American Routes Shortcuts: Father's Day with the Marsalis Family

Jun 14, 2019

Ellis Marsalis
Credit American Routes

Pianist Ellis Marsalis and his late wife Dolores’s children include saxophonist Branford, trumpeter Wynton, trombonist Delfeayo, and drummer Jason Marsalis–four of six sons who play music ranging from classical and modern jazz to pop and funk. Ellis Marsalis has also taught music most of his life, and although his sons were surrounded by jazz, they all came to be musicians independently. We talk to Ellis, his oldest son Branford, and his youngest son Jason.

Jason Marsalis: Nobody told me “you have to play music.” That’s not how my parents work, especially my father. He doesn’t operate like that. In fact, his plan wasn’t to even have any sort of family band, it just happened that, you know, four of his six kids chose music.

Nick Spitzer: Branford Marsalis:


Branford Marsalis: My dad’s record buying stopped when he started having kids - he didn’t have any discretionary income. I called him and said “Man why don’t you have–I just heard this Nefertiti record, how come you don’t have that?” He says, “Cause I had y’all. Cause hell, I didn’t have the spare money to buy records, man, my record collection stops at 1961.”


NS: Branford says his father sacrificed his own performance career in order to support the family.


BM: He raised six children on a job that paid $26,000 a year. He taught high school and then eventually he taught college.


NS: His students ranged from Nicholas Payton to Harry Connick, Jr.


Ellis Marsalis: Jason and Delfeayo had a conversation which involved their concept of me, whether or not I was viewed as a teacher or performer. Delfeayo said a performer. Jason said a teacher. I didn’t look at it as being much of a difference.


NS: Ellis remembers moving the entire family to rural Louisiana for one of his first teaching jobs.


EM: By that time my wife and I had three kids with the fourth one coming a year later, and I was teaching in a little town in Louisiana called Breaux Bridge as a band director, choral director with the usual responsibilities of football games and the crawfish festival and strawberry festival, but it was not a very comfortable situation for my wife at all, because literally there were four preschool kids there, and I was, unfortunately, of not very much assistance along that line, but I knew I needed a job.


NS: Branford remembers studying Bach chorales with his younger brother, Wynton.


BM: We had to do this for school. I used to sing the bottom part and he used to sing the top part. And we were supposed to have learned twenty of them, we wound up doing all 168. So when we had to play together, you know, that’s when the Bach chorales kicked in. We spent so much time with each other and we were always within close proximity to one another. If it was just some other guy who happened to be, you know, living in New Orleans who played the trumpet and we were spending seven, eight hours a day together, I mean, both sets of parents would start to be very worried but you know, because we were brothers that really wasn’t an issue.

NS: With Branford on sax and Wynton on trumpet, the two teenagers formed a band called The Creators.


BM: We had on these little silly uniforms, bell bottom jumpsuits with horoscope signs and big afros and did all the dance steps and you know, my father would just come to the gig and laugh, you know, just watching us do that stuff, man.


EM: Now this is not music that I care anything about, but when I looked at that, the revelation that I had was just, man, these kids are really really serious about this music.


NS: The fact is, Ellis himself had a pop band when he was a kid.

EM: But having made a connection between a group like The Creators and the group that we had, which was called the Groovy Boys, which is really corny, well we were the same kind of band. You know, we played high school dances. Rather than fall in the category, you know, of the WC Fields, “Go on, get away from here kids, you’re bothering me.” It was really interesting to see that.


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