AFRO-AMERICAN MUSIC INSTITUTE CELEBRATES 36 YEARS
Pain Relief Beyond Belief
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.”