November 23-29, 2005

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Father Knows Best

Jazz patriarch steps into spotlight

By Greg Cahill

'I don't think the general public even know that I exist," says educator and jazz pianist Ellis Marsalis with a laugh during a phone interview. "In fact, I had a guy say to me one time, 'Man, I thought you were a myth! I thought somebody had invented you.' And he was serious!"

It's a common mistake. As the patriarch of one of the most influential musical families in the world, the elder Marsalis, 66, is probably best known for siring wünderkinds Wynton, Branford, Jason and Delfaeyo, a foursome of jazz lions who for two decades have been at the forefront of the traditional jazz renaissance.

"A sire of champions," is how Jazz Times once described him.

Yet, the elder Marsalis, who performs Dec. 3 at the Napa Valley Opera House, is a sublime player in his own right. His emergence over the past 15 years is the result of a busy recording schedule that nearly equals that of his famous sons. In 2003, the recently founded Rounder Records-distributed Marsalis Family label released the CD The Marsalis Family: A Jazz Celebration and the DVD One Father . . . Four Sons, both celebrating the family's musical legacy. Among the guests was jazz pianist Harry Connick Jr., arguably Marsalis' best-known student.

Today, the label is home base for Branford and Connick, who have been recording and performing together frequently when they aren't stumping for Hurricane Katrina victim relief.

Papa Marsalis bristles at the notion that the recent activity signals a comeback for him. "I never stopped playing," says Marsalis, the longtime chair of the University of New Orleans jazz studies program. "It's just that I didn't have a national profile or a recording contract. So ultimately I was just sort of toiling away."

Marsalis grew up in a relatively middle-class family in the deep South when the only jobs open to most blacks were menial labor. His father, a successful businessman, bought young Ellis a clarinet and encouraged him to play in the school band.

"There was nothing particularly traumatic about my upbringing," he recalls. "I didn't have, like, a real sad story. You know, I wasn't really forced into 'dealing with the bad' or anything."

By the time he was out of high school, Marsalis was playing piano and listening to brash geniuses Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie and other bebop pioneers. Classically trained at Dillard University, he was influenced by the lyrical style of jazz pianist Oscar Peterson. During the '50s and '60s, he found work at local clubs, hotels, conventions and private parties.

He played with the traditional New Orleans band of Dixieland trumpeter Al Hirt for three years and spent the early '70s "doing odds and ends," including a stint with the New Orleans Repertory Theatre. In 1974, he was offered a teaching position at the acclaimed New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts, a public high school whose alumni include Wynton, Branford, Connick and a host of other jazz lions.

But his decision to teach was more by circumstance than design. "My children were getting older," he says, "and I needed some stability in my life."

These days, Marsalis downplays his own fame. "The only thing that's important to me is that I'm putting myself in a position to get some work done, some music played and some pieces written," he says. "Everything else becomes like the things that go along with the inconvenience of professional activity and takes away from reflective thinking."

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