A Few Minutes With… Delfeayo Marsalis

Delfeayo Marsalis
Delfeayo Marsalis

Story and interview by J Hunter

I never thought I’d see it in my lifetime, but on Saturday (September 8) at the Port of Albany’s Riverfront Jazz Festival, Greater Nippertown will complete its first-ever “Marsalis Slam” when trombonist Delfeayo Marsalis joins another great Riverfront lineup on the Corning Preserve.

Over the last eight months, we’ve seen (in order of appearance) the Branford Marsalis Quartet, the Jason Marsalis Vibes Quartet and Wynton Marsalis’ Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra hit us with their respective takes on the music introduced to them by their father, pianist Ellis Marsalis. While Delfeayo may have the shortest discography of the four brothers, the mastery he displays on his chosen instrument puts him at the top of the list of trombonists playing today; we saw that in 2006, when Marsalis’ sextet set fire to Shepard Park during Lake George Jazz Weekend’s first evening show.

Along with a great list of accomplishments as a New Orleans educator, Marsalis also served up one of my Top 10 Jazz CDs of 2011: “Sweet Thunder,” a re-boot of Duke Ellington’s expansive tribute to the iconic playwright William Shakespeare. While Delfeayo’s take shows proper respect for the original compositions, Marsalis’ stripped-out arrangements combine with a stellar octet (featuring Branford and Jason) to breathe sparkling new life into one of Ellington’s sensational late-career suites.

I can’t tell you how pleased I was when Delfeayo Marsalis agreed to speak with me about “Sweet Thunder” (and other subjects):

Q: Your bio talks about you lying under the piano, listening to your father play. Is it safe to say that Ellington’s music was part of the music you (and, by extension, your brothers) heard?

A: Yes, Ellington’s music was definitely in the fold. But my dad was playing modern jazz in New Orleans at a time when it really wasn’t in style, so his level of commitment always stood out in my mind. We’d go to his gigs and there’d be six people on the bandstand and 10 in the audience, but he always had a certain type of pride and professionalism in his presentations. At home, he would play mostly ballads and his original music, but certainly Ellington tunes as well.

Q: The whole world knows “Take the A Train,” and lots of people know the more popular songs Ellington wrote with Billy Strayhorn. Why don’t Ellington’s late-career suites get the same kind of love? “New Orleans Suite,” for example, is an absolute work of art!

A: They don’t have words!

Q: Do you remember the first time you heard “Such Sweet Thunder”?

A: Uh, no. I’m sure I heard bits and pieces of it as a child. When I was at Berklee, I heard it and couldn’t believe the great trombone work. I met Britt Woodman (Ellington’s principal trombonist of many years), and he was playing incredibly into his 70s. It didn’t occur to me then that it was actually perfect for small ensemble.

Q: Ellington’s music always sounded like he played with an army, and “Such Sweet Thunder” was arranged for a 15-piece unit. You broke this suite down to an octet. How hard was that, and what was your inspiration for doing it?

A: I hear form and structure more readily in the small group format. The compositions on my first CD, “Pontius Pilate’s Decision,” were all orchestrated for quintet through octet settings and featured mostly improvisation. The real challenge with giving Duke a modern-day makeover is to avoid over-indulgence: How to keep the crucial elements that define it, yet add your own personal touches that will change its character. I treated the work as though it were something valuable that my grandfather gave me and asked me to present for future generations. That the two living players from the original recording both agreed that Ellington would have been proud to hear my rendition made the entire endeavor worthwhile!

Q: You included a letter in your liner notes from Gunther Schuller, which basically said any changes to Ellington’s works are inadvisable because they take away the music’s “Ellingtonness.” Isn’t that kind of like saying Shakespeare should only be done in Elizabethan costume, and performed exactly the way they did it at the Globe Theatre?

A: Exactly. Ironically, though, I usually don’t like the modern-day renditions of Shakespeare’s works. I sent the letter to Branford and he said, “He’s full of shit, but I’d put it in the liner notes of the CD.” So I did, and many people couldn’t believe it. Why expose critical thinking that doesn’t say you’re the greatest thing since sliced bread? That Mr. Schuller thought enough to write his analysis (in spite of its accuracy, or lack thereof) was important to me. He believes more in repertory performances of master musicians. Wynton uses this same approach when he records Ellington music with the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra – recreating the music as true to form as possible. For me, music should always contain something contemporary. Usually it’s in the rhythm… or the rhyme!

Q: What struck me immediately about “Sweet Thunder” was the amazing swagger that runs through the opening track, and that same sense of strength runs through the whole disc. How much of that comes from the arrangements, and how much comes from the amazing group of musicians you gathered together for the project?

