This is American Routes, I’m Nick Spitzer, with our program devoted to the musical legacy of the late jazz pianist, composer, teacher and patriarch Ellis Marsalis Jr. and his late wife Dolores. Four of their six sons play music. Trombonist Delfeayo Marsalis was the one also enlisted to record his brothers. He interned with Allen Toussaint at Sea Saint Studios, producing albums by Terrance Blanchard, Preservation Hall Jazz Band and his family. Delfeayo wrote a children’s work for the Dallas Opera in the ‘90s. Back home in New Orleans, he started Uptown Music Theater for young people, all continuing the music education tradition of his father. He leads the Uptown Jazz Orchestra, a sixteen-piece big band that brings the swing. I asked Delfeayo about his memories as a youth of his father on the job.
Delfeayo Marsalis: My brother Ellis and I would go to some gigs, Lu and Charlie’s. You know they’d have five, six people in the band, there might be eight or nine people in the club at the last set, and we were just like, “Man, what is Dad even doing here? There’s nobody here.” So in that club, the piano was right off by the backstage area.
Nick Spitzer: Oh it’s a classic place.
DM: Yeah, so we just walked on to the stage while he’s in the middle of a song, tapped him on the shoulder, “Dad let’s go!” He just looked at us and said, “I finish playing at midnight, that’s when we leave.” Okay well, back downstairs to the hamburgers and older men telling us these grown up stories and jokes. You know by the time I hit sixth grade, that’s when I said, “You know, maybe I’ll pick up an instrument.” Branford was playing saxophone, Wynton was playing trumpet, and I saw the trombone, I was like, “Damn, nobody would want to play this, let me play it! This is me!” Trombone really captures my personality in a number of ways. In the New Orleans set up, of course the trumpet has to play the lead, which is one mindset. The clarinet or the saxophone has to decide if he’s going to argue with or agree with the trumpet. So those two instruments perfectly suited Branford and Wynton. Now the trombone comes along and has to really have his ears on everything that’s going on, so that if the trumpet and saxophone are agreeing too much, trombone can stir it up, play something a little more raucous, but then once the trumpet and saxophone really argue, trombone comes along and says, “Hey everything is going to be cool.”
NS: What do you feel like you learned from your father in terms of music and just how you comport yourself?
DM: Well many things. The interesting thing is I find that I aspire to be more like my father now that he’s gone than when he was actually here because it makes more sense to me how great he was and the things that made him great. The first thing is he never complained, so even though we had a sense that health wise he probably didn’t have a long way to go still, Covid-19 kind of sped up that process. We in our minds had that made up, but he was never a complainer, so there was no way to really tell what kind of shape he was in. He had a demeanor about him where he treated everyone the same, so it had nothing to do with class or race. You know that’s how he dealt with grace and this foolishness that perpetually permeates the Deep South that we have to constantly address on way of another; he had his own agenda, his own thing that was important. He never allowed you to get him outside of where he wanted to be. Something like what Louis Armstrong had. You know, Louis Armstrong looked the lion of hatred in the mouth from a close range, and he said, “You ain't gonna get me.” And it never got him.
NS: Well your father commanded such incredible respect. I always thought of him as like, you know, this incredible dignified, dedicated person, but he also reminded me a little of a coach. By setting the agenda and the tone and the expectation a lot of students had a tremendous experience and model.
DM: When you’re on the bandstand, you really learn who someone is on the inside. So my dad was real in that respect, and he would just make comments like, “Man, you know this song, ‘I Concentrate on You,’ man. That's a nice tune.” And that would be it. That was his way of saying, “Go learn this song because it’s going to teach you some things that you need to know.”
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