For Ellis Marsalis’ 79th birthday, I’m posting a feature piece that I wrote about him for Jazziz circa 2002, the interviews that I conducted for that piece, and a pair of WKCR interviews from the ’90s, on one of which he joined me at the studio with Jason Marsalis.
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By Ted Panken:
“Jazz is about the art of discovery. Not discovery in terms of guesswork. You give a person a certain amount of information, and make sure that information is communicated. From that point, they begin to make decisions about that information. All you really need is the spirit of adventure, applied to the music that is being presented to you.”
— Ellis Marsalis, June 2002.
Widely known as the paterfamilias of a musical dynasty, Ellis Louis Marsalis, Jr. retired in August 2001 after a phenomenally productive 37-year teaching career on the high school and university levels. Ironically, the 67-year-old pianist, a professional improviser for half-a-century, never intended to make education his life’s work. Early tangents began to surface while the New Orleans native attended Dillard University between 1951 and 1955, moonlighting as a journeyman tenor saxophonist on local gigs with blues singers like Big Joe Turner and playing piano behind Big Maybelle and other singers at an Uptown boite called the Dew Drop Inn. Other possibilities arose during these years as he worked on and recorded original music with a peer group that included drummer Edward Blackwell and clarinetist Alvin Batiste, and later with saxophonist Nat Perrillat and drummer-composer James Black.
After earning his Music Education degree from Dillard, Marsalis enlisted in the Marine Corps (stationed in Southern California, he spent off-hours in 1956 woodshedding with Blackwell and Ornette Coleman), was discharged, and returned to New Orleans where, in quick succession, he married Dolores Ferdinand, and fathered his famous sons Branford, in 1960, and Wynton, in 1961. With a young family to support, Marsalis today recalls that “the gig situation in New Orleans, which was never great anyway, had changed tremendously, with virtually no jazz — as we consider it — to speak of. I figured I might as well try to use my degree.”
From 1964 until his retirement, Marsalis dual-tracked as a performer-educator. He took a position as band director at a high school in a small Louisiana town, serving until 1966. From 1974 to 1986 he taught and designed a curriculum at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts (NOCCA), a multi-disciplinary arts magnet high school that students attended on elective from their home school. Marsalis’ pupils included his four sons — saxophonist Branford, trumpeter Wynton, trombonist Delfeayo, and drummer Jason – as well as Terence Blanchard, Donald Harrison, Kent Jordan, Reginald Veal and Harry Connick, Jr. In 1986 he left New Orleans to head the jazz program at Virginia Commonwealth University. He returned in 1989 to create the jazz program at the University of New Orleans, remaining there until his retirement.
The beginning of Marsalis’ teaching career coincided with the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which abolished Jim Crow laws that had stood for decades. Living under statutory segregation, he had accumulated and processed the vocabulary of jazz “in a sort of shotgun approach — a piece here, a little there,” and could draw upon no codified pedagogy to teach it. At Dillard, he recalls, “We got the basis of European music, taught in a slapdash way, depending on who was teaching. The rules of the music department were modeled to be a kind of mini-conservatory, focusing on the things band directors are expected to do, with an abundance of courses in theory and almost no practical. So there was virtually no sound, formal training ground that emanated from a specific black tradition where you could learn to play jazz on the instrument. You learned just about everything on the job, because there wasn’t any place else for you to get it. Jazz was always second-class.”
Jazz continues to be but a blip on the collective consciousness of popular culture, but the idiom’s stature has evolved tremendously since Ellis Marsalis was a young man. Under the artistic directorship of Wynton Marsalis at Jazz at Lincoln Center, jazz enjoys equal institutional pride of place with classical music and opera at America’s equivalent of the French Ministry of Culture. Furthermore, dozens of universities offer degrees in jazz performance. Marsalis is one of a national cohort of pioneer improviser-educators (others include Donald Byrd, Jimmy Heath, William Fielder, and New Orleans colleagues Alvin Batiste and Kidd Jordan) who revolutionized the way jazz is taught, and his curricular first principles are seminal in the recent intellectual history of jazz education.
At NOCCA, Marsalis relied on those first principles while cobbling together a pragmatic, homegrown pedagogy designed to teach the building blocks of jazz and improvisation so that, as Wynton Marsalis puts it, “people can go out and get a gig, whatever kind of gig they can play.” “Whatever it is that I managed to do didn’t really come by way of a philosophy,” the elder Marsalis notes. “Mostly it happened by reaction. I heard a story about Thomas Edison. His assistant said they had done 150 experiments. None of the lightbulbs worked. He said, ‘Man, we ought to give up on this, because we’re making no progress at all.’ Edison supposedly responded, ‘On the contrary, we know 150 ways that do not work.’ We don’t always think about going to the things that don’t work as a path to finding what does.”
Like a painter in medieval Europe who required apprentices to mix paints and prepare canvases before allowing them to wield a brush, or a master bata drummer breaking down the beats for an initiate, Marsalis taught with artisanal focus, forcing students to learn the skills of their trade before they can think about expressing their personalities through the medium. “You can get into a lot of trouble trying to figure out at what point it becomes art,” he reflects. “That becomes more philosophical than realistic. I’m concerned about whether these guys can put one foot in front of the other.”
Asked how he would synopsize his method to a grant-bearing arts administrator, Marsalis responds: “Basically, it’s important to learn the three elements of music — rhythm, harmony, and melody, not necessarily in that order. We didn’t distinguish between European music and jazz. All the students at NOCCA had private instruction. New students learn two songs a semester. You apply those component parts to each piece, drilling on intervals, on individual notes, on the correct scales. Then, if your personality is suited to it, you work on the concept of improvisation.”
Marsalis began his work at NOCCA by focusing on the blues. “Learning how to play blues is like mastering the fundamentals of arithmetic before moving to algebra, trigonometry, and calculus,” he says. “It’s the simplest approach to learning improvisation. I would write out 12 measures of chords that, when played, turned out to be a blues. They got the sound of the notes in their ear, and got their fingers used to the positions. They got a tangible manifestation of the form of blues in one chorus. The chord symbols represented vertically sounds they would deal with in a linear manner. And they’d be sensitized to the rhythmic flow, to deal with music in motion.”
Ear training is crucial. Marsalis insists students internalize the fundamental building blocks so that transcription and memorization of classic repertoire will become a more organic process. “Without the oral component of music, you take away its natural ingredients,” he says, lifting an analogy from his bottomless well of metaphors. “It’s like the difference between preserves and fresh fruit. Preserves tend to taste the same; you can get them whenever you want. But the apple on the tree will be there only so long. In the same way, a solo only exists in the moment. The students who really pursue this have to learn that the concept of a solo is not unlike a novel or short story, with a beginning, a developmental section, a peak, and ultimately a climax or ending. The more references you can draw on, the more possibilities you have.
“Too much academic description can make a student lose the ability to hear certain subtleties. Someone might analyze a solo by discussing its technical components, for instance, that so-and-so used this scale and that scale and another scale – but the person who did the solo wasn’t thinking about that at all! It’s bad enough you’re listening to a recording, which can remove the essence of what was actually going on. There’s a story that somebody was talking to Earl ‘Fatha’ Hines about the recordings of Art Tatum, and Fatha Hines said, ‘Man, forget the recordings; you got to have been there!’ It makes you realize that whatever analysis you apply to this music is inadequate in terms of what was actually going down.”
With his utilitarian bent, Marsalis is a lineal descendent of such mid-century African-American teacher-autocrats as Walter Dyett from DuSable High School in Chicago and Samuel Browne from Jefferson High School in Los Angeles, whose programs produced dozens of outstanding jazz musicians from Marsalis’ generation. Eschewing the authoritarian methods by which they kept students in line (Dyett was legendary for the accuracy with which he hurled his conductor’s baton at erring students), Marsalis won hearts and minds by treating his charges as young adults with minds of their own, as individuals accountable for their actions and decisions.
“Ellis encourages and motivates his students, but he’s also direct and won’t pamper you,” says Victor Goines, Director of Jazz Studies at Juilliard School of Music. A 41-year-old New Orleans native, Goines studied privately with Marsalis in the ’70s, apprenticed with his combo in the ’80s, and has played saxophone and clarinet in the Wynton Marsalis Septet and the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra from 1989 until the present. “With me, he could be painfully truthful, but also compassionate to my needs as a young man. If it sounded bad, he didn’t pull punches. He was for real.”
Goines borrowed a number of Marsalis’ dicta in creating the jazz program at Juilliard, beginning with the notion that working musicians are the most effective teachers. “Ellis brought to the classroom experiences from the oral tradition he’d learned as a performer, as opposed to learning the theory of education in the classroom and trying to go out and play after the fact,” Goines says. “He believes that working with small ensembles is important because of the freedom for improvisation. Students need to have perspective on the music’s history. They need to be able to function in different idioms, and to always realize that you’re not preparing for the gig you’re doing now, but the unknown gig to come. Ellis puts you in situations that you have to work your way out of. He always told me that to try to get to something great, you have to be willing to take chances, to make a fool of yourself. He said that you shouldn’t get on a bandstand with someone you wouldn’t get in a foxhole with; if everyone isn’t working toward a common goal, it’s a waste of time. He even teaches you to take care of the business aspects. He covered all the aspects of what it takes to be a professional musician.”
“I was shocked as a kid the first time I went to his school, and heard his students call him ‘Ellis,'” says Branford Marsalis. “That just didn’t happen in the South in the ’60s and ’70s. Later I understood how hip that was. My pops was just having a dialogue with the students, to the degree of almost demystifying education. He points the finger and forces you to think for yourself. He twists standard American colloquialisms so that they make more sense to him. He’d always say, ‘You know, son, you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him thirsty.’ That’s brilliant! Once he told a student to listen to a piece of music. The student said, ‘I don’t want to.’ ‘Why not?’ ‘Man, I know what I like.’ My father said, ‘No, son, you don’t know what you like; you like what you know.’ I thought about it, and realized that in order to say that you know what you like, you have to know a helluva lot. What he was getting at is that you should study the music for your own sake, not just because he tells you to. If you don’t, you’re putting yourself behind the 8-ball.”
“My father’s first principle is, ‘You don’t know unless you know,'” says Wynton Marsalis. “Don’t assume anything without first-hand experience. Don’t get chord changes out of the book; get them off the record. He always gets you to question what you know. He stresses that there’s no right or wrong way to hear. He’d guide you in a direction, but he wouldn’t tell you what to do. He gave you the opportunity to figure out your own thing.”
For a teacher to give students that much rope demands not only self-confidence, but tremendous faith in human nature. An unflinchingly realistic man devoid of illusions, Marsalis is explicitly not religious. To trace the source of such fundamental trust is therefore an intriguing endeavor.
“My father believes in jazz — real jazz,” Wynton Marsalis declares. “He never believed that jazz was White or Black. He believes it’s a universal expression, a thing that brings whoever addresses it into contact with their greater self. He doesn’t suffer from cultural intimidation. He’s very clear and uncompromising that you have to face jazz — or J.S. Bach — on its own terms, not change the music or put it on a lower level so you can feel comfortable in your relationship to it. If you practice and learn what you have to — and have the ability — you can play it. If you don’t, you can’t.
“The foundation of how I teach — what I think and know — comes from watching him. Long before we even had Jazz at Lincoln Center, when I was 19 and 20, I did workshops and went in the schools, because I saw my father doing it. The way to conduct a workshop, to present material, to pick tunes to play, to use analogies to make something clear, the importance of teaching form, the central position of the rhythm section in the band — all these concepts come from him.”
For all the inherent optimism implied by his lifelong struggle to communicate jazz values, Ellis Marsalis is not exactly sanguine about the present state of things. “The schools are teaching jazz with a conservatory approach, nice clubs are cropping up, and jazz is now a respectable area to function in,” he says. “But mainstreaming it removed a lot of individuality. Listen to the saxophone players in the conservatories that have good jazz departments. All of them can play! But when they solo, you can’t tell them apart.”
What case, then, would Marsalis make for talented musicians to study jazz in school?
“I don’t necessarily think they should,” he responds. “Jazz is a highly individualistic art. You’ll do better with a good private instructor and being around people who are well versed in the style of music you’re trying to play. Actually, there’s no real reason why anybody should continue to play jazz at all, aside from the music speaking to you. But more and more, I think that the study of jazz, across the board, can help a musician or lay person better understand America, because the music reflects the whole of the citizenry so completely. In some ways, jazz is a form of glue that keeps American culture centered. We live in a world where people do not necessarily even have to have a skill to become rich and famous as a pop artist. So a disciplined approach to anything is something this country very much needs.
“I often think of America as a 10-year-old kid whose folks died and left him a candy store, with nobody to guide him. He goes into this candy store and proceeds to be a 10-year-old kid. If he’s not unfortunate enough to get diabetes and die, he’ll ultimately learn, after he gets a bellyache, that there’s something to know when you got this place. It’s not just, ‘Oh, great, this is mine.'”
No longer teaching in any capacity, Marsalis is focusing on his retirement, making decisions about his future involvement in education. He works most Fridays at the prestigious Snug Harbor club in a trio with youngest son, drummer Jason, and leaves town for occasional jobs. In the autumn he’ll release a self-produced trio CD on ELM, his own label, and will go in the studio to record several CDs worth of material. In his manner, he’ll continue to do what he can to help that 10-year-old grow up.
“My father never preached,” says Branford Marsalis. “And he never wasted any time trumpeting his strengths. He was always interested in addressing and eradicating his weaknesses. That’s something I believe in. The great thing he passed on to us was to always go for something you like, because it’s about expanding, not finding your little place in the box and staying there.”
Ellis Marsalis (6-24-02):
TP: Some nuts and bolts questions. Are you still teaching, or are you now retired from any institutional affiliation?
MARSALIS: No, I retired August 10th, 2001 from the University of New Orleans.
TP: So you’re retired for a year. Are you still teaching in any capacity?
TP: So your artistic focus is on being a piano player.
MARSALIS: I’m focusing on my retirement.
TP: How are you spending it?
MARSALIS: Well, first getting used to it. I started putting some unfinished portions of things into my computer, which is something that I’ve been slowly learning about doing. Because the program can be very difficult. But I’ve got some gigs. I usually play every Friday night at a local club called Snug Harbor.
TP: That’s the top club in New Orleans, isn’t it?
MARSALIS: Right. And I go out occasionally. This summer we have a couple of grandchildren who are staying with us, going to some summer camps. So I’ll be here doing that; my wife and I will be taking care of that.
TP: When did you begin to teach? How long have you been teaching? What were the circumstances? Was it the NOCCA experience in the mid-’70s?
MARSALIS: Well, not really. When I graduated from Dillard University.
TP: So way before the 1970s, then.
MARSALIS: Yes. I didn’t really want to teach, but eventually I went into the military and got out, and got married, and the gig situation in New Orleans, which was never that great anyway, changed tremendously, and as a result, I figured I might as well try to use the degree I’ve got. So I started to teach in 1963.
TP: In what situation?
MARSALIS: It’s hard to really describe. Because I went in to be like a music teacher, and they never had a band in there at the school. What happened, I ended up with two or three science classes and some general music classes, with one period to develop a band. So I stayed there for a year, and I said, “Well, I know I need the money, but I’m not going to cripple people because I need the money.” And I didn’t know nothin’ about no science! So I left there, and I started teaching in a small Louisiana town, Browbridge. I was band director there for a couple of years.
TP: Is that when you started to develop a pedagogy?
MARSALIS: Yes, I would say. Definitely.
TP: By 1964, you’re an established musician in New Orleans, such as the scene was, and you’d been playing professionally for a little less than 15 years.
MARSALIS: Wait. When are you talking about?
TP: Let me see if my chronology for you is correct. You’re born in ’34. You go to Dillard when, about ’51 to ’55. You go in the Army in either late ’55 or early ’56?
MARSALIS: No, I was in the Marine Corps in ’56.
TP: You spend a lot of that time in California, and it seems that your military service wasn’t so arduous as to prevent you from playing music.
MARSALIS: Well, basically, that became my job.
TP: So you’re another one of the people who got to play music as part of their Service duties.
TP: And you get back to New Orleans around ’58 or ’59, and you start to have your children, and because the economic situation in New Orleans was what it is, you start to teach. And in the mid-’60s, you’re teaching in that high school in Browbridge.
MARSALIS: Right. ’64 to ’66.
TP: In one of my earlier conversations with you, you spoke about how you learned, about your formative process, that you started playing clarinet when you were 11, started playing tenor saxophone in high school, did a lot of rhythm-and-blues gigs, and you were studying the piano, and that when you got out of high school you decided to be a music major, that Dizzy Gillespie turned you on, a bunch of things turned you on. You said: “I had been studying with a really great piano teacher. Of course, studying piano at that time either meant that you were learning from a mentor in the church that you went to, or you were learning from someone who was either in your family or was a friend of the family that would teach you the tradition of the music according to earlier styles, or you studied with a piano teacher who basically was teaching formal approaches to European music.” You said that you weren’t playing in the church, which was to your regret, and you didn’t know anyone who was really playing piano from a traditional jazz point of view, and you gravitated to the two areas that were closest to you, being Rhythm-and-Blues and Jazz, and I guess some European tradition — which you’re not saying here — with that piano teacher.
MARSALIS: I didn’t really study with her long enough to develop a repertoire. I studied with her maybe about a year or so, and then I started at the university. And I couldn’t put it together to continue studying with her. Her name was Jean Coston Maloney. You see, I couldn’t put that together, because if I had thought about it and had figured it out, I could have continued studying with her. But I said, “Well, I can’t study with her and be a music major over here at the same time.” I said, “When I graduate, I’m going to go back and start studying with her.” Of course, by that time she had left town.
TP: Would you say you had a good music curriculum at the high school that you attended?
MARSALIS: No. There was no music curriculum. There was none at all. There was the marching band and the concert band.
TP: What was the level of instruction that you received in that band? How was learning done?
MARSALIS: Well, that school was in transition at the time, and in fact, it closed my sophomore year. And the band director, who had really been great, left the year before I got there, and went off to Southern University to direct bands there. So what we did was sort of limp along. The last part of the year, we didn’t have a band teacher at all. We just did it ourselves. So I didn’t learn much about music at all in high school.
TP: I see. Because I’ve talked to a few of your contemporaries from New Orleans, like Clyde Kerr, and I gather his house was a focal point for a lot of like-minded musicians.
MARSALIS: Yes. That was true with Clyde. Clyde, Sr., was a music teacher also.
TP: Were there any teachers in New Orleans who were equivalent to the great black high school teachers of segregation days — such as Walter Dyett or Samuel Browne or the woman at Cass Tech in Detroit — in inspiring musicians of your generation?
MARSALIS: If I had to pick somebody, it would be Yvonne Bush. There’s a book coming out which is going to be very interesting, and she’s featured in that book. In fact, the guy who wrote the book, Al Kennedy, had in his first printing of it a chronology of all of the people that she influenced. It was one of those pullouts. Now, I don’t know if Scarecrow is going to keep that. I mean, it may make it and it may not. But Yvonne Bush is one of the people that I would tend to think was close to what you’re talking about. She was a trombone player, and I think she had spent some time playing with the Sweethearts of Rhythm during their later days.
Anyway, Clyde Kerr… There was also a younger guy named Alvin Thomas who helped a couple of guys. But he died young. He was younger than me. He was still in high school when I was doing my (?). He was also one of the students of Yvonne Bush.
TP: But in the process of learning the vocabulary of jazz and the tools that you would need to be effective, how did it operate before you went to college? Was it totally informal, like you and Alvin Batiste would get together and take down solos from records? I know a lot of people from your generation were very homegrown, but then, other people had substantial formal instruction. And given the subject of this article, I’m interested in how you accumulated and processed vocabulary.
MARSALIS: In a kind of shotgun approach. Some here, a piece over there, a little bit here, a little bit there. Because once I decided that I was going to be a piano player, one of the things that I didn’t know was the dimensions involved. That is, if you are a tenor saxophone player, you play the tenor saxophone, but you may have studied the chronology of saxophone players who played your instrument, so you get a pretty good understanding of who came before you. But when you’re a piano player, the significance of being a piano player is that you wear several different hats. There’s solo piano, which Art Tatum scared everybody to death with that. Then there’s the trio piano playing, the stuff that Oscar did and various other people who played. Then there’s playing piano in a rhythm section, which is one of the things that you end up learning to do because of working conditions. Usually, all of the piano players at some point end up playing in a rhythm section. And the accompaniment role, in some cases, if you happen to be in a group with a singer. And it’s all different. And there was nobody there to tell me that, so I just learned it as well as I could.
