By David Sibray
Born in New Orleans, Louisiana, in 1934, Ellis Marsalis, Jr., grew up among the dance halls of the Big Easy, playing the sax when he could find an audience, witnessing firsthand the emergence of jazz as a musical form.
Four of his sons—Branford, Wynton, Delfeayo, and Jason—have also become musicians of international acclaim. Branford ranks among the most respected jazz instrumentalist in the U.S., and Wyton became widely famous in the 1980s after performing the national anthem on trumpet during Superbowl XX.
Though he has recorded almost twenty of his own albums and has performed with many influential artists, Dr. Marsalis remains focused on teaching and has influenced the careers of countless musicians as an educator at the University of New Orleans, Xavier University of Louisiana, and the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts.
By happy coincidence, Dr. Marsalis attended graduate school at Loyola University under the guidance of Dr. Joe Buttram, its Dean of Music and the husband of Cathey Sawyer, now the producing artistic director of Greenbrier Valley Theater.
"In fact, Joe had a lot to even do with me even going to graduate school at Loyola," said Marsalis, who has begun to make a habit of playing at the theater—or at least many of his local fans hope. Plans are afoot to have him back for a performance, according to Sawyer, who arranged a phone interview during which I asked as many questions as time would allow.
Dr. Marsalis, thanks so much for taking time to speak with me. Though I realize we could discuss any aspect of jazz, I though that since we're not in the Big Easy, and instead in West Virginia, we might discuss some of the fundemental matters that novice listeners such as myself might want to know. Such as the very definition of jazz—what is jazz?
Well, I don't think you can really define "jazz." But I think there can be a way to understand how this music came to be called "jazz." Earlier—when I say earlier, I mean earlier in the 20th century—there were dance hall operators who would advertise for a dance being held at whatever-the-space was. They used to advertise also on a flatbed truck, then have a band play on one side of the street and a band on the other side, and whichever side the street the crowd would go to listen to, that would be the band that the dance hall operator would hire for his engagement. For the most part, what was being advertised as jazz was dance music of the day in the black neighborhoods.
The media, primarily, is responsible for referring to the music as "jazz." That was something that the newspapers did. The music that we refer to as jazz is similar to a food in New Orleans that we call "gumbo," and there are other places that have foods like that. There's a mixture of a pile of stuff, you see? It's the same kind of situation when it comes to the word because if you listen to Louis Armstrong and the Hot Five and then you listen to Charlie Parker later on, there's no way that you're going to say, "Well, that's both the same thing."
What ultimately happened was that a musical language was created over a period of time. And the basis of it was really blues. And even blues was subject to misinterpretation in the press, because the print would refer to blues as a sad music. And most assuredly there were some sad songs, but that doesn't mean that blues was sad, you see? And as the musicians eventually began to adapt form, the blue's form became the means by which the musicians would improvise. And the whole process of improvisation, it was like storytelling. The subject matter would be basically the same, but each person had an individual story that they told about those events. That language just evolved.
So, when you're going out to play, you don't say to other musicians, "Let's go play some jazz." You say, "Let's go play!"?
Yes, like classical music. When people started to refer to classical music, the musicians did not refer to their music as "classical" music.
I just got a email from a saxophone player from the club that we're playing. Business was slow in August, and he sent me an email wondering, "When do we start back again?"—which will probably be the first part of October. But what happens is very fundamental. The conversation between musicians is very fundamental: Where is the gig? What time do we play? And how much do we get paid? And it could be in the other order: how much do we get paid, where is it, and what time do we start. If the first question is how much do we get paid and the money don't sound right, the other two are not even going to be asked.
So what drew you to playing and into the New Orleans music scene?
I was too small to play football; I was too short to play basketball; and I was too slow to run track. So there wasn't nothing left but music, and the music spoke to me. And as a result, being in New Orleans, they had a lot of musicians, and as I got older and was able to venture forward from the nest, I began to meet some of the musicians that were playing in the local clubs.
I've read that your father was a very dedicated and successful businessman, who seemed pretty practical in his approach to living. How did your father feel about you playing music?
