do math.

There are some things we have to do to assist in that process.

Thankfully, there are enough recordings of the earlier music by some of the top players so that can be a great reference point.

I would have to think that over the years, you’ve heard people play traditional jazz and get it wrong.

Ellis: I was one of them. I stood in the driveway with Albert “Papa” French, who played with “Papa” Celestin, and had his own band with his sons, Bob and John. Papa French, said, “Some of you young guys need to play this music because we’re about to lose it.” I said, “Yeah, man. You’re right.”

In my mind, I was thinking, “I don’t want to play that old stuff.” That degree of ignorance was profound with me. Eventually, I’m playing with the Storyville Jazz Band, which is Bob French’s group, at Crazy Shirley’s on St. Peter and Bourbon in the early 1970s—so I wasn’t a spring chicken. I started playing a stride solo and everybody in the band started to laugh. I didn’t know why they were laughing because I was serious. I wasn’t trying to caricature the music. I tried it again and got the same response.

I started to do some research. I went and really listened to Jelly Roll and Willie “the Lion” Smith. I realized these guys have ideas peculiar to this style of music. If you’re going to play this, you’ve got to be involved with those ideas—the rhythm of the ideas, the melody, and all of that. I started working on that. The next time I played a stride solo, I didn’t get the same response, and I realized I was on the right track.

Right around the corner from Crazy Shirley’s was Preservation Hall, and Willie Humphrey and Percy and them would come by on the way to work. Some of those old guys came in one night while I was playing one of those solos, and the guy looks and goes, “Mmmm hmmm, okay,” and I knew just from that gesture that I was on the right track.

Let’s jump forward to the Monk record. I’m always fascinated when a musician approaches another musician’s work. How do you decide which pieces to do?

Ellis: Well in this particular case, Jason was sort of the brains behind most of that. The idea was to approach Monk’s music with a certain kind of groove without tarnishing what Monk had put there. I went through a similar thing with Marcus Roberts, which was a dual-piano thing. We did one or two pieces of Thelonious Monk, and Marcus would say that we have to be very careful that we don’t superimpose our stuff on top of Monk.

We have been talking about doing a Monk record for a long time. Monk’s music is not easy to play and the degree of difficulty is less in technical facility and more in conceptualization of where he was coming from. A lot of what you have to listen to determines the results of what you play.

Jason MarsalisJason: The best description that I read of that was from Orrin Keepnews—and this really put a lot of perspective for me on Monk’s music—he said, “You know, it’s kind of like when you are at a jam session and musicians start playing ‘Blue Monk.’ They solo for about 20 minutes, then they look around and say, ‘What’s the big deal about Monk?'”

There is an essence of Monk’s music in terms of melodic, rhythmic and harmonic formation that should not be taken for granted. It’s easy to take a Monk tune and play over it, but it’s different when you try to play the music and still have the essence of what he was about still there. That’s the challenge when trying to play his music.

The rhythm element is what drew me to Monk first. How he phrased lines. Even inside the phrases, exactly where the notes fell always felt so personal and idiosyncratic.

Jason: He was definitely a master at using rhythm and space. I noticed with his own tunes just how strong the rhythm would be in those melodies.

Who was responsible for the selection of the pieces?

Jason: It was a combination of both. My father brought up the idea of doing a Monk record a while back. I believe what got the ball rolling was when we played this one quartet performance with “Epistrophy.” We played it in a way that was arranged slightly, very subtly. I liked the way it went, and I started thinking maybe we should pursue this album. There were some things that I picked and some things that my father picked.

Was there anything you decided was too him to do, or requires us to move too far, or just did not want to do?

Ellis: Nothing that I can think of. I think what we did on that CD is a pretty fair representation of Monk, in a wider sense. We did “Crepuscule with Nellie”—I wouldn’t even know how to solo off of that. I did decide to do “‘Round Midnight,” but I decided to do that as a piano solo. I messed with that tune and I even thought of forming a string quartet of that tune a long time ago, and I did not get too far.

I think Jason mentioned it in the liner notes about the grooves. There is a story going around about Monk—a guy, a drummer I think, and he was kind of new to Monk’s music. He asked Monk, “What do you want me to do?” Monk said, “Swing.” The guy said, “I understand that, but after that, what then?” “Swing some more.”

So you had the idea of applying specific grooves to Monk?

Jason: The only tune on there, honestly, that I really wanted to do was a tune called “Teo.” A few years ago I heard a recording of this tune on Live at the It Club, and I was first interested in it because I never heard it. No one ever plays it. Monk has written hundreds of tunes and there are a lot of tunes that have slipped through the cracks and are not played very much. I checked it out and I think, okay this isn’t bad, but after eight bars I started hearing a funk groove. So when we decided to do the record, I said this is one tune we have to do.

I recently rehearsed that with some students from here, and I think that my description may have confused the drummer a little bit. I said, “Think Monk and the Roots’ drummer Questlove and the stuff he does with DeAngelo.” I think that threw him off, but really, rhythmically you can do that with a lot of Monk’s tunes.

You talked about playing Monk with Marcus Roberts; he said we have to be careful not to put ourselves all over this. Isn’t part of the business of playing it to find how you interact with that person’s work?

Ellis: Yeah, but I think what Marcus is saying when in reference to the term “superimposed” is that, like I’ve heard this one pianist who did a Bud Powell tune called “Hallucinations.” When the solo came, there was no harmonic reference to “Hallucinations” at all. It was all about whoever this pianist was and his stuff. You can make an argument for that saying that’s what jazz does, and it’s true, but if you approach what you’re doing philosophically, you try and do the best that you can with the melody, the harmony, and the rhythm. Those three components.

I remember once Tommy Flanagan told me something. I was in Europe at one of those festivals, and it always leaves you wanting to play. You go over there, you do 45 minutes then you’re done. There was a space under the hotel in which there was a piano against the wall, and I went over to the piano because I felt like playing more than the 45 minutes. I started playing “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square,” just fooling around with it. When I finished, I saw Tommy was sitting over there against the wall, and I got up to go and speak to him. As I got close to him, he said, “You forgot the verse.” I don’t think I even knew there was a verse, so I went home and got the music and there was the verse. I recorded it again with the verse.

I think there is a certain amount of specificity that is necessary from where I am coming from philosophically. Coltrane was guilty of this all the time; he didn’t care much about the melody. He played it however it came out. You owe the composer of the tune, whether it’s Richard Rogers or Jobim. If you are going to play the melody, play the melody. Then when you get ready to solo, that’s on you.

A Fireside Chat With Jason Marsalis

by Fred Jung
Jazz Weekly

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.

The politics of Jazz

by Bill DeYoung
Connect Savannah
August 31, 2010

Jason Marsalis in Connect SavannahIn 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.

School Jazz Band Gets Its Groove On

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.