Delfeayo Marsalis: A Responsibility to the Music…

March 23, 2011

Delfeayo Marsalis: A Responsibility to the Music...Being driven around the neighborhoods of the Crescent City, discussing jazz with one of the Marsalis clan for an hour or so not a bad way to spend an afternoon, right? This past January, while at the JEN Conference, that’s the situation I was lucky enough to find myself in.

Delfeayo Marsalis (www.dmarsalis.com) doesn’t (yet) have the name recognition of his older brothers, but he’s already earned a stellar reputation as a musician and producer, and current undertakings (the recent Sweet Thunder, for one) suggest even greater things to come. A stellar J.J. Johnson-inspired trombonist, Marsalis has performed with the likes of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, Ray Charles, and Abdullah Ibrahim, as well as touring and recording as a bandleader. He’s also maintained an active role as a powerful advocate for music education and the perpetuation of jazz the music and the culture.
Along with his father and brothers, Delfeayo recently was honored as a recipient of the 2011 NEA Jazz Masters Award.

Here are some thoughts that Marsalis shared during that afternoon in New Orleans on the importance of listening, keeping an open mind, hard work, and respecting the responsibility that jazz scholars have to the music, itself…

JAZZed: First off, thanks for taking the time to speak with me and thanks for the impromptu tour of New Orleans!

Delfeayo Marsalis: My pleasure!

JAZZed: Let’s dive right in: I know you are very dedicated to spreading the word of jazz and are a strong advocate for music education. In your dealings with younger students, what are some trends that you’ve noticed?

DM: A lot of what concerns me about students today is there seems to be a trend towards not really checking out the entire history of the music. It feels like a lot of the essence, the phrasing, the nuance, the meat of the music is being glossed over.

JAZZed: Is it a lack of exposure, or more of a “willful ignorance” type of thing?

DM: I think it’s impossible to know everything, obviously. But, as an example, I recently worked with a young lady who played tenor saxophone and I was suggesting to her, “You should be able to use vibrato, you should know how to play like Coleman Hawkins” and she replied, “Well, I like the more modern guys like Michael Brecker.” I was trying to get her to understand, I’m not trying to suggest you shouldn’t like Michael Brecker I’m saying you should know the styles that came before. There’s a big difference between being able to use vibrato and choosing not to use it, and not knowing how to do it. Having that knowledge, that skill it’s not going to ruin your sound.

JAZZed: When discussing some more modern, contemporary artists, do you find yourself getting roped into the “What is jazz?” conversation?

DM: We know what it is [laughs]. Come on. If I play Kenny G. and Charlie Parker if I play those two individuals for anybody on the street, they’re going to know which is jazz. So for me to have to say, “This is jazz and this isn’t jazz” that’s not important to me. I think that jazz is so wide-ranging and, for me, the ideal group has an older school musician, maybe a guy who’s not a heavy reader but only improvises, a guy who likes Coltrane, a guy who likes Ben Webster, another guy who’s influenced by Maria Schneider’s group you know?

Another important element is the avant-garde musicians of the ’60s weren’t just influenced by themselves they were influenced by Ellington and Basie. Nowadays people who don’t play straight-up traditional jazz are not only not well versed in the traditions of the music, but it’s almost frowned upon.

I think the funny trend in music is we’re going higher and faster and louder. The meat and potatoes of the tenor saxophone is the lower register, you know? It’s not just a clever name it’s a tenor saxophone. That’s why when it hits those higher notes, it has emotional impact, it’s captivating. It’s the same thing with a lot of trombone players they really want to play trumpet.

JAZZed: It’s a good point the need to have an awareness of your own specific role within a group.

DM: You really need to understand what your instrument sounds like. A musician should have as much technique and be able to play as fast as possible and have as much range as possible, but you have to understand the role of your instrument and be able to create spontaneous polyphony. That’s what’s so special about New Orleans music and jazz. That, to me, is jazz at its finest when you don’t know what’s written and what’s improvised.

JAZZed: You’re a big proponent of understanding improv and hearing the music that’s being made, in real time. Any successful methods you’ve employed that help students embrace that approach?

DM: I’ll tell you we recently worked with about 300 kids in the Davis/Sacramento area in California. The students were provided with a six-song CD they were allowed to learn as many tracks as they wanted, but the stipulation was that they had to do it without writing it out. They had to learn by ear. The interesting thing was, the “top school” in the region didn’t really follow the assignment. You know immediately whether a performer has written out the material. It was the kids who understood how to play in a relaxed fashion, with nuance, who really got it.

JAZZed: Societal shifts and emerging technologies all play roles in how younger people attack music, though.

DM: No question. We’re less comfortable, now, talking about race relations than maybe we were in the past. Branford and Winton kind of came from that first generation where you had true access to as much information as possible. Back then, it was really less about the music and more about getting all the opportunities as possible and developing a work ethic. That’s certainly changed.

JAZZed: Other than your family, who were some early influences on your playing?

DM: I studied with the symphonic players in my developing years. Greg Miller who’s with the Louisiana Philharmonic now was a huge influence on me. Also I studied with Ron Barron who’s in Boston at Tanglewood.

JAZZed: It’s always bizarre to me when people players or otherwise just assume either that jazzers don’t know the classical canon, or don’t need to have any awareness of it.

