Each month Data chooses from the community an individual who exemplifies the trailblazer ideal. University professor, Jazz musician, husband and father, Ellis Marsalis has had a significant role in the shaping of Jazz Studies here in New Orleans sine he began his teaching career in 1963, nearly thirty years ago.
After earning a Bachelor of Arts degree in Music Education from Dillard University in 1955 at the age of twenty, Marsalis went out to California with fellow musicians Harold Battiste and Edward Blackwell where he met “free” Jazz saxophonist Ornette Coleman. After a brief stay, he came home and joined the Marine Corps, enlisting for two years. By 1963 he was married and teaching in Jefferson Parish.
The following year, he and his family moved to Breaux Bridge, Louisiana where he served as band director and choral master for two years. Marsalis said he began teaching because it was what he had been trained to do. He had wanted to major in performance when he was enrolled at Dillard University, but soon found out that the University only offered degrees in Music Ed.
He returned to New Orleans and after a three year hiatus from teaching joined the faculty of Xavier University part-time. There, he developed courses in Jazz improvisation and African-American music, literally forging the way for future generations of musicians and educators alike.
Prior to this time Jazz was still considered unworthy for serious study on the University level. It was during this time that Marsalis began to see the possibilities of teaching. In 1974 he left Xavier for the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts (NOCCA) where “it was my responsibility to develop ways by which to teach Jazz. That was mainly what made me decide to stick with (teaching).”
Quite a few of his former NOCCA students, including three of his six sons, have gone on to enjoy successful careers in the music industry. Often credited with these successes Marsalis says that “It was not a Socratic circle. There were a lot of other teachers involved.”
Marsalis received his Master’s Degree from Loyola University in 1986. He says he’s never thought of what he does as a career. “I don’t have much of a focus on me as an individual because I was very late arriving at the profile that I have to view it as (such).”
He said in his twenties he was basically “playing with no particular director because I couldn’t see a direction,” and adds “the closest I had actually come to a career in music was when I was playing with Al Hirt’s band (from 1967-70).” Because of his very busy schedule he says he is now having to “narrow my focus a lot and concentrate on projects that reflect the obligations I have.”
Currently he is the director of Jazz Studies at the University of New Orleans, where he holds the only fully endowed chair in the College of Liberal Arts. Yet Marsalis does not see himself as a Jazz Educator. “Jazz is like last year’s pants – they’re just a little too small. There’s nothing wrong with them; they probably fit a lot of people who are that size.”
He sees Jazz as a springboard to something greater and says “If we are going to continue to grow, we can’t be nostalgic about last year’s pants.” He wants his students to be able to take holistic looks at the music in order to see where it fits into the scheme of the history of the whole nation,” and says “To deal with Master musicians like Monk, Charlie Parker, John Coltrane and Art Tatum is to get students to understand first of all that they were and this is what they did and for them to take a fresh look at it, which takes the whole thing out of the realm of Jazz Education. From any standpoint education is the ability for one to negotiate their environmental circumstances so that the result of that ends up working for them. In most cases, what it takes to get a good education is number one: to have good teachers; number two: to be in classes with good students; the rest is up to you.”
Marsalis feels that academia must develop courses to meet the needs of present and future players so that musicians will be able to consistently earn a living. He says that interaction with other disciplines (such as composing for dance choreography) will help teach musicians how they can keep food on the table.
Marsalis says his role is primarily to pass on information and create a platform for younger players. “If students have made decisions based on what they have been doing, they will come and learn because they will in turn meet other people like themselves… the interaction causes growth; we provide the environment.”
He adds, “The reason that Louis Armstrong got to be famous is that he took the time to develop the craft of his instrument so that he was better than everybody. There are too many people who think that playing Jazz is natural. Swimming is natural, but you ain’t ever gonna mess with Greg Luganis with your naturalness, not if you don’t spend eight hours a day in the pool. I ain’t never seen a ‘natural’ finish in the Olympics.”