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Eighty Years Of Master Educator Ellis Marsalis

Ellis Marsalis performs at the NBA All-Star Game in 2008 in New Orleans.
Chris Graythen
Getty Images
Ellis Marsalis performs at the NBA All-Star Game in 2008 in New Orleans.

If anyone has earned the nickname Pops, it's Ellis Marsalis.

As jazz's best-known father figure, the senior Marsalis has four noted musical offspring: Branford, Wynton, Delfeayo and Jason. But if you consider all the musicians he's taught or mentored, his clan is even more extensive, diverse and influential.

I talked to six musicians who gave us the long view of the Marsalis family tree, and how they were schooled by its patriarch.

Delfeayo Marsalis (trombonist and son): Ellis Marsalis represents the history of American music, from a time when all performers had a profound understanding of the sound of jazz, the blues and swing. No one born after 1955 has the sound I'm speaking of, and we're not exactly sure why that is. When he plays, it is the sound of truth. That's a sound we're all trying to get to. As an educator, he is able to teach students firsthand by example.

Irvin Mayfield (trumpeter): In terms of music education in the city of New Orleans, Ellis Marsalis is omnipotent. I grew up with the Marsalis family, starting with nursery school alongside Jason Marsalis. When I was 10 years of age, Ellis Marsalis became my first jazz teacher.

[He] was the first jazz instructor for the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts [NOCCA], the first full-time arts school in New Orleans. The NOCCA program graduated high school students like his sons, Wynton and Branford Marsalis, as well as greats like Harry Connick Jr. and Donald Harrison Jr.

Mr. Marsalis was also the first chair of the jazz studies program at the University of New Orleans, with alumni such as Brian Blade, Nicholas Payton and John Ellis, just to name a few. Those students were able to become masters from studying with a master.

Jason Marsalis (drummer and son): But my father makes the students figure out what they need to figure out without telling them every single thing. He was interested in what it is that a person can learn, how a person can be the best at what he can be.

In terms of music education in the city of New Orleans, Ellis Marsalis is omnipotent.

Delfeayo Marsalis: He is also able to analyze students' playing in real time and provide insightful information to aid in their development ... For myself, he suggested that I learn the words to a song, as it was evident that I only knew the notes by my butchering of the melody.

Jason Marsalis: What you hear about is his years at New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts, when you had Wynton, Branford, Donald Harrison, Terence Blanchard, John Ellis and Delfeayo. But what you don't hear about as much is when he was at Virginia Commonwealth University [from 1986-89]. There are a lot of guys he worked with there who are playing today, such as drummer Clarence Penn and bassist James Genus. Those aren't names you'll often hear associated with him. And one more I forgot: Alvester Garnett.

Alvester Garnett (drummer): I first met Ellis when he led the All-County Jazz Band in Chesterfield County, Va. Kids from all over the county audition and I managed to make it in as the drummer. He was really honest with me, brutally honest, to the point where I was actually crying at the end of the rehearsal. To this day, I absolutely appreciate that.

I had never played in jazz band, even in school. I went to that first rehearsal and I thought, I got a little something here. Not being arrogant. I just didn't know better. The way I came to playing to drums was by watching MTV. I was a big fan of The Police, watching Stewart Copeland play "Every Breath You Take" and thinking, "I could do that!"

Ellis asked, "Out of all you guys in here, who wants to be a professional musician?" I raised my hand ... It seemed like he focused a lot of energy on me. I remember him coming over and I had this rock 'n' roll kit. He looked at it and listened to my sound and just laid it all out for me.

Loston Harris (pianist/vocalist): He is just the coolest. He's no nonsense. He knows what you're doing and he knows what you're not doing. That's the best way to put it.

James Genus (bassist): I basically took private lessons with him. I would go in his office and we would just talk about music and play. I can't remember if it was even part of the curriculum. I think it was more about me wanting to do it.

Jason Marsalis: There's a story about Virginia Commonwealth University that's not very well known. There was a student who might have been there a little too long when my father got there. And my father said to him, "Look, man. What do you want to do? Why are you here?" And the guy says, "I hadn't thought about it like that." So he went to his room, packed his bags and went to New York. The guy's name was Art Porter. Unfortunately, he has passed away, but he actually did things on the smooth jazz end of things. Not that my father taught him, but he said he didn't need to be there any more and he went. And he had a successful career.

