Wynton Marsalis and his brothers salute their pop at Jazz Fest

Photo by Michael DeMocker, | The Times-Picayune

Ellis Marsalis, the 84-year-old jazz pianist extraordinaire, was honored at the 50th Anniversary New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival with a concert commemorating his contribution to the crescent City music scene as both a musician and teacher. Ellis was joined on stage by his sons Wynton, Branford, Delfeayo and Jason. Together they are New Orleans’ first family of jazz, which pretty much means they are the galaxy’s reigning first family of jazz.

Ellis, wearing a scarlet vest and panama hat, commanded the piano with seemingly undiminished skill and confidence through several of his complex, moody compositions. The solos taken by his illustrious sons were magnificent, of course. But better yet where those passages when the five men played simultaneously, producing an amalgam of conspiratorial and competitive virtuosity as rare as a sonic unicorn.

In a 2001 interview that marked Ellis’s retirement from teaching, he noted that jazz wasn’t always welcome in college classrooms. “When I was in school, you could get expelled for playing jazz,” he recalled of his years studying piano at Dillard University. “The dean would get a report that we were over there ruining pianos playing jazz on them.”

Thereafter Ellis made a career of ruining pianos, at the Playboy Club in the French Quarter, with Al Hirt’s band, and other professional gigs. More significantly, he devoted much of his life to making sure that the language of jazz was spoken in New Orleans music classrooms.

In his days on the staff of the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts, Xavier University and University of New Orleans, Ellis taught and tutored several future stars, including Terence Blanchard, Harry Connick Jr., Irvin Mayfield, Jesse Davis, Charlie Dennard, Victor Goines, Donald Harrison, and Marlon Jordan as well as his musical sons.

Wynton became the nation’s torch bearer of jazz purity, becoming artistic director of Jazz at Lincoln Center while accumulating nine Grammy Awards, a National Medal of Arts and a Pulitzer Prize. Branford proved that jazz could be blended into pop culture, accompanying Sting and the Grateful Dead, as well as fronting the “Tonight Show” band on television. Meanwhile, Delfeayo and Jason kept the home fires burning with regular shows on Frenchmen Street.

To see the brothers join together in a rangy version of “The Second-Line” as they left the stage to wander the front aisles of the Jazz Tent playing their instruments was one of those rare treats that makes Jazz Fest magic.

by Doug MacCash

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