TP: You made a comment in my second radio session with you that accompaniment is the most difficult thing to teach.
MARSALIS: It really is. It shouldn’t be. But the reason why it’s so difficult to teach is because music programs are not structured in a way that the vocalist and the other instrumentalists are taught in a complementary manner. By “complementary” I mean this. If a person says, “Well, I’m interested in playing jazz piano,” unless you have a singer who is interested in singing jazz in accordance with the tradition in the same sense that that piano player understands their role, you don’t have a thing! You see?
Most of the metaphors that I used when I was teaching was through athletics. I would tell the students various things, especially when Jordan was still playing. I would try to get them to focus on learning melodies to a song, make sure you know what that melody is. If there are words to that song, at least learn the first verse to it, so that you see how those words connect with that melody. The harmony is a part of that. Learn that harmony the way that the guy wrote it, so when you hear the alterations from other people, you have a reference point. Know the rhythm so that you understand what category the piece falls in. It may be a Rhumba or a Congo or a Bossa-Nova, or it may be a ballad, or it may be up-tempo. I used to use Michael Jordan. I said, “When you look at him, what you see is somebody who has developed every facet of the game, whether it’s his defensive play, or his ability to shoot around the perimeter, or it’s the various ways in which people develop moving the ball around, the free-throw shooting…” Like, all of the aspects that go into the whole of the person.
Music teachers rarely teach like that. The reason that music teachers rarely teach like that is because you have too many people involved, and they only hired one music teacher, and that music teacher is expected to teach a band well enough to go out on a halftime football show. So it can become very difficult to try to deal with subtleties when it’s just you and 100-and-some students.
TP: How did you deal with that when you were at Browbridge?
MARSALIS: I didn’t deal with that. I had a concert band which I dealt with, and then the football season. I had somebody who could do the little halftime steps and all that, and teach the band that, and go out and do the halftime football show. Basically, that’s it.
TP: At Browbridge.
TP: And at that point, would you say that by the age 30, you had developed pretty much the pedagogy — given, of course, the various refinements and elaborations over time — that you continued to teach? Or did it springboard you into developing that pedagogy?
MARSALIS: See, it’s hard to answer that, because I didn’t pursue teaching sort of like in a straight line. Like someone who wants to be a doctor. You may end up being a surgeon or internal medicine or a podiatrist. But you still go in a straight line. But see, I wasn’t really that interested in teaching, and when I left Browbridge, I came back and started playing in the Playboy Club, and I stayed there until such time as… I mean, the job in and of itself was not really going anywhere. It was a good job, playing six nights a week. But I wasn’t satisfied with it.
TP: Not artistically satisfied.
MARSALIS: Well, not really, man. It was a jazz gig. It wasn’t like you had to play something other than that. But even if you’re playing jazz, if what you are playing isn’t really saying anything… And then, it really wasn’t my group, so to speak. So even though I was playing every night, there was little or no chance to do anything with them or with anybody else. Because the city at that time had just moved away from legal segregation — maybe two years earlier, in 1966. So it was a city in transition, and there were still a lot of older clubs and older musicians playing, and a lot of younger guys coming in who were bringing a different brand of funk to what they were doing. There was virtually no jazz — as we consider it — to speak of. And there wouldn’t really be any straight-ahead stuff until, oh, much later.
TP: Let me step back to Dillard and address the way the curriculum you received there affected the musician you became.
MARSALIS: Well, what about it?
TP: Let me put the question to you this way. Do you feel you received a solid music education at Dillard?
MARSALIS: Not really. It was a small school, a private school, and the emphasis was on the nursing school, which had a very good reputation, and also on education. Because heretofore, teaching and education degrees were areas that college-minded Black students could go into and get a job as a schoolteacher. So the idea of performance was ludicrous. At the time, I didn’t really know that was the way people were thinking who were administering the school! So what we got was really the basis of European music, and in some cases, taught by people in a kind of slapdash way. Not everybody. It just depended on who you got. It was modeled, so to speak, kind of after a poor man’s conservatory — which most of them are.
TP: You mean most of the black colleges during segregation?
MARSALIS: Well, most of them were anyway, even the ones that weren’t Black. The thing is, your primary customer… For example, even at the University of New Orleans today, the primary customer is one who is going to be in music education. So consequently, what you get is all of the rules that are set up in such a way that resemble a mini-conservatory. So many hours on your major instrument, so many hours on the minor instruments, all those kinds of things that they expect band directors to do. And for the most part, courses in theory. In a lot of cases, you have an abundance of theory classes and almost no practical.
TP: Whereas people like Yvonne Busch and Walter Dyett and Samuel Browne were extremely practically-oriented and performance-oriented.
MARSALIS: I imagine so. But it’s kind of hard to tell. I used to talk with Eddie Harris about Walter Dyett, because Eddie studied under him. And I talked a little bit with Joe Williams about the Colonel, from Wendell Phillips High School in Chicago. He went under a guy who had been a Colonel, I think, in the Army.
TP: The guy at Wendell Phillips was Major Clark N. Smith, then Dyett succeeded him, then Dyett went to DuSable when the school was founded in 1935.
MARSALIS: Yes, it must have been the Major.
TP: He had the Chicago Defender Boys Band, which Lionel Hampton came out of. I think he was a no-nonsense Marine, like you!
MARSALIS: Also the school in Detroit, Cass Tech, where Donald Byrd… A lot of those cats went to Cass Tech. See, we didn’t really have schools like that.
TP: Oh, I’d been under the impression that one of the black high schools in New Orleans had a good music program. I guess I was under the wrong impression.
MARSALIS: How long ago?
TP: I was thinking the late ’40s and ’50s, but my memory may be incorrect.
MARSALIS: Well, when people say that so-and-so had a good music program, you don’t ever know what that means! I had a guy that told me he was going into the studio down here, and he was trying to get some musicians, and he heard that St. Augustine High School had these great musicians and this great music program, and he got some of them kids in the studio. I knew what he was trying to do, and I didn’t call him on it, but he was trying to get over cheap. But anyway, he got those kids in there, and they didn’t know jack! They’re not being taught any of that. They’re a marching band, and their reputation is that. But a lot of times, people don’t really know. They look at these situations, and they’re not involved in music, and go, “Oh, this is a great program.”
TP: One thing that occurs to me is that in thinking of people like Dyett and Samuel Browne and these high school music programs through which talented young black musicians emerged and were prepared to become skilled jazz musicians in the period when segregation was operative, there was a certain type of pedagogy and a certain type of attitude and a certain type of world view that was conveyed that helped these musicians function. Looking at you from the outside, I see your work as very much in a continuum of that, granted, of course, that you were doing it in a different time. So I’m fishing here to see if this sort of attitude stuck to you and informed your perspective on your own teaching.
MARSALIS: Well, by the time that I started to teach music in high school at the New Orleans Center of Creative Arts, which was a different school… There was no marching band. There was no band. There was no core curriculum of math or science or any of that. This was an arts high school that students went to, using their elective from the home school. You could not graduate from the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts with a diploma that was recognized as anything. In other words, you had to go to the regular certified high school that taught math and science and English and history, and then half-a-day, you would study your discipline. Now, a discipline at NOCCA could be dance, theater, music, visual arts, or creative writing. And we had a faculty of artists. So the curriculum was designed by the artists for young people who would anticipate becoming professional musicians, dancers, singers, whatever. That was the greatest faculty that I was ever on. There was only three of us. That faculty was fantastic. I learned as much as the students did.
TP: Was that you, Alvin Batiste and Kidd Jordan?
MARSALIS: No-no, not at all. Alvin was teaching at Southern.
TP: He wasn’t teaching there at all.
MARSALIS: No. Alvin was the artist-in-residence, I think, for the Orleans Parish School system. So when that school opened, Alvin called me, and told me that they were opening up the school, and that it would probably be good for me. By that time, I had already gone and started taking courses at Loyola Graduate School, and wasn’t interested even in interviewing for the job. Because I had developed a plan, a modus operandi, which took me to graduate school, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to veer away from that plan. But I did go and interview, and eventually they hired me.
So I was able to function on a great faculty. It was Bert Braud, who was also an instrumental music teacher, and also a vocal teacher, Lorraine Alfaro. One of the things that we didn’t really do was to emphasize or make a distinction between European music and jazz. All the students had to study. All the students had private instruction.
TP: I gather you had a grant, and members of the Symphony were teaching for the amount of the grant.
MARSALIS: Well, not always. They would take the grant, and sometimes the students would have to supplement the grant. But it wasn’t a lot of money for the level of instruction. The grant was about 8 bucks, and the symphony people at that time were teaching for $12 for the students. But it was a marvelous opportunity for them.
TP: Would you say, then, that your pedagogy developed through the imperatives of setting up a curriculum for NOCCA?
MARSALIS: That’s right.
TP: So you get your first class or your early classes, and what do you present them with?
MARSALIS: When I first started there, I hadn’t a clue as to how I was going to approach this. But invariably, I just started with teaching students a lot of blues. Then I’m trying to pick standards that I knew related to a particular instrument. For example, I knew that just about all of the trumpet players should be expected to play “I Can’t Get Started With You” and tenor saxophone players would be expected to play “Body and Soul.”
TP: You broke down those tunes and they had to show…
MARSALIS: They had to play them.
TP: Did you give them recordings to listen to, or first principles that they should follow?
MARSALIS: If I had them. Yeah, I would do that if I had them. We eventually hustled up some money and bought some recordings. Also, we bought some old Collins speaker. They might still be in use, man! Clyde Kerr was using the same speakers, and doing…kind of piecemealing what we could do. But I was very big on the practical side of playing.
TP: How do you mean the practical side?
MARSALIS: That’s it. Play.
TP: When did you ascertain that a student was moving in the right direction? Was that through your knowledge as a working jazz musician? I’m thinking about criteria, the right thing and the wrong thing.
MARSALIS: Well, the right thing and the wrong thing is easy. Because one of the things they had to do was be able to play scales. Either you understood and played the right ones, or you didn’t. And if you did, I’d work on the concept of improvisation, which is not something that’s suitable for everybody’s personality. But there are ways in which you can get people to improvise if they are susceptible to that process. When I say susceptible, what I mean is that some people are just not comfortable with the process of improvisation. If it’s not written on a page or instructions that come from on high or whatever, they are just not comfortable improvising.
TP: So when you found someone who you determined had talent… I assume that given the type of students who were coming in, you were able to take very individual approaches with each of them.
MARSALIS: Yeah, but not because of who was coming in. Mostly because of the way it was structured. Because we just got public school students, period. Whoever came to audition. We didn’t know who was talented and who wasn’t.
TP: I did a piece earlier this year on Harry Connick that was a cover story in “Jazziz,” and I talked to Branford about him. He said this: [ETC.] “…if you walk in the room, my father says, ‘okay, why are you here?’ Virtually every other teacher would say, ‘Turn to page 13. Okay, that’s great. Come back next week and give me another $100.’ My father is like, ‘Why are you here?’ ‘I’m here for you to teach me.’ ‘What do you want to learn? I don’t know.’ ‘Come back when you’ve figured it out.’
TP: I said, “What do you think Harry wanted to learn?” He said, “I don’t think Harry knew, and that’s what my father wanted to get to — what is it you want to learn?” He says he doesn’t know what you taught him, he and Wynton would rough him up and go outside, but he assumes you would do studies on the blues because that’s what you made piano players deal with first, blues and rhythm.
It seems that so many people who have studied with you are able to access the maximum of potential from themselves, and I’m interested in your philosophy of dealing with people, particularly at that very sensitive time in their lives, when things can go in so many different directions.
MARSALIS: Well, I don’t know that I had even developed a philosophy. See, the thing that I remembered, that I fell back on, is that when I was in elementary school, in the early elementary school, first through sixth grade, that [things were done by drill] ….[END OF SIDE]…. We had English classes, we had math class, and in all of those classes, one of the key components was drill. So when I started teaching at NOCCA, I began to use that aspect. Because it stuck with me. You just drill on something and you drill on it until they get it. And it wouldn’t matter…
See, this is another thing. It wasn’t so much about whether somebody was into jazz or classical. The drilling aspect had to do with whatever the subject matter was at the point that you were teaching. Because I was also responsible for teaching Classical students, not just what we call jazz students, and I had to develop a sight-singing class which everybody had to take. The biggest part of that that I used was drill — drilling on intervals, drilling on individual notes, drilling in all of that. Basically, you concern yourself a lot with whether or not somebody wants to be a certain thing. Like, I would ask students, “Give me an example of a model or somebody that if you could be like that, if you could sing like that or play like that…who would it be like?” And you would use that sort of as a guide of trying to figure out how they were thinking.
But I think what Branford was talking about was usually private teaching. Because you can’t do that in a school! Now, one of the things that we used to do also was make students responsible. You see, one of the major problems with public school education today is that, from what I can see, students are never responsible for anything. You don’t have to be responsible. I just read in the paper the other day where this woman in a town, she and 12 other people just resigned, plus the principal, because they wanted her to change the grade. The parents were calling up all hours of the night… What it was is that she gave an assignment, and 23 of the students cut-and-pasted their way over the end of that, and turned the papers in, and she could see what they had done. So she gave them all zero, and got in a lot of trouble because of that. Because nobody wants the students to be responsible.
But that was one of the things we had that was in our favor. We had a principal at NOCCA whose discipline was theater. His name was Dr. Tom Tews. The only thing he asked us to do was, “Just tell me what you’re doing,” because he didn’t want to be blind-sided by somebody coming up to him saying that the faculty is doing something he didn’t know nothing about! But we had unlimited opportunities to restructure what we were doing curriculum-wise, and change it around to meet the needs of the students that we had — just to do a lot of things that were flexible. But we would make students responsible, even when the parents would come in hollering and screaming. And I think that’s basically what the problem is right now. They’re not allowed to be responsible. Then they get out in the world, and there it is! But that’s a whole other story.
TP: It would seem that a magnet arts school, where you have motivated students, would be well suited…
MARSALIS: Well, that’s a myth, see. The whole idea of having very motivated students comes either after they get there and discover that there’s something they can develop if the platform is suitable for their individuality. Otherwise, the motivated students usually get turned-off at school. Because schools do not emphasize individuality. And when people become motivated, they become motivated as an individual.
TP: Do you emphasize individuality?
MARSALIS: Oh, we had to. That’s the only way an arts school can work. You cannot herd an art school and have it really work effectively.
TP: Donald Harrison told me that Kidd Jordan would call him at 8 in the morning to make sure he’d done what he was supposed to, that he’d take extra time and so on. Did you take a role with students outside of the school?
MARSALIS: Not a lot. Well, I had a lot of other responsibilities. If it was something that I could help them with and it took some extra time, I’d find that.
TP: Let’s get through NOCCA, and start talking about… You started teaching at the University of New Orleans when?
TP: So the timeline is, you’re at NOCCA from 1974 to what year?
TP: Then you go to Virginia Commonwealth.
TP: That’s where Victor Goines and Clarence Penn and various others come under you, then you get a faculty position at the University of New Orleans.
MARSALIS: Yes, but that’s not really so much true for Victor Goines. See, Victor was a kid that I knew along with my kids when he was still in high school. He didn’t go to NOCCA. For a while, he was at Loyola. Before he graduated from Loyola University, he started to study privately with me. And eventually, I just put him in my band. Because I had a quartet. The band went on a Southeast Asian tour in the month June of 1986, before I left to go to Virginia Commonwealth. Because see, Victor was teaching math at St. Augustine High School. After I left, he decided that he wanted to come up and go to graduate school! That’s what he did. But to tell you the truth, while I was at Virginia Commonwealth, I never had any classes that Victor was in.
TP: So there are three different categories. There’s the New Orleans public schools, the Catholic schools, and there’s private tutelage. So musicians in New Orleans coming up would go through any combination of these routes.
MARSALIS: Yes. There was also the total practicum, like the kids who went to the junior high school and learned some basics, and then put a band together and went out on the street, and opened up their cases, and started playing for the tourists.
TP: Which is something that’s distinct to New Orleans.
MARSALIS: Well, a lot of places, they’ll put you in jail if you play on the street. You can’t just play on the street. But in New Orleans, that’s a different town. They may have some restrictions by now. But man, a lot of people were playing on the street, some who now have careers!
TP: Kidd Jordan disapproved of the effects of that. He said it sort of stifled the urge to learn or expand or explore. In a broader sense, how do you see the impact of the vernacular aspect New Orleans music and the Caribbean tinge of New Orleans culture on the way musicians develop and evolve and think?
MARSALIS: Well, for the most part, I think it’s all economic-driven. I mean, those people who call themselves music teachers in public schools… It’s economically driven. If there were no jobs out there, they would not subject themselves to four and five years of college training to get a degree not to work. And these kids get an early start, especially from some of these junior high schools with these brass bands. Now, I don’t think that it’s anathema to learning at all. I think kids get turned off by adults very early in life. It’s not the music that’s causing them to do that. It’s the mere fact that there’s nothing going on in the schools. If there was something going on in the school, they wouldn’t quit. Or if there was something happening musically, they wouldn’t want to… For example, Terence Blanchard was going to John F. Kennedy High School. A marvelous band instructor over there. I mean, this guy was great — the concert band. Well, he played in that concert band while he was a student at NOCCA, because there was something going on over there.
Branford went to de la Salle, and the music program over there was okay. But Branford was talking at one point about going and being a lawyer or something. Which was all right with me. I didn’t care. But it didn’t appear to me that he was doing what he needed to do to be at the school. So we came to the mutual agreement that he ought to leave that school and go to the one of the public schools, and then just attend NOCCA and study the music for the remainder of his high school time.
TP: So to you, the cultural thing in New Orleans where the younger musicians play and the oral tradition aspect is a very positive thing.
MARSALIS: Of course.
TP: Could you elaborate a little on why it’s a positive thing?
MARSALIS: Well, mostly it’s positive because, first of all, it’s economically driven, and the kids who do it generally need whatever monies they can come up with. It also promotes a certain amount of teamwork, because it means that these kids have to organize themselves into a functioning unit with virtually no adult supervision at all. That’s another thing. And that skill is a very useful skill for anybody or any group of people to learn early enough in life. The next thing is, they begin to understand a friendly relationship with the general public. When you go out there on the street and open up your case, there are things that you can get to learn. You learn what people will put money in the case to hear you play, and probably they don’t want to particularly put their money in… In other words, if you’re out there and you have a group, and your group was playing some Bach chorales with a brass ensemble, the amount of money that you get is going to determine whether you keep playing that. Now, if you keep playing “When The Saints Go Marching In” and people start putting money in the box… I mean, it don’t take a rocket scientist to figure this out! So these kids go out there immediately playing “When The Saints Go Marching In” or some other piece like that. Now, it’s anybody’s guess to assume that at some point they will have wanted to play some chorales of J.S. Bach. We don’t really know. And a lot of people say, “well, if they wouldn’t have been doing that, then they would be learning this over here.” We don’t really know that.
There have been numerous times… There was a wonderful band teacher who passed on, named Donald Richardson. Donald Richardson had a junior high school, and he was totally devoted to his kids, and when they would graduate from that junior high school, if they went to a high school and that high school didn’t have a challenging band, the horns were in the case, the case went under the bed, and they went and did something else. So we can’t make the assumption that kids have this undying need to learn certain kinds of music.
TP: What kinds of music?
MARSALIS: Any kind. Anything that would be considered by the people who make those statements as challenging.
TP: There’s a quote in an article I saw on the Web from Jason Marsalis that instead of telling a musician everything, you tell them just enough so they’ll discover certain things on their own.
MARSALIS: Yes, I think jazz is really about the art of discovery. And I don’t mean discovery in terms of guesswork. What I mean is that give a person a certain amount of information, and you have to make sure that that information is communicated. Then from that point, they have to begin to make decisions about that information. And like I said earlier, not everybody has the personality to improvise.
TP: What sort of personality do you need to improvise?
