I have Ellis Marsalis to thank for a lifelong love affair with jazz. I spent most of my freshman year at LSU trying to woo the affections of numerous female classmates, until one of them wrote “wanna go to a jazz concert tonight” in the margin of my notebook. Jazz seemed too genteel for my voracious appetites, but of course, I said yes. Once Marsalis and his quartet kicked in, though, my attentions were directed at the stage, marveling at how a song was picked apart and reassembled before our very eyes and ears.
Marsalis made his first mark in New Orleans half a century ago, favoring the modern bop abstractionism of Charlie Parker and Dexter Gordon over the Dixieland that still prevailed in the city. He soon became one of the biggest names in modern jazz piano, lending his talents to albums by Eddie Harris and Courtney Pine, as well as more than 20 under his own name. After years of being a star player in New Orleans, he moved his family to Breaux Bridge in 1964 and worked as band director at Carver High School. Marsalis got the teaching bug bad. He started working toward his master’s degree at Loyola University in 1974, and in that same year started his long-running relationship with the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts. After a two-year gig at Virginia Commonwealth University, he came back to New Orleans as the first director of Jazz Studies at UNO, a position he held until his retirement in 2001.
If you trace through his catalog over the years, you will find a constant flowering of innovation rising out of a deep bed of roots. One of the triumphs in his late career was the 1986 album Piano in E/Solo Piano, where he captivates a live audience with wave after wave of contrapuntal fluidity, projecting the melodies while giving the impression of a full band. In 1993, he laid down the devastating Whistle Stop, an exploration of relatively obscure New Orleans modern jazz composers, and held his own with the fiery sax and clarinet of Harold Battiste Jr. and Alvin Batiste.
Ellis Marsalis’ greatest fame came with the careers of his sons Wynton, Branford, Jason and Delfeayo, who continue to push the boundaries of jazz while keeping it a distinctive art form. It was through his sons that Marsalis received the worldwide recognition he deserves. On Love Songs, Standards and Ballads, his 2008 album with young trumpeter and educator Irvin Mayfield, Marsalis opens up subconscious melodies like The Beatles’ “Yesterday” and “Come Rain or Come Shine” to reveal the inner workings of a song, just like he did for me two decades ago on stage at the LSU Union.
Ellis Marsalis will perform for two nights at the Magnolia Performing Arts Center at BRCC on Dec. 5 and 6, and while no young co-ed is likely to ask me to go, I’ll be there ready to have my ears opened once again.