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.
"She was the glue of the family," Branford wrote in a recent e-mail while touring in Europe. "She commanded discipline in a house where Dad was often on the road. I have to thank God every day for giving me a mom who treated us like children, not peers. The social narcissism that was sweeping the country in the '70s didn't play well in the house of Dolores Marsalis, and for that I am eternally grateful."
Ellis Marsalis began his musical career playing clarinet and tenor saxophone. He was in his early 20s when he switched to the piano, after realizing he would never be the equal of some of the saxophonists he heard. He passed on his clarinet to Branford and gave Wynton a trumpet (a gift from Ellis's boss at the time, Bourbon Street legend Al Hirt). The boys' introduction to music and the spirit of New Orleans came early.
"Wynton and I used to play the song 'When the Saints Go Marching In' with Dad when we were 7 and 6," Branford recalls.
Branford, the oldest at 48, now plays tenor, alto and soprano saxophones; Wynton, 47, has stuck with the trumpet; Delfeayo, 43, plays trombone and has produced more than 75 jazz albums; 32-year-old Jason is a drummer. (Ellis III, 44, played guitar and flute in his teens but is now a computer consultant and poet who lives in Baltimore. A sixth son, Mboya, 38, is autistic and lives with his parents in New Orleans.)
There was little rivalry among the sons in music because they all played different instruments.
"Our rivalries at home centered on football," Branford notes. "Wynton and Delfeayo always found a way to beat me and Ellis. Made me mad. Big time."
In 2001, when Ellis Marsalis retired from teaching at the University of New Orleans, the family had its first musical collaboration, performing a joyous mix of old New Orleans tunes and original works.
"For us," Delfeayo Marsalis says, "jazz is about fellowship."
A recording of that family concert was released on Branford's music label, but it remains the only evidence of the Marsalises as an ensemble. Monday's Kennedy Center performance will not be recorded, and, considering the family's crowded and diverging lives, it may be a long time before they share a stage again.
According to Branford, music requires too much concentration for one to get lost in the mists of family kinship -- except when it becomes obvious that a deeper kind of harmony is being made.
"I don't think of them as my family, but as musicians," he says. "The only exception is when Wynton and I play a song together, meaning us soloing at the same time."
They began playing together 40 years ago, when their father gave them their first instruments, and they learned the language of music together under the careful watch of their parents in that small house in New Orleans. Early in their careers, Branford and Wynton worked together so much that they developed an instinctive musical understanding that has never left them.
"It's rare to play with a musician where you can actually read his thoughts musically, and be related to him, as well," Branford says. "But, given our lives, we hardly play together anymore."
That's why Monday's concert, presenting America's reigning jazz dynasty in the city of the Duke, promises to be such a rare and historic moment.