You ever hear of a pianist named Loston Harris? He was another one at VCU.

Harris: I was a percussion major. I kind of played a little piano by ear. One afternoon, I was in his office and I was kind of fiddling around on his piano when he happened to walk in. He said, "That's what you should be doing." I had no idea that I was supposed to be a piano player. I was like, "Wait a minute. I'm here on a percussion scholarship." But he said piano is where it's at for you. I never knew. But he did and he was right. And so he worked with me, he really worked with me after hours. Diligently.

Mayfield: Mr. Marsalis always used to tell me: If you want to be a great musician, all you will get for accomplishing this goal is becoming a great musician. Money and fame can be taken from you at any point in time. But great will always be something you can own.

Jason Marsalis: He is someone who encourages the study of fundamentals for any instrument. He worked with two great drummers. One was Ed Blackwell. The other was James Black. I think that he learned a lot about drums from those guys, so he tries to pass that knowledge on to other drummers.

Garnett: "You said that I need to listen. Well, who do I listen to?" It's been killing me that I can't find the piece of paper, but I'll never forget his handwriting. He wrote this long list: Max Roach at the top, Papa Jo Jones, Philly Joe Jones, Elvin Jones, Billy Higgins, Ed Blackwell, James Black. He had Art Taylor on there. Lewis Nash. There were so many cats. I went out and got a 90-minute compilation cassette of Max Roach's EmArcy recordings. I listened to that so much that the tape broke one day in my dad's truck. When I came back to the next rehearsal, Ellis didn't have anything negative to say. It was okay.

Genus: We talked about the lineage, certain artists and music and people who inspired him: Ron Carter, Jimmy Blanton, Ray Brown, Dave Holland. He was really into a composer James Black, who was from New Orleans, but then even the younger cats. Reginald Veal was from New Orleans. He was checking out him. Basically, the cats who were doing it before him and the younger guys who were doing it now. Bob Hurst had just started working with Wynton and Branford. And then Clarence Seay had been playing with Wynton and Branford. I was also studying with Clarence at the time.

Harris: The piano majors had been studying piano since they were 5 years old. I was 20. The first thing he taught me was a book by Czerny called The Little Pianist. He said there is no book for jazz piano. Piano starts with classical piano. Hanon exercises in all 12 keys. And everything that is so vital to this instrument. I will never, ever forget it.

Genus: At that time, his sons were out in the world doing what I wanted to do. I was buying all the albums they were playing on. I was aspiring to be a part of that.

I remember people asking me at the time, you're studying with the dad? And I was like yeah, Ellis. At the time, the Marsalises were changing the direction of the music. It was almost like when [Michael] Jordan had come into basketball.

Branford, Wynton, they were an extension of him: the way they talked, what they talked about, their seriousness about the music. It had to start somewhere. It didn't just come out of the air.

Jason Marsalis: If I had to add one other thing from my years growing up, he was definitely a great model as far as fatherhood is concerned. That I will say — really being invested in family. He was someone who was knowledgeable, which makes you want to be responsible for the things you know. What do you know? What is it that you can teach people?

Genus: He made me look at music in a different way and be more serious about it. He made me want to learn more, to be around it more, to ask questions.

Garnett: He recognized the value in every player.

Harris: If you're hardheaded, you're not going to learn anything. But I trusted him. A lot of people tell you a lot of things, but you have to know who to listen to. He's someone you'd better listen to. Without him, I don't know where I would be.

Mayfield: Watching someone who practices, creates and innovates at 80 years of age is the ultimate inspiration for any artist.

Delfeayo Marsalis: A Baptist preacher saw my father in the store one day and commented, "Marsalis, let me know when you want to come play for the Lord!" My father gazed back at the preacher and responded, "I do that every day I'm alive, Reverend."

Jason Marsalis: He is very knowledgeable — not just about music, but about life. He likes to say there are those who have a view of the world and those who have a world view.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Lara Pellegrinelli
Lara Pellegrinelli is a freelance journalist and scholar with bylines in The New York Times and the Village Voice. She has been the commissioned writer for Columbia University's Miller Theatre and its Composer Portrait series since 2018.
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