It is only fitting, therefore, that the end of last week saw Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, New Orleans Mayor Mitchell Landrieu, and Harry Connick, Jr., join pianist Ellis Marsalis and his musician sons Branford, Delfeayo, and Jason—all NEA Jazz Masters—for the unveiling ceremony of the Ellis Marsalis Center For Music.
Located at 1901 Bartholomew Street in the Upper Ninth Ward, the Center will serve as a state-of-the-art facility for the preservation and ongoing development of New Orleans music and culture. Its neