Wynton’s Blog

Our brother Ellis “commanded” the stage

The Duke Ellington Jazz Festival presented my father with a lifetime achievement award on Monday night. The festival touches all corners of Washington, DC from the spacious outside mall to small neighborhood restaurants and clubs and the venerated concert stages of the Kennedy Center. Almost our entire family was there, all the brothers, wives and children.

We were determined to put aside all familial dysfunction and make a concerted effort to show how much genuine love and respect we have for both our parents. The concert went much better than it had any right to. We told stories about growing up and all the funny and crazy things that happened or were said. We played tunes that were important to our father at different times in his life. Jason whistled all kinds of fantastic perfectly in tune, tonal arabesques’ on “Donna Lee”.

Harry Connick Jr. played all kinds of piano with E (our nickname for our father) on Sweet Georgia Brown. Master drummer, Herlin Riley, sang Louis Jordan’s “Choo Choo Choo Boogie”, then played the hell out of the drums on James Black’s “The Monkey Puzzle” which featured Jason on the vibes while Branford conjured the spirit of legendary Crescent City saxophonist Nat Perillat with robust, homegrown sound and perfect solo construction. Delfeayo shouted some worthy melodic nuggets on Monk’s “Teo” as Harry comped his behind off.

The feeling on the stage was very natural, relaxed and warm as we remembered all the many great things we learned and experienced growing up. Our brother Ellis commanded the stage with a poem (The man and the ocean) he composed for this occasion.
Insightful, funny, profound and poignant, he spoke for many more sons and fathers in summarizing the grace with which our father executed the everyday uncelebrated aspects of fatherhood.

The poem held people’s attention and gave Branford and I goose bumps. Jason spoke late and we finished with his “In da House in da Pocket”, an infectious New Orleans blues that featured modern polyphonic improvisation. Above all, we were glad to recognize and talk about our mother Dolores who likes to stay in the background but showed sacrificed so much of her life to raise us. As always, the backbone of everything was E who did his usual thing: dealt with the music.

Bassist, Eric Revis, provided a swinging pulse and righteously collegial attitude that kept the music focused and right. Another sanguine moment: Dr. Billy Taylor and E playing “Body and Soul”, still making the piano sing. We all went home feeling great, and all our kids who were over 16 stayed out till 4 in the morning.


The man and the ocean

Inside the theory of the big bang
Amidst the high energy of the source of all things
are these two relatives
special and general
as far as relatives go
this is about the special ones
the ones that comprise the mixture
of mandatory and magic

as the necessary collisions and expansions
produce billions of elements
2 constitute matter
one – the bangs keen sense of balance
the other that bright shining light
this one end – of special

it is difficult to resist the litany of
paternal anecdotes
dads and football, dads and fishing
and the ever so popular, if sometimes exaggerated
dads and the ass-whipping as metaphor for foolish youth

to be sure this is ours as well – but for only a sliver
more mysterious than mathematical
or the essence of playing the dealt hand to the highest order possible

nothing forced, all steady as she goes
and his matter
some unexpected concoction of African, west and east
to be the heart of that light
not the presence of all matter
but the presence of all that matters

what a more apt metaphor for this life
than the journey toward this music,
not mythically ideal
but soup-stained and pock-marked all the way in

what could it be but this music
that becomes not the backdrop for who he has been
but the edifice that introduced us boys to the man
and then the world

once the all encompassing sun of our youth – diminishes – slowly
direction replaces fear
but always seen and not foreseen
there floating, bobbing up and down
not the right answer, not the direct road
but the best thing he could have been
a beacon, that flashing light – being and showing all at once

not the individual intent of some grand plan
but the individual intent of the present moment
devoid of any measurable grandiosity
the simple discipline of the task at hand

and for each of us when weʼve faced the dark
becoming our own lights our own beacons

sure of some things
unsure of others
we look back
before white dwarf

seeing that bobbing light
not to ask “is that you pop”
but to pay close attention
and to know

although the line not straight


wishing that in our best imitation of that light
that flashing light
that beacon

we would be so much the better
to have nearly

as much grace

Written for the Occasion of a Tribute to Jazz Master Ellis Marsalis Jr., Jun 2009 by Ellis Marsalis III

Delivered on Jun 15th, 2009 at the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C to Culminate the week long celebration of Duke Ellington.

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