Correction to This Article
A photo credit misidentified the source of a photograph of Ellis Marsalis and four of his sons. The image was provided by Wilkins Management.

Ellis Marsalis and Sons Plan Rare Family Performance at Jazz Festival

By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 12, 2009

Except in their living room back home in New Orleans, there have been only a few times when the entire Marsalis family has gathered in one spot to make music together. On Monday, Ellis Marsalis -- the father and guiding spirit of America's first family of jazz -- and his four music-playing sons will appear at the Kennedy Center for their first joint appearance in Washington.

The elder Marsalis will be presented a Lifetime Achievement Award at the fifth annual Duke Ellington Jazz Festival. Then he'll get to work. Still very much an active musician at 74, Marsalis will share the stage with sons Branford, Wynton, Delfeayo and Jason, along with special appearances by Billy Taylor and Harry Connick Jr. A fifth Marsalis son, Ellis Marsalis III, will read two poems he's written for the occasion.

"For our fifth anniversary, we decided we had to do something special," says the festival's president and executive producer, Charles Fishman. "This year, we decided if there's anybody who deserves the award, it's Ellis. You could say Ellis is to the jazz community in New Orleans what Duke was to D.C."

Cuban woodwind master Paquito D'Rivera presented a gala concert Wednesday, but most of the 11-day event -- the largest music festival in Washington -- has had a distinct Big Easy accent. The music is being spread among more than 30 venues throughout the city, including the biggest stage of all, the Mall.

There will be free public performances there this weekend by the ReBirth Brass Band, Trombone Shorty, Buckwheat Zydeco, trumpeters Terence Blanchard and Nicholas Payton and blues queen Irma Thomas, among other New Orleans favorites. But the event with the brightest star power will be Monday's Marsalis family reunion at the Kennedy Center. (The concert is sold out.)

On Monday afternoon, Ellis and his four jazz-playing sons will lead the first in a new series of hands-on musical workshops planned at the White House. More than 150 students will bring their instruments there, and first lady Michelle Obama will introduce an afternoon concert featuring D'Rivera and other jazz stars.

New Orleans, of course, is known as the place where jazz was born at the turn of the last century. The Marsalis family -- especially brothers Wynton and Branford -- has been credited with bringing fresh luster to the venerable music and introducing it to a new generation. Wynton has become the most famous jazz musician in the world, and Branford isn't far behind.

As director of Jazz at Lincoln Center, Wynton has helped elevate the genre to the status of classical music and ballet. His controversial pronouncements on hip-hop culture, which he has called a modern form of minstrelsy, have brought him equal measures of respect and censure in the music world.

Saxophonist Branford, who said he aspired "to make jazz acceptable in pop circles" as the first musical director of Jay Leno's "Tonight Show," has now focused on straight-ahead jazz and has become the John Coltrane of our generation. His quartet is widely considered the finest group in modern jazz.

The spotlight on Ellis Marsalis's sons has reflected on the patriarch as well, and he has found belated recognition as the foremost jazz pianist in New Orleans. But when he and his wife were raising their six boys, life was far from easy. For years, until he began teaching in high schools and later in college, he scraped along, taking any jobs he could find.

"We were so far from famous," recalls his son Ellis III. "We had no money at all."

What they did have was a sense of dedication, the idea that music was a worthwhile pursuit -- and the firm guiding hand of Dolores Marsalis, the only woman in a house full of men and boys.

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