Guardians of the Groove: Ellis Marsalis on his start in music


Posted on April 22, 2014 at 10:25 PM

Updated Tuesday, May 27 at 11:02 PM
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NEW ORLEANS -- This week’s Guardian of the Groove is an outstanding jazz pianist who has been making music almost his entire life.

And for Ellis Marsalis Jr., that includes the past eight decades.

As a faculty member at NOCCA and head of the jazz department at UNO, he's taught hundreds of New Orleans finest musicians, such as Harry Connick Jr., Terrance Blanchard, Nicolas Payton and four of his sons -- Wynton, Branford, Delfeayo and Jason -- also have distinguished careers as musicians.

This month at the centerpiece of the Musician's Village, the Ellis Marsalis center for music, WWOZ Program Director Dwayne Breashears sat down with our latest Guardian of the Groove to discuss what it was like in New Orleans when Marsalis first learned to play.

Breashears: Did you always have a love for piano?

Marsalis: I started playing the clarinet and was attending the Xavier University Junior School of Music. It was fairly close to right across the town from Gert Town. However, we moved to Shrewsbury and I would just catch the bus and come to lessons there. But I played clarinet until I got into high school. And after I got into high school I started listening to the local rhythm and blues.

The tenor saxophone was a predominant instrument in the rhythm and blues arena. And one thing that I started to find out, if you are playing the tenor saxophone and you learn some of those saxophone licks on that record, girls would look at you.

The younger musicians that decided they were going to play jazz were following Charlie Parker, Thelonius Monk, Dizzy Gillespie, you know these guys, and there was no real market for any of that. But since the laws of segregation reigned supreme, we didn’t have anything much else to do but practice and play in. I know John Coltrane asked us, man, what do you guys do down there? I said we just play. There’s nothing else to do.

Breashears: Do you think that to become a successful musician that you need to leave New Orleans to go to New York or L.A.?

Marsalis: Well, I guess it depends by what you mean by success. I got a chance to go in and out of New York a lot in the ‘60s. And I remember I would always look up every Ed Blackwell. And when I would see that, I would always ask them, how’s this guy and that guy and this one and that one. And he said, man, look, all the people who were doing good in New Orleans, they doing good up here. And the ones who wasn’t doing good in New Orleans, they ain’t doing nothing up here.

Ellist Marsalis Playlist: 

"Teo" - An Open Letter to Thelonius
"Syndrome" - Ellis Marsalis Trio
"Lulu's Back In Town" -  Loved Ones
"Jitterbug Waltz" - Piano In E Solo Piano
"Whistle Stop" - Whistle Stop
"Mozartin'" - Twelve's It