In New Orleans, jazz is on Frenchmen Street. The famous Bourbon Street is now only for tourists.
On a frosty Monday in January 2015 an old man stands on the sidewalk outside the Snug Harbor club. It is beginning to get dark. It seems fun to watch the wave of young people come and go from jazz and swing bars. Snug Harbor is something else. It is the club where only the Big Leaguers of local jazz or where those who pass through the city play. The first thing that attracts attention to that man is the neatness of his outfit. A gray suit, white shirt, and blue tie. Black shoes. A blue scarf matching the tie covers his neck and rises almost to his lips. His hands protected from the cold with black leather gloves. The perfectly trimmed mustache in actor Clark Gable’s style. None of the boys crowding Frenchmen Street, under a slight bump from the Mississippi River, seem to recognize the master pianist. Ellis Marsalis just looks at them. He smiles like a generous patriarch.
Ellis Marsalis, 85, died on the afternoon of Wednesday, March 1, 2020 in New Orleans. He was hospitalized for pneumonia, a complication of the fearsome Covid19. He was the father of a brood of six children. Four of which are also pillars of jazz: Wynton Marsalis (trumpet), Branford Marsalis (saxophone), Delfeayo Marsalis (trombone), Jason Marsalis (drums) as well as the poet Ellis Marsalis III and the only woman Mboya Marsalis, unrelated to music or art.
For 30 years Patriarch Marsalis played weekly, without even missing once, at Snug Harbor. Three decades in which jazz fans from all over the world crowded the small club. A 19th century grocery store with capacity for 100 people. To see the old master was to witness the history of jazz itself as a bonfire on the piano that burned in the heart of the city where that genre was born. His art was an encyclopedic flame of fire since the patriarch literally passed through all the variants of the genre throughout his life and recorded it at every concert.
Marsalis is a surname associated with pioneers in the southern United States. Ellis Marsalis’s father was one of the first African Americans to own his business in New Orleans, a gas station. When little Ellis was born on Wednesday, November 14, 1934, he told his parents that he wanted to learn music so they enrolled him in the Xavier Junior School of Music as a clarinetist. He started learning piano on his own. However, he was expelled from school because he accompanied the violinist Edward Frank in a jazz session. Students were prohibited to play that genre. For years he debated between the piano and melodic wind instruments such as saxophone and clarinet. In the mid-1950s, when he was a student at Dillard University, he chose the piano.
When he graduated, he left Louisiana and moved to Los Angeles, California, to accompany the legendary Ornette Coleman (saxophone) on the piano. But then, crushed by economic anguish, he joined the United States Navy where he was the pianist of The Corp Four military quartet, which functioned as a musical ambassador and entertainment act for the troops. At the end of his required period in the armed forces, he returned to New Orleans. Since then, and almost without leaving his birth city, he forged his fame and legend.
Marsalis began the early 1960s as a bar pianist at the Playboy Club, at 727 Iberville Street, since it opened on October 13, 1961 playing jazz, ballads, and blues among bunnies and hunters night after night. By day he was a music teacher for economically disadvantaged children and teens at the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts.
In addition, on the nights he was free of the bunny hunting ground, he played at his father’s hotel bar at the Marsalis Mansion Motel, 110 Shrewbury Road, where African-American celebrities of the time were staying, such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Ray Charles.
Playing in small bars and teaching were the two transversal axes that marked the life of Marsalis without leaving old New Orleans. Thanks to this professional development, the patriarch concentrated on teaching the secrets of jazz to new generations and, of course, his most prominent students were his four musical sons. Its giant grandeur was carved out of the simplicity of the artist devoted to his trade as a serene goldsmith teaching from his workshop to polish the diamond.
When Brandford and Wynton became famous, within the litter of the Young Lions that took the jazz of the United States by storm in the 80s, the world turned to see the father of both, who already reeled in a thousand musical languages every night from the stage on Snug Harbor.
At Snug Harbor Marsalis covered the entire performance range from soloist, duet, trio, quintet, quartet and even Bing-Band. Every night the patriarch lit the flame of his torch to pass it to the boys. The list of musicians who grew up under his tutelage on those nights on Frenchmen Street would be enough to fill a library.
Marsalis condensed in his style an almost perfect academicism with the techniques of a classical music pianist but brought to the lyrical style of Jelly Roll Morton, his great predecessor on the New Orleans piano, drinking in a unique style that concatenates blues, ragtime, swing, ballads, gospel. With that baggage he was a marvelous soloist capable of going from the beautiful subtleties in his leisurely playing to motley wastes of boogie speed without losing precision. When another instrument took the melodic lead in improvisation, Marsalis discreetly harmonized in rhythmic base support games in the manner of Earl Hines or Wynton Kelly, the latter of which one of his son’s was named after.
It is no coincidence that one of the first and most significant albums on Ellis Marsalis’s discography, when the world turned to see him, is precisely A Nigt At Snug Harbor (Evidence Records, 1989) with a staff of young musicians who are dizzy for their masters like Tony Dagradi, Rick Margitza, Donald Harrison (saxophones), Bill Huntington (bass), David Lee Jr. (drums) and then-teenager Nicholas Payton (trumpet). An electrifying 68-minute, 77-second shock of intense hard-bop with references to virtually the entire history of jazz and winks to Africa passing through the West Indies. With the pianist as the great captain of that ship with the sails open and with his vibrant version of A Night in Tunisia as a full closing of emotion and wisdom.
The wave of youngsters continues to run in the drizzle that begins to rise from gray clouds that seem to overflow against the old red brick buildings. Someone approaches the pianist and in a hasty and flat English he babbles something like I’m from Mexico and I came to see him play. Ellis Marsalis turns around smiling. “Mexico?” he asks and quickly says “Thanks for coming!” like a jubilant boy who receives his friends at his birthday party. It looks like he is going to say something else but suddenly Bill Huntington, his head bassist for years, appears on the street, his coat collar covering himself from the rain. “All good?” Marsalis asks his musician who nods and replies “Yes, thanks, I’ll tell you later”. Both enter the premises.
Ellis Marsalis goes up to the left side of the stage and sits at the piano. He opens with his quiet version of Emily, an old ballad, and then during the solo, looks across the audience that looks at him back with devotion. He fixes his gaze for a second on the stranger with whom he crossed two words in the street with and, as if nothing, he quotes the melody of Bésame mucho just a few seconds. Then he turns to his keys again, moving away from the world.
In one of the behind tables, the stranger is choked up with a lump in his throat by the musical wink that the pianist had just thrown at him. A long drink from Abita Amber brings his posture back. Meanwhile the Fire Patriarch lights another ballad, Come Rain or Come Shine. Out there the fast-paced rain that already rises from the Mississippi accompanies his blues.