MARSALIS: All you really need is the spirit of adventure, and it’s applied to what your understanding is of the music that is being presented to you. Because it’s very easy, man. I did a workshop, and I can’t remember where it was, but it was a guy who had a band; there was a whole room-full of students in there, and it was just me and this little raggedy piano. And I developed a way where I could give a kid maybe five notes, and play some little things on piano. If you just play those five notes any way you want to play them, you can’t go wrong — except if you don’t play at all. This one kid was playing vibraphone, and I said, “I want you to try it.” Oh, no. He was real shy. And his fellow students started to encourage him. So finally, he decided that he’d try it, that he’d play, and I backed him up as he played. And about ten minutes, man, we couldn’t shut him up! He wanted to play the rest of the workshop! Now, I don’t know that he had an opportunity to do that before. He didn’t act like he did. But he didn’t even want to try. So you don’t really know.
TP: So half the battle is breaking down the resistance to trying.
MARSALIS: Well, if it’s in the personality. There was a young man who was a trumpet player, and he came into the class. And I could not communicate with him what it took for him to experiment in improvisation. It didn’t appear to be in his personality to want to do that. I mean, he tried and he wanted to do it. He went on eventually, man, to become a principal trumpeter in the symphony orchestra. So the musicality was already there.
TP: Let me get back to what Branford said you do with piano players, and what you said you did initially in NOCCA, which was deal with the blues. Now, there’s no established pedagogy for the blues, certainly not when you were beginning 27 years ago. How did you organize your principles of teaching the blues?
MARSALIS: See, what I had to do… It reminds me of dealing with a kid with Play-Dough. What you do is, you give him the play-dough, and you say, “Here, take this and make something out of it.” I would write out some notes which, when played, would be 12 measures of the blues. So they could do two things. One, get the sound of the notes in their ear; the other is to reposition their fingers in such a way that they would play when they would practice. Their fingers would get used to those positions. I have one exercise where it was just the left hand, another exercise where it was both hands, another exercise where it was the left hand with some different chords. But it was all based on the blues. And there again, it’s just a matter of drill.
TP: A matter of drill and then their personality accepts it or it doesn’t.
MARSALIS: Yeah. Well, with the piano players it could be a little different. Because with the piano players you’ve given them notes which basically outline a whole form. It’s a different thing with a piano player. The piano player still has to do the same thing from an improvisatory standpoint. But what you do is, you give them all of the notes in the beginning.
TP: Would you say that your experience as an improviser informs your teaching and the way you relate to students?
MARSALIS: Yeah, definitely. First of all, it helps me to understand a lot better what it is that I’m trying to get them to do. Because if I can’t improvise myself, there’s no way that I’m going to be able to teach them. But see, what causes one to be able to teach, and somebody else to be a great improviser and maybe not be able to teach, is that they don’t necessarily do respective thinking about what they are doing so that they can convert it and create a language to communicate that. Because all of teaching centers around a language. How could you teach Medicine if you don’t have a name for the principles. It’s the same thing.
And a lot of times, the problem… Well, I don’t know if it’s the problem or not. There is not a codified language for jazz. There are some things, the blues… But “blues” is a general term. It’s not by any means as specific as, say, the heart would be if a doctor studies medicine. That’s very specific! But what I’m saying is that we have to have enough terminology so it can communicate what the essence is in terms of studying jazz improvisation.
TP: In one of these things I saw on the Web, the writer describes you asking a trumpeter if he knows “Caravan,” the student replies that he has the sheet music, and you say that “the sheet is always secondary — always.” Does jazz continue to be an oral music in any manner? And how do you deal with that quality within the prerequisites of teaching within an institution and a curriculum?
MARSALIS: Well, the thing about jazz being an oral music is that if you don’t have the oral component of the music, what you will have done is taken away the natural ingredients of it. It’s sort of like the difference between preserves and fresh fruit. See? Like, if you could walk up to a tree and there are some apples on that tree, you can pick an apple, and you can eat that apple. Now, there are people who learn how to make preserves, and in most cases, they always taste the same. And you can get it whenever you need it. But the apple on the tree is only going to be there for so long. Like the solo. I mean, if somebody plays a great solo, if you’re not there when they do it, then you won’t hear it. If it’s a recording, you hear sort of a replication of it. Which would be like the preserves. Which is why the term “preservation” comes into play.
TP: That’s a very interesting metaphor.
MARSALIS: But that’s basically what it is. And any student has to develop an understanding of what a solo really is. Solos are not unlike a novel — or a short story. You have a beginning, you have a developmental section; you have a point or a peak; and then ultimately you have a climax or an ending. Solos are like that.
TP: To what extent do you give students vocabulary from other players as part of their repertoire? A process a lot of people do, maybe you did this yourself with Oscar Peterson or Bud Powell, is the imitation of solos and an understanding of how master artists organized vocabulary in different periods. Is that important to your curriculum and pedagogy?
MARSALIS: Yes, but I don’t like to academize it. See, students spend so much time with academic descriptions of things, until they begin to try to put everything in that category, and they begin to lose the ability to hear certain subtleties. I mean, it’s bad enough you’re listening to a recording, which can sometimes take the essence away from what was going on. It reminds of something I read that Earl “Fatha” Hines said. Somebody was talking about the recordings of Art Tatum, and Fatha Hines said, “Man, forget the recordings thing; you’ve got to have been there!” That’s a whole other level of experience in that music. Students have to learn, the ones who are really going to pursue it, that the concept of a solo is in the development of it, and the more references that you have to draw from, the better possibilities you have of a solo.
TP: To extrapolate on that Fatha Hines quote, “You have to have been there,” it’s becoming increasingly hard for younger musicians to be there in terms of at least of expressing the older vocabulary as expressed by the people who created that vocabulary. Is there any contradiction in there?
MARSALIS: How could it be a contradiction?
TP: It could be a contradiction, because if someone is dealing with getting the sound of Jelly Roll Morton together, such as Eric Reed, who dealt with it functionally in the LCJO, he wasn’t there to witness it, but he dealt with it in a real-time situation. One thing that’s often noted by younger musicians is at once the increasing options of vocabulary available to them and the increasing distance from the people who created that vocabulary.
MARSALIS: I know what you’re saying. Well, the point is this. There again, I use metaphors in athletics. The same could be said of Kobe Bryant and Magic Johnson. Those who were there when Magic was doing what he was doing, got the experience that those who were not there didn’t get. Now, it doesn’t mean that those who were watching Kobe Bryant cannot appreciate the game, the style of play, which essentially was a part of the same thing that Magic was doing. But I think what happens with music is that it becomes so academic. When I say “academic,” it becomes like the analyzation of a solo in which somebody starts talking about the technical parts of it, and the scale, and how he used this scale and that scale and another scale — and that’s not what the person who was doing the solo was thinking about at all. I’ve also used as a metaphor that it would be like if somebody asked a student to do a book report, and when they got ready to do the book report, they’d stand up and say, “Well, the person who wrote the book led off with two prepositions, three nouns, two adjectives, followed by a period,” and go through that whole thing. Now, if you want to analyze the sentence structure, that may be true. But I doubt very seriously if that’s what the person who wrote the story was thinking about. And it’s a similar kind of thing with music.
So when Fatha Hines said that you had to have been there, I mean, that’s one of those things that sort of vibrated sympathy. Obviously, he couldn’t have been where Tatum was, but it expressed something that makes you realize that whatever analysis you apply to this music is inadequate in terms of what actually was going down.
TP: How important is it for students to know about the milieu in which the music was going down?
MARSALIS: It’s important totally. There again, it’s the same thing with athletics. I mean, the average kid, when he comes into the NBA today, he knows about the City Game! They know about the City Game. Kareem knew about the city game. All of them!
TP: Well, Kareem was part of the City Game!
MARSALIS: So what I’m saying essentially is that what a lot of students don’t get, in some cases, is the academic complement. I think if you can get an academic complement, so that the experience becomes total…
TP: But the way I mean the question is: Is it important for a kid who is marching in brass bands and is then going on to further musical education to understand, let’s say, the historical origins of brass bands, how marching bands might relate even to customs in Africa, as you once described on a radio show we did. Is that sort of well-rounded knowledge essential to a contemporary aspiring jazz musician?
MARSALIS: Yeah. I was listening to one of those guys in a brass band doing an interview. And one of the first things he said when a young guy came into the band… He said, “The first thing you’ve got to understand is that this is part of a tradition, but when you come here, you don’t come here with no strange attitude.” And he wasn’t talking about music to him. What he was talking about are those things that are peripheral, those things that put some meaning into that.
I remember Wynton made a statement to me one time, and he was waiting for me to rebut him. He started talking about bebop. He said, “man, bebop brought a negative element into the music.” And I said, “Yeah, you’re right. It did.” And that’s a generation that I was a part of. And the reason why that occurred had as much to do with the recording industry as it did with anything else. Because in the recording industry, technology advanced to a point where people could begin to play longer and longer and longer. When you go back and listen to Charlie Parker…
TP: Three minutes.
MARSALIS: Well, maybe five.
TP: He has the famous quote, “If you can’t say all you have to say in two choruses, you’re practicing.”
MARSALIS: That’s right. So essentially, what happened is that another negative element… Well, actually, I don’t necessarily consider that a negative element. When they started to emphasize the whole drug scene. Well, that has to do with something else. I mean, whoever controls the press decides what’s going to get in it. And if anybody was paying attention, the amount of jazz musicians interested in drugs wouldn’t even register 0.000-whatever. So that element I didn’t consider.
TP: I think in bebop it was a pretty consequential element. I’ve been doing articles on people like Jimmy Heath, who had that experience. I spoke to Frank Wess on Friday for a piece, and he said one reason music today is better than it was then is that the musicians then dissipated themselves in an almost commonplace manner, and today that isn’t the case. I think that’s a fact about at least a lot of the musicians of the time, for better or for worse.
MARSALIS: Well, it’s not so much that that’s not a true statement. But I don’t know that that could be proven. I’ll tell you the reason why I say that. First of all, there are peripheral factors involved. When I say “peripheral,” let’s take, for example, the first fifty years, from 1900 to about 1950-ish. The total economy of the jazz musician was gangsters. There was no other economy. Now, that managed to produce a lot of fantastic players in spite of the fact that that was the situation.
Now, as great as some of the young players are today, the democratic process that goes on with the schools teaching jazz and some clubs coming along, and… Like where I work. It’s a nice club! The situation is conducive now to make jazz a respectable area to function in. In reality, it has lost a lot of its individuality as a result of that. Because when you mainstream something… Everything has a good and bad side.
TP: It’s a dialectic.
MARSALIS: Right. But when you go back and you start listening to all them tenor players, man, from Chu Berry on, and people who were lesser lights, like Eddie Lockjaw Davis, and…
TP: To some, he is not a lesser light.
MARSALIS: Well, when I say “lesser light”…
TP: I know what you mean.
MARSALIS: Believe me, man, Jaws was a personal friend of mine. I loved Jaws and I worked with Jaws. I listened to Jaws play some introductions, man, on his own… [LAUGHS]
TP: I’ve heard people from every sphere of music talk of him, like how did he get those sounds with the fingerings he used?
MARSALIS: The only reason why I said “lesser light” is because Lockjaw Davis never forgot that he was in show business. He could never have been a John Coltrane attitude-wise. He was never that. So that level of dedication was not going to be there. And it was the same thing like a Charlie Parker, who spent an enormous amount of time practicing, trying to figure all of this stuff out. Jaws was a product of the times! He was going to be representative among the players who was there. He was the straw boss of Basie until he couldn’t… He and Basie philosophically fell out. But what I’m saying was by no means saying a lesser light…
But when it comes down to it, when you listen to these kids, you hear them and you say, “Oh, man…” My youngest son, Jason, is very responsible for some of these younger kids, and he’s almost like a senior to some of them. The reason why is because Jason has learned the importance of researching the older guys, so he can tell a young drummer about Dodds! About Baby Dodds! See, he’s already researched that. He can also tell them about, “Look, when you’re getting ready to present a solo, this is what you do.” He did a session just recently with Curtis Fuller, who was in New Orleans during Jazzfest. When Curtis got ready to play a ballad, the producer was saying, “Look, this is just with piano, bass and trombone.” And Jason immediately knew what the problem was. He didn’t say nothing. So when they started playing, Jason got behind the drums and started sweeping. So this guy said, “Yeah, man, that’s hip. Not too many young guys can even play brushes at all.” But see, he knows that. And he knows about people not knowing the technique of playing brushes. And he also understands when it started, and the whole ball of wax.
So I’m saying all of that to say that it is necessary that young kids understand and learn all of these things, because otherwise it becomes kind of like a guitar player, a kid who came to NOCCA when I was teaching there. He was a senior, and usually we didn’t take seniors, because it was too late. I said, “Look I’ll take you, and whatever I can do for you in a year, I’ll do. Play the electric guitar.” I put some records on to let him hear that. I put George Benson on, and the recording George Benson made of “Paraphernalia” with Miles. When the record was over, I said, “Well, what did you think?” He looked real bewildered. He said, “I don’t know, man. All I ever thought there was to Benson was ‘Breezing.'” So consequently, what you get is a bunch of kids who just don’t know! Because there’s been nobody there to say, “Hey, man, if you’re playing tenor saxophone…”
[END OF SIDE 2]
TP: …among black musicians was the notion of having your own sound, above and beyond just about anything else, in many ways.
MARSALIS: Essentially, that was one of the things that contributed to the fact of whether you were going to work or not.
TP: So again, it’s economic.
MARSALIS: Well, that was one of the factors. It wasn’t just the only one. But the thing is, there was no uniformity. You go up to Eastman. They’ve got a great music department at the Eastman Conservatory. Look at the cats in that band. I mean, there’s a conservatory approach to jazz. All the saxophone players got the same sound. And they can all play! And you listen to these guys playing a solo, and you can’t tell which one is what! There is no individuality, man.
And having your own sound has as much to do with… I remember Jug told me, Gene Ammons told me… See, Gene Ammons went to school under Walter Dyett. Gene Ammons said, man, “When I went to study in the band, the first thing the dude did was gave me the mouthpiece, and I had to play that for a month. Then I got to the neck, and I had to play that for another month or so. Then finally, I got the horn.”
TP: Von Freeman told me the same thing.
MARSALIS: Yeah! He said by that time, what you do is develop a sound. In some cases, it’s not so much my sound as much as it is a sound. Because when you start to play jazz especially, you hear differently than what happens when you study classical music. And even with Classical music, there are people who have individual sounds with that, even though you’d have to be really attuned to hear them.
TP: Well, connoisseurs can tell Michelangelo Benedetti from Pollini, or Dinu Lupatti from…
MARSALIS: Michelangelo Benedetti was one of my favorites, especially for French music.
But for the most part, I think that’s one of the things that sometimes people misconstrue when they say “my sound.” Everybody’s got a sound. Because once you learn how to play that instrument, whatever comes out of it is going to be your sound anyway.
TP: I’m trying to circle around to an ending. How, within your pedagogy, did you give students that imperative of developing your own sound? Is that just implicit within what you give them?
MARSALIS: Essentially it is. Because I never had them for that long. That’s the one thing you’ve got to realize about teaching in a high school.
TP: But now I’m talking about college, too.
MARSALIS: Well, college is totally different. See, the thing about college and universities, you get students in clumps. If you’re teaching an improvisation class, you get all of the students that’s taking that at that time. Now, they’re studying their instrument with somebody else. You see? And if you happen to have a combo that you’re teaching, there are some things you can pass on to them in that context. That’s teaching a combo. But that individual approach is not there nearly as much. Because by the time you get to the university, you have to spend a lot of time, hopefully, in dealing with refining what’s there.
TP: But do you use the same principles in dealing with your university students as you did with your students at NOCCA? Is what you did at NOCCA the building block for the Ellis Marsalis way of teaching?
MARSALIS: Yes, definitely.
TP: Let’s say I’m some administrator giving you a grant. How would you boil down your principles for me? The one or two minute synopsis.
MARSALIS: Basically, it’s important to learn the three elements of music — rhythm, harmony and melody, not necessarily in that order. And you apply that to each piece that you play.
TP: Since you only took ten seconds to answer: How are you going to go about giving it to them? Through drill?
TP: It’s all drill.
MARSALIS: Yes. You can really study two songs a semester, and teach everything that you need to teach in that given semester.
TP: What two songs would those be?
MARSALIS: Any two songs that have to do with the form. Like a 32-measure form, AABA… It doesn’t matter. Because all of them are going to have rhythm, harmony and melody. It’s a busy-word(?) concept to give somebody 25 songs to learn. I was telling my colleague that. He said, “Man, they ought to learn 25 songs at a minimum.” I said, “But what are they going to play on those songs?” You take one song and say, “Okay, here is the verse, here is the melody, this is what the harmony is.” Now, the first thing you’ve got to do is learn how to play each of those component parts. And it takes time to do that. Now, you multiply that by ten, and what time do you have? You don’t have no time. You’re scuffling, trying to make some arbitrary deadline.
TP: So you really are like Walter Dyett and Samuel Browne in a lot of ways.
MARSALIS: I hope so. [LAUGHS]
TP: You really are. I’m glad I’m not imposing some rigid thesis on you. One final question. What do you think of the state of things in jazz now? We’re talking about some negatives, like maybe lack of individuality among young musicians, but overall, what’s your sense of the state of things as opposed to 15 years ago, when you started at Virginia Commonwealth, or 28 years ago, when you started at NOCCA?
MARSALIS: Well, those are very short periods of time. I think that jazz ultimately will become a major part of the cornerstone of American music. I just heard a trio… This was a classical group. I think all of them went to Juilliard, and they were playing a piece by one of their contemporaries, who is a violinist, who has been playing with a Rock band, and is now composing music, and has been playing violin with Ornette Coleman. It was piano, cello and either violin or viola. When they started to play his piece, I could hear “Lonely Woman,” man, in the beginning theme of it. That’s the direction that the music is going in. And the people who are going to make the biggest contributions towards it are the same as it was in Europe as composers.
TP: When you say “that’s the direction,” do you mean Ornette Coleman or do you mean the hybrid?
MARSALIS: The hybrid. That’s it. It’s going to be like this violin player, the bluegrass player… He’s written a composition that’s very interesting, too.
TP: A young guy?
MARSALIS: Not too young. He’s younger than me. Top of the list. Top line. The representative of that. Well, anyway, I’ll think of it.
TP: Another aspect of the hybrid is all the musicians internationally who are coming here with substantial idiomatic knowledge of jazz and bringing their own cultural information to the table. I’m thinking particularly of musicians from all over the Caribbean and South America. And it seems to me that the rhythmic template of jazz, things that were maybe esoteric 10-15 years ago, are no longer esoteric. Do you perceive this internationalization of the music, that it’s incorporating more information at this point?
MARSALIS: Of course. That’s the way that is. That’s why we get terms like “globalization.” I don’t think music is the only representation of that. I think whatever you see is happening in terms of economics, in terms of the market, in terms of trade… There was a big thing in the paper here yesterday, they’re trying to make a deal between France and New Orleans to build a super-port. So it’s all-inclusive. That’s what I’m saying. It’s not really a separate thing.
TP: So the world is smaller, people can transcend the particularities of their locale, and you can get anywhere in a day, that sort of thing?
MARSALIS: That’s right.
* * * *
Ellis Marsalis (7-01-02):
TP: Virginia Commonwealth was your first university position?
TP: What was the situation when you arrived there, and what did you do?
MARSALIS: There’s different layers to that. First of all, there’s the idea of moving to another state at that time in my life, and a lot of pressures that it brought on my wife. That’s one situation. Then not only was it beginning a job, but a university job in a program that was rather young. They had a jazz program when I got there, but it was not totally defined in any strict way. The band director, Doug Richards, was probably the best jazz band director that I had ever seen; he could really get a tremendous amount out of a jazz band. But there wasn’t anybody there who really wanted to actually head a program. In other words, we had a whole lot of soldiers and no real chiefs. The faculty was a very able faculty across the board. There were 44 people on that faculty, most of whom were in classical music, but it was not an antagonistic situation. So there were things I had to get used to.
But it’s one of those things that the more I did it, the more I found out that it wasn’t that much different than teaching at NOCCA. The reason for that is that when you teach in a typical high school, there’s an adversarial situation between the administration, the teachers, and the students which is built in. And the laws of any given state do not permit you to treat the students as really the way they are. They’re really like young adults who have intelligent. But the various state laws don’t permit you to function with them like that.
TP: As young adults.
MARSALIS: Right. So teaching in the average high school, they have virtually no real responsibility that’s allowed. All the classes are like herds. you go in one herd to Class A, and then to the math class, and then to the history class, and then at some point you go home.
