If there’s such a thing as the first family of jazz, the Marsalis clan is it.
Branford Marsalis is a notable saxophonist and leader of the Branford Marsalis Quartet.
Trumpeter Wynton Marsalis is the first jazz musician to win the Pulitzer Prize for Music.
Trombonist Delfeayo Marsalis is also a prolific jazz producer, and Jason Marsalis performs both on the drums and the vibraphone.
But before they made waves of their own in the jazz world, patriarch Ellis Marsalis Jr. paved the way on piano.
He has nearly 20 albums to his name and has performed on countless others.
He is also known for his work in the classroom, having taught at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts (where students included trumpeter Terence Blanchard and singer Harry Connick Jr.), the University of New Orleans, and Xavier University of Louisiana.
The Ellis Marsalis Center for Music continues his work both onstage and in the classroom with performance and education space, and though he’s nearing his 83rd birthday (Nov. 14), Marsalis can still be found performing regularly at Snug Harbor, a New Orleans jazz cafe, and beyond.
Marsalis will bring his experience as a performer and teacher to Spokane when he hosts a jazz clinic on Friday and performs with the Whitworth University Jazz Ensemble as part of the 28th annual Whitworth Guest Artist Jazz Concert on Saturday. Both events will be held at Whitworth’s Cowles Auditorium.
Dan Keberle, director of jazz studies and trumpet professor at Whitworth, started the series in 1989 with the goal of bringing students, many of them aspiring jazz artists, and acclaimed jazz musicians together.
Jazz, he said, is an art form that’s been passed down, yet, as a subjective art form, it’s difficult to teach many elements of jazz – the history, vocabulary, style, notes and rhythm – in a traditional classroom setting.
“There’s a great deal of that you can’t teach out of a book,” he said. “You can’t really teach hardly any other way than from other people that know how to do it and nobody knows how to do it better than some of these guests artists that I’ve been able to bring to Whitworth over the years.”
After featuring trumpeter Arturo Sandoval, guitarist Pat Metheny and saxophonist Branford Marsalis at the Guest Artist Jazz Concert in recent years, Keberle wanted to feature a pianist.
Keberle was interested in having the elder Marsalis perform bringing Branford Marsalis to town last year. Keberle also took note of what both Wynton and Branford Marsalis had to say about their father in interviews.
“Every once in awhile they mention what a positive and powerful influence their father Ellis was on their lives,” he said. “They mention how he’s always stressed the fundamentals of jazz and being able to swing and communicate the song.”
Keberle also wanted to feature Marsalis because he enjoys bringing in older generation jazz artists, as they were close to the original artists and they have a different style of playing, something he doesn’t want the world to forget.
“We do have their recordings but it’s still different,” he said. “The old slogans ‘Live music is always best’ and ‘Jazz is always best heard live,’ and it’s a cliche, but it’s true. When you hear artists of Ellis’ generation play live, it really is very, very special and very unique.”
Marsalis will give jazz students and fans alike more insight into his career during a free jazz clinic. Keberle said a few hundred people usually attend the question-and-answer sessions.
There is no theme to the concert, though Keberle noted that since Marsalis is known for his interpretations of jazz standards, he and the jazz ensemble will likely play tunes people recognize but with Marsalis’ spin on them.
“I’m really glad we could bring him out,” Keberle said. “He’s still quite a master.”
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