He wasn't really that thrilled about it. I mean, he was never that adamant—because he didn't know anything about music. He always thought that a musician was some guy who was stood on a corner with a jug of wine and a woman on his lap. And that was pretty much the extent of what he perceived the music to be.
It was years later when I took him to a performance. Our second son, Wynton, won a concerto competition to play with the New Orleans Symphony, and I took my dad to hear that, and he didn't know what that was. He asked me about the new members of the orchestra, and he said, "Well, all of them people from New Orleans?" I said, "No, probably none of them." His only connection was to be able to see one of his grandsons playing with them.
Music was outside of the realm of his thinking because he was a business owner, and he was modestly successful. He operated a motel, and this was right after the war and when the automobile companies started to make cars again, and highways got better, and things were conducive for mobility and automobiles. And people started to go farther than there neighborhoods.
I assume jazz grew with advances in technology as well?
The music itself was influenced by all kinds of things. The Victrola, which was Edison's invention—Edison didn't think much of music at all coming out of the black community. So it wasn't until the Victor Company sort of managed to manipulate the copyright from Edison that they started to record country and western. Well, they didn't call it country and western. But, anyway, it was a kind of folk music.
And the jazz bands ran into early problems, from a musical and a technological standpoint, because it was a while before they could figure out how to deal with the drums. And the bass was moving from the tub bass to the string bass. And as a result, you start to get a lot of inventions, innovations, and a lot of things that were not going to be a part necessarily of anybody's history book.
So the next thing you know, you're looking at the end result. For example, the first talking motion picture was Al Jolson, and it was called The Jazz Singer. Al Jolson was not a jazz singer. He was a cantor in the Jewish synagogue. And when he made this movie, The Jazz Singer, the featured moment was him on one knee in blackface singing "Mammy." Welcome to America. That's in 1926.
And eventually there started to be more and more recordings of music—and magazines. I remember when I was a kid, there was a magazine—I think it was called Hit Parade—and they used classifications of music. They had classical music, and then they had semi-classical. And then they had race. And when I looked at it, I couldn't compute that, because I only thought race had to do with horses. Sometime in the 1940s, I think it was, the term race was replaced with rhythm-and-blues, which was a way of identifying any and all music that was in the magazine that black performers were doing.
So as you can see, a lot of things came about bit-by-bit, and, eventually, when the powers-that-be decided that jazz was worthy of being an institution, they snapped up whatever terminology they could get. I mean, Duke Ellington never asked for the term jazz as being adequate enough to describe anything. And, in reality, it essentially was marketing.
So when it comes to people thinking in terms of liking or disliking jazz, that, too, is subject to a certain sort of extent of curiosity and also a certain level of maturity. I remember hearing a guy who came to a club that I was playing in, and at the end of our set he says, "Man, I feel real bad because I'm 24 years old, and I just found out who Johnny ["Tasty"] Parker was." And I said, "Man, don't feel bad." I said, "They've got people twice your age that ain't never heard of him and don't care."
What is the difference between jazz and blues? I don't think I've ever quite understood.
Well, the term blues and the term jazz were kind of parallel. The early jazz was primarily instrumental music. Find a 1923 recording of King Oliver's Creole Band—Louis Armstrong was in that band playing second trumpet. Promoter Terry Bradford was a part of that recording session that was supposed to have featured Sophie Tucker [who was white]. Well, Sophie Tucker got sick. And Terry Bradford went to the promoter, and says, "Well, look. We can't do Sophie Tucker." He said, "I know this singer who can sing, and maybe we can get her to come in since we're all set up to do that." And that was Mammie Smith.
Well, that was a leap of faith for the record label, because the label had never recorded anybody black, and there was no PR-situation set up to sell it. So Terry Bradford went on, and they decided to record Mammie Smith. That recording was 1922, and it was called "Crazy Blues." And it sold well over 100,000 copies. That opened the door economically for black female singers, lead singers, because Mammie Smith, Trixie Smith—ultimately in the '30s you get Bessie Smith, in the '40s, it's Dinah Washington.
