Dianemarie (DM) Collins conducts an interview with Delfaeyo and Ellis Marsalis from the stage of the Nightingale Concert Hall at the University of Nevada Reno.

From the Crescent City come the sweet sounds of classic and original compositions in this concert led by trombonist Delfeayo Marsalis, an NEA Jazz Master and member of “the first family of jazz.” The music is relaxed, thoughtful and provocative, honoring the Southern traditions that birthed America’s original music.

When the subject of jazz comes up these days, the name Marsalis is soon sure to follow. Brothers Branford, Wynton, Delfeayo, and Jason have all reached international fame. But before they found success, their father Ellis was shaping his own career as a jazz pianist and composer.

In addition, Ellis Marsalis has become one of the most renowned music educators in the U.S., imparting his extensive knowledge of jazz to students like pianist and vocalist Harry Connick, Jr., trumpeter Terence Blanchard, and of course, his four sons.

Listen to poet Kalamu ya Salaam talk about Ellis’ approach to the harmony

Ellis was born on November 14, 1934 in New Orleans’ “Gert Town” neighborhood, where his childhood friends and fellow musicians Roger Dickerson and Harold Battiste recall that music was everywhere. During the 1930s, New Orleans was very segregated, but jazz music often brought people of different social, cultural and even racial backgrounds together.

During the 1940s, New Orleans was the home of Dixieland jazz, but despite the music’s popularity among visitors to the city, Ellis didn’t play or listen to it at the time. He was instead drawn to the bebop innovations he heard in the music of Charlie Parker and Dexter Gordon. He set his sights on bebop and formed a small combo with drummer Ed Blackwell, clarinetist Alvin Batiste, and saxophonist Battiste.

With its modern, almost avant-garde style, the group found little work in New Orleans, but it did get the attention of legendary alto saxophonist Ornette Coleman. Originally from Texas and steeped in that state’s R&B style, Coleman found himself at odds with most of New Orleans’ jazz scene. He quickly left The Big Easy for California. Once he arrived, he asked Ellis and the rest of the group to follow.

“I never thought of myself as a teacher. I used to always look at myself as being a coach. Not devoid of instruction, but I was never that organized in my approach to what I was doing. I always tried to key off of wherever the student was and just figure out what I needed to present to them to move from point A to B.”

— Ellis Marsalis

After the group arrived in California, they quickly realized that it was not exactly the Promised Land they had hope to find. Even though their time out West was short-lived, they did manage to make their first recording in 1956 as The American Jazz Quintet. Ellis soon returned to New Orleans and continued playing modern bebop, despite the limited support from the city.

Things brightened up in 1963, when famed cornetist Nat Adderley and his brother, alto saxophonist and bandleader Cannonball came to New Orleans. The brothers recorded with Ellis and several other New Orleans musicians on Nat’s album In the Bag. The album dubbed Ellis, drummer James Black, and tenor saxophonist Nat Perrilliat as the “Down Home New Stars.”

While Ellis hustled to make ends meet in the late ’50s and into the 1960s, he and his wife Delores had four children. Ellis briefly opened and ran a jazz club, The Music Haven, in his father’s hotel, Marsalis Mansion. But to put food on the table, Ellis played Dixieland music with trumpeter Al Hirt.

In the 1970s Ellis began studying music education at New Orleans’ Loyola University. In 1974, his future began to take shape as the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts named him director of its newly formed jazz studies program.

Many leading jazz artists today — alto saxophonist Donald Harrison, trumpeter Nicholas Payton, pianist Harry Connick, Jr. — studied at the CCA with Ellis. It should come to no surprise that his sons Wynton Jason, Delfeayo, and Branford also attended the Center. After 12 years at the CCA, Ellis accepted a position heading the jazz department at the University of New Orleans.

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