Take a winter
vacation at Camp Marsalis
The snow is ever-present here in Ohio these days. The windy storms slap the face with all
the delicacy of the day-old carcass of a cod, my work as a newspaper editor is a turmoil
that combines silliness with rapacity, and there are always the minor personnel
insurrections to quell.
This old bachelor is spending even more time with his music library than normal. What
A current controversy has to do with the quality of public education in my state. Without
going into details, I will let it suffice to say that my public observations on the matter
have upset the local bureaucracy, with the result that the taxpayers tend to side with me,
while the bureaucrats are outraged to be reminded of their responsibility to know more
than the students do.
And then there is jazz.
Back in my salad days as an aspiring musician and lover of the art, I paid strict
attention in music classes. Here, I thought, was something for everyone. But what of jazz?
I came away from a public education in Ohio, United States of America, with the
wrong-headed notion that George Gershwin invented jazz. Admittedly, all this happened a
long time ago, but the point is that, in those days, real jazz was associated with the use
of illicit drugs, not the bright lights of Broadway; black people bore the burdens of all
the racist stereotypes only an American can muster without acknowledging the true roots of
the form and the humanity of its founding people; and the educators in my small corridor
of the planet had a habit of protecting their mostly white charges from the pernicious
influences of "jungle music."
I am sad to report that not much has changed in the educational establishment. But there
is a glimmer of light. And it shines from the window of the Marsalis home in New Orleans.
Young people who are drawn by the lure of jazz can spend a productive winter by listening
to the accumulated work of that most talented family. I swear, the Marsalis clan must eat
key signatures when they sit, en famille, at the holiday table.
Most well-known is son Wynton, of course. I first became aware of him via "Black
Codes (From The Underground)" [Columbia, 1985], a exercise in neo-bop that brought
back all that angular structure that attracted me to be-bop in the first place.
But the scope of his talent was unknown to me until I did a little investigation and
discovered some of his classical trumpet work and was amazed to learn of his traveling
teen musician years with no less than the revered Art Blakey. Wynton has gone on to
embroil himself in controversies about the future of and the state of jazz, but there is
no mistaking that he knows his subject. His brand of jazz is not exclusive of others, but
he has a firm grip on the interconnectedness of jazz with classical music, the importance
of the blues, the debt owed to the traditional New Orleans style and the necessity of
bringing this rich and varied history to young people who are developing their tastes in
Brother Branford is less serious about his public image and, perhaps, more serious about
his joy in the role of a working musician. One-time leader of the "Tonight Show"
house band, Branford has plowed a healthy and deep furrow through a variety of styles,
even taking on a role as a traveling musical director for a tour by Sting back in the
1980s. His music is the music of pure celebration, and whether he is playing soprano or
tenor sax, you know that Branford is steeped in the same influences as his more
For a taste of the Branford charm, a pair of back-to-back recordings from the early '90s
will show you what I mean: "Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born" [Columbia, 1991]
and "I Heard You Twice The First Time" [Columbia, 1992].
Lurking behind all this are the production talents of yet another Marsalis brother,
Delfeayo. His contribution is more important than one might first suppose. Remember,
Delfeayo grew up in the same household, is a musician in his own right and was present at
the dawning of his brothers' careers. What he can do in the studio with the members of his
family is too glorious to describe, except to say that the telepathy in which all
musicians believe is on par with that that existed between Miles Davis and his legendary
arranger/partner, Gil Evans.
Finally, there is the head of the household, the paterfamilias, Ellis Marsalis, whose
influence goes deeper into the New Orleans musical soil than is generally recognized. In
addition to his talented offspring, he has had a hand in schooling a legion of New Orleans
mainstays of the younger generation of jazz: Donald Harrison, Harry Connick Jr. and
Terence Blanchard, to name only three.
Ellis worked with Al Hirt and has made a steady living as a valued sideman and can play
anything from the blues to hard bop. His occasional recordings with his more-famous sons
will give a taste of how a quiet influence can have resounding repercussions. He may be
the most under-appreciated pianist working today.
So where is musical education to be found? In the home, on the streets, outside the
orthodox classrooms. It doesn't even require a library card -- only open ears, an open
heart and an open mind. Gershwin had those things, and he used them to produce wonderful
music. But he didn't invent them.
If you love music, I'll bet you're like me -- I'd like to sit down in the Marsalis home
for an entree of time signatures and a dessert of a family jam.