Thursday, October 21, 2010

Ellis Marsalis still a smooth dude

I ignore almost everything my alma mater sends me, but this morning something in Tulane's New Wave e-newsletter caught my eye.

The great New Orleans jazz pianist, Ellis Marsalis (father of saxophonist Branford, trumpeter Wynton, trombonist Delfeayo and drummer Jason), who is a considered to be New Orleans' premier modern jazz pianist, was giving his annual free concert in Dixon Hall on the Newcomb campus of Tulane University (where, BTW, I used to perform).

I zoomed across town, zipped into a parking space and jogged across the quad, thinking the house might be full. But I was able to grab a seat right in front of the jazz master, sitting almost underneath the keyboards. Tulane's "History of Jazz" class students were all there, as well as a bunch of oldsters like myself, but there were plenty of open seats. You'd easily pay $50 or more for a ticket to this show anywhere else.

I spent the better part
of my 20s on the West Coast, listening to modern jazz piano. I loved Bill Evans, Keith Jarrett, Oscar Peterson, Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock and Tania Maria. San Francisco tilts more toward modern jazz and I was definitely tilting.

In Chicago, I became entranced by World Music - Afropop - and all the strange mixes of Celtic and Latin and Cameroon rhythms. Since returning to New Orleans, however, I've been trying learn all the local music, so focusing on New Orleans jazz, R&B and Cajun-Zydeco. Consequently, I'd almost forgotten how much I love listening to beautiful jazz classics played with sensitivity and finesse. Maybe I'd better pull out those old record albums.

There was Ellis, sitting just 10 feet from me, so I could actually watch his fingers moving across the keys, playing marvelous tunes like "Emily," "What is this thing called love?" "Lover," "Corcovado" and "Sweet Georgia Brown." I was lulled into sweet reverie, listening to his smooth renditions of gorgeous melodies.

During the Q&A, Marsalis explained why his sons play different instruments - Wynton played a horn donated by Al Hirt; another played an extra clarinet that had been lying around; Jason got a set of toy drums at age 3. They are all just naturally gifted and brought up in a musical household with access to excellent music education.

Ellis Marsalis helped found N
ew Orleans Center for Creative Arts, known locally as NOCCA, a high school focused on creative arts, which gave birth to young talent, including Terence Bradford, Nicholas Payton, Donald Harrison Jr. and Harry Connick Jr. Tulane awarded Ellis Marsalis an honorary doctorate degree in 2007.

The questions from the audience didn't indicate any real understanding of his technique or inspiration perhaps because New Orleanians are so entrenched in their own musical culture.

Marsalis ended the program with a wish that most would matriculate to graduation and the others would figure out something else to do -- improvising to the end.

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