DM: No, no, no it’s so important to understand all of that stuff. The irony of Wynton and Branford’s first band was that these jazz players were all classically, conservatory trained.

JAZZed: Talk a little about the musical dynamic within your family. I think there’s a suspicion that when you and your brothers get together at Thanksgiving or whenever, you have epic jam sessions.

DM: Not really, no [laughs]. And when we do, to me, it’s not even that good! I mean, Branford and Wynton have “the thing.” They’re like different sides of the same brain, they spent so much time together growing up, they lived in the same room…

The role of the trumpet in jazz, especially New Orleans jazz, is to take the lead, really. The role of the trumpet is actually to have no regard for the other instruments, so Wynton is perfectly suited to that [laughs]. The role of the saxophone or the clarinet is to make the trumpet sound good and Branford’s scope of musical understanding is so great that’s why he’s able to collaborate with so many different artists and enhance their music. The role of the trombone is to connect all of it. The trombone is really the bridge between the rhythm section and the horns. While the trumpet and the sax are going through their thing, we’re smoothing it out.

JAZZed: When did you really make the shift in focus and zero in on jazz?

DM: For me it was when I got to Berklee. So many musicians were familiar with Branford and Wynton by that point, so there were a lot of assumptions about music that all these people figured I knew. I wound up spending a lot of time in the library checking out all these older artists. Scott Robertson, a great teacher, was another guy who opened my ears and my eyes. I realized I kind of had a responsibility to know all this music. That’s what we call, to me, “good peer pressure.”

JAZZed: How was it you wound up at Berklee?

DM: I was originally going to go to Boston University. I was in the McDonald’s All American band and Chris Holliday’s brother Rich was like, “You don’t want to go do that classical thing. Come to Berklee!” I called Branford and asked him what he thought and he said, “Yeah, go to Berklee. Why not?” And I literally made the choice in August prior to freshman year.

JAZZed: You and I both went to Berklee for Music Production Engineering and you went on to produce a number of projects, notably for your brothers. When did you first get interested in that side of the process?

DM: That’s so crazy, because you also went to BU, didn’t you?

JAZZed: Our resumes are really similar except that I’m not an award winning, in demand jazz musician. Otherwise, we’re pretty much the same.

DM: [Laughs] Exactly. Well, with recording, it started early on, making demo tapes and recording recitals. Branford was really into technology, so I learned a lot from him. He really had a sense of production and gave me the first sense of actually being able to produce something. Wynton contributed because he wanted his audition tapes to sound like Maurice Andres records. Here I am in 6th grade, 7th grade and I don’t know anything about reverb or consoles and he’s saying, “Man, why doesn’t it sound right?” [laughs] But it was great, because I wound up learning a lot about acoustics and physics and recording through trial and error.

JAZZed: You also recorded Connick, right?

DM: I worked with Harry Connick early on, it’s true. What I realized very quickly was that there wasn’t really anyone of my generation who really wanted to record jazz. People wanted to go into pop it made sense, it’s a more lucrative path.

JAZZed: What’s your preferred method for instructing: masterclass, one-on-one, lectures?

DM: I think larger ensemble teaching or a masterclass format is most enjoyable for me. One session, we had two big bands and they were set up opposite one another and that felt really effective. We set up a competition of sorts between the two groups and I really feel you gain the most from competition. You have to have some sort of competition, even if it’s only with yourself. It becomes more real than just looking at a sheet of music.

Again, we’re trying to hopefully get more students to not be afraid of using their ears. The benefits are so great. It’s like anything else if you’re on the football team, the coach doesn’t say, “Well, look you can’t run laps well, so we all just won’t run laps anymore.” If you’re dealing with a student who really doesn’t hear well, who just doesn’t discern the language as quickly as others well, he or she is going to have to work harder, but there’s still benefit.

JAZZed: Similar benefits to actually playing gigs, instead of just going to class.

DM: Oh, yeah and I also try and encourage the students to get out there and gig because you learn so much about the function of the music. It can be dangerous when students are only playing for competitions, because then you either win or come in second or whatever, but then that’s it. The music doesn’t really have a function. Whereas, when you’re playing for someone’s party or a wedding, these are things where the music has a function. The requirements of a gig are very different then just the proficiency. So many kids who are in jazz ensembles aren’t really taught to love this music. They’re taught to learn the music and play in the competition and that’s it. But jazz is so fun, it’s playful, it’s cool we really need to share that more effectively. People always ask what it is about New Orleans and that is what it is. We’re out there playing for the people.

JAZZed: What are your current teaching affiliations?

DM: I’m adjunct at University of New Orleans, as well as Tulane. I work with the private trombone students or I’ll sit in on a couple of full classes a couple times a semester.

JAZZed: What’s the best part of being a teacher?

DM: It would be when the student makes that breakthrough and really understands. There was a guitar student at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts where I was teaching one semester and he really got it, because he actually listened to what I was instructing the students to do. Moments like that are great.

JAZZed: What’s the most frustrating part?

DM: When [the students] are close-minded. You run across these students who, at age 16, already think they know what’s worth listening to and what isn’t.

JAZZed: Any words of advice to instructors out there?

DM: You should spend some time dedicated to listening and learning directly from the CD. You should take these older recordings and have the students really listen, sing along it really makes a big difference. And don’t be afraid because the students aren’t going to learn it, or appreciate it right away. It’ll be hard, but it’s worth it.

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