Marsalis family puts their talent to work for a good cause

Publication: USA Today
Author: Steve Jones
Date: August 20, 2010

The Marsalis family rarely plays together, but the brothers seized the opportunity to do so last summer in honor of 75-year-old patriarch/pianist Ellis Marsalis. All proceeds from a new jazz album capturing that exuberant event will help fund educational programming at a community center bearing his name in the Musicians’ Village in New Orleans.

Music Redeems, out Tuesday, finds saxophonist Branford, trumpeter Wynton, trombonist Delfeayo, drummer Jason and poet Ellis III joining their father last June at the Kennedy Center in Washington to celebrate his receiving the Duke Ellington Jazz Festival’s lifetime achievement award. They were also joined by family friend Harry Connick Jr., who conceived the village with Branford after Hurricane Katrina.

The village provides homes for musicians and others displaced by the storm. New Orleans Habitat for Humanity completed the village’s 72 single-family homes and five elder-living duplexes in the city’s Upper Ninth Ward last September. The center is expected to open in the spring.

Eldest son Branford says the siblings decided to pay homage to both parents — mother Dolores “the taskmaster” and Ellis “the wise sage” — by mixing the jazz they heard growing up with stories from their childhoods. The program includes two compositions by Ellis himself, After and Syndrome, and Jason’s At the House, In Da Pocket. The idea was to humanize the music while dispelling misconceptions about their upbringing.

“The night before, we were laughing our behinds off telling stories,” says Branford, 49. “If you can get people to understand that there is no shaman technique that my parents invented to create musicians, they can see that the myth is so different than the reality. They idealize us, but my dad was a teacher making $30,000 a year.”

The concert was an eye-opening experience, says Ellis, who in January will be honored along with his sons with the National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Masters Award. “You rarely get the opinion of your kids when they are adults as to how they saw things growing up,” he says.

As for the 17,000-square-foot Ellis Marsalis Center, he hopes it can help alleviate the dearth of youth music education opportunities at many city schools since Katrina. He’ll serve as a consultant. The building will house teaching and performance spaces and be available for a range of community activities.

“I’m glad I don’t have to run it, but I do appreciate the gratuitous act of naming it for me,” says Marsalis, who trained such musicians as Terence Blanchard, Nicholas Payton and Reginald Veal.

Connick, who studied with Ellis as a teenager, says the center will help continue the city’s long history of nurturing traditional jazz.

“When we were growing up, it was so accessible just by going to Bourbon Street,” Connick says. “But after Katrina, with so many musicians dispersed all over country and fewer places to play, we thought this was the way to go.”

Submitted by Ben on August 20th, 2010 — 12:00am