Now, at the university, there’s a lot less pressure from that end, because the students decide what they take and what they don’t take. So it creates a different kind of pressure, if you will. Because students who go into high school are going mostly because they either need it as a means to get somewhere else or because it’s mandated by the state after a certain age. At the university, when a student chooses to go to a university, they do so because they think that it’s going to affect their lives in some way. So the way that we taught at NOCCA, it was very much like a college, even though it wasn’t a college, because the students that we would retain were students who had shown a determination towards performance at a professional level.
TP: Did they tend to sort themselves out? How did you ascertain that they were ready for that?
MARSALIS: Well, it isn’t a case of them being ready for it at all. It’s a case of them making a decision based upon what was asked of them, whether or not they wanted to pursue that particular discipline as a career. There were five disciplines at this school. Then what they had to do was to look at it and make that decision. And encouragement for professionalism was always there. At the average high school, band directors would never tell students in the band that they could be professionals, unless that person was a pro himself and would sort of pick somebody and put him in a group with them and say, “Look, if you want to, you could probably do this.” Because in most cases, teachers who teach in high schools… I remember something that the chairman of the music department told me at Virginia Commonwealth, which I really thought was tacky. He said, “Most of the people on this faculty are failures.” I said, “What do you mean, they’re failures?” He said, “Well, they really want to do what you do, but they don’t really have it, so they teach instead.” I said, “Damn, man, that’s a little bit jive.”
TP: I’ve heard a lot of musicians say, for instance, who went to Berklee, that they were taught by someone who couldn’t play, etc.
MARSALIS: Well, a lot of times, people are hired on that basis. The reason for the preponderance of an emphasis on certification by way of academic credentials is that it creates the means by which people can hire someone, and as a result, blame it on somebody else if it doesn’t work out. Because if you have a Ph.D and whatever, that’s the justification to pay you X amount of dollars and give you certain… I think my wife was telling me, or somebody, that the corporations are beginning to look differently at MBAs, saying an MBA is nothing, that hiring people on the basis of that is not the thing to do. The school system here just got rid of the second superintendent in a row, and it’s decided that the procedure they’re going to go through is not to go and look for some superstar somewhere, but to actually go within the university community to see if they can get someone to be the superintendent of the public schools in the city that they function.
TP: So someone who knows New Orleans to deal with the New Orleans schools.
MARSALIS: Well, that could be what their mindset is, but believe me, nothing could be further from the truth. Like I said before, man, there’s a lot of things about the law which nobody really deals with, which just doesn’t permit you to do certain things in the schools. And the kids know the law.
TP: I’m getting away from the college, and I want get back to it. But it seems the subtext to what you’re saying about what you were able to accomplish at NOCCA is that you were able to do it precisely because it was a magnet school.
MARSALIS: Precisely. It was a magnet school, and we had a principal who came from the theater as a background [Tom Tews]. Consequently, his philosophy was, it’s much easier to get forgiveness than permission. So we would do a lot of things that were good for the students, and if necessary, tell the school board people later.
TP: I think I’m restating we talked about last week, but you developed a lot of your ideas about what was good for the students through your experience as a working jazz musician and an improviser.
TP: I had asked you to boil down your educational philosophy as though I were an arts administrator, and you said, “Learn the fundamentals of melody, harmony and rhythm, and do it through drill.” Can you boil down what it was you learned as a professional jazz musician and improviser that gave you the sense of what your students needed to know?
MARSALIS: I think I discovered the relationship between the Blues and the American Canon, the music canon, and how it related to… How can I put this? Learning how to play Blues became like learning arithmetic. Before you can get to algebra, calculus and trigonometry, you must have mastered the fundamentals of arithmetic. The Blues is like arithmetic. It’s the simplest approach to learning improvisation. And that’s one of the things I learned about Blues.
TP: And why is it the simplest approach to learning about improvisation?
MARSALIS: Because you don’t have a lot to deal with. Like, 12 measures is equivalent to one chorus. It’s a repetitive situation, chorus after chorus after chorus. And the students can be given relatively few notes. I would write out 12 measures of chords that would turn out, when played, to be a blues. I was doing two or three different things at the same time. One, I was presenting them with a visible manifestation of the form of blues in one chorus. Two, I was using chord symbols to represent in a vertical manner the sounds that they were going to deal with in a linear manner. See, after a while, this thing gets to be complex. The next thing is getting them to a point where they could deal with music that’s in motion. When you start to play and you count off the Blues, they begin to understand that you have to be at Measure 1-2-3-4, in a certain time frame, so you become sensitized to the flow of the rhythm.
TP: Of the knowledge you had accumulated up to this time, what percentage of it was vernacular and functional, and what percentage of it came from your academic training?
MARSALIS: None of it came from my academic training to speak of. First of all, I did not go to a music school. The university that I went to had an ample music department, which was sort of typical. It was sort of like, “Okay, this is a university, we need to have music, so we’ll just put something there.
TP: Didn’t Dillard have a very good art department in the ’30s and ’40s?
MARSALIS: Well, in the ’30s and the ’40s, there were people there who had the beginnings of what could have evolved into a great music program — or a great anything. See, when you start to talk about the ’30s and the ’40s, you’re talking about a completely different America. What happened after the Second World War had a tremendous amount of effect on shaping what we’re going through right now. I don’t care if you want to talk about Enron and WorldCom and them, or whether you want to talk about those young guys who’s out there playing a million notes a second in the name of Jazz, or the rappers who, when all else fails, curse. It doesn’t matter. What happened at the end of the Second World War set the stage for the American culture that we see today. Now, what was going on before that was the beginning of something that sort of was just left behind.
TP: What sort of things?
MARSALIS: There were things that were common among universities. For example, at one time, university presidents could help shape public policy. Nowadays, university presidents are about fundraising. Then, we’re talking about a predominantly black university, and there were several of those, and they were producing very good students. For example, Tuskegee had George Washington Carver, who was doing miracles with the soil in Alabama and actually created crop rotation. People like Charles (?), who at Howard helped to develop plasma, which saved the lives of a whole lot of guys in the Second World War.
What I’m saying is that the seeds that were planted during those days could have evolved in a lot of different directions. Now, it’s for another generation at another time to go back and begin to ford all of that stuff out. It’s sort of like looking at why the Roman Empire collapsed.
Anyway, in reference to what you were talking about as far as college is concerned, one of the first revelations that I had after I got there… I ended up meeting with the Chairman, and the Chairman said, “I was just looking over the applications that came in for the Fall, and I don’t see any jazz students’ names on these applications. So what are you going to do about that?”
Well, that was a shock to me. Because I had never been in a situation where I was under the gun for the RR — Recruitment and Retention. See, that’s one of the things that you have to face when you’re going into a university — Recruitment and Retention. Then I was forced to begin to say, “Now, who actually is the jazz student?” We would take the big band and go straight up I-95 in Virginia, and go to these different towns and these different high schools, and we’d leave there and go up into Maryland, where the high school similar to NOCCA, the arts high school… Antonio Hart came from one of them. Then we’d leave there, and go on up to Philly, and go into that high school where Chris McBride and Joey DeFrancesco, some of them came from.
But eventually, what I started to realize was that most of the students we ran into, especially the trombone players, the good straight-up musicians, not necessarily people who were well-versed in jazz, but the good musicians — they were all talking engineering. And the ones with the 1400s on the SAT, none of them were talking about going into the music. And it wasn’t that I blamed them! It’s just that I had never really thought about jazz studies. Because in a high school, like at NOCCA, we were there for students to explore the possibilities of a career in one of five disciplines, whereas once you get to college, the students who come to a college are there to make decisions that will affect, if not the rest of their lives, at least a sizable chunk of them. And whether it does or doesn’t, the motivation for going to a university is based on, “Hey, I’m trying to make a decision that’s going to help me to get a job here, doing this or that.” Jazz was not viewed as economically viable in terms of university students, period. Now, there’s always exceptions. But you can’t run a program off of exceptions. That’s one of the things I learned real quick.
TP: Well, Chris McBride and Joey DeFrancesco went right into the fray. They didn’t go to college, or at least not into that sort of program.
MARSALIS: That’s right. Well, those are exceptions. That’s why I said I wasn’t talking about exceptions. There are people who do that now. There are even people, man, who are leaving high school and going into the pros. In fact, they’re not the first ones anyhow. Moses Malone did that. I think essentially, if you can stay, that does… Because even if you go all the way through college, that doesn’t mean you’re going to stay.
TP: That’s right. You can go backwards in college.
MARSALIS: [LAUGHS] Yeah.
TP: So you were faced for the first time with having to recruit a band. It brought your job description to a different plane than it had been before.
MARSALIS: Yeah, I had go to out and try to find some students.
TP: And I guess in competition with other programs, too. You had to be like a coach.
MARSALIS: Well, you’re always in competition with other programs. Everybody is. With the exception of whatever those programs are that just automatically get a huge body of people that they just have to say, “Well, we don’t want any more.” I don’t know if Engineering is like that. It may not be. I was talking to a friend of mine who knows a professor at UCLA who teaches composition. I had one lesson with this guy. I forgot his name, but anyway, he was telling him that at one time, of his composition students at UCLA, he would get maybe 4 or 5 or 6 who were interested in film scoring. See, all of them are now. Every single one of them. And when you think in terms of what has been happening lately, there is much more of a pronounced emphasis on John Williams, on Howard (?), on even one or two of the Newman family, of which there’s been an abundance in the film scoring world! So television and movies play an important role in the decisions that people are making, and I think ultimately, the universities haven’t really figured out some of that. I’m sure some institutions have. But when it comes down to it… I was reading where Harvard University had a course called (?) that they just got rid of, because there wasn’t anybody taking it. One of the things that was an assist when I got to UNO is that there were a lot of courses which had been approved through committee, and there was nobody teaching it. So those numbers were there, and see, a lot of times, man, if you know what they are, you can go and take the number and develop a course without having to go totally through committee. Because going through committee can sometimes be a hassle.
TP: So you’d do an end run.
MARSALIS: It’s kind of like an end run, yeah.
TP: But at VCU, a number of musicians went through who are making an impact now.
MARSALIS: Well, there’s only three that I know. Clarence Penn, Alvester Garnett and Loston Harris.
Victor was teaching math in high school in New Orleans. He’d been in my group. I used to tell him, “Vic, if you really want to teach, I don’t see anything wrong with that, but to me it doesn’t make any sense to be teaching at these schools. You ain’t got no benefits, man. They could fire you tomorrow! And you have no recourse whatsoever. So if you really want to teach, you ought to teach in public school. At least you’ll get some benefits!” And when I left to come to VCU, he told me he’d thought about that, and he said, “Man, look, I don’t want to be sorry one day looking back and saying ‘I should have.'” So he split and came up there to work on his Masters. He really did it in a year, but they wouldn’t let him finish in a year. They made him come back and register for a recital. Eventually, he started to utilize his saxophone skills in different ways. He went up to New York and was doing sub work in some of the Broadway type shows. I think at that time “Ain’t Misbehavin'” was running and a couple of other ones. I remember he told me that when he went up to New York, somebody up there was talking to him at an audition, and the guy said, “Hey, man, do you know how to read?” And he said at first he got insulted! “Man, what is this?” He said after he was around New York for a while, he found out why he was asked that. [LAUGHS] A lot of the musicians up there couldn’t read!
TP: What would you say you brought to the faculty at VCU that hadn’t been there before? Did you bring a new attitude, a new way of teaching?
MARSALIS: I don’t think so. Because I wasn’t there long enough.
TP: Three years, right?
MARSALIS: I was there for three years. And I’m not sure to what extent that would have been a possibility to do. Because I came in without the benefit of the kind of experience… Just to give you an example, there’s a guy at Virginia Commonwealth, a trombone player named Tony Garcia. He edits the “Jazz Educational Journal,” which is the official organ of IAJE. He sent me an email and asked me if I would be able to come up as part of a program that they are doing, and he outlined some of the things that he was able to do. This is over the period of one year. It’s fantastic. Because what this guy was able to do is nothing short of miraculous. Well, for one thing, he was instrumental in getting somebody (I don’t know the guy personally) to give 2 million bucks to the jazz program at VCU. No jazz program has ever gotten that kind of money. Not in a state institution. I was the recipient of a million dollar chair. But when it came down to it, nothing like that. What it takes to be able to do that is the kind of press-the-flesh…
TP: You need to have very solid political skills to pull off something like that.
MARSALIS: That’s right. There’s just an awful lot of things, man, that he was able to hook up.
TP: The question has more to do with philosophy: Looking back, what would you have done that you didn’t?
MARSALIS: One of the first things that I realized about Virginia Commonwealth was that being in Richmond meant… There was no music tradition in Richmond. There was one little small space — I never went to that space — where some of the guys would play. There was another space that was like a restaurant, but it was bigger. And every now and then, they would bring somebody in. But for the most part, the benefits of being in a city that had a history of music, where students who were coming out of high school as well as those who were coming out of the city of Richmond to go to VCU, would have been able either to participate in or just be a spectator of.
When I go to work on Friday nights at Snug Harbor, there’s a live band that’s playing right across the street. On the corner from there, there’s a place Cafe Brazil, with live music. Across the street from Cafe Brazil, there’s live music. Now, we’re not even talking about what might be happening on Bourbon Street. Then there’s all of these other different places in the area. On North Rampart Street, there’s three spaces within two blocks of each other, one called Funky Butt, the other one called Donna’s Bar & Grill, which specializes in brass bands, and then a blues joint which the owner of Funky Butt owns.\
Richmond didn’t have that. So when I looked at that, I started to realize that getting some people to come to Richmond, especially during the ’80s, to study Jazz, was seemingly very difficult. So I decided that if I was going to stay here, I needed to find a niche, something I can, which would really not only justify being here, but make it a positive musical experience for most of the students. So I was thinking of concentrating on developing rhythm sections — the piano, bass and drums. That would mean getting people to come here and trying to specialize in that area.
TP: Thus Clarence Penn and Alvester Garnett.
MARSALIS: Right. Now, Alvester I met while he was still in high school. He came to VCU the following year. So I was there I think a year while he was there.
TP: I want to step back to your comments about what happened after World War II. Is what you’re saying, in one sense, that the focus on core curricular values started to deteriorate at this time and it had a deleterious effect on the culture? You made a very strong statement. The tone of voice is strong. The words are strong. It seems what happened is an important issue to you.
MARSALIS: I need to be more speculative here than direct, because it’s very difficult to be as close to that and be accurate historically. What I’m beginning to realize is that we tend to be judgmental about things which are different from the way we grew up.
Anyway, the thing that happened after World War Two was television, for one thing. And for the first time, here we have an invention which goes right into people’s homes, and within five years, which would put it right around 1950, there were about 10 million sets in the country. Now, what television managed to do was twofold, at least. One was to instantly let you know whatever was going on in almost any other part of the world that the networks chose to broadcast. Unlike, for example, “War Of The Worlds” on the radio with Orson Welles in 1939. I mean, there were people out there in fields in the Midwest with guns waiting to go to war with the Martians. And America, before World War Two, was not that much different, even going back to the past century. I mean, there just was not that much of a difference in terms of the way the country was going on. But as soon as World War Two came in, things like plastics were invented… I wish I knew all of them different inventions. I remember we got our very first refrigerator in 1941. Before that, it was the icebox.
TP: In New Orleans, that was an important thing.
MARSALIS: Well, it was an important thing everywhere. Because what it meant was that you could now keep food one or two days longer than you could otherwise. So many things started to happen.
I think what happened with jazz is that jazz moved closer toward the musical objectives that have been prevalent primarily in European Classical Music. What I mean is this. During the time of Louis Armstrong and King Oliver and Kid Ory, all of these earlier guys, they played music for the sheer entertainment of people. They played dances, and when they played the blues, it was for people to dance to. They had cutting contests, but the cutting contest was music played at the level of the audience themselves. For example, what they would do, they would have these flatbed trucks, and two bands would come. [The ballyhoo.] Whoever won that one, that’s where the people would go to dance. By the time World War Two came (and I’m using World War Two more as a marker than the cause of anything), you had musicians coming out of the Swing Era with the dance bands, like Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell, and various people… The top level of people was one thing, but then there were all of the disciples, if you will, like Sonny Stitt and various other people. So the emphasis started to be placed on the soloist. The elements of the music carried over was related directly to the band.
TP: Max Roach used to say that had something to do with the tax the Federal government started putting on dance…
MARSALIS: I know what you’re talking about. That was in Dizzy’s book. During the war, the government put a war tax of 10% on all venues that had a show. Now, shows could be anything from juggling to dancing girls… For example, the Cotton Club, where Duke played. Now, I don’t think the Cotton Club uptown was going on during the war years, because Owney Madden had gone to jail by then. But anyway, 52nd Street had a lot of these little bitty clubs, and they would put a combo in there. So with the combo, not having a show, the guys, especially the soldiers and sailors passing through… Ultimately, what you begin to get were bands that played for people who were sitting around the bar.
TP: Minton’s wasn’t unlike that either.
MARSALIS: Actually, Minton’s looked like a toilet almost. There wasn’t nothing happening when I went to Minton’s in the ’50s. It was in August and there were some bands there, but it was just a big old space. I think there was a piano in there. But it was like a lot of joints I’d seen in New Orleans.
Anyway, most of those places were like hustles. That’s what I called them. A hustle is when a guy opens up a club, because he either likes people or he’s fortunate to have someone leave him a piece of property, or whatever, and you didn’t really need anything other than connections to get a license and sell some booze. Because at that time, I don’t know if anybody was dealing with food in these places anyway! But Prohibition had gone by the wayside by 1933, when Roosevelt came in, so you’re looking at the development of the urban community on all fronts. At the end of the war, you start to see the suburban community come into effect. They’re building all of these post World War II houses in these little towns, and selling it, and the veterans is coming back, man, $500 to get you a house… [LAUGHS]
All of this played out in terms of signalling exactly what was going to be happening in America, and the music was no different. Monk came out of the dance bands, too. But when Monk started to play Monk, Monk was expressing Monk via his musicality and his intellect.
TP: [rambling question on the way Monk, Bird, Powell were educated vis-a-vis contemporary musicians]
MARSALIS: You’re looking in terms of trying to get an analogy between they learned and the way musicians learn today. For one thing, it’s hard to really nail it down. For example, on the back of a vinyl album, Willie The Lion Smith made the statement that a lot of people don’t understand how important it is to develop the left hand through learning the music of J.S. Bach. James P. Johnson was very good classically; he was accompanist for a soprano at that time named Sister Rita Jones. Fats Waller was one heck of an organist. So there had been all along people studying and learning European music. Except as we get later and later into the century, we begin to find that schools primarily utilize European music as a discipline criteria to reinforce the attitudes, in some cases cultural, in some cases blatantly racist, and exclude anything else than European concert music in terms of teaching — you develop orchestra, choruses, choirs. Everything you do centers around practicing and playing European concert music.
So jazz and any folkish music was on the outside. The bluegrass players were like fiddlers. Some of them used to have a joke that said, “He was a great fiddle player, but he went to college and learned to become a violinist.” So the folk music aspect was kind of forsaken. And jazz really was a folk music. But the difference between jazz and other types of folk music was that jazz became grist for the mill of composers, even Ravel. I think we are now beginning to get some composers looking at bluegrass. Copland did to an extent, but it was all surface with Copland — “Billy The Kid” or “Appalachian Spring” you can hear that influence slightly. But jazz sort of became a more formal statement of Americana through the development of the instrumentalist. And when I say “the development,” what I mean is that the process of improvisation was something that was an intellectual development, and it occurred over a period of time with a considerable amount of musicians honing in on it, and it became separate from dance music. Lester Young came to maturity with a lot of the stuff that he did in the Basie band, which was a dance band. Woody’s band was a dance band. Stan Kenton’s band was a dance band. All of those bands were dance bands. So the soloists had kind of a minor role. In the early days, Billie Holiday used to complain about the fact that she had to go up there and sing just half-a-chorus and go back and sit down. All the rest of those bands, Jimmy Dorsey, Tommy Dorsey, Bob Eberle…
TP: Jimmie Lunceford.
MARSALIS: Definitely. Lunceford was a straight-up show band. What I’m saying is that basically the bands were really like dance bands. Sometimes in colleges they would refer to them as “swing bands.” When I was in high school they had what they called a swing band. You could go buy arrangements. There would be stuff like “9:20 Special” or you could get the stuff that Harry James was doing. You couldn’t get no Duke Ellington, but you might get an arrangement somebody made for a standard band of something that Duke did. But for the most part, that’s the way it turned out to be.
TP: One thing a lot of people who passed through the bands note is that they themselves were a training school, like a functional conservatory, in terms of standards upheld and information being passed on.
MARSALIS: In some cases you would find that. But for the most part, there were several differences just in terms of who was doing what. For example, jazz had always been a music that you either already had to know how to play, or you had to have a significant skill on the instrument in order to get it, and you just about learned everything on the job, because there wasn’t any place else for you to get it. And there were a lot of kids learning because their daddy was a player or some other relative. I saw that among musicians in New Orleans who were younger than me. Clyde Kerr. The French brothers, Bob French and George French, the sons of Albert French, who played with Papa Celestin. Sammy Alcorn, whose daddy, Alvin Alcorn, was a trumpet player. But invariably, it was always second-class.
TP: Jazz was second-class.
MARSALIS: Yes. It wasn’t like nowadays. When I read the stuff that was done at Lincoln Center, they have status with the other aspects of Lincoln Center now. There’s a big building going up, which they have a part of. We’re speaking about a whole different thing.
TP: It occurs to me when you say that many of the principles you espouse or the way you teach, in terms of how they got filtered through Wynton, are very much responsible for why Lincoln Center is in the position that it’s in, or what Victor Goines is doing at Juilliard. So again, what your first principles are would seem to be very significant in the intellectual history of jazz at this moment because of the way they’ve been transmitted and filtered through other people. Maybe you think I’m wrong or overexaggerating, but I don’t think so. When I hear him speak and hear you speak, I hear a lot of similar thought processes. His own mind, certainly, but similar thought processes, similar metaphors. This piece is about you as an educator, but I’m trying to pinpoint what it is about your first principles, the principles you bring to conveying information and the way you’re able to do it that has stuck. The proof is very much in the pudding here. We have these facts, these institutions. This is a tangible change from 1987. And in 1987, when the Lincoln Center Jazz program started happening, it was a very tangible change from 1974.
MARSALIS: I think that the whole process is somewhat like America as a nation. We’re still in the process of evolution. We’re still evolving. And I think the same thing is the case for the music. I think if you would look at the formal aspects of European music, for example, at some point there was a peak which was reached by way of the composer. And, to some extent, not only by the composer, but the performer. I mean, Beethoven never heard his music on a Hamburg Steinway. He would have no idea what that sounded like! But it didn’t prevent him from writing the kind of music that makes stars out of people who do play on Hamburg Steinways.
So what we’re looking at is a multifaceted kind of thing. The guy who invented the saxophone, his invention was too late for the European Masters, as they called them. And the Rhapsody that Debussy wrote… He didn’t even like the saxophone. Some woman gave him a check for about $500 for a piece, and he delayed as long as he could, and the woman aggravated him to a point to where he finally wrote this rhapsody for saxophone. Now, there were other French composers who probably didn’t feel the same way about the saxophone. Probably Ravel, because he wrote saxophone into “Bolero” which played a rather prominent part. But the thing is, you can’t overlook that also.
So whatever it is that I managed to do didn’t really come by way of a philosophy. Mostly it came by way of a reaction.
TP: The music and the circumstances were telling you what to do at any given moment, and you were responding.
MARSALIS: Yes. And I would begin to do, I imagine, since I haven’t really studied, something similar to what Thomas Edison was doing. I heard a story that his assistant said they had done about 150-200 experiments, and none of the lightbulbs worked. Finally he said, “Man, we ought to give up on this, because this thing ain’t workin’! We ain’t makin’ no progress at all.” And Edison supposedly said, “On the contrary, we know 150 ways that do not work.” We don’t always think in terms of going to what doesn’t work. That was one of the things that I started to learn. For example, I remember one of my colleagues who was teaching instrumental music, he said, “Man, these kids need to learn 25 tunes a semester.” Well, what are they going to play on those 25 tunes? Because his expertise in terms of improvisation was really not that strong. So he didn’t understand that you do practice improvisation, that you do actually do that. But basically, I didn’t have a philosophy per se.
TP: But you had first principles.
MARSALIS: What do you mean?
TP: You had a set of aesthetic values that governed your responses to these situations, and you had a culture and a milieu from which you emerged to face these situations.
MARSALIS: Right. That’s true.
TP: This is all I’m saying, and it’s one reason why I’m so interesting in hearing you address the ’30s and ’40s and ’50s, and how you perceive those times vis-a-vis today.
MARSALIS: Essentially, the situation in the ’40s and a large portion of the ’50s was based on the entertainment side of music. So jazz did not enjoy an acceptance in any academic sense. And it’s not that people didn’t study. I think I told you about this book that’s coming out on Yvonne Bush. People went to school, and they studied, and the better teachers you had, probably you were most fortunate to have learned whatever you learned. But when it came down to it, how to apply it was sometimes tied directly to employment opportunity. I remember listening to stories… See, I had a chance to work with Cab Calloway. I also had a chance to work with the Judge, Milt Hinton, and I knew Dizzy also. The Judge would tell me how, during the break between shows somewhere they were playing, Dizzy would say, “Come up on the roof, man,” and he and Dizzy would get together on the stuff Dizzy was working on, and he’d tell him what to play. Cab told me how… This is a little ancillary story. They were doing a live broadcast for NBC Radio, and while they were going through the broadcast, Cab got hit in the back of the head with a spitball…
TP: And it wasn’t Dizzy.
MARSALIS: No, it wasn’t.
TP: It might have been Jonah Jones.
MARSALIS: It was.
TP: Then they had the knife fight…
MARSALIS: Yeah. Then Dizzy stuck him in the rear with the knife. But Cab told me, “Man, the next time I saw Dizzy, Dizzy came through with this arrangement, man, and said, ‘I’m going to try this arrangement; listen to this.'” So they played it, and Cab said, ‘Man, what is that?'” Dizzy said, “Man, this is the new stuff; this is what’s happening.” There were all of these people, like Gil Fuller, who was doing some of the writing, and Tadd Dameron. To some extent, some of these people were also teachers. For example, John Lewis was a teacher at CCNY. I think Ron, too.
See, I have several ideas that I have yet to be able to implement. First of all, I think that the drumset is the most important instrument in the jazz band. That’s the first thing. I’ll tell you an example. I was doing a workshop in North Carolina with the jazz band at a university called Shaw. It was a pretty good sounding band. So after they finished playing, I asked the guys in the band, “Can you guys hear the drummer?” See, a lot of times what happens, nobody takes the time to find out whether or not some of these people in the band can really hear from one end to the next, and unless they’re experienced players, they don’t know to tell the band instructor, “Hey, man, I can’t really hear what this guy is doing over there.” So I asked them, could they hear the drummer, and they said, “Yeah, we can hear.” So I said, “Let me ask you something. When you listen to the drummer, tell me what you hear.” Do you hear [SOFT ARTICULATED BEATS] or do you hear [UNDIFFERENTIATED BUZZ]?” They said, “Yeah, that’s what we hear [LATTER].”
So I knew what was wrong with that. And these were all very serious players. I’ve done some workshops where guys come in with marching band sticks broke in half, no tips, paper on them. They’re not even serious. So I asked the drummer, “Hey, man, what size sticks are you using?” He said, “I’m using 7A.” He said, “Well, 7A, man, is a combo stick. If you’re going to play and kick and a big band, you need at least a 5A, and if you’re going to play with a 5A, when you practice, you need to practice with a 3A, so that you build up to that.” See, these are some things that I found out later on.
TP: Very practical. To help them succeed.
MARSALIS: Oh yeah.
TP: So you take for granted that they are going to have the fundamentals down through drill. It’s as though the process of learning music is like learning a trade or an artisanal skill, and then it becomes art through all the permutations to which those skills are applied.
MARSALIS: Well, you can get into a lot of trouble, man, trying to figure out at what point it becomes art. That becomes a lot more philosophical than it does realistic. I mean, I listen to cats talk about “the art of hip-hop.”
TP: But I’m talking about the art of Charlie Parker.
MARSALIS: Yeah, I know. But, see, that’s where the argument comes from. Who gets the right to use that word?
TP: The word “art.” Do I have the right to use it.
MARSALIS: Well, everybody has the right to use it.
TP: But you know what I’m saying.
MARSALIS: Yeah. But it at some point it may become art, and it may not. See, that’s the thing. We don’t really know to what extent it will or won’t become art.
TP: But you’re not concerned about that when you’re teaching, then.
MARSALIS: No. See, what I’m concerned about is whether these guys can put one foot in front of the other. Because it becomes very difficult to start dealing with philosophy. I think I might have told the story about the guitar player who was doing… When you get students like that, they have not had enough experience dealing with anything of a philosophical nature to start trying to preach “art” in that sense. In most cases, you get to be lucky if they can play their instrument. And if they can play their instrument, we just go from there.
TP: Let me take you to University of New Orleans, so I have the chronology. You stayed at VCU for three years, and then for a variety of reasons, I’m sure, you move back to New Orleans.
MARSALIS: Well, for one reason. The chancellor came and he made me an offer that I couldn’t refuse.
TP: But I guess he didn’t have to hold a gun to your head to get you back to New Orleans.
MARSALIS: Oh, no! I still thought that New Orleans was the best place to develop a jazz program. I think that New Orleans today is still the best learning town in the world!
TP: Why is that?
MARSALIS: Because of the various places that exist to ply your trade, to practice. There are so many different spaces here to play in, so many different kinds of places. You could play a brass band, you can play in trad bands, you can play in a traditional jazz band, you can play Ska. There’s all of this stuff.
TP: You can play in Latin bands now.
MARSALIS: That’s right! The people who come from other places to come to New Orleans, they don’t have to concern themselves nearly as much about property. At one point, guys were going around Soho…well, they weren’t even calling it Soho then…
TP: You could rent a cold water flat cheap.
MARSALIS: Yeah, you could get a loft, man. Now that’s all gone. New York becomes one of those places that if you go there, you’d better have a gig when you go there, and when the gig runs out, you’d better be ready to go back somewhere else.
TP: So you’re saying that in New Orleans you can learn music on a major league level without having to shell out $2000 a month for a railroad flat.
TP: Very practical. What was the program like at UNO when you got there?
MARSALIS: There was no program.
TP: So you actually had to start the program and get it off the ground.
MARSALIS: There was one guy on the faculty named Charles Blancq. In fact, he’s got a son who I think is living in New York now, who was at one time teaching at Queens, named Kevin Blancq. A good little trumpet player and arranger. Anyway, I knew Charles for years, even when he was a music student at LSU, the club that I had, and all the rest of that… Anyway, the Chancellor asked me to come back to New Orleans, we finally came to terms, and I agreed and went back. I did one more year at VCU, for the seniors before they left. So Charles Blancq and I put together a curriculum over the telephone, and that enabled Charles to go to the committee at UNO to get the courses certified for a degree. Because it was a liberal arts degree. They were all basic courses. Because as a freshman going into this university, a good portion of what you took in the first 17 hours was like English, Earth Science, history, just the fundamentals — not music. You got so many hours for playing in a combo. It was maybe three or four years before we really got a big band.
TP: Around ’94 or so?
MARSALIS: I forget the year. Maybe even later. But what I’m saying is that this is where we went to. Ultimately, we had a series of meetings where we tweaked this or changed that, or tweaked that and changed this, or reorganized that… We knocked it down from 132 hours to 128 hours to graduate. All the while, putting a major emphasis on performance. We had to develop ways for evaluation. Like, when we listened to the guys play, what were we listening to? A lot of things that we started out with and ultimately changed were concepts we got from the existing wing of the music department, which was the Classical Department. We eventually got permission to do recital hours with just the jazz students. Also, we were able to get the jury… Most times what you would get would be the faculty for a particular instrument, and the private teacher would come in, and they would talk about the student, and the student would play whatever they were working on. So we had meetings about that. We said, “Man, this doesn’t really make a lot of sense. What we really need to do is go and listen to the students in the context of what they’re playing, hear them in the combo that they play with. Because that’s really where they function.” So we were able to change that.
TP: Is University of New Orleans part of the State University of Louisiana?
MARSALIS: Right. But basically, those are some of the things we were able to do.
TP: You retired last August.
TP: Who are some of the students who came through University of New Orleans?
MARSALIS: There’s a guy in New York right now named David Morgan, a piano player. He was the first graduate from our program. There’s a saxophone player who came at the same time he did named Bryce Winston. There’s a couple piano players — a guy named Josh Paxton, who works down here, and finished in the graduate program. There’s some people who came and didn’t really stay. Nicholas Payton came and stayed a semester. Irvin Mayfield stayed a couple of years.
TP: Was Peter Martin involved?
MARSALIS: No. Peter was teaching, doing adjunct teaching over there.
TP: Why should people go to school to study jazz?
MARSALIS: Well, I don’t necessarily think they should. That’s not a statement that I would make. I think if they really need… Well, let me put it another way. As I mentioned to you earlier about the concept of being in a state of evolution, there may be a time in the future when going to school to study jazz would be maybe the same thing as going to school to study engineering. Maybe. But as it stands right now, jazz as we know it is such a highly individualistic art, until, if you get a good private instructor and you’re around in a situation… I’ll have to say that this excludes pianists.
MARSALIS: Because you can play by yourself. You can do the Keith Jarrett thing. But if you are around people who are well enough versed in the style of music that you’re trying to play, then you really don’t need it. You’ll do better with private instruction and just going out and playing.
TP: Why should people continue to play jazz?
MARSALIS: There’s no real reason why anybody should continue to play jazz. Aside from whatever personal reasons that they bring to it, that the music speaks to you. Now, I think more and more that the study of jazz, across the board, whether it be as a musician or as a lay person, can help you to better understand America and its relationship to the citizenry as a whole.
TP: Why is that?
MARSALIS: Because the music itself reflects the whole of the citizenry, moreso than any other music. In other words, you can listen to and develop an appreciation for the Fifth Symphony of Beethoven, but that don’t have nothin’ to do with America! Neither does any of the other musics developed in that canon. But if you listen to “West End Blues” by Louis Armstrong, and really get to appreciate what was going on in there, you begin to understand what was going on in the early part of the century in America, and you begin to connect that to the numerous blues players that were wandering across the country during the time when the Depression was on and nobody had any money. You can connect it in Chicago, where all these blues players were. That’s basically what I’m saying.
TP: But how does that pertain to the here-and-now? It’s an interesting situation. You have all these skilled jazz players of many different generations, and as far as the broader culture is concerned, even with Lincoln Center and the various institutional stronghold in the universities, it’s just a blip on the consciousness of popular culture. As an educator and thinker and the father of four extremely accomplished musicians, what do you think playing jazz offers to young people of today?
MARSALIS: I think in some ways we can look at jazz as a form of glue that keeps American culture centered and provides avenues for research, whether it be formal research or whether it just be chasing down the name of somebody you find and enjoy and seeing what else that person has done. In the kind of world that we live in now, people do not necessarily even have to have a skill to become rich and famous as a pop artist. So consequently, a disciplined approach to anything becomes something that’s very much needed in this country. As I mentioned to you, jazz is the only music that started as a folk music and evolved as a folk music. Most of the other music that started as folk music, especially the music in the European tradition, started as folk music, stayed folk music, but became an influence on composers — so the composer became the filter. For which you heard various… “Hungarian Dance #3,” and all the stuff Bartok ripped off from them gypsies. Well, I won’t say “ripped off.” But their music was a predominant influence. But in America, jazz remains a folk music that evolved as a folk music. And even though you might hear Charlie Parker with Strings, if you were to take that recording and bleep out Charlie Parker, what do you have? You have some whole note-half note violin players sawing away, and a Mitch Miller solo on oboe.
But for the most part… One of the things that has not yet become a staple is the quintet. When I say a staple, what I mean is as a course of study, as a recognized ensemble. For example, if you study classical music, there are several ensembles. String quartet is one. The symphony orchestra is another. Then there are various others, brass quintets, brass quartets… Invariably, there are combinations that are not necessarily that standard. But in jazz, it’s the quintet, the tenor saxophone, the trumpet and the rhythm section. There’s more recordings made with that combination that have yet to really be studied in that context, where you look at it and say, “Okay, this is an ensemble that’s representative of a jazz ensemble of this period.” Whereas if you go earlier to traditional jazz, especially when it’s New Orleans, what you get is the sextet, with the trombone, cornet and clarinet. Which was a big influence on Duke. On “Mood Indigo” that Duke Ellington did, he flipped everything upside-down. He took the trombone and made the trombone higher, then he took the clarinet and put the clarinet on the bottom, and the trumpet was playing the melody with a mute.
I hear some younger kids today, some kids who play with Jason, and as young as Jason is, he even recognizes that some of these don’t have really any idea about their instrument — about the tenor saxophone. At one time, there used to be this person who was a tenor saxophone player, and he was recognized as a tenor saxophone player. Nowadays, some of these guys play the tenor, and there’s no particular reference to that instrument in any particular fashion in terms of what they play. That is, when you listen to them, you don’t get the feeling, “Well, man, I think he may have listened to Ben Webster” or he might have listened to Gene Ammons or Sonny Rollins or Chu Berry — some of the more well-known tenor saxophone players.
TP: So that link to the broader narrative thread that runs through the music ceases to exist.
MARSALIS: Well, it’s like writers. You read a writer and think, “Has he ever read Hemingway? Has he ever read Faulkner? Has he ever read Mark Twain?” I think what is beginning to happen… I clipped an article out of the paper by a local writer who was talking about two people who were at a university in the State of Louisiana in education, and the chairman of the department used to like to take them on junkets to different places — South America, China — talking about education techniques. As soon as they get a couple of miles away from the university, they were minority kids in dire need of (?) an education techniques, and there was no observation of that at all. So eventually, this guy and his wife… This guy got to be dean of the school, of the education department, and he and his wife took a year and they went to the furthest corner of Louisiana, near the Arkansas line, and for a year they taught in an elementary school in a rural parish which is extremely poor, and they wrote a book… I don’t know if they did it together or he did. He taught fourth grade and his wife taught the third graders. In this book, they talked about the instance that LETA(?), which is what they call the standardized tests in Louisiana… They actually said that it was fraudulent. I’d never seen anybody say so strongly that this is fraudulent. I mean, I’ve always thought that.
But when you think in terms of young musicians and jazz musicians, you realize… Like the guitar student I had. They don’t really know that there is something to know about what it is that they’re doing. I was working once with a student on “Summertime,” and I said, “Have you ever heard the original rendition of ‘Summertime’?” He said, “Yeah, man, I got that recording by Miles.” And I had to explain to him about this aria in an opera called “Porgy and Bess” that was written by George Gershwin.
This is one of the dilemmas that we have. And I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that this is a very young country. I often think of America the way that I would about a 10-year-old kid whose folks died and left him this candy store, and he had nobody to guide him or nothing. So he just goes into this candy store and, like, proceeds to be a 10-year-old kid. And ultimately, he has to learn every time he gets a bellyache, if he’s not unfortunate enough to get diabetes and die before then, that there’s something to know when you got this place. It’s not just, “Oh, great, this is mine.”
I think that invariably, the sources of information, as they descend, becomes filtered to a point where there’s very little meaningful information that gets through in terms of any discipline. And unless it’s popular enough, it doesn’t get through at all. Just to hear some young guys come up to me in school and say, “Hey, man, what do you think of Hip-Hop and Jazz?” I cannot think of more of an oxymoron than Hip-Hop and Jazz. And there are people who defend that.
* * * *
Ellis Marsalis (#3):
TP: As I understand it, it would sound like your two cornerstones were Bud Powell and Oscar Peterson.
MARSALIS: Actually, not Bud so much. I got to Bud later. But Oscar Peterson was the first major influence on piano. See, the thing about it is, I was primarily a band piano player. I didn’t study piano the way Oscar and Bud studied piano, so I came into it playing piano in a jazz group and sort of filling in the blanks. So I didn’t really develop that pianistic philosophy that people develop when the study the instrument, like a Keith Jarrett did, he had all these recitals… You learn to play the piano with the objectives that go along with the history of that instrument.
TP: With you, it had more to do with the function of playing in bands and combos. Did you play piano in rhythm-and-blues bands also, or is that something you did more as a tenor player?
