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Times Picayune

TV Focus

February 16, 2003



Cover Story


Concert has Marsalis men and all that jazz


By Dave Walker

TV Columnist


        The August 2001 concert documented in the new PBS special “The Marsalis Family: A Jazz Celebration” was organized to honor Ellis Marsalis, yet the honoree was initially wary of the event’s musical ambitions.

     To celebrate Marsalis’ retirement from the Jazz Studies Program at the University of New Orleans, all four of Marsalis’ musical sons – saxophonist Branford, trumpeter Wynton, trombonist Delfeayo and drummer Jason – would perform.

      Together, for the first time.

      Joined by former Ellis Marsalis student Harry Connick Jr.

     In a basketball arena.

      “I was kind of apprehensive about it, because in reality, even though we’re family, we’re still an all-star band,” said Ellis Marsalis, in a recent interview.  “I said, ‘I don’t know if this is going to work. If you don’t really have a band, the chemistry might not be there.’

      “When you’re a part of something that is as hyped as much as that was, there’s pressure.  I never wanted to be part of something where people paid for a ticket and went away saying, ‘That sounded like crap.’

      “I play pretty much every week at Snug Harbor with my trio.  I could go anywhere and play and feel that that was going to work.  We do it all the time.  It wouldn’t matter if it’s 10,000 people or 10 people.”

      But this?  Potential musical bedlam.  Despite, or perhaps because of, the talent collected on stage.

      Not to worry.

      “Once we started playing, I said, ‘Well it feels like it’s going to be OK,’” Marsalis said.

      A characteristic understatement.

     Staged at the UNO Lakefront Arena, the concert was by all accounts a triumph.

      Among the highlights captured in “A Jazz Celebration” are Ellis , Jason and bassist Roland Guerin playing “Surrey With The Fringe on Top,” Wynton and Branford dueting on “Cain and Abel” and a family band rendition of “Struttin’ With Some Barbecue.”

      Also here is the evening’s celebrated dueling-pianos segment, during which the teacher (Ellis Marsalis) challenged the student (Connick) by launching into a tune (“Caravan”) they hadn’t rehearsed.

      The 2001 concert has already spun off a well-received CD release. An expanded DVD version of the PBS special will follow the airing.  And the Marsalis men have scheduled a brief tour of Canada and the northeastern U.S. to promote it all.

      Getting the UNO concert on film was a daunting task said “A Jazz Celebration” producer-director Phillip Byrd.

      “The biggest problem was that there was virtually no rehearsal,” he said, in a separate interview.  “They did a sound check, which was helpful and useful, but otherwise we had to wing it.”

      The film’s concert footage is punctuated by one-on-one interviews with each of the family members and Connick, all recorded in the months since the show.

      “We spent time with each of the family members, and the thing we came away with is that one would expect that they would all be alike,” Byrd said.  “But of those five Marsalis men, each is a different personality.  Each is his own person.

      Which brings us back to one of Elli Marsalis’ initial reservations.  Who leads an all-star band?

      “It doesn’t have anything to do with being a parent or a teacher once you get there,” Marsalis said.  “I remember hearing a comment from John Wayne once. He made a movie and his son directed him and someone asked, ‘Who’s the boss?’

      “John Wayne said, ‘He’s the director.’”

      “Basically, it’s the same kind of thing.  In the final analysis, it’s the music itself that dictates what takes place.  It’s not about, ‘I’m in charge.  I’m the oldest.  I’m the dad.’”

     Or, as one of the brothers told Byrd: “He didn’t have to teach us anything.  He taught by example.”