The Marsalis Family
A Jazz Celebration
PBS, Feb. 20, 2003
by Eugene Holley, Jr.
Jazz is a family-friendly music, as evidenced by the artistry of the Adderleys of Florida, The Montgomerys of Indiana and the Jones brothers of Michigan. In 1981, trumpeter Wynton Marsalis and saxophonist Branford Marsalis burst on the scene as the young lions and started a jazz renaissance. They were followed by their younger brothers, trombonist Delfeayo and drummer Jason.
Incredible as it sounds, they’ve never recorded together as a family. That oversight was rectified on August 4, 2001, at the University of New Orleans, were the sons performed with their father, the esteemed pianist and educator Ellis Marsalis in a concert that marked his retirement from the school’s jazz department. Supported by bassist Roland Guerin, the event was recorded in many media formats: The CD was released on the Rounder-distributed Marsalis Music label and a DVD is version is forthcoming.
This hour-long PBS special, produced by the network affiliate Wyes-TV in New Orleans, is the TV version of the concert, and it doesn’t disappoint. It equally appeals to the Marsalis followers who eagerly awaited this date, and to parents and young people who are tired of the decadence on our airways, who happen to like good music made by good people. Thanks to excellent parenting of Ellis and his wife, Dolores, they managed to raise African-American men who have made headlines with art instead of rapsheets, even though Ellis Marsalis said with a deadpen delivery that he “never wanted a family band.”
With all of the close-cropped, classy-dressed brothers(only Branford is without a tie) on stage, the family delivered a swinging program of standards and original works in trio, quartet, and sextet combinations. The program opened up with a spirited, second line syncopated version of the Crescent City ditty, “Struttin’ with Some Barbeque,” made famous by Louis Armstrong. Jason Marsalis, the baby of the clan and the “most talented” of the brood, delivered an Afro-tinged, talking drum intro on the standard “The Surrey with the Fringe on Top.” On the angular, Ornette Coleman-ish piano-less blues “Cain and Abel” Wynton poked fun at those who feared that he and Branford were fated to become deadly ememies after the older sibling left the trumpter to play with the pop star Sting in the mid-’80s. Delfeayo turned in a mid-tempo, down-home rendition of the rarely-heard “Sultry Serenade,” by the Duke Ellington trombonist Tyree Glenn. The Ellingtonian embers were further stoked by an engaging two piano duet exploration of the Juan Tizol classic, Ellis and his former student, pianist/vocalist/actor Harry Connick, Jr. They took an ebony-and-ivory ride powered by the “Spanish Tinge” that Jelly Roll Morton spoke of in the early 20th century.
In recounting his years as a student with Ellis, Connick delivered a dead-on imitation of the educator pontificating on the American educational system. On the special’s finale, the modern sounding “Twelve’s It” by the elder Marsalis, Connick joined the patriarch and the keyboard in a reverent four-hands version with the rest of the band. Interviews with Connick and the family are interspersed with the concert footage. Wynton talked about how “there was a lot of volume” growing in the household,.” Delfeayo said that along with their other activities, which included sports, “…music was just the path we had all chosen.”
Delfeayo also said that the concert was,”… an accurate representation of our family.” Indeed, This document shows jazz in the non-exotic, familial and swinging setting, minus the headline-driven, social-science cliches that bedevil the art form.