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