Ellis Marsalis, jazz patriarch, dies of COVID-19

In 1987 I met with Ellis Marsalis, his sons Wynton, Branford, Delfeayo and Jason, during the Jazz & Heritage Festival in New Orleans. It was a wonderful moment in time, a window into the world of one of the great American musical families.

Ellis Marsalis died Monday from the effects of the coronavirus.

The jazz world owes Ellis Marsalis deep gratitude, for the impact that he and his children have had on music in America.

The Marsalis family meant a great deal to New Orleans. They returned the jazz spotlight to a city that invented the art form.

But hard-scrabble New Orleans was unable to return the favor. In 1987 Ellis, tired of scraping for a living, had abandoned New Orleans for a post teaching music at Virginia Commonwealth University.

This story of that meeting and the remarkable Marsalis family first ran May 17, 1987.

NEW ORLEANS - It is the last Saturday of the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, and the Marsalis family rules. They hold the audience in their thrall; other musicians gather to listen. There is a moment, it seems, when even the weather will dance to their tune.

It happens as Wynton, chief lion in the Marsalis pride, sounds the opening bars of the bitter, cool ballad, "J Mood." Above the outdoor audience a skinny black cloud creeps over the sun, settling the bright day into silver-rimmed twilight. Wynton's inky lament gets darker, accelerates to a peak, punctuated by drummer Jeff "Tain" Watts with a single snare crack.

Some people see lightning.

Perhaps Marsalis can't really command the elements, but for the critics, the earth moves when Wynton plays. The 25-year-old trumpeter, a double-threat Grammy winner (in both jazz and classical categories) and the finest technician since Clifford Brown, is the jazz headliner this weekend. The response from his audience is duly hysterical.

The same phenomenon occurs over at the Uncle Ben's Rice Jazz Tent, where Wynton's father Ellis is welcomed by equally thunderous ovations. Brothers Branford, 26, and Delfeayo, 21, lead their own ensembles in performances this weekend, and 10-year-old Jason sits in on drums with his father's group, all to wild acclaim. The family is, at least for now, the brightest constellation in the New Orleans sky.

In addiditon to a Grammy-winning career as a performer and composer, Wynton Marsalis founded the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. CONTRIBUTED BY ROB WAYMEN PHOTOGRAPHY

Credit: Rob Waymen Photography

Credit: Rob Waymen Photography

But there are some clouds in this sky, too. As Ellis sits down to play the piano, a man shouts "Come back Ellis! Come back!" The cry is heard throughout the weekend. Last August, after a lifetime in New Orleans, the elder Marsalis moved on to greener pastures. Embittered by a lack of support at home, he took a job teaching music at Virginia Commonwealth University.

In fact, all five musicians have left the town behind. Ellis, 52, and his clan are indisputably New Orleanians, filled with spirit and proud to be here. If their happiness is ambivalent, it doesn't show immediately.

"Is this the greatest city in the world, or what?" asks Ellis, and his audience roars back in the positive. "Everybody that you see on stage at this time is a native of New Orleans," he tells them. "And everybody that you see is dedicated to the conviction that jazz is the greatest American art form, and we're going to perpetuate it."

After his set, the shouts die down. Ellis is walking across the garbage-strewn infield of the Fair Grounds Race Track, which is host to the festival each year. Picking his way around the refuse of 60,000 revelers, he says to a friend, "Yeah, come back and do what? I could get me a stick with a nail in it and clean up this stuff around here."

It's a mixed blessing, it seems, to come from the fertile Crescent City, a place that grows America's best musicians and then casts them out. This weekend, the Marsalises have returned to play in their hometown. It is an ideal time to examine the effects of environment, the genetics of genius.

"Only in New Orleans, man," says saxophonist Branford Marsalis, shaking off a smile. From his rented van, he can watch a one-woman parade, a young lady in a peasant blouse, grooving down the street, keeping the beat with a tambourine.

Like the humidity that blows off Lake Ponchartrain, the rhythm of this city seeps into every breathing creature. Old musicians get better, and new ones turn up every day. Youngsters set out a hat and play traditional jazz on the street corners by Jackson Brewery and Spanish Plaza. "These are kids, 9 and 10 years old, and they are poppin'," marvels Branford. "I don't know what it is about this city. Crawfish pie."

Branford, 26, is in a good mood. His band has just capped a Sunday set at the Jazz Fest with the searing Coltrane composition ''Solstice." His high school buddy, trumpet prodigy Terence Blanchard, is at the wheel. The night is young, and the town is New Orleans.

"It's incredible that a town that cares so little about art can produce so many artists," he says. It is also remarkable that so many come from one family.

Ellis Marsalis was born in Gert Town, just west of the city. As a teenager, he played in rhythm-and-blues bands but saw the light of bebop when Dizzy Gillespie played at his high school.

At Dillard University, Marsalis fell in with saxophonist Harold Battiste, clarinetist Alvin Batiste (no relation) and drummer Ed Blackwell. The cooperative record label, All For One, headed by Harold Battiste, flowered briefly within this gathering, providing a center for postwar jazz in New Orleans.

Marsalis went on to work with Al Hirt and to teach at the New Orleans Center for Creative Artists, a nursery for the city's next generation of musicians, including Blanchard and the Marsalis children.

Though Branford is the oldest, the prodigious Wynton generated the earliest notices, performing the Haydn Trumpet Concerto with the New Orleans Philharmonic at age 14 and the second Brandenburg Concerto two years later.