MARSALIS: It was more as a tenor player. By the time I got out of college, looking back at it, the scene here was changing a lot. This was in the mid-’50s, and I started practicing and working on learning some pieces… At that time, Clifford and Max was a great influence on us. Because I was then playing with Edward Blackwell and either Peter Badie or Richard Payne on bass, and Nathaniel Perrilat. But we never really succeeded in getting a trumpet player to round out the group. So a lot of times we would play those pieces just quartet-wise. But it was still essentially like a band thing, because that’s where I was concentrating my energies.
TP: When did that band with Ed Blackwell begin?
MARSALIS: It’s really hard to say. Because it evolved more than it began. Edward was a cat who always was interested in playing. He might call me up and say, “Why don’t you come over?” There was a tenor player named Clarence Thomas, who later became known as Luqman. He would go over to Edward’s house, and then I’d go over, when I first started trying to put the piano together, and we’d play things and work on stuff. We didn’t have a bass player. Eventually, Harold Battiste started writing some original pieces, and we just would get whatever bass player we could find and started playing some of that material.
TP: This is while you’re at Dillard.
MARSALIS: And after.
TP: So it begins around ’52-’53, like that.
MARSALIS: Right. ’52-’53 was sort of the beginning of the end when it came to the rhythm-and-blues thing with me. When I look back at it, I realize that the whole rhythm-and-blues concept was changing entirely, and I was not a part of the people who were doing it. In the earlier years, in the 1940s, see, the rhythm-and-blues catered primarily not only to the singer, but there was a lot of blues being played. Big Joe Turner was singing blues, Louis Jordan was singing blues, Wynonie Harris… There was a lot of blues singing going on. So if you were playing in one of those bands, essentially your function was to deal with that in playing blues. You’d learn a lot of shuffles if you were a piano player or guitar player or drummer in the rhythm section. There’d be a lot of shuffles going on, and you had to learn that. If you were a saxophone player, usually that’s who would play the solos. And if you played the backgrounds, they were usually riffs… It was a rather simplistic kind of thing. Everything about it was primarily functional. It wasn’t a band thing, like a string quartet gets together.
TP: Or a bebop combo.
MARSALIS: Well, even with those. The bebop combos got together pretty much the same way. You had to go out and find somebody who could play the music. You see, there was no training ground officially where you could learn to play the instrument that emanated from a specific tradition, and that there were formal instructions involved — which is the reason why I mentioned the string quartet. So this is basically how that whole thing went. And if you were playing rhythm-and-blues, you were playing rhythm-and-blues because you had a gig. Pure and simple. Otherwise than that…
TP: There would be no reason to play it.
MARSALIS: Right. And there was virtually no real opportunity for you to learn it, unless you were actually playing. The other performance-oriented situation was in the church, and sometimes in the earlier years, if you were playing in the church, it was advisable to conceal the fact that you might be playing elsewhere. I didn’t have that problem, because I didn’t play in the church. But for the most part, a study of that period of time in terms of jazz, is a lot more about the communal aspect of the way the musicians lived than it is about any formal study.
TP: Are you saying that as a general principle, or are you saying that about New Orleans?
MARSALIS: I’m saying it about New Orleans because I’m from here, and when I talk to other people, essentially it was the same thing where they were. In other words, there were lots and lots of people who studied music, but there were very little opportunities to really study jazz music.
TP: Unless you were in New York or Chicago…
MARSALIS: Even if you were in New York or Chicago. I mean, you didn’t do that. I mean, if you were Herbie Hancock, you were playing classical music. Herbie played with the Chicago Symphony when he was 11 years old. Or if you could study with Walter Dyett or Major Clark Smith before then. But if you talk to, for example, Benny Goodman and Milt Hinton, they both went to the same classical music teacher. Because the Judge was a violinist. He switched to bass because he couldn’t get no work.
* * *
Ellis Marsalis (WKCR–Out To Lunch) – (8-5-95):
[MUSIC: Ellis/Branford/Tain/Hurst, “L’il Boy Man” (1994); E. Marsalis/R. Brown/B. Higgins, “Swinging At The Haven” (1992)]
TP: I’d like to start from the beginnings, your musical background. I gather your family had a place in New Orleans which was a gathering place for musicians, where musicians played, or is this incorrect?
EM: No. It makes for wonderful mythology, but it’s really not true! My father was in business. He had a motel. And I succeeded in convincing him (this was after I had gotten out of the Service; I had spent a couple of years in the Marines) to allow me to take the house that we had been living in, and turn it into a club. Because I had fantasized that operating a club wasn’t really that difficult. You know, so that I could have the band and play. Well, I found out that none of that was true, that either you’re going to play music or you’re going to operate a club. You’re not really going to do both of those and do either of those well. So I was in business about six months.
EM: [LAUGHS] And from that came the last selection, “Swinging At The Haven.” The Music Haven was the name of the club. Harold Battiste, who is currently one of my colleagues at the University of New Orleans, had been instrumental in developing AFO Records. One of their initial jazz projects was to record some of the local musicians, of which I was one, doing some of our own music, and playing jazz as opposed to some of the other things that the label was recording. They had had a very big success with a recording of Barbara George singing “I Know,” and there were a few other R&B type things that they were doing. So Harold thought for posterity we should really record these people. And that boxed set from 1956 to 1966 is the result of Harold Battiste. Now Harold is slowly reissuing a lot of things on CD. But it’s still the same old shoestring operation, so he’s got to piecemeal it here and there. But it’s coming along.
TP: Did you start playing the piano very young? And how did you go about it? Was it lessons, or through the family? What was your path into the music?
EM: Well, I started playing the clarinet when I was about 11. In fact, it was around the same time that I met Alvin. We were in elementary school. I started to play tenor saxophone in high school, somewhere around a sophomore, I think, in high school, because the tenor saxophone was the rage instrument for reed players in rhythm-and-blues, and we were playing a lot of rhythm-and-blues in those days.
TP: What years are we talking about?
EM: 1948, 1949, around that time. But I was always interested in jazz. I had had the chance to hear the Dizzy Gillespie Big Band in 1949 in the spring, the one where he was doing “Things To Come” and “That’s Earl, Brother” and “52nd Street Theme,” I mean, that screaming, brand-new Bebop that was coming on the scene. And man, that whole experience really just took me out.
TP: They came through New Orleans.
EM: Yeah, they came through New Orleans. And it was really… I can’t really describe it. I had a chance to talk with Diz about that. But it was really a tremendous experience. Because I knew when I heard that band that this was really what I wanted to do. Man, that was it, what those guys were doing on that stage. I was about 14 or 15 then. I had started piano lessons, but I was not that serious about it. I just liked to play. But I was mostly concentrating on tenor saxophone. So when I got out of high school and decided to go to college, I decided to be a music major.
I had been studying with a really great piano teacher. Of course, studying piano at that time either meant that you were learning from a mentor in the church that you went to or you were learning from someone who was either in your family, or a friend of the family that would teach you the tradition of the music according to earlier styles, Stride or what have — or you just studied with a piano teacher, and the piano teachers was basically just teaching European music, formal approaches to European music. The other two I didn’t have. I wasn’t playing in the church, which is to my regret, and I didn’t know anybody who was really playing piano from a traditional jazz point of view. So I gravitated towards the two areas that were closest to me, Rhythm-and-Blues, tenor saxophone playing, and Jazz.
There was not as much of a line drawn… Well, what I mean is, the difference between Jazz and Rhythm-and-Blues was extremely narrow at that time, because most of the same people that was playing, Sonny Stitt… Charlie Parker had been with Jay McShann’s band. I don’t know, but I think Monk somehow avoided all of that. I don’t know if there’s any record of Monk ever playing in that idiom. Maybe so.
TP: I think he traveled with some traveling preachers in the Carolinas in his teens, but after that I don’t think so.
EM: Yeah. But for the most part, that’s what I gravitated towards. And the solos at that time were basically influenced by religious music and secular music, which were sort of like opposite sides of the same coin. I was living in what was then a racially segregated society, so it became inclusive. The experience was all-inclusive in terms of economics, in terms of social interaction, in terms of education. All of that was basically within the American-African community. So we would play music that was reflected… We sort of bounced off of each other.
And the newer recordings of… Well, the recordings of the new music, which would be called Bebop, was coming out at least on a monthly basis, and they were all like 78 records. So you would go the record store, and there was sort of like a phone chain. There was a lady in the record store, I can’t think of her name, but anyway, she would call a couple of people; you know, I’ve got a new record in by Charlie Parker or Miles or whoever it was. And we would, in turn, call people and say, “Hey, there’s some new stuff in,” and we’d go down to the record shop. It was a place called the Bop Shop, and we would go down and listen to it and buy it, and then start working on the solos.
That was an integral part of the learning process. It was not within the context of the system. The schools were not amenable to that at all. So…
TP: Was there any jazz in your high school band at all, or was it all marching band and brass orchestra type music?
EM: It was mostly marching band, John Philip Souza marches, (?)Ed Bagley(?) marches. And there was a group in one high school that I went to that was what you call a swing band. Now, the swing band played those stock arrangements. There was stock arrangements, like “9:20 Special” and Harry James’ “Back-Beat Boogie” and most of that. But there was nowhere to really get at the whole idea of soloing. Because unless you could figure it out for yourself, there was nobody there to do it. And even the swing bands were sort of tolerated. It wasn’t something that the music teachers looked upon with great favor.
However, New Orleans was a little different (I have to say a little different, because I don’t know about the rest of the country) in that there were several music teachers who were jazz players in previous generations. Some of the older guys were teachers. So if you happened to be fortunate to get one of those… It reminds me of what Eddie Harris used to tell me about Walter Dyett, and a lot of people talked about him in Chicago. And there was another band teacher in Chicago that Milt Hinton used to talk about…
TP: Clark Smith, Major Smith, who had the Chicago Defender band.
EM: Yes. So as time went on, we began to get less and less of the kinds of fundamentals that produced the level of musicianship that was being produced at that time, especially within the context of a jazz idiom. Invariably what would happen, you would begin to get people who would study the more formal approaches to European music, and then try and figure out how to make those application, people like Phineas Newborn — and Charles Lloyd, too. When I met Charles Lloyd, Charles was at USC. I think he was a freshman at USC, and I was in the Marine Corps.
But that was basically what I had done, was to kind of piecemeal some things, and become a music major at Dillard University. Which was very standard.
TP: Describe the music scene in New Orleans when you were a teenager, and going into college. Were you doing little gigs when you were playing the saxophone and clarinet in high school, for instance? And what kind of gigs would they be?
EM: Oh, yeah, we were still playing some dances. The YWCA was one of the places that we would play dances. And different schools. We would go to a lot of different high schools and just play dances with the local R&B pieces, “Blues For The Red Bar,” “Good Rockin’ Tonight,” Roy Brown’s piece, Joe Liggins’ stuff, all of the people who was doing the dance music of the day. What Jazz there was going on, I didn’t know anything about at all. Especially the Trad, especially traditional jazz, I didn’t know anything about that.
TP: You weren’t involved in the Second Line in any way as a kid?
EM: Not as a kid, no. I didn’t know anything about that. So eventually, what I would start to do in the high school was play those rhythm-and-blues solos. Because I could hear those. Also it was an interesting thing, if you could play the dance music of the day, then you could get the attention of some girls, you see! Because I was too small for football, too slow for track, too slow for basketball — and there was no future in that in those days anyway. So when I realized that I could learn these solos, then I said, “Oh, okay, this will work!” So I started concentrating on some of that. Eventually, I would get real serious about jazz, and then found out that nobody wanted to hear that! But by then, you’re stuck, like a habit.
TP: Who were the pianists whose solos you were emulating once you started getting more serious about Jazz and more advanced?
EM: Actually, you know, it’s funny. I never did transcribe any solos at all. I listened to Oscar Peterson a lot. But for some reason, I never did really try to play those. I’m not sure what it was. I mean, I would always try and play whatever I heard. But the transcription was not something that I was doing on piano.
Now, when I first started trying to play the solos on saxophone, I remember there was a recording of Charlie Parker, “Parker’s Mood,” and I tried to play all the solos on there on tenor saxophone, John Lewis’s solo on piano and Charlie Parker’s solo — but there was a lot of Charlie Parker’s solo that I couldn’t get! All of those recordings were really short then. You know, this was long before Trane started making those LP’s. In fact, they didn’t even have LP’s at the time!
So I started essentially like that. Eventually, when I was old enough to go to the local nightclubs…
TP: Who was playing in the nightclubs then?
EM: Well, most of the local musicians.
TP: Name some names.
EM: There was one club called the Dew Drop Inn which was sort of the anchor club, if you will, in the American-African community. Lee Allen would play there; he would eventually make all of those recordings with Fats Domino. A lot of times that scene was more a matter of a show. That is, the club-owner would put together a band. He’d get a bass player, then a piano player and a drummer, and maybe get a singer. There was one female named Bea Booker who used to sing there, and there were some other singers, but I never did work with them at the time. I think Anna Laurie and Paul Gayton, and I think Dave Bartholomew used to play (he was a trumpet player).
But by the time I came on the scene, some of those people were no longer working in that establishment. And then a lot of us started to work there. When I say “us,” I mean a lot of younger guys who would comprise the sidemen in the band, being the piano player or what have you. We would play behind the strip dancers, local singers. Every now and then somebody may come from out of town. But a lot of times when they did, they would get the better players — of which I was not one!
TP: Who were considered to be the better players?
EM: Wow, let me think. There was a drummer there named Earl Palmer, who is now on the West Coast.
TP: He played with Ray Charles for many years.
EM: Who, Earl?
TP: Oh, I’m incorrect. Excuse me.
EM: No, not Ray. The drummer from New Orleans who did play with Ray Charles… Edward Blackwell did for a very brief period of time. But Wilbur Hogan played with Ray Charles’ band. In fact, that was the very first time that I ever heard Ray Charles, was at the club, the Dew Drop Inn. They had a jam session, and I was playing saxophone at the time, and a local trumpet player named Raynell(?) Richards, who was in his band… Ray was playing piano, and I mean, this guy was burnin’! And I knew just about all of the piano players who could play. I knew who they were. And I asked the trumpet player, “Who is that?” He said, “Oh, that’s this guy, Ray Charles.” I said, “Where is he from?” “Oh, he’s out of Florida.”
But basically, it would be a matter of choice among some of the singers as to who they liked. There were some piano players who were better suited for some songs, and they would also make a lot of gigs with some of those people. And I wasn’t really making a lot of gigs, because I was still in school. I remember there was a group in New Orleans that was called the Johnson Brothers, which was Raymond Johnson and Plas Johnson. Plas left to go to California, and Raymond asked me to join the band — and my father said no! So that opportunity passed me by. And by me being in school over an extended period of time, I was always maybe just playing on the weekends or whenever I could.
TP: Two of the musicians you’re best known for having worked with regularly in those early years are Alvin Batiste and Edward Blackwell, and according to the books, Ornette Coleman came through New Orleans for a while and you were going through musical adventures with him. Can you talk about that?
EM: I didn’t know Ornette in New Orleans. I didn’t know that at all. Melvin Lastie I think knew Ornette. I didn’t meet Ornette until 1956, when I went out to California and Harold Battiste. The three of us went out there. I had just graduated, and was really not doing much of anything. Actually, it was the summer of 1955, really. So I decided, “Well, I’m going out to California.” Basically, that was when I met Ornette, because Ornette had sent for Blackwell to come back out and start trying to do some work with him.
TP: Tell me about the young Ed Blackwell. Were you involved with him in any way as a youngster, or did that start a little later, too?
EM: Well, no, he was a little older than I was. I met Ed Blackwell basically the same way I was telling you about the other situation. Whenever he couldn’t get the better piano players, he’d call me up! I remember the first time I went over to his house, he was living Uptown in New Orleans on Danille(?) Street. He was living with his sister I think. And he had his drum set out. And it was the most melodic set of drums I’d ever heard, but then at that time I hadn’t heard that much anyway. He was the first drummer that I ever heard play a drum solo on a ballad, and it made perfect sense!
There was a saxophone player, I think his name was Clarence Thomas. He was up in New York; I think he was going by the name of Luqman. But anyway, the three of us was at Edward’s house one day, and we were playing. It was the first time that I had ever been over there. And it was a captivating moment for me, because we started to play with some degree of consistency… I have to say some degree of consistency, because there was not that much employment around for what we were trying to do. So we would play whenever we could.
There were two guys in the city of New Orleans named Al Smith and Clarence Davis. They used to rent the spaces, and then hire jazz groups. And they’d hire us, too, to play. Clarence Davis had been a drummer with Dave Bartholomew’s band, and Al Smith was really trying to play the drums. So they had something like Al and Beau Productions, I guess you would call it, and they would rent spaces on holidays, you know, Fourth of July, Thanksgiving, Christmas Day, which was one way of hedging your bet. And we would go out and play, and people would come out. That was some of the few times that we really had a job as a whole quintet.
TP: Let’s hear the reconfigured American Jazz Quintet at the Ed Blackwell Festival in Atlanta, Georgia, which was hooked up by Rob Gibson from Jazz at Lincoln Center. The proceedings were documented on Black Saint Records, FroM Bad To Badder. We’ll hear a trio track on that featuring Ellis Marsalis, Richard Payne and Ed Blackwell, a composition called “Nostalgia Suite.” Any comments?
EM: Actually, I’m not sure what that is right now. When we did it, I think “Nostalgia Suite” was a fancy name for what we used to call medleys!
[MUSIC: “Nostalgia Suite” (1987); AJQ, “Chatterbox” (1956); EM/Branford/Wynton/J. Black, “Nostalgic Impressions” (1982)]
TP: Was the bassist on “Chatterbox” William Swanson or Richard Payne? I don’t have it right before me.
EM: I’m not altogether sure. Swanson came in town with the Billy Williams band, and we started just jamming. Because he liked to play with us. It was just about that time… When I say “that time,” I mean, it was somewhere close to December. Because we went into the studio and did this just before I went in the Service, and Swanson was still in town at the time, and Harold used him on a couple of selections. But I’m not sure exactly which ones right now.
TP: Blackwell was the drummer, though, and we can hear, just from the evidence in that, that his sound was all there back in 1956.
EM: Oh, yeah.
TP: On our last conversational segment, we took you out to the West Coast. What was your Army experience like? Was it a time when you were able to do a lot of playing? Were you in the Army as a musician or were you in the line?
EM: Well, I was in the Marine Corps, which first of all meant that I had to do the basic training. It was between conflicts, that is, I went in just after Korea had ceased, and it was before Vietnam. So I wasn’t involved in combat. Most of the time that I spent on the West Coast was really due to the fact that I was in the Marines at the time. I did go out earlier at the time that I went out with Harold and Edward, but I only stayed a couple of months, and then I came back home. Because at that time, the military was still conscripting and I had gotten the notification to report to the draft board. In fact, I’ve often thought about how it was a lot like Caesar said, everybody should go home to be taxed. Well, you had to go home to be drafted into the Service!
I volunteered for the draft, which is what that was called, and they sent me back to California. So I ended up doing basic training at MRCD in San Diego, and was sent to the air base at El Toro, which is in Santa Ana. So I was able to drive into Los Angeles quite frequently.
TP: Moving up in a totally disjointed way here, we heard James Black, and I’d like you to talk about some of the musicians you worked with after returning from the Service in the early Sixties in New Orleans, like James Black and Nat Perillat.
EM: Well, when I got out of the Service, I went back to New Orleans, and Edward Blackwell was playing a trio gig at a place called the Jazz Room in the French Quarter. I went to hear him play one night, and the piano player… On the night that I went, the piano player got into a dispute of some sort with the owner, and he came back to the bandstand after the break was over and started the song, played his solo, and got up when the bass player started playing a solo — and left! And the bass player and Edward Blackwell were playing, and it took a minute before they realized that he wasn’t coming back! So to make a long story short, the owner asked me did I want a gig. I had just got out the Service, and I said, “Yeah, definitely.” So that was how I got on that gig. I stayed on it for about six months, and it ended up going the way that the other piano player went, except I got fired instead! [LAUGHS]
But for the most part, that first band was with a bass player named Otis Duvirgney(?) and Edward Blackwell. Durvirgney(?) was an interesting bass player. He was sort of like a self-taught bass player. I mean, he had the strongest groove — swing you to death. But it was difficult to record, because his technique…the notes weren’t really true, and the microphones would pick up a lot of that. But it was a great feeling to play with Otis. Eventually I think he left and moved over to the Coast, around Biloxi, and we started working with another bass player named Peter Beatty, Chuck Beatty, who had played some time with Lionel Hampton’s band and different groups.
