AFRO-AMERICAN MUSIC INSTITUTE CELEBRATES 36 YEARS
Pain Relief Beyond Belief
With his utilitarian bent, Marsalis is a lineal descendent of such mid-century African-American teacher-autocrats as Walter Dyett from DuSable High School in Chicago and Samuel Browne from Jefferson High School in Los Angeles, whose programs produced dozens of outstanding jazz musicians from Marsalis’ generation. Eschewing the authoritarian methods by which they kept students in line (Dyett was legendary for the accuracy with which he hurled his conductor’s baton at erring students), Marsalis won hearts and minds by treating his charges as young adults with minds of their own, as individuals accountable for their actions and decisions.
“Ellis encourages and motivates his students, but he’s also direct and won’t pamper you,” says Victor Goines, Director of Jazz Studies at Juilliard School of Music. A 41-year-old New Orleans native, Goines studied privately with Marsalis in the ’70s, apprenticed with his combo in the ’80s, and has played saxophone and clarinet in the Wynton Marsalis Septet and the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra from 1989 until the present. “With me, he could be painfully truthful, but also compassionate to my needs as a young man. If it sounded bad, he didn’t pull punches. He was for real.”
Goines borrowed a number of Marsalis’ dicta in creating the jazz program at Juilliard, beginning with the notion that working musicians are the most effective teachers. “Ellis brought to the classroom experiences from the oral tradition he’d learned as a performer, as opposed to learning the theory of education in the classroom and trying to go out and play after the fact,” Goines says. “He believes that working with small ensembles is important because of the freedom for improvisation. Students need to have perspective on the music’s history. They need to be able to function in different idioms, and to always realize that you’re not preparing for the gig you’re doing now, but the unknown gig to come. Ellis puts you in situations that you have to work your way out of. He always told me that to try to get to something great, you have to be willing to take chances, to make a fool of yourself. He said that you shouldn’t get on a bandstand with someone you wouldn’t get in a foxhole with; if everyone isn’t working toward a common goal, it’s a waste of time. He even teaches you to take care of the business aspects. He covered all the aspects of what it takes to be a professional musician.”
“I was shocked as a kid the first time I went to his school, and heard his students call him ‘Ellis,'” says Branford Marsalis. “That just didn’t happen in the South in the ’60s and ’70s. Later I understood how hip that was. My pops was just having a dialogue with the students, to the degree of almost demystifying education. He points the finger and forces you to think for yourself. He twists standard American colloquialisms so that they make more sense to him. He’d always say, ‘You know, son, you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him thirsty.’ That’s brilliant! Once he told a student to listen to a piece of music. The student said, ‘I don’t want to.’ ‘Why not?’ ‘Man, I know what I like.’ My father said, ‘No, son, you don’t know what you like; you like what you know.’ I thought about it, and realized that in order to say that you know what you like, you have to know a helluva lot. What he was getting at is that you should study the music for your own sake, not just because he tells you to. If you don’t, you’re putting yourself behind the 8-ball.”
“My father’s first principle is, ‘You don’t know unless you know,'” says Wynton Marsalis. “Don’t assume anything without first-hand experience. Don’t get chord changes out of the book; get them off the record. He always gets you to question what you know. He stresses that there’s no right or wrong way to hear. He’d guide you in a direction, but he wouldn’t tell you what to do. He gave you the opportunity to figure out your own thing.”
For a teacher to give students that much rope demands not only self-confidence, but tremendous faith in human nature. An unflinchingly realistic man devoid of illusions, Marsalis is explicitly not religious. To trace the source of such fundamental trust is therefore an intriguing endeavor.
“My father believes in jazz — real jazz,” Wynton Marsalis declares. “He never believed that jazz was White or Black. He believes it’s a universal expression, a thing that brings whoever addresses it into contact with their greater self. He doesn’t suffer from cultural intimidation. He’s very clear and uncompromising that you have to face jazz — or J.S. Bach — on its own terms, not change the music or put it on a lower level so you can feel comfortable in your relationship to it. If you practice and learn what you have to — and have the ability — you can play it. If you don’t, you can’t.
“The foundation of how I teach — what I think and know — comes from watching him. Long before we even had Jazz at Lincoln Center, when I was 19 and 20, I did workshops and went in the schools, because I saw my father doing it. The way to conduct a workshop, to present material, to pick tunes to play, to use analogies to make something clear, the importance of teaching form, the central position of the rhythm section in the band — all these concepts come from him.”
For all the inherent optimism implied by his lifelong struggle to communicate jazz values, Ellis Marsalis is not exactly sanguine about the present state of things. “The schools are teaching jazz with a conservatory approach, nice clubs are cropping up, and jazz is now a respectable area to function in,” he says. “But mainstreaming it removed a lot of individuality. Listen to the saxophone players in the conservatories that have good jazz departments. All of them can play! But when they solo, you can’t tell them apart.”
What case, then, would Marsalis make for talented musicians to study jazz in school?
“I don’t necessarily think they should,” he responds. “Jazz is a highly individualistic art. You’ll do better with a good private instructor and being around people who are well versed in the style of music you’re trying to play. Actually, there’s no real reason why anybody should continue to play jazz at all, aside from the music speaking to you. But more and more, I think that the study of jazz, across the board, can help a musician or lay person better understand America, because the music reflects the whole of the citizenry so completely. In some ways, jazz is a form of glue that keeps American culture centered. We live in a world where people do not necessarily even have to have a skill to become rich and famous as a pop artist. So a disciplined approach to anything is something this country very much needs.
“I often think of America as a 10-year-old kid whose folks died and left him a candy store, with nobody to guide him. He goes into this candy store and proceeds to be a 10-year-old kid. If he’s not unfortunate enough to get diabetes and die, he’ll ultimately learn, after he gets a bellyache, that there’s something to know when you got this place. It’s not just, ‘Oh, great, this is mine.'”
No longer teaching in any capacity, Marsalis is focusing on his retirement, making decisions about his future involvement in education. He works most Fridays at the prestigious Snug Harbor club in a trio with youngest son, drummer Jason, and leaves town for occasional jobs. In the autumn he’ll release a self-produced trio CD on ELM, his own label, and will go in the studio to record several CDs worth of material. In his manner, he’ll continue to do what he can to help that 10-year-old grow up.
“My father never preached,” says Branford Marsalis. “And he never wasted any time trumpeting his strengths. He was always interested in addressing and eradicating his weaknesses. That’s something I believe in. The great thing he passed on to us was to always go for something you like, because it’s about expanding, not finding your little place in the box and staying there.”