But the defining aspect of blues was what was being sung, because even with the male singers, which started during slavery, they would have the guitar, and it was really like folk music. You couldn't necessarily say it was blues, because this was a little earlier. What they were singing were songs about their lives, which is basically—that's what Shakespeare did. He wrote about the lives of the royalty. So you get the male singers who were singing, like, folk music, and by the 20th century you start to get recordings of some male singers singing what they sang. Some of their names I can't even remember now, but today it's easy to find. You can get on YouTube and find everything. But in the process of trying to hang on to some of the terminology, the reality in the music is not going to fit in that. If you listen to Louis Armstrong and the Hot Five, you're not going to hear what you hear with Charlie Parker and Miles Davis later on.
Which leads me to wonder how you think the Web and technology may transform jazz.
Well, I think it's too soon to know if the Web influenced it at all, because you see, when you think about the Web, what you're talking about is electronic communication, and it's really just telephone. It doesn't mean that there's any significant degree of intelligence in the conversation that's being held on the telephone or the Internet.
How has your understanding of music changed through the years?
These are all things that I pieced together as I got older and things started to make sense to me. Because when you get to a point when you want to go, "Okay, where did this come from? Why is this?" Things of that nature. I learned about research on a serious level actually when I got to graduate school. My first year, we had to do what we call a dummy thesis. You had to go over the theme, and then you had to request that. And before that, research was not something I was privy to. Mostly because what I was doing didn't require research. Not in the classical definition of research. Like if you were interested in jazz and you were living in the city where there were jazz musicians playing—when you heard them, it either turned you off, or it made you want to go and learn more about it.
That was in cities like Detroit. Several of these music teachers in these urban communities had been in the military. When the war was over, some of them came back and became music teachers. And as a result, the more formal instruction was being dealt with in that situation. Because, for example, studying the rudimental elements of music meant using text that was basically designed for instrumentalists to play in symphony orchestras and vocalists to sing in opera. That's what the music stores were selling.
So you did get the fundamentals of playing your instrument. If you were inclined to venture away from that and play jazz music, which is most definitely an urban music—if you were inclined to do that, then the instruction that you got allows you to become familiar with your instrument. And it was lots and lots of people who played who learned the formal technique of the music. Here, it wasn't as prolific as it was in Detroit because the state of Louisiana didn't spend the money that the state of Michigan did. So you see, down here, it depends on where you are, what the government was doing, what they were spending.
Who you were being exposed to because New Orleans is kind of a wide-open town. When other people were passing blue laws, New Orleans didn't have nothing like that. If you were old enough so that nobody was paying attention to you being a bar room, then you could go in. I got tossed out of a bar in Chicago because I was too young. I was 18. That would never happen in New Orleans when I was 18.
Through this article I was hoping we might help connect people who are unfamiliar with jazz and blues to these forms of music. Is there anything we might say in regard to that?
I don't think you can do that with the written word. You can stoke people's curiosity a little with the written word. I have a cousin whose daughter lives in Texas, and she has some young kids, a couple of them, and she would ask me, "How can I introduce my kids to music?"
I asked her, "Look, are you near a major university that has a music program?" She goes, "Well, yeah." I said, "Well, listen. Find out when the recitals are for the music majors. And whenever they are, you can go, and it won't cost you any money at all. But you'll be listening to some very well-schooled musicians who are giving recitals." Most of the time it's going to be in classical music, but not all the time, because now they have what they call jazz combos. And even in big jazz bands.
Thank you again for your time, and I hope we've covered enough ground to help other readers like myself learn more about music. I certainly have.
I think if we put our minds to it, whatever our profession is, there are ways in which you can try to reach out to people in the name of the arts, even if at the end of it, you just have one sentence that says, "Support your local artists."
Dr. Marsalis was scheduled to perform again at Greenbrier Valley Theatre in September, just before this edition of Greenbrier Valley Quarterly went to press. Sawyer says there's good reason Marsalis's philosophy of music fits well with the theater's mission:
"Ellis talks about the language of jazz and the individual story that each musician tells. That's exactly one of the things that theater artists often relate to in jazz. It's the same as telling the story of the play through the interpretation of the character. That relationship between jazz and theater is one of the reasons Greenbrier Valley Theatre has always supported music, and Ellis represents the pinnacle of artistry in jazz, so who better to help us celebrate our 50th?!"