We tried to get Nat Perillat on the gig so we’d have a quartet, and we succeeded in doing that for the most part. It was always hard to get club-owners to go beyond a trio, because with the trio being a complete band, they couldn’t see justifying the expense. So we were able to get Nat on the gig for the most part… In fact, now that I remember it, I think Nat outlasted me on that job.
TP: Talk a little bit about his sound and style and approach to music.
EM: Nat didn’t have a big tenor sound. It wasn’t thin either. But he wasn’t a tenor player in the tradition of what has become known as the Texas tenor, like Arnett Cobb and a lot of those saxophone players that came out of Texas. But Nat was a diligent musician that practiced for extensive periods of time. His facility was flawless. In fact, one of the best examples of Nat Perillat is on that album that we made in 1963 (which is on From 1956 to 1966) where he played on “Yesterdays.” I mean, he played a solo on “Yesterdays” that sounded as good as anything anybody’s playing now. He and Alvin were both practice practitioners extraordinaire. I mean, it was nothing for them to practice seven-eight-nine hours a day, every day.
I was never that kind of a practicer. I mean, I could practice long enough to get some things that I needed together. But my discipline wasn’t substantial to practice that amount of hours!
TP: You were creating a lot of original music at that time as well, and the music was quite substantial, as evidenced by the recent release Whistle Stop where you recapitulate a lot of compositions from thirty years ago that sound totally fresh and contemporary.
EM: Well, a lot of that was James Black, too. Because James…! He had a genius about music that didn’t pervade his whole life; but musically James had a concept which was unique, to say the least. I’m really sorry that he didn’t pull a lot of other things together which would have permitted him to have document his music, and wrote and recorded even more.
TP: Talk a little bit about the particulars of his sound that made him so distinctive.
EM: Well, James was also a guy who could sit down and play a paradiddle for a solid hour on a snare drum to get his technique flawless. And his cymbal sound… He had a clean attack, the definition of his cymbal. See, when we talk about definition, a lot of times you hear guys going, DING-TING-A-DING, TING-A-DING. Well, if the definition isn’t there, you usually get that TINKATENGADDDDD…you just get a hint at that whole thing. Because each stroke, each attack and release on that cymbal has not been developed with the particular technique that is needed for it to be clear. And James was a master at all facets of playing each one of the drums, whether it’s floor tom, mounted tom, bass drum, ride cymbals, sock cymbals. He had studied it to that extent, and was meticulous about it.
Edward Blackwell, for example, was more of a Max Roach drummer. And when I say a Max Roach drummer, his major influence was Max in terms of the way he set up his phrases, his early ideas. Eventually, Edward would evolve into being his own person, playing some of the music of Ornette Coleman and also studying some music of West Africa, which came as a result of some jobs that he played with Randy Weston — because he played with Randy, I think, a lot, and had been over in Rabat in Morocco. So he had a lot of those influences. And he was a true percussionist in the absolute sense of the word.
Whereas James Black, he had played solo trumpet in the concert band in the university, he played guitar, he could play piano, he could write — I mean, he was a more comprehensive musician. But drums was… I remember Harold Battiste made a statement which was appropriate about James Black. He said whenever he thought about James Black, he never thought of him as a drummer; he just thought that drums was one other thing that James could do. It was, for the most part, his instrument of choice. He had the best time sense of anybody that I ever played with.
TP: Did you mutually influence each other’s ideas and writing?
EM: Oh, I’m sure that occurred. I know he used to tell me about various… In fact, this tune “After” was influenced by at least one chord I got from him. Because he used to tell me about things that he got from me playing piano. But it’s very hard to talk about your influence on somebody else, because that has to come from them. I mean, sometimes you can listen to it and you can say “Oh yeah.” But then you’d have to be really aware of where you are, because your things also came from being influenced by somebody else, so you can’t always be sure if that person is influenced by you or by the person who influenced you! It never comes at you, usually, in an absolute way. It usually comes somewhat almost like a point of view. So that when you hear it, if they don’t say, “Well, you know, I took this right here that I got from you and then I did this with it,” sometimes you won’t even notice it.
[MUSIC: EM w/Branford… “A Moment Alone” (1994); Marsalis/ Black/Perillat, “Monkey Puzzle” (1963)]
TP: While “A Moment Alone” was playing, you said you liked the way your son played on that particular track, and indeed, on this recording he plays all of the music with great subtlety, nuance, swing and a great sound as well.
EM: Branford has an unusual gift, that is, to be able to play in any idiom. I mean, it doesn’t matter what it is. I have a tape of him doing I think it was the Jacques Ibert(?) with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra! And he plays, as you know, the latest Funk licks and Hip-Hop, and he’s got two or three albums that I hope will be released where he did a live concert with he and Jeff Watts and Bob Hurst as a trio, Jazz recordings that is really out there! So it doesn’t really make much difference to him what the music situation is.
And the most difficult thing I think there is in any kind of music is to really be able to play slow. That is… I mean, a lot of people are impressed with virtuosity and speed and agility. But believe me, to be lyrical and play slow is very difficult. And to some extent, I think that there are people for whom that’s a gift. Even if it’s a gift, you still have to work about it.
TP: Well, I don’t think we can allow you to speak about one of your sons without mentioning the other three that I know of that play music. So I’m sorry to do this, but a few words about the qualities of each of your very strong and individual sons.
EM: Well, the thing of it is that all four of them are really great musicians. They bring different things in their personalities to the music.
Wynton is likewise comfortable in any idiom. He chooses not to be involved in some Pop idioms, which doesn’t mean that he couldn’t do it — it just means that that’s what he chooses not to do. His contributions to the history of the trumpet, as far as European music is concerned, is already documented. There’s any number of recordings that you could get to hear that.
Delfeayo is kind of a late bloomer performance-wise, because he spent a lot of time with production. And he’s been playing with Elvin Jones lately, which means that the more that he begins to play in a setting like that, the better he will get at it. And he’s a real good writer. His album Pontius Pilate’s Decision was very well crafted and well constructed in terms of arranging.
Jason is probably the most amazing. I think Jason probably has more natural talent than all of us combined. It’s going to be enjoyable to watch him develop, because he chose the most unlikely instrument for his ability; his ability to hear pitch as accurately as he hears it. And then to choose the drums… Of course, that is the instrument of choice now. I have no way of knowing what he will do at some future time, see. But he has a very strong interest in percussion, and he says that he wants to write for percussion. He’s got a stack of original songs that he’s written for his own band even now. But he’s one of those kinds of people that will not be confined to the arbitrary lines of music that are drawn up.
See, we’re moving more and more towards a real concept of what is called world music. World music can mean a lot of different things. But I think that with technology being what it is today and what it promises to be in the future, being exposed to as many different kinds of instruments, instrument concepts, performers, cultures and all of that, we can begin to find these other influences being a standard part of various composers. There are some composers that I have had an opportunity to hear… I can’t even remember the name of it. There was a clarinet conference at the Virginia Commonwealth University. I was on the faculty there for three years. And the last year that I was there, there was a clarinet conference in which some new music, that is, music say since 1980, was being performed for various combinations — piano trio, piano-clarinet-violin. And some of the composers’ techniques for clarinet were right out of the jazz book, but they were all written in the context of the piece itself, and all of the players were totally European-trained and European performers…I mean, the music was European. So it wasn’t a case of getting a jazz player to come to do it. And it’s coming to be more and more a part of the compositional techniques of various composers. I’m not sure if it would even be limited to American composers, even though it’s largely American music that they’re drawing from.
TP: We’ve been speaking with Ellis Marsalis, and he has to meet his car, so we have to say so long. There are many other things we could discuss. His teaching activities in New Orleans over the last twenty-five years, and the many musicians who highlight today’s stages around the world who began under his tutelage. We could talk about his ideas about the distinctive New Orleanian quality of music, but he’s grimacing, so I’m glad we didn’t time to ask him that. And many, many other things, but he has to catch his car. We’ll send Mr. Marsalis off with a selection from the most release, Joe Cool’s Blues, which seems to have been co-marketed with the producers of Peanuts.
EM: You know, it’s difficult to talk about this project because it didn’t all come under one roof. I was in New Orleans, and I think Delfeayo produced it, and Delfeayo asked me to come into the studio and record some of the Peanuts music. I worked on it, and we recorded it. A pianist who works with Delfeayo, Victor Atkins, was asked to do some arrangements. and one of the arrangements that he did was on “Little Birdie.” Well, we had laid a track down for “Little Birdie” from which the arrangements by way of Victor, and the vocalist, Germaine Bazile, came in later and sang that. Eventually, when I did hear the whole thing, Wynton’s group, the things that they were playing, I heard later on. Some of it came from the show that the Peanuts characters did on the Wright Brothers! It was such a potpourri of things until it didn’t seem like a project to me. Because I was sort of like one of the chessmen in the game! So I never really got a whole feeling of this… For example, when I did the recording with Wynton on Standards, Volume 3, The Resolution of Romance, that was a complete project that went from beginning to fruition with everybody that was involved. But this was piecemealed in such a way that I didn’t get a real holistic feel of it.
TP: Nonetheless, I don’t think the listeners will really be able to tell that…
EM: Nor do they care!
TP: We also haven’t had a chance to talk about your brief career as a football coach.
EM: Where did you hear about that?
TP: Your son told us about that about a year-and-a-half ago. He said they almost won the game also.
EM: [LAUGHS] Believe me, it would definitely take some time to go into that.
* * *
Ellis & Jason Marsalis (WKCR, 1-16-97):
TP: Ellis Marsalis, have you performed in New York with Bill Huntington before?
EM: I performed with him, but it wasn’t in a club scene. It was in a university. I can’t remember exactly what the event was. I can’t remember what university even.
TP: You’ve been playing with him for a long time, though.
EM: Well, I usually think of it in terms of, I’ve been playing with Bill for as long as the State of Louisiana’s laws would permit me to do so — since 1964.
TP: So it must be very nice to come here and play with someone who breathes alongside you, as it were.
EM: Yeah, it is. It’s quite interesting, because the latest musical endeavors have always been with younger people. I think there’s a positive side to that, but there’s a difference in terms of… I remember I was listening to Frank Morgan play, and at the end of his performance I said to him, “Man, I had almost forgotten what that sounded like.” Because most of the guys that I had been playing with were youngsters. And it doesn’t take anything away from them. It’s just that there’s something about age… I guess in a way it’s sort of like vintage wine. There’s something about the age and the seasoning of a player that’s just different from the talent and the exuberance of a younger player.
TP: In a certain way perhaps, the frequency with which you play with younger players has to do with your considerable reputation as a teacher of the music and someone who communicates its fundamentals to young musicians. I’m sure this must have been the case with you, Jason, coming up. I recollect seeing you play in the Jazz Heritage Festival when you were 12 years old; I don’t remember exactly which year. How old were you when the drums became your overriding interest.
JM: Well, it depends. When you say overriding, I guess age 13 was about when that happened. But the first instrument I played was not the drums, but the violin. How exactly did I get started on that? Was that your idea?
EM: Well, it was a Saturday afternoon program at a public school about six or seven blocks away from the house. This was part of the Suzuki program. They had 35 violins, and the first 35 people could get a violin for their kid for the cost of the insurance, which was 10 bucks a year. I said, “Wow, I can’t beat that deal!” So I made sure I was one of the first 35 people. Jason probably was 6, 5, somewhere around that age, which is sort of typical of when younger players start in that Suzuki program. He stayed with the violin until we went to Richmond, Virginia, for three years — I was on the faculty at the Virginia Commonwealth. When we came back in 1989, that was the end of the violin.
EM: Richmond was the reason for that, though.
TP: You couldn’t find a good teacher there?
JM: Oh, no-no. There were good teachers in Richmond, Virginia. That was not the problem. What happened was, is I had always played in student orchestras in New Orleans for a long time, and when I got to Richmond, Virginia, it was the same kind of thing except in Richmond they called it the Sinfonietta, the Junior Youth Orchestra, the Youth Orchestra or whatever. Well, in sixth grade, I believe it was… I was in sixth grade in school, about 12 years old, and I was in the Junior Youth Orchestra at this point, and this was the first orchestra I played with that had a percussion section. It had a percussion section with a timpani and snare drum. I had never played with an orchestra that had a section like that. When I first got there, I was upset. I was like, “They have a percussion section? Why am I over there? This isn’t fair!” [LAUGHS] Then a year later, when I got back to New Orleans I said, “No, I want to pursue percussion a little bit further. Violin is nice, but that’s not really what I want to do.”
TP: How long had the drums been part of what you were doing? I gather you’d been playing drums all along.
JM: Yes. I had started drums at age 6, a year after the violin. I used to sit in on gigs with my father, played just off and on. It wasn’t really an everyday sort of thing. That didn’t really start until I was 12 or 12, when I became more serious about the drums and it became a more ongoing thing.
TP: Was it something you were just picking up by yourself? What kind of instruction did you have when you were 6-7-8 years old?
JM: The first drum lessons I had were from James Black. I was about 7 years old. I was a kid.
TP: That’s quite a teacher.
JM: Oh, definitely. I was fortunate enough to study under him.
TP: The last time I interviewed your father he made an interesting comparison between two of the drummers he was involved with, James Black and Ed Blackwell. Encapsulate the style of James Black and what made him so special as a drummer.
JM: Well, the thing about James Black is that he was more than a drummer. He was a musician. To my knowledge, he played trumpet and guitar besides drums. Also he was a great composer. He had written a lot of great, challenging music. I mean, he had written music that involves odd meters, which is something a lot of drummers do. I notice drummers always write tunes in 5/4 meters, 7/4 meters, and he was a drummer that did that. James Black also I guess you could say always was looking forward. He had a knowledge of the history of the music, but he was always one to look forward from what was happening in the music at the time. Whether it was happening in the ’60s or ’70s, he was always looking forward.
TP: There was a real flow to his music also.
JM: Oh yes.
TP: It would be in an odd meter, but you wouldn’t necessarily hear that first off.
JM: Oh, no. [LAUGHS] Not the way it was being played.
TP: Ellis, what was your first contact with James Black as far back as you can recollect, and what were the circumstances when you began playing together?
EM: James was a few years younger than I was. I had really been introduced to drum concepts in a small group setting by Edward Blackwell, who was really a Max Roach style drummer. It was through Edward that I first began to hear drums. By “hear drums” what I mean is that Edward would play solos very musically. See, you can play drum solos that are rudimental, which is almost like marches, and you just have a little signal at the end of your rudimental playing, and everybody comes back in. But Blackwell, following the path of Max Roach, would play in the form of the songs and play phrases that were like horns. So I had to learn to hear those kind of phrases. Blackwell was the very first person that I heard do that.
In 1960 Blackwell moved to New York, and we didn’t have anybody who was going to step in the shoes of Edward Blackwell! There were a few drummers at home. Nathaniel Perillat, the saxophonist, and I tried a couple of guys, and they were okay. Then Nat Perillat told me about this kid, James Black, who was at the time I think a student at Southern University in Baton Rouge. Nat had been going up there playing jobs, and he said, “Man, we ought to try this guy.” So we tried James. At first it was that typical energy kind of thing. but as James began to settle in with the group, especially whenever we got a chance to play quartet, the whole jazz scenario became like his world. Because all he really needed was an avenue to express the abilities that he had. So he was able to write, because he knew whatever it was he wrote, there were some musicians who could play it.
We had different assorted engagements. Because there was really not a scene, so to speak, in New Orleans for Modern Jazz. We did a stint at the Playboy Club for a while, and we lost that job because… See, we were hired to accompany all of the Black artists, singers that were coming into the Playboy Club, and because of segregation, when they stopped coming we didn’t have a job. That lasted about three months. Then we would play wherever we could, a club here, a club there, about two or three months here, a couple of jobs there. Finally, we sort of went in different directions. Because the ’60s were a little different. James left I think to go with Lionel Hampton. He came to New York and played, I think, with Horace Silver for a while, joined Lionel Hampton, he recorded with Yusef Lateef.
TP: Live at Pep’s, I think.
EM: Yes, and there’s also an album called Psychomosis, Psycho-something that I think he’s on. In fact, Yusef recorded the “Magnolia Triangle.”
Eventually James came back to New Orleans, and we started to play again wherever we could. We played off and on together I guess until just about the time I left to go to Richmond.
TP: Jason, when did you begin studying individual drummers in terms of styles and the different approaches they took, the different voices of trap drummers — and who were they?
JM: Very good question. That didn’t start until I’d just moved back to New Orleans, like Eighth or Ninth Grade. That’s when I started looking at individual drummers. I had always heard drummers. I’d heard Philly Joe Jones, Max Roach, Art Blakey, but I hadn’t really studied them. Around this time I started studying them, and the first drummer I started studying was Jeff “Tain” Watts. His style with all the polyrhythms he’d be playing and just his powerful sort of style attracted me. He was the first drummer that I really emulated, copy solos and so on. A lot of my earlier playing was really influenced by him.
Then after a while I wanted to branch out and deal with the history, like Max Roach, Art Blakey and Philly Joe Jones, like I mentioned earlier. I decided that I wanted to investigate what these drummers were playing, and I did that for a while.
Then after a while I started investigating drummers like Ed Blackwell. My Dad would drop me off to school and whatever, and on the way we’d listen to the jazz radio. There would be some mornings when Ed Blackwell’s drumming would be on the radio, and I’d think, “Man, this is interesting; I’ve never really checked him out; I’m going to have to investigate his playing.” But the unfortunate thing is, a month later, the next thing I know, he was dead.
TP: What were the qualities of Blackwell’s style that were so appealing to you and struck you so singularly?
JM: Well, the first recordings that I started really getting into that he wason was the music of Ornette Coleman. What I thought was so interesting was his sound. It was a really clear sound. Also it had an African quality to it that’s kind of hard to explain. That’s one of the things that my older brother Wynton was always telling me about. He said, “Man, check Ed Blackwell out. He has that African sound in him.”
TP: Let’s explore that a bit. How would you define that aspect of his sound?
JM: Well, Ed Blackwell, from what I know, was really into African music and the African drums. Pretty recently I’ve been listening to some African percussion, a percussion group from New Guinea. The rhythms of that music are interesting enough, but there’s a quality about the sound, a very pure, very natural kind of sound, and that’s sort of how Blackwell sounded — it was very pure, very natural, very deep. I think the way that he would play syncopations was a little different, too, the way he would play on the downbeat. But that natural, pure sound in his playing was what was really interesting.
TP: Who are some of the other drummers you’ve gone into and analyzed in depth?
JM: Another drummer, also by the recommendation of Wynton Marsalis, was a drummer who played with Thelonious Monk by the name of Frankie Dunlop. When I started getting into him, one of the first things that attracted me was his getting into the beat, so to speak. Most drummers usually have a set way that they play, a routine way of playing. But Frankie Dunlop’s playing was not like that. He was always playing around with the beats. You’re almost not really sure where the beat is almost. It’s like someone who plays a trick on, so to speak, like someone who’s joking with you. You’re not really totally sure where the beat would be. His drumming has that playful quality to it.
TP: I’d like to take Ellis Marsalis back a bit, and talk about pianists who had an impact on you back in the 1950s when you were starting to formulate your sense of how your piano style should be, and the ensemble sound as well.
EM: Well, there was Oscar Peterson, Oscar Peterson and Oscar Peterson.
TP: That was it.
EM: Actually, around 1950, Peterson had been in America for I think a year. He was touring with Jazz at the Philharmonic, and they came to New Orleans. At that time he was functioning in a duo format with Ray Brown. I went to hear them, and it fractured me, so to speak. I had a recording called Stratford Up On Avon with the Oscar Peterson Trio, a vinyl recording, and I just wore it out. First of all, I had never heard anybody play with that type of agility, in that format. I had heard Art Tatum play, but Art Tatum was a wizard. I mean, everybody understood where Art Tatum was coming from who listened. But Oscar Peterson was a trio player who utilized that medium. First of all, I never heard anybody play as fast as that in that format. I just loved it. In fact, I was so enthralled with Pete, it was years before I went back to listening to Bud Powell and really trying to get to that!