A: I’d like to think that swagger runs through all of my CDs. (Laughs) I’d have to say it’s a combination of the material and the performers. One thing is for sure: Ellington and Strayhorn knew how to compose music. The melodic genius, texture, blues and structure were already in place. The musicians were not only inspired by it, but they also inspired each other. That’s a great element of jazz that’s never discussed in schools – the importance of teamwork. My cast of characters was not only comprised of great soloists, but also great musicians who understood the task. The hardest part for me was convincing them that I didn’t want to imitate the Ellington Orchestra.

Q: Anything you would have changed with the recording if you could?

A: Yes. A New Orleans groove on “Half the Fun.” Then it may have been all the fun!

Q: “Sweet Thunder” isn’t just a disc: A theatrical version of the piece toured the U.S. in 2011. How did the production come about, and how was it received?

A: We received a tremendous response from the audiences, so I’m hoping we restate it sometime soon. You had Shak’s greatest soliloquies, without sitting through a two-hour play, exciting live music, a set, lighting and dramatic digital backdrops to set the mood. I’ve always loved large-scale productions and collaborations, so it’s a great representation of my artistic vision.

Q: This isn’t the first time you’ve been in the Capital Region: You brought Mark Shim, Anthony Wonsey, Dirty Red and a blistering group to Lake George Jazz Weekend’s first evening show in 2006. I know it was a while ago, but do you have any recollection of that night and/or that band?

A: Yes, Jon Faddis’ band played, so we had the intention to fire the stage up! Ralph Peterson was playing, and because it was outdoors, he tore it up more than usual. I always like playing outdoor festivals because the atmosphere is always like a big party. (Hint: New Orleans & Mardi Gras and Eh, La Bas) At festivals, people want to dance and have a good time, so it always energizes the musicians to add some extra spice to the gumbo.

Q: You’re a longtime educator, with an MA from the University of Louisville and a doctorate from New England College. What’s your take on jazz education as it stands today, and what kind of qualities – technical and otherwise – are you seeing in the students you’ve dealt with recently?

A: Students today treat jazz like an academic course similar to learning classical theory. They are more interested in harmony, which is – ironically – the element audiences are least interested in! Jazz at its finest features individuals who expose their inner emotions – joy, fear, pain, confidence – to the listeners. The more the risk, the greater the potential reward. People loved Louis Armstrong because of his joyous expression, Charlie Parker for his melodic ingenuity and swing, Miles Davis for his vulnerability, and John Coltrane because of his obsessive spirituality.

Today, you hear young players and all you can say is, “Wow they sure sound great, they’ve really studied hard!” Ron Carter doesn’t agree, but I think students should have to play with more musicians who don’t read music, because it forces them to create and accept the adjustments that are real life. Like a kid who doesn’t have a computer or video games throwing a ball against a door and creating her own game. That’s as beautiful as a kid who perfects the art of Madden 2012! And these kids who practice running scales… They are not nearly as proficient as the great jazz masters. The problem is that they don’t realize it, and no teacher would dare tell them, unlike in professional sports!

Q: Along with “traditional” music students, you’ve done a lot of work with younger kids. Your Uptown Music Theatre’s “Kidstown After School” program was introduced to three New Orleans grammar schools in 2009, and you’ve written over 80 songs that help introduce kids to jazz. How has that program worked out? Also, what kind of mindset do you have to have when writing for kids?

A: My younger brother Mboya has autism, which makes it difficult for him to learn beyond a very basic level. His reality inspired me to found the Uptown Music Theatre, to provide quality arts education for under-served youth. My primary aim is to never pander to the kids I work with, but introduce them to professional training early on. For some reason, everyone loves to see little kids using big words and performing beyond their grade level. So, I write material for second and third graders that they’ll appreciate in eighth or ninth grade.

At the same time, I’m very sensitive to not rely on adult subject matter or profanity. The rub is that everyone in our program is accepted, regardless of ability. So the advanced kids have to sacrifice to help those with less experience, and those not interested (and maybe their mom made them participate) have to cope with the realities inherent in completing a task when you don’t want to, or are in over your head. All great life lessons that I learned throughout my childhood from my parents, siblings, relatives, teachers and other adults who were interested in my development. Tough love, fair love, the best love.

The Port of Albany’s Riverfront Jazz Festival takes place from 12noon-9pm on Saturday (September 8) at Riverfront Park in Albany’s Corning Preserve. Delfeayo Marsalis and his band are slated to hit the stage at 4pm. The rest of the line-up of performers at the fest includes the yet-to-be-announced winner of the Downtown Albany JazzFest Competition (12noon); Way Down (1:15pm); the Pedrito Martinez Group featuring Araicne Trujillo (2:30pm); Charlie Hunter (5:30pm); and Terri Lyne Carrington’s Mosaic Project featuring Nona Hendryx and Gretchen Parlato (7pm). Fireworks will conclude the fest. Admission is FREE. The rain location for the fest is the Palace Theatre in Albany.

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