Wynton became the youngest entrant allowed in the Berkshire Music Center at Tanglewood and the youngest instrumentalist to win three consecutive Grammys as a jazz soloist. Pianist Oscar Peterson is the only other triple winner.

In a photo from 2009, trombonist Delfeayo Marsalis, saxophonist Branford Marsalis, and drummer Jason Marsalis listen as student Phillip Syle of New Orleans plays a solo during a jazz workshop in the East Room of the White House. CONTRIBUTED:  CHARLES DHARAPAK/AP

Credit: Charles Dharapak/AP

Credit: Charles Dharapak/AP

Branford has caught up with Wynton in his own way, expanding into movies (with a major role in Spike Lee's new movie, "School Daze"), television ads and pop session work. After playing with Wynton's quintet through four albums, Branford joined rock star and ex-Policeman Sting to record "The Dream of the Blue Turtles." He appeared with Sting at the ballyhooed "Live Aid" concert, and he joined the Blue Turtle world tour, which produced a feature-length documentary film and a double live album. All this probably made Branford the world's best-known musician playing jazz in a rock band.

Meanwhile, two more Marsalises are waiting in the wings. Delfeayo, an accomplished trombonist, also produced "Royal Garden Blues," Branford's second album as a leader. Delfeayo is at work on Branford's follow-up.

A student at Berklee College in Boston, Delfeayo says he has no plans to make his own record right away. "I'm not ready. I know I'm not ready, because I have heard records by J. J. Johnson and Curtis Fuller."

But the baddest boy of all, according to Delfeayo, is his 10-year- old brother Jason. "Jason is different than us," Delfeayo cautions. "We're regular people; he's a genius. He takes it on such a high level that it messes with him."

By outward appearances, Jason seems to be a normal 10-year-old with thick glasses, and he's getting antsy. "I want to play," he tells his dad, who has been busy for the past hour with reporters. "Do you mean play drums, or run around and play, which do you mean?" says Ellis. "Play. Run around and play," says Jason, trotting in small circles to demonstrate.

When he's done playing, Jason climbs on stage to back Ellis and Wynton, and he plays, kicking through "Oleo" like a pro. Wynton's smile is almost as wide as his father's.

"I don't have any way of explaining why my kids do what they do," Ellis says. He discounts his own influence, except as a resource. "The first mistake I made was trying to teach my oldest son Branford."

Some observers claim early exposure to jazz made the boys lean toward music. Branford doubts it. He discounts the importance of those trips to see Ellis perform at Lu and Charlie's. "We went there not because we gave a damn about the music, but because he was our father," he says. "We went to Lu and Charlie's because they had the best hamburgers in town and usually we could get one free."

Neither was it chromosomal, says Delfeayo. "We could do anything - it has nothing to do with genes," says Delfeayo. "It has to do with intelligence. Stupid people don't play jazz."

Much credit belongs to the city itself for giving the kids standards of quality, a frame of reference, says Branford. "When I started playing with Sting, other musicians, particularly old R & B guys, would say, 'You're from New Orleans? That's the hardest city in the world to play.' . . . With Sting we would play shows that were just awful, and people were cheering. . . . But here, somehow they sense that. I remember booing the Ohio Players so many times that the Ohio Players won't even come here anymore."

Branford is in his underwear, meticulously repacking his suitcase, with the shiny "School Daze" souvenir jacket on the bottom. His Macintosh computer, a composing tool, glows quietly in the corner of the hotel room. His Walkman is plugged into its portable speakers, and we hear the grinding intensity of Public Enemy's rap attack, at three-quarter volume.

Half-naked, relaxed, Branford dances, makes phone calls, works on his computer. Amid howls of laughter from Road Manager Roderick Ward and bass player Delbert Felix, he plays back a version of "My Girl" that the quartet sang that afternoon in a record-it-yourself shop. (It features Branford-as-Bob Dylan-as-David Ruffin.) Branford talks about how his expletive-rich language and stinging humor apparently put off some members of the "School Daze" cast during filming in Atlanta.

"They say, 'You're so coarse, how can your wife stand it?' But why should I convince you that I'm sensitive?" he says. "I don't spend my life trying to convince people that I'm a nice guy. If they don't know, they don't know."

On stage Branford is a nice guy, gregarious, amusing and a stark contrast to his serious younger brother, Wynton. "I'm laid back; Wynton's aggressive," Branford once told Rolling Stone magazine. "He's efficient, and I'm lazy. Wynton and I perfectly complement each other."

After a jam session at Two Jacks with local sax player Earl Turbinton, Branford, Felix, Ward and company seek beignets and hot chocolate at the Cafe du Monde. Branford's congeniality has made him a master of ceremonies, ordering for members of the group, regaling them with tales of the difference between touring with Art Blakey and touring with Sting.

"We played so many dives with Blakey, I swear I think it was a passion with him," he says. On the other hand, with Sting, "Manicures? Massages? No problem. You want to go to Brazil? Go ahead, fly on down. Put it on the expense account. I had a massage every day. I had time to practice every day. We could talk to the people for an hour and a half after the gig, and still get back home by midnight. It was so good, it makes you wonder why you play jazz."

(At this point in the conversation, Rob Robinson, a friend from Texas, raises his hands as if to ward off an evil spirit. Not play jazz?!) "Except," says Branford, "that jazz is harder than anything else."

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