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
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: 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: 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.