The music world lost one of the jazz greats this past week when pianist Ellis Marsalis died in New Orleans at 85 as the result of complications from COVID-19. Marsalis was no less than a giant in the jazz world, having taught and mentored thousands of young musicians privately and through the University of New Orleans’ jazz program, a program he founded. He fathered four musician sons, Wynton, Branford, Delfeayo and Jason, who are themselves outstanding and well-known jazz players.
Every Friday night for years, Marsalis sat down at the baby grand on stage at Snug Harbor, the legendary jazz club on Frenchman Street in New Orleans to play for the audiences who gathered at 8 and 10 p.m. to hear him. I was lucky enough to be among them a couple of times. Marsalis was not showy at the keyboard. The times I heard him play his styling was more like that of Duke Ellington, classy, elegant and sophisticated. “Mr. Marsalis’s interpretations were impressive in their economy and steadiness,” New York Times critic Stephen Holden wrote. “Sticking mainly to the middle register of the keyboard, the pianist offered richly harmonized arrangements in which fancy keyboard work was kept to a minimum and studious melodic invention, rather than pronounced bass patterns, determined the structures and tempos.”
I count the times I heard him play at Snug among the best concerts that I’ve ever attended. Upon occasion, his celebrated sons would join him for a song or two. Both Branford and Delfeayo sat in with him once when I was in the audience. I caught Jason’s show on another evening at Snug. And once, Wynton and his Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra performed at the Mount Baker Theatre here in Bellingham, WA. So I managed to hear all of them, who were named in 2011 named Marsalis and his musician sons Jazz Masters by the National Endowment for the Arts. It is regarded as American jazz music’s highest honor and until then had only been awarded on an individual basis.
Marsalis was dedicated to educating young musicians, a legacy that he passed on to his sons. I witnessed this first hand the year that Wynton came to Bellingham. After the concert, Wynton and a few musicians from his band, walked down the street to jam in the bar of a local Mexican restaurant where another musician, Chuck Israels, who they knew was playing. Naturally, a crowd quickly filled the place. I phoned my high-school age son, Marshall, who, inspired by the concert, had gone home to with his musician friends to jam. “You need to come down here,” I told him that Wynton and group were playing in the restaurant bar.
e boys hustled back downtown but, because they were not of legal age, they had to stand on the sidewalk outside to listen. Someone from the crowd inside, who knew about my son’s band, told Wynton that they were outside. Upon hearing this, Wynton stepped away from the little stage, went outdoors to talk to the boys and invited them to come inside where they were told to stand and listen.
Years later, Marshall, a drummer, was in New Orleans with my husband and I. Together, we made our annual pilgrimage to Snug Harbor, to catch Charmaine Neville who performs her high energy show on Mondays and also Stanton Moore (probably the best drummer in the world, according to my son) who has the Tuesday night spot when he’s in town. Charmaine is considered a ‘grand dame’ of New Orleans jazz world. Like Marsalis, she fosters emerging jazz musicians and invites them to join her onstage for a song if she knows they are in the audience.
I met Charmaine personally the first night Snug re-opened after Hurricane Katrina. There were only about a dozen of us in the audience. I’ve made sure to say ‘Hello’ to her before or after a show ever since. On this particular evening, I mentioned to her that my son, a drummer, had been with us.
“Where is he?” she demanded. I motioned to the street outside saying that he had already gone out the door. Charmaine marched out to where my three sons were standing with my husband and asked, “Which one is the drummer?” I pointed to Marshall.
“Come on back in,” she ordered. “I want you to play with me in the next set. Come on.” My son, who is shy for a drummer, followed her inside because it was clear that Charmaine was not going to take “No” for an answer.
Midway through her second set, she asked Marshall to come and sit in. Her drummer passed over the sticks to my son and, as he settled in, she asked him to tell the audience where he was from, what the name of the band was and what they played. Then they started up. Marshall was clearly nervous at first but began to get into the music as they jammed. Afterwards, Charmaine gave him a hug and told him he could play with her anytime he was in town.
It’s that kind of nuturing spirit that both Marsalis and Charmaine were and are known for: the tradition of handing down from one generation to another the gift of music. With Marsalis’ passing this last week, that responsibility now falls to all of those who he trained and shared his remarkable talent and love for the music.
Wyton reported in a Facebook post, that his father said to his son Wyton just a few days before he died when his son cautioned him about COVID-19: “Man, I don’t determine the time. A lot of people are losing loved ones. Yours will be no more painful or significant than anybody else’s.” While his words are true enough, it can be said that his passing leaves a very empty spot at the piano at Snug Harbor.