Rifftides Washington, DC, correspondent John Birchard attended last week’s descent of several Marsalises on the nation’s capital.
THE MARSALIS FAMILY GOES TO WASHINGTONBy
Monday, June 15th, 2009, was a day to remember in this capitol city. A jazz-loving First Family welcomed New Orleans’ First Family of Jazz to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue for an unprecedented session in jazz education. Veteran pianist and educator Ellis Marsalis and his musician sons Branford, Wynton, Delfeayo and Jason conducted workshops for 150 students aged 8 to 18 in three rooms of the White House, where they were welcomed by First Lady Michele Obama. (The nation’s Number One jazz fan was occupied elsewhere with health care reform. The President is pictured here with Wynton Marsalis at the White House in January.)
Following the workshops, the students gathered in the East Room for a short concert featuring Cuban saxophonist Pacquito D’Rivera and a teen-age combo. The events were held in conjunction with Washington’s fifth annual Duke Ellington Jazz Festival and the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz, which paid for some of the students to travel to Washington.
Among her comments, the first lady said, “There’s no better example of democracy than a jazz ensemble – individual freedom, but with responsibility to the group.” She noted that growing up in Chicago, jazz was always playing in her family’s household.
As extraordinary as the day was, the celebration didn’t end at the White House. Monday evening, the Marsalises convened at the Kennedy Center where, in the sold-out 2,400-seat Concert Hall, they were joined by Dr. Billy Taylor and another Crescent City product (and ex-Ellis Marsalis student) Harry Connick, Jr. in a salute to the family patriarch. Additional starters were bassist Eric Revis and drummer Herlin Riley.
Very rarely do the members of the Marsalis family appear on the same stage and Monday’s concert gave them an opportunity to share their love and appreciation for the father who guided them all toward careers in jazz. One after the other, the sons offered anecdotes of their upbringing, laced with humor and respect. They kidded each other and they also made clear how much they love and appreciate their mother Dolores for her role in the family.
Branford told the audience that the evening’s program would be made up of tunes associated with various points in their father’s career. The first came from when their father and mother were courting – Louis Jordan’s “Choo Choo Ch-Boogie” done in suitably old-timey style. From the bebop era came “Donna Lee”, featuring Wynton in a cup mute and Jason astonishing the audience with some expert whistling as he traded fours and eights with his older brother. Jason also showed impressive skill with the vibraphone on a later tune. Delfeayo got off some excellent work on trombone and Branford was expressive on tenor sax. Wynton remains an extraordinary trumpet player delivering several crisp and soulful solos during the evening.
The second half of the concert opened with twin pianos – Ellis Marsalis and Billy Taylor, doing “Body and Soul.” The two senior citizens (Marsalis is approaching 75 and Dr. Taylor will soon be 88) may be a trifle bent with age, but they still can negotiate the keyboard. Then, Taylor departed to be replaced by Harry Connick, Jr., who joined Ellis for a funky reading of “Sweet Georgia Brown.” Connick told of being a student of Marsalis, of hanging out at the Marsalis household and being picked on by Branford and Wynton. Connick then sang “Stardust” with his former teacher accompanying.
The “boys” came back on stage to round out the evening with one of Jason’s compositions, a quirky stop-start melody underpinned by a distinctly New Orleans beat. The solos were rousing and the ensembles were tight, just as you would expect from such a gifted group. An ovation from the full house was warm and enthusiastic for Ellis Marsalis and his talented offspring. It was a happy end to a unique day in American musical history.