BEAVERCREEK — With 34 years in education, American Jazz icon Ellis Marsalis Jr. knows a few things about teaching music. He’s taught the best. He’s performed with the best with a lifetime of achievements.
And yet he has spent most of life, historians say, “shunning the spotlight” to be one of the nation’s most influential jazz music educators.
A native resident of New Orleans, Marsalis said he doesn’t care much to travel. He’s done plenty of that throughout his storied lifetime, a legacy now in the history books of jazz.
The first weekend of March, however, he is making an exception and flying to Beavercreek for the 17th Annual Weekend of Jazz Festival, where he will perform Friday night in the high school’s alumni auditorium.
“I’ve taught in a lot of different places – high schools and universities – and it doesn’t make for great press, maybe an asterisk at the bottom of the page,” Marsalis said. “But I’m not doing this for the notoriety.”
At 82 years young today, Marsalis says he continues to perform today because he has a quintet of younger guys who will be accompanying him to Beavercreek. They keep him on his toes, explained.
“The music is not in the culture, especially in the academic end,” Marsalis said. “There are lots of kids who would perform jazz well, if the school had a viable music program – the same way they have viable athletic programs.”
What Marsalis does today, he said, has a more “immediate resonance.”
“It’s a challenge to be able to go on the road, but it is enjoyable,” he said. “Playing music is enjoyable; playing music with good functioning young people is enjoyable. The energy is one. The whole Idea of performing jazz is communal. It’s like a family.”
And not just “like” a family. As the patriarch of a famous musical family – his world famous sons Branford and Wynton, garnering critical acclaim in the 80s and 90s – for Marsalis it is family.
At some point along the line Marsalis chose teaching music over performing it.
“I didn’t think of being in education for a living,” he said. “In fact, I avoided it a while until I had an opportunity to go to a high school, and art school, and teach.”
Marsalis said his focus shifted towards bringing jazz music to music students.
“That was a challenge to me also,” he said. “Everything about it was a challenge because – number one – the schools only hired for marching bands, which I had done before.”
For the Weekend of Jazz Festival, Marsalis said he is pleased to have the opportunity to involve students interested in music and help them develop their skills.
“I do enjoy imparting that to young students,” Marsalis said. “In my case it just happened to be jazz skills.”
Marsalis said his educating young students can be very fulfilling, especially when they take to the music, or fall in love with jazz.
“I have only seen one student in which the ‘light went on’ in their eyes,” he said. “Of all the students I have taught, I was only present for that one time. Most of the time, you don’t get to see that. Most of the time, they make breakthroughs with a group. It isn’t something that’s commonly seen. Those classes I was teaching had no standardized tests; they were all performance-based.”
Sometimes, Marsalis explained, student musicians make breakthroughs when they practice alone by themselves.
“It is not something you can control,” he said. “You provide the material and the message of how to use that material and the rest is up to the student. I was teaching at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts – a high school at the time. I was teaching there it was a New Orleans parish public high school. Today it’s a state high school with the same name… It was just one particular student and I was able to hear it in his performance. It’s spontaneous. When I heard it, it was a great feeling. It’s a great feeling any time you realize a student really gets it.”
Unfortunately, he said, the majority of the time the students “don’t get it.”
“It’s like anything else,” he said. “Everyone who studies writing isn’t going to be a great author… At that age level, not many students are interested in jazz at all; they’ve never heard it. It’s not like football.”
It is Marsalis’ love and passion for jazz along with his love and passion for teaching jazz to students that makes him so unique in the jazz world.
“I started playing an instrument when I was 11,” Marsalis said. “I became aware of jazz when I was 13 in high school when I happened to go to a concert and heard James Burks ‘Dizzy’ Gillespie.”
Marsalis said he’d heard jazz on the radio, but when he went to see it live he fell in love.
“It’s different when you see it performed in person,” he said. “It’s magical; it’s over the edge. I knew then that’s what I wanted to do … I wanted to play that music even though I didn’t know how I was going to learn at that time.”
Technology, social media, and other things have influenced jazz over the decades, Marsalis said, but not unlike everything else.
Friday night in Beavercreek, Marsalis said, he is looking forward to “getting down.”
“We are coming in here to swing!” he exclaimed, laughing. “That is what we plan to do. That’s the basic element of our music; it came into being when dance bands started to play for dancing so the rhythms that were employed were for the dancers to be danced to.”
The results, he explained, became this “indefinable quality to be called swing,” which continued on when dance bands were no longer playing after World War II.
“In other words,” Marsalis said in short, “don’t look for a definition of swing.”
Ellis Louis Marsalis Jr., born Nov. 14, 1938, is a nationally-renown jazz piano performer and educator.
Active since the late 1940s, Marsalis rose to greater attention in the 1980s and 1990s as the patriarch of a musical family, with his sons Branford Marsalis and Wynton Marsalis rising to international acclaim. Marsalis can usually be seen performing on Fridays at Snug Harbor jazz bistro in New Orleans, where much of his career has been centered over the decades. He started out as a tenor saxophonist. But in high school he switched to piano.
Ever since his first professional performance with “The Groovy Boys” more than 50 years ago – Marsalis has been a major influence in the world of jazz music being one of the few in that time that did not specialize in Dixieland or rhythm and blues. He performed with fellow modernists including Cannonball Adderley, Nat Adderley and Al Hirt – quickly becoming one of the most respected pianists on the jazz scene.
As a leading educator at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts, the University of New Orleans and Xavier University of Louisiana, Marsalis has influenced the careers of countless musicians, many of whom rose to international acclaim themselves – not to mention his four sons, Wynton, Branford, Delfeayo and Jason. In 2007, Marsalis was awarded an honorary doctorate from Tulane University for his contributions to jazz and music education.
For further details about Marsalis and his famous sons and their innumerous accolades, go to ellismarsalis.com or visit Wikipedia on the Web.
Brian Evans is a freelance writer for Greene County News.