Magazine article Black Issues in Higher Education

Speaking on Jazz Education: Ellis Marsalis

Magazine article Black Issues in Higher Education

Speaking on Jazz Education: Ellis Marsalis

Article excerpt

Ellis, Marsalis, regarded by many as the best modern jazz pianist in New Orleans, is the director of the jazz studies program in the Department of Music at the University of New Orleans (UNO).

Born Nov. 14, 1934, he began formal studies at the Xavier University Junior School of Music when he was eleven years old. Marsalis graduated from Dillard University with a bachelor's degree in Music Education and earned a master's degree in Music Education from Loyola University in New Orleans.

Aside from UNO, Marsalis has taught at Xavier University, Loyola University, and the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts. In addition to nurturing the skills of the likes to trumpeter Terrance Blanchard, saxophonist Donald Harrison, and pianist Harry Connick Jr., four of his six sons -- trumpeter Wynton, saxophonist Branford, trombonist Delfeayo, and drummer Jason -- have also gone on to distinguished careers in music.

In December, Black Issues Staff Writer Ronald Roach traveled to New Orleans to visit the birthplace of jazz and talk with one of the medium's most-respected teachers and performers. The following is excerpted from the discussion.

Why was it important to establish a jazz performance program at the University of New Orleans?

Well, first of all, I was given the opportunity. The chancellor of the university wanted that. It wasn't something that I just decided to do and create it myself. But I think that New Orleans is the best learning town in the country, if not the world, as far as jazz is concerned.

The nature of the economy here, as well as the laws that have been established over many years, make it conducive for musicians to work. For example, most places in most states say you cannot go into a bar, buy a drink, and decide to leave and tell the bartender to give [you] a cold cup and walk out the door with the drink in your hand. That kind of a situation makes New Orleans unique for people who want to come here to party.

Anyplace where you have the legal means to party to the excess, the opportunities for musicians increase -- certain kinds of musicians. Now, we don't have a Carnegie Hall; we don't have a Lincoln Center; we don't have Alice Tully; the Metropolitan is not here; and all of those things which attract huge orchestras -- major performances at $50 a ticket -- and all those things that are in New York and to some extent Boston.

You see, we as a city cater to people who come in with a slightly different kind of budget.... People who want food and music and a good time will come to New Orleans because it's rather difficult to find what you can find here if you go to Little Rock, Arkansas, or Jackson, Mississippi.

What is your outlook on jazz in the academy?

Now, I don't know what the future is for jazz in a certain context. What we're looking at is the training of musicians who are acquiring jazz skills as a part of other musical skills that are marketable.

For example, there are ensembles like "Bela Fleck and the Flecktones." How many kinds of music are contained inside of that band? You see that's what I'm talking about. That's a twenty-first-century group. You may find people who are in that group who have Bluegrass skills, who have jazz skills, and who have classical skills.

The skills are the things that count. And I think essentially the universities could eventually begin to provide the development of skills in a lateral sense. …

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