Archive for April 2nd, 2020

“Best known through refraction”: Ellis Marsalis remembered by biographer Frank Barrett

Thursday, April 2nd, 2020
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Frank Barrett, Ellis Marsalis at a conference in New Orleans, circa 2013

Ellis Marsalis, one of the leading figures in jazz, is among the latest victims of the coronavirus pandemic. He died last night at 85. Frank J. Barrett, author of Say Yes to the Mess: Surprising Leadership Lessons from Jazz and formerly a pianist with the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra, is currently writing his biography as a visiting scholar at Harvard. 

Ellis Marsalis is perhaps best known through refraction – thanks to the accomplishments of two of his six sons, each of whom is a master of his instrument and an innovative leader jazz. Wynton and Branford are famous in the wider world, but within the jazz world two other sons, Delfeayo and Jason, are deeply admired for the trombone and percussion respectively. Delfeayo and Jason are also world-class producers. Branford and Wynton became much more famous and financially successful in their twenties than Ellis did in his entire lifetime. The patriarch was a very innovative, modern jazz pianist in New Orleans, a city that values older, traditional jazz. He knew the costs of taking the road less traveled, and yet he remained committed to his music. He began as a sax and clarinet player and later focused exclusively on piano.

I am honored to be writing his biography, which has given me the opportunity to spend many hours with him over the last few years. He had a special quality that only the best teachers have, in the way he closely assessed his students’ capacities and accomplishments. He could be realistic to a fault. I imagine some of his students could have been deflated by his frank assessments. He might have sounded aloof to some. He was certainly not excitable. But he was always honest, “just telling it like it is.” And he intuitively sensed his students’ learning potential. What might have been his greatest gift of all was his profound sense of what was needed to take a student to the next level. All of this he seemed to accomplish with minimal intervention. That’s one reason so many referred to him as “cool.” He knew what the right amount of words should be, and then he subtracted 25 percent, leaving the student in a field of questions. He overstated nothing.

While doing interviews for this book, I once asked Wynton what adolescence was like for him, whether and how he rebelled against his father, as one would assume all adolescents are prone to do. There were stories of Wynton as a sometimes stormy adolescent, and so I asked him directly how and when he rebelled against his dad. When Wynton responded I knew immediately what he meant: “Not with my dad. There was nothing to rebel against.” Nothing for an adolescent son to rebel against? Unless you knew Ellis you wouldn’t understand how he seemed to have no guarded ego, no defensiveness, no need to assert his knowledge or authority, the great temptation for many teachers. He was devoted to learning and teaching. And with his sons he was the opposite of the Great Santini. Rather than tell them what to do, he asked provocative questions and let them find their way. And we know how they managed to do just that.

Barrett: What he learned.

Wynton tells a story that captures how his father was a role model for him. He had a recording date with Columbia for an album that would include several standard songs from the Great American Songbook – “Street of Dreams,” “Where or When,” “The Very Thought of You,” “I Cover the Waterfront.” For this album, the best pianist he could imagine was his father. So he asked him to play on this session.

“My father’s so much hipper than me and knows so much more,” he reflected afterwards. “I can tell him, ‘I don’t like what you played on that’, and he’ll just stop and say, ‘Well, damn, what do you want?’ Then I’ll say, ‘Why don’t you do this?’ and he’ll try it. That’s my father, man. … If I said I didn’t like it, he’d change it and at least look for something else, because he’s a sensitive musician. The more I get away from him, man, the more I know how much I learned from him just by looking and watching. I grew up with one of the greatest examples.”

This exchange says so much about Ellis and what Wynton learned from him. Wynton apparently had musical insight that he thought was harmonically more appropriate than the chords his father was playing. Ellis did not defend the correctness of his musical ideas, or generate rationales to explain his choice, but immediately respected his son’s suggestions.

There is an irony in this exchange, too. Who is the learner here? Ellis appeared to be the one learning to try different musical ideas, but Wynton walked away with a lasting insight, admiring his father’s approach to and immersion in music, an openness to learning and commitment to creative invention. What he taught him apparently is to avoid becoming too attached to what is comfortable and secure, to be open to exploring new pathways, to avoid defensive routines. The young Wynton was learning that even established, competent musicians must be willing to abandon comfortable practices and to abdicate postures of established status that block the emergence of good ideas.

When I first began to meet with Ellis, I thought it would be a good idea to take a piano lesson from him. I wanted to impress him, so I prepared an arrangement of a standard tune, “The End of a Beautiful Friendship.” I was a bit nervous so I spent many hours preparing complex and rich harmonies up front, two solo choruses, and dramatic finish. I tried to make my solo as “hip” as possible, throwing in some be-bop licks, working in some two-handed phrases, quoting a Monk tune. Ellis sat about five feet away watching and listening. Finishing with a flurry, I looked up. After what seemed like a long silence he said: “Okay, for starters, I never comment on players’ solos. That’s too personal.” Then he asked this: “Do you know the lyrics to that tune?” Huh? The lyrics? I’m not a singer. Why would he ask that? I was perplexed and mumbled something about the tune’s theme of friendship and love. “How can you know what a song means if you don’t know the words?” he asked. He pointed to rows of file cabinets in his music studio that contain songs and lyrics. Then before we were about to leave for dinner, he said: “I insist on one thing. Students must play the melody correctly.” I was puzzled because I had learned this song by heart. Then he asked: “How does this song end?” I played the last four bars. “That’s not the correct ending.” And he sang back the correct ending in perfect tune. On the surface it was only a slight variation from the ending, but I learned that for Ellis one must be loyal to the essence of the song.

Anyone who wonders how this sensibility matters should listen to the album “Loved Ones,” in which each of the fourteen selections is a woman’s name. When Ellis was getting ready to record it he realized that in order to fully realize the delicate emotion he wanted to convey, he needed a lyrical horn player. The most sensitive, melodic musician he could think of was his son Branford, so he invited him to join. There’s a tenderness in these songs that can move one to tears. You can tell that Ellis feels each note. Listen to their version of “Maria” from West Side Story and you would swear that they are singing the lyrics. On “Miss Otis Regrets,” an ironic Cole Porter tune about a lynching, you can hear Ellis conveying the lyrics during the song’s denouement: “The moment before she died / she lifted up her lovely head and cried, madam/ Miss Otis regrets she’s unable to lunch today.” Ellis feels each note deeply. Listening again to this recording I am reminded – instead of just working on flashy, impressive soloing it’s more important to be loyal to the meaning and essence of the music. In fact, who even knew that a song can have a denouement?

For me personally, he was a friend and a teacher. I will miss him.

Biographer and subject: Frank Barrett and Ellis Marsalis