There were lots of influences. In a way, in the Jazz arena, a pianist sometimes is not always a pianist. It just depends. Oscar was definitely a pianist of the first magnitude. But when I always thought of Thelonious Monk, for instance, as the piano being a vehicle for his music, and his writing was equally as important if not more important than his piano playing. I mean, it’s as though his piano playing existed to play his music. Monk apparently could do a lot of different things. I’ve heard him play Stride, but when he plays Stride it doesn’t sound like Willie the Lion and James P. — it sounds like Monk playing Stride. And Duke Ellington, who was a wonderful pianist, but somehow it didn’t matter, because what Duke was about was so much bigger than whether he was a piano player. John Lewis was the same situation. I love John’s playing, its subtleties, but with him also what he did as a composer was bigger than just the fact that he was a good piano player.
Also, there were the band players. When I say “band players,” what I mean is there were the players like Richie Powell with the Clifford Brown-Max Roach Quintet, the different piano players that Miles Davis’s band had, the different piano players in Art Blakey’s ensembles. There are a lot of recordings of musicians that at the time I thought were bands, but they weren’t; they were just recordings where somebody was a leader, and would go out and find some gigs from that recording. There were a lot of piano players like that. Wynton Kelly was one, and Red Garland was another one.
Tommy Flanagan was one of the better of those. But see, Tommy was also bigger than that. Tommy spent a lot of years with Ella Fitzgerald, and accompanying a vocalist is a very special thing. Accompaniment is the most difficult thing to teach. I’ve been teaching for better than twenty years, and I’ve devised methods lately of dealing with the concept of accompaniment. Usually my piano students, when they get to a certain level, they have to bring a singer into their lesson, and we work on pieces where they are accompanying the singer. That’s the only way to really do that. In a setting where a lesson is occurring, we could talk about it all day. There are a few things about accompaniment everybody should know. First of all, you should definitely show that you know the song in and out. If you’re accompanying the vocalist, you’d better know the words. Also, you’d better be prepared to learn how to breathe with that instrument. Even though it’s not a wind instrument, the concept of playing is directly connected to the concept of breathing, and you have to understand that each singer… It’s also true for instrumentalists, but I dwell a little bit more on singers from the accompaniment side, because singers are working with something that’s a little different. The interplay with a soloist is not quite the same. A singer is trying to deliver a message through the sound-word. So the enhancement of that is what is expected from the pianist. I would say, get a recording by Hank Jones, who by the way I think is the consummate concept of a pianist, I mean, a total pianist… Believe me, this doesn’t take anything away from anybody else. But from an academician who is trying to create Jazz programs, I’d say Hank Jones would be my model of the consummate pianist. Hank Jones recorded a duo album with Abbey Lincoln recently. Every student of recording and accompaniment, that recording should be under your pillow, on your CD, wherever you go. And there are others.
TP: Could you comment on the piano trio concept of Ahmad Jamal? Did that have an impact on you in the 1950’s. I know that Jason also works with the Marcus Roberts Trio, and the first person I thought of when I heard you play (not many people can make me think of this) is Vernell Fournier, a fellow New Orleanian. Jason is deferring to his father, so Ellis Marsalis first.
EM: I don’t know if that’s correct, because you addressed it in terms of drumming…
TP: Well, drumming and the piano trio concept.
EM: I’ve gotten to know Ahmad, but I’ve never been able to sit down with him and talk about it. But based upon what I have heard… Ahmad influenced me in ways which I would not consider very complimentary to me or Ahmad. When he did “Poinciana,” it was one of those songs that we all had to play as a trio. So what happened is that I listened to “Poinciana” and learned it (in the wrong key, I might add, which is neither here nor there for the listening audience), and it was sort of like emulating Ahmad Jamal, not appreciating the real subtleties of what he was doing. How many different kinds of grooves he was playing. How he would use those vamps in ways… A vamp is a consistent pattern that’s played which allows you to play something over that, kind of a static groove, if you will. It would be years before I would really listen to Ahmad in ways that one needs to listen in order to get the real message. Without having spoken to him about it, I think maybe that hit he had probably threw a lot of us off.
Now, Miles thought so much of Ahmad Jamal that Miles recorded a lot of Ahmad Jamal’s solos, just played them right out. I think some of the younger drummers and piano players are now beginning to discover Ahmad. “We ain’t never heard about that!” They are now beginning to discover Ahmad.
TP: One thing about “Poinciana” is that the beat Vernell Fournier is from a vernacular New Orleans rhythm which is now known as the “Poinciana Beat.”
JM: Well, it’s really some second-line.
TP: There you go.
JM: When I first heard that beat, I didn’t know Vernell was from New Orleans, and I was kind of suspicious. I said, “Man, this sounds like some Second Line.” But then when I found out he was from New Orleans, I said, “Oh, okay, that solves everything.” But that’s really the influence of the New Orleans music, the traditional music of New Orleans, be it brass band music or whatever. That’s really where that beat comes from.
Now, as far as Ahmad Jamal’s trio, it’s interesting, because I’m working with Marcus, and that’s someone Marcus listens to a lot. When you listen to the Gershwin For Lovers record, you can really hear a lot of the influence of Ahmad Jamal. One thing Miles Davis said about him was that he liked the fact Ahmad would let the music breathe. Ahmad used a lot of space in his playing, and that’s one of the things I found interesting about his music as well. He didn’t necessarily have to razzle-dazzle and play all kinds of fancy stuff. He would let the music breathe.
Not only that, but my Dad mentioned students… Down in the New Orleans area, every young musician was into Ahmad Jamal! I don’t know of any young musicians who are not into Ahmad Jamal. All of them just loved Ahmad Jamal records. It was really a big thing. But I think a lot of young pianists and drummers these days are especially influenced by Ahmad Jamal.
TP: And extrapolating, Vernell Fournier.
TP: One thing about Vernell Fournier and Idris Muhammad, who credited Ellis with bringing him to a Jazz concert for the first time… Idris said he got his unique concept of the bass drum his assimilation of Second Line rhythms. But both are masters of drum timbres and the sounds of the different components of the trap set in combination.
JM: That’s a kind of complex thing there! Well, there’s something about the bass drum that New Orleans drummers have always played differently than drummers from anywhere else. Whether it’s Funk drums, a drummer like Zigaboo Modaliste from the Meters, or whether it’s the traditional Jazz drummers, there’s always something about the bass drum, the way the bass drum grooves that’s always different. I think one thing is the emphasis that the drummers put on the beat-four. That’s one of the things I’d say that’s different.
But as far as different timbres, so to speak, there are so many nuances to that, especially listening to a drummer like Vernell Fournier. One of the things I like about his playing is his brush sound, which was subtle as well as powerful. Even playing sticks it was sort of the same thing.
TP: Have you had a second line experience for yourself, in one form or another?
JM: I’ve had a few.
TP: Talk about that a bit.
JM: I’ve done a few performances, Second Line gigs I guess you would say, playing with brass bands. I’ve played snare drum a few times with some brass bands, and I marched in the Mardi Gras parade once playing snare drums. So I have played snare drum in a brass band on a few occasions. There’s also one interesting experience in New Orleans, which can only happen in New Orleans, that a brass band will be just playing in your neighborhood down the street, you’re in your house, then you hear this band playing, and there’s all these people just following them around, and marching in second line along with them. That’s something that happens, like, whenever.
EM: That’s an African tradition. If a group, especially those who live in the bush, go through a village in a ceremony, the people from the village, some of them will just join right in and follow the ceremony. That’s the common pleasure that exists today. There are what they call social and pleasure clubs, and every now and then what they will do is get a brass band and stage a parade. Which doesn’t specifically have anything to do with Mardi Gras. They will just stage a parade, and they will march in the area where their club functions. They just get permits, and they march down the street, and people in the various neighborhoods just jump right out in the street and start what they call the Second Line.
For people who don’t really understand what that means: See, the Second Line goes all the way back to the days when people who passed away was interred in a grave-site that was always within walking distance of the community that they lived in. So they would get a band to go out and play some religious music, “Flee As A Bird,” “Just A Little While To Stay Here”…
JM: “A Closer Walk With Thee.”
EM: Yeah, “A Closer Walk With Thee.” After the body is interred, at what is considered to be, as they would say, a respectable distance from the grave-site, you would hear a trumpet player. He would say DO-DIT-DAH-DIT, like that, which was sort of a signal to the other musicians that they were going to start. Then usually what would happen, they would start to play something like “Didn’t He Ramble.” Now, without going off into religion and philosophy, the Christian concept of rejoicing when one passes on, that’s part of that. The person has lived a life and is now passed on, and the celebration belongs to the people who are alive. So they would start to play something like “Didn’t He Ramble.” What would happen, the members of the bereaved’s family would be right behind the band. The Second Line would be those who had no real kinship, but just came out and joined the celebration, following behind the family, which would be considered the First Line.
Now the tradition, in a somewhat modified sense, is still going pretty strong in New Orleans, except that now grave-sites are not within walking distance, and you may find a band playing and you may not. But in other kinds of ceremony, you will find… There’s a lot of brass bands. Whoever is going to New Orleans for the Super Bowl, when you get off that airplane, there will be a brass band at that airport to meet you.
TP: Speaking of brass bands, Jason, have you been studying and analyzing the older New Orleans drummers such as Baby Dodds?
JM: Oh, yes.
TP: Talk about that, and the importance of that concept of playing to a contemporary drummer performing contemporary music.
JM: It’s good you should mention Baby Dodds, because he’s someone I’ve just started to investigate. Baby Dodds’ playing is much different than playing now. One thing that’s different is, for example, he didn’t play like drummers play on brushes, time on brushes and time on the ride cymbal. He didn’t play like that at all. I have a recording that Dr. Michael White gave me to record where he’s playing an early form of the drum set, like snare drum, bass drum, two toms, and he’d have woodblocks and cowbells and so forth; the basis of his set was the snare drum and the bass drum, while the other drums were used for decoration. In the brass bands, the basic setup of the drums was you’d have a snare drummer and a bass drummer — two different drummers. In his setup, the snare and the bass drum was the main thing happening; the other drums and stuff was just decoration. That was just some stuff he’d use for fill-ins and so forth. So how he used his setup is one of the things that’s different about him.
TP: How do you incorporate that concept, if you do, into what you do in the here and now.
JM: A very good question. Well, there are certain things that Baby Dodds played that can be used in the music today. But the music played back then is so much different than the music being played now. It just was a different time, a different era back then.
TP: Ellis Marsalis, you said in an earlier interview that you weren’t particularly involved in Second Line experiences, but you were playing saxophone and playing a lot of Rhythm-and-Blues type of saxophone? Do you think your experience as a saxophonist had a substantial impact on the way you approach the piano?
EM: Definitely! In fact, Edward Blackwell told me once that I was not a piano player; I was a transposed saxophonist to piano. It took me a while to figure out what he meant. See, I had studied piano, but I had not really approached the piano like Phineas Newborn, Oscar and people like that. And when I started to play in bands, especially with Blackwell and Nat, and we would do things from Clifford Brown and Max Roach and Miles, the pianistic approach for me was sort of like patchwork. For one thing, I also realized later on that the concept of accompaniment, or comping as it’s called, was still in a state of evolution. When you listen to what Bud Powell was doing in earlier years, that kind of accompaniment was nothing close to what was occurring when Miles had Tony, Ron and Herbie. That rhythm section defined a peak in terms of accompaniment, solos, every aspect of it.
TP: People are still dealing with the implications of that rhythm section.
EM: Oh, they’re going to be dealing with that for a long time. I mean, that was a major breakthrough. It was like Isaac Newton’s theory. That was something that was a major breakthrough, and it’s around, and it will be around. Physicists come and go. Newton’s concept stays! That rhythm section virtually defined the small group approach to rhythm section playing and accompaniment. It was a similar kind of thing that was beginning to evolve. Wynton Kelly was playing with Miles, and his approach was a lot more closely associated with Paul Chambers and what Jimmy Cobb or Philly Joe Jones was doing.
The historical significance of the Jazz musicians, the contributions have come to us in patchwork, because we’ve never had an institution, a Jazz institution that was a part of the culture. If you go to Brazil, you’ve got a Samba Club, lots of Samba Clubs. In Trinidad, there are steel pan bands, lots of them. It’s in the fabric of the culture. Jazz has never been in the fabric of American culture. So everything that came about, came about as a result of so much patchwork. That’s why people from New Orleans were unique to that. That was a lot closer to the Caribbean experience. You talk to some of the guys from Detroit. I mean, there’s a lot of musicians! P.C. came from there, Doug Watkins, Ron Carter, Bob Hurst… [END OF SIDE A]
…of the dance, you see, and the dance came about by way of what the American-African brought to that whole experience. If you were to come to New Orleans tomorrow and there was a brass band down the street, and you would see guys in the Second Line, what you would see is guys doing a strut. Now, it’s not a military band. In fact, if you ever go to see what we call SWAC (Southwest Athletic Conference), the Universities of Texas Southern, Jackson State, Southern University, Florida A&M, all those historical Black colleges, you’ll see those marching bands at halftime — they don’t march like soldiers.
TP: The most advanced trap drummers can be conceived of as analogous to African dancers because in African dance the interdependence of motion of each limb in conjunction with each other is the principle of the dance, and I guess a trap drummer is trying to make the rhythm from each limb, the extension of himself or herself, their own personal dance.
EM: Well, in the African dance, the difference is going to be in the age. There are some dances which are primarily for males, older people. And there’s also some dances and music and rhythms that are primarily for females. Mainly today we talk about those things which are traditionally done in the bush country. You get into Lagos and those cities, then you’re looking at skyscrapers and cars and traffic jams, all the things that happen everywhere.
TP: [ETC. ON MUSIC] A few words about “Cochise.”
EM: That’s a piece Alvin wrote based on the chord structure of “Cherokee.” We made a recording of this as youngsters. I don’t know if it will ever be released. It was so fast, it was ridiculous. Talk about youthful energy and arrogance borderlining on stupidity to play like that! Anyway, it’s a very difficult piece because it reflects the highest level of virtuosity. Alvin wrote that, and we used to play it, because in those times were going through that young period when you’re feeling your oats. Like, everything was about how fast can play — that kind of thing. Forget about the music. How fast can you play? [LAUGHS] I think “Cochise” was one of the pieces we used in that manner.
[MUSIC: B/E/J Marsalis & B. Hurst, “Cochise” (1994); E. Marsalis-E. Harris, “Homecoming” (1985); E. Marsalis/ Perillat/J. Black, “Swinging at the Haven” (1962)]
TP: A few words about the project with Eddie Harris, the great saxophonist and musical thinker who died last year.
EM: Eddie was an enigma. It’s very hard to really put him into a category. As a musician he was extremely well prepared for practically anything. He evidently had some rather inventive qualities, too. I remember hearing Eddie play with a machine that had a tape loop, and he would play a Blues, he’d play a chorus, and he would put a solo on it, then it would play back, then he would record another one against that, those two would play back and he would record another one. I’ve heard him go up to six different tracks on that machine. And there came a time when he didn’t travel on that machine very much. I’ve heard him play trumpet by putting a saxophone mouthpiece on the end of the trumpet in the place of a conventional trumpet mouthpiece, and play that. [LAUGHS] And done of these were gimmicky. It was not a gimmick. He actually figured out how to make this work.
TP: He was someone who was tremendously concerned with the permutations of sounds in motion, in many ways.
EM: Well, Eddie Harris covered a lot of bases. He had a unique approach to playing jazz, especially those wide intervals that he played, and he was very comfortable in the Pop idiom where there was quality music being played there. He and Les McCann did several wonderful projects together.
TP: What was the genesis of your duo recording? Had you known him for a number of years? Was it something that just got set up by circumstance?
EM: It was a combination of both things. Eddie used to book himself a lot. He happened to call a club called Tyler’s in New Orleans, which is no longer there. I happened to be working there that night, and during the break the owner says, “Hey, man, I’ve got Eddie Harris on the phone. How about a duo with you and Eddie?” I said, “Yeah, sure.” I think I’d played with Eddie before at another club in New Orleans, so I knew him. Anyway, he came in, and we did the duo at this particular club, Tyler’s.
As I remember, maybe David Torkanowsky set the session up. We went in to Dallas, Texas, to do it. I’m not sure of all the particulars, but I think David’s the one who set it up. Now, “Homecoming” was a piece I was surprised was even on the album, let alone the title. I’d written the piece, and as I was walking out the door to catch the plane, it was laying on my desk, so I said, “Well, I’m not going to do this, but I’ll just take it with me and get Eddie to look at it.” So I almost didn’t take it to the studio, and we ended up recording it!
But it was always fun to record or work with Eddie, because Eddie was a funny, funny cat. He had a wonderful sense of humor. I remember once he told the audience, “I have decided to make a career change, and I am going to be a Rock-and-Roll singer. I have all of the qualifications necessary — no voice and nerve.” He was always making witticisms like that.
TP: Jason Marsalis, what is it that makes your father an educator who is able to produce musicians of the quality of those who’ve come from under his tutelage?
JM: Bright students perhaps! [LAUGHS] That’s a very good question. Hmm. I don’t know…
TP: Not to put you on the spot or anything.
JM: It’s interesting, because a lot of people ask me what has my father taught me. Now, I’ve learned from him in different ways, but not necessarily in the concept of teacher-student. It’s moreso father-and-son than teacher-and-student. As far as teacher goes, he’s always found good teachers for me when it comes to studying percussion, whether it was classical percussion or studying drums or whatever. He’s always found good teachers for me in that aspect. But as far as his qualities as a teacher, it’s hard to tell.
I think one of the things with him teaching at the New Orleans Center of Creative Arts in New Orleans at that particular time… One good way of explaining it is maybe it was one of those things that was the right place at the right time, the way the whole school jelled. It was a great faculty… Just the people who came together at that time. The students that were there.. There was just something about that particular time. I mean, I was a baby then!
As far as him being a teacher, one thing is that teaching wasn’t what he was set out to do at first. Playing was really the first thing. In fact, me and my older brother Delfayo had a debate about that, whether my father was a teacher or a player. Delfeayo was, “He’s a player!” and I was, “No, he’s a teacher!”
TP: There are some strong personalities in the family, in case people out there don’t know it.
JM: There sure are.
EM: This is probably very difficult for Jason to answer, because he was the only musician who went to that school that I didn’t teach, because I wasn’t there at that time. But the thing about it was that… A lot of what he said, too, was correct. First of all, the time in America was such that the magnet school concept was prevalent. A lady named Shirley Trusty, who is now Shirley Trusty Corey(?), was very instrumental in getting a grant that ultimately helped to create the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts. As a result, we were able… When I say “we,” I mean the whole faculty, because there were four disciplines… Let’s see, it was five disciplines eventually. I started out with music, dance, theater and visual arts, and then creative writing was added later.
When we started out, our mission was to give students the opportunity to explore the creative area so that they could make career decisions relating to the arts. It wasn’t the objective to crank out a bunch of Jazz musicians or Classical musicians or anything! It was really to try to help students to understand what this was all about and make decisions in high school. Those who needed to go further, went further, and left and attended Juilliard… Branford left and went to Southern University and eventually to Berklee. Donald Harrison went to Berklee. Later on, Harry Connick, Jr., went to Loyola University for a semester, and later attended Manhattan School of Music. And there were any number of people who went into Classical music and conservatories.
What we tried to do, and had the opportunity to do mainly because this was a magnet school, the students who came to the school could use their electives to choose which discipline to be in. So we had a model school. We had 100 percent opportunities to present what we wanted to present the way we wanted to present it. We had virtually no support from the Board of Education. There was no budgeting for anything like what we were doing. The Federal Government was fast disappearing from those concepts. But for the most part, we were able to get students at a young enough age… We had a grant, which was very important to our program. It was only $8 an hour. That was it! But most of the guys in the Symphony Orchestra would agree to teach for the grant and a couple of dollars above that. That meant that the students got very good instrumental instruction from people in the orchestra. And it didn’t matter… See, we didn’t really deal as much with the concept of Jazz and Classical music as a separate thing. If a person wanted to concentrate on Classical music, obviously that’s what they did, and they spent as much time as it took for them to get into a major institution. If the student said, “Well, I want to be a Jazz player,” he got the fundamentals from studying what would be Classical music –but major scales and triads are not necessarily Classical music; they’re just the fundamentals.
TP: That word “fundamentals” is perhaps the key to your gift as a teacher, that you seem to have the ability to break down almost any body of work into its fundamentals and are able to communicate them in a very practical way to students, and I think the proof is in the pudding.