Top trombonist Marsalis has Arkansas debut Saturday

Friday, September 21, 2012
Delfeayo Marsalis

The award-winning Delfeayo Marsalis, one of the top trombonists, composers and producers in jazz today, will headline Jazz Eureka, Eureka Springs' annual jazz festival, this weekend with a performance Saturday evening at The Auditorium.

It is the middle Marsalis brother's first time to perform in Arkansas, and his first visit to Eureka Springs, he told the Lovely County Citizen via telephone earlier this week.

Known for his "technical excellence, inventive mind and frequent touches of humor," (said Los Angeles Times critic Leonard Feather), Marsalis was called "one of the best, most imaginative and musical of the trombonists of his generation," by Philip Elwood of the San Francisco Examiner.

In January 2011, Delfeayo and the Marsalis family (including father Ellis and brothers Branford, Wynton and Jason) earned the nation's highest jazz honor: a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Masters Award.

Born in New Orleans, Marsalis, 47, was destined to a life in music.

"I remember my dad playing piano at the house, and me laying underneath the piano as a child, listening to him play," Delfeayo recalls. "After briefly trying bass and drums, in sixth grade I gravitated towards the trombone, which was an extension of my personality.

It was a perfect fit, Marsalis says in a article.

"The trombone was meant for me," he says. "It fit my personality. The job of the trombone is to make sure everyone gets along, that the trumpet and sax get along. The trumpet is the lead in a New Orleans band, and the sax's job is to make the trumpet sound good; and the trombone makes sure both of them sound good!"

Marsalis' early influences and inspirations included J.J. Johnson, Curtis Fuller, Al Grey, Tyree Glenn and Tommy Dorsey. After attending the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts high school, he received classical jazz and music training at the Eastern Music Festival and Tanglewood Institute, and majored in both performance and audio production at Berklee College of Music. He went on to earn a Master's of Art degree in jazz performance from the University of Louisville and a doctorate from New England College.

Multi-talented musician

Unlike many musicians who turn to producing later in their careers, Marsalis had a head and a heart for the recording process early on -- as young as fifth or sixth grade.

"My brother Branford showed me how to create a feedback loop on a reel-to-reel machine. At that time there was a real need in the family for demo tapes. In fact, I was recording Wynton when he was in high school. When I was in seventh grade, he challenged me to have his demo tape sound on the same level as Maurice Andre's classical studio recordings. It was all trial and error, and I learned a great deal."

Since age 17, Marsalis has produced more than 100 records for major artists including Harry Connick Jr., Marcus Roberts, Spike Lee, Terence Blanchard, Marcus Roberts, Adam Makowicz, Nicholas Payton, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band and the projects of Ellis, Branford and Wynton Marsalis.

In addition to earning many accolades, fans and even Grammy awards for his productions, Marsalis has made quite a name for himself as a band leader. His first three albums as a band leader have earned wide praise among fans and critics alike: "Pontius Pilate's Decision" (1992), "Musashi" (1997) and "Minions Dominion" (2006). His January 2011 release "Sweet Thunder," his most ambitious project yet, is a modern interpretation of the Duke Ellington/Billy Strayhorn suite "Such Sweet Thunder." Rather than merely recreating the classic work, which is comprised of musical depictions of characters from William Shakespeare's plays, Marsalis took the work as a point of departure for his octet, creating fresh and new music inspired by the original suite.

"In some ways Sweet Thunder started for me in the seventh grade when I wrote a paper on my great uncle Wellman Braud, who played with Duke Ellington in the 1920s. While attending the University of Louisville, I wrote a thesis paper on Ellington and Shakespeare," Marsalis explains.

"For this project, I went to the Smithsonian and studied the original copies of the music for 'Such Sweet Thunder.' I didn't want to just play what Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn wrote in 1957, but to imagine what they might have written if they were here today, more than 50 years later. To me this is jazz opera without the vocals, telling a story with the dramatic music."

But despite all this talent and the accolades he's earned, Marsalis is probably most popular and best-known as an exceptional trombonist who has toured internationally with five renowned bandleaders: Art Blakey, Abdullah Ibrahim, Slide Hampton, Max Roach and Elvin Jones.

During a tour with the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, he was filmed as part of the Ken Burns documentary, "Jazz," and he was an integral part of "Marsalis Family: A Jazz Celebration," a DVD that assembled all of the musical Marsalises for the first time and was featured on PBS.

Big on community, helping kids

It may have been the first time the musical members of the Marsalis family all played together on DVD, but seeing them play together live is not that unusual -- especially Delfeayo and his father, Ellis, who is widely known for his jazz piano legacy and for being as generous with his time as his son when it comes to sharing his musical knowledge with students.

"There's a thing we say about a musician when he reaches a certain point and has an understanding about all aspects of the music: We say 'He can really play,'" Delfeayo Marsalis says, smiling through the telephone. "My dad is the last person alive in New Orleans that has that quality. He can really tell an emotional story with his music ... he can play a couple of notes and wipe out everything everyone has played so far -- he does this to me every night we play together."

Delfeayo and his father -- who together have a new album coming out early next year, of mostly ballads -- spend a lot of time working with children in New Orleans, teaching them both the basic and the deeper tenets of jazz musicianship, primarily through the foundation Delfeayo Marsalis founded, the Uptown Music Theatre.

"Typically we include students from all walks of life, from different parts of the community," he explained. "We don't have an audition process, so it's very challenging because you have kids who are very experienced playing alongside some kids who are not at all experienced -- but it's a typical model of society, because whatever level they're on, they have to come to the table and contribute something."

The Uptown Music Theatre has trained hundreds and hundreds of New Orleans children in classical music, specifically jazz, and in musical theater, since it was founded in 2000.

UMT's focus is on partly on spreading "community unity" and fostering better relationships among area residents from all walks of life, at a time when the popularity of the Internet is diminishing the spirt of community, Marsalis explained.

But UMT's primary focus is on teaching children to play music.

"The younger students of jazz out there don't know how to play riff music, create their own arrangements; we want to give them the structure and the theory behind those traditions of riff music so they can carry it on," he said. "In jazz you have to know the blues, and you have to play in a melodic fashion. These are the things being lost on the students; it's like everybody just does what they want to do.

"Louis Armstrong and Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk were great for a reason, so we are teaching the kids what they did," Marsalis added.

Marsalis and the other instructors must be doing something right, because the children of UMT won first place at the biggest musical theater competition in the world, the Junior Theatrics Festival in Atlanta, earlier this year. "We were very proud to hoist up that trophy," he said.

* * *

On Saturday night, jazz, blues and New Orleans music fans are likely to be thrilled with the show at The Aud.

Performing with Marsalis will be drummer Winard Harper, bassist Jeremy Boettcher, pianist Richard Johnson, and Sean Jones on trumpet.

Marsalis and his quintet perform Saturday, Sept. 22 at The Aud beginning at 7:30 p.m. Tickets, available at or by calling 888-695-0888, start at $15 in advance for balcony seating and $20 for floor seating; ticket prices go up $5 per on the day of the show.

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