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American Routes Shortcuts: Jason Marsalis

Jason Marsalis
Jason Marsalis

This is American Routes Live from Esplanade Studios with Jason Marsalis and his quintet. Jason is the sixth son of Dolores and Ellis Marsalis Jr. Three of his siblings are jazz musicians: trumpeter Wynton, saxophonist Branford, and trombonist Delfeayo. Jason is the timekeeper who played with his father and notable others: Joe Henderson, Lionel Hampton and Marcus Roberts. Pianist, composer, teacher and father, Ellis Marsalis Jr. passed on April 1st, 2020. I asked Jason Marsalis about his father, known as a modernist, about his relationship to New Orleans traditional jazz.

Jason Marsalis: When my father first started, he wasn't really into the traditional music, not at first. I mean, he was into the music of Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Clifford Brown, Miles and etc. etc. etc., and it wasn't really until, I wanna say the late 1960s and early 1970s when he started to play traditional music. We've had some interesting conversations about that. In fact, I did this one gig where I was playing vibes in this Benny Goodman Quartet context, and the guys that I had were all of these veteran musicians from New Orleans who basically have played traditional music more than I have honestly. And so he happened to be at the gig, so at the end of the gig Dad was telling me, "I know what it's like to be at that point and having to deal with trad music.” I said "Oh yeah,” and it was like one of those connect- both of us understood that because he went through that point where there was a language in the music that he didn't know. There were tunes that he didn't know, and so he came to appreciate that more just over time, and so by the time that you get to the ‘80s and ‘90s, and at that point he’s well-versed in just about everything that's happening in the music and things that are about to happen in the music as well.

Nick Spitzer: Well it's got to be an interesting adjustment to go to trad. Now how about you? Did you grow up going to second lines and jazz funerals and all those–I mean culturally did you participate in that or were you kind of away from all that?

JM: I would say not a lot, but there were moments. For example, I was a really big fan of the Dirty Dozen Brass Band and what it was that they were doing. And sometimes I might play in a parade. And there was one time, I remember coming home, and maybe my father got this record, but I came and there was this album that was by the record player, and I was like "Rebirth Brass Band, Feel Like Funkin' it Up, let me check this out.”

NS: Your dad had that?

JM: Yeah, it wasn't mine! So I think he got it. But it wasn't until I started to get together with Dr. Michael White, which was late in high school, early college, and then after a while he started to ask me to play with him, and I started to play gigs. Then I started do traditional music more, playing on the drums. So, it was one of those things. I didn't do it a lot as a kid, but as I got older I did it more and more.

NS: I love that your dad had the album of Rebirth was it? How many times has a kid's dad hip him to new music?

JM: I think with all of us growing up, it was an interchange. That's the thing. He'd have music that I didn't, we might have music that he hasn't heard. It was like an interchange.

NS: Well let’s come back to family affairs in a little bit. Tell us about “Futuristic,” let’s get there.

JM: So, this is another tune from the 1970s, and this is also on the Fathers and Sons album. This is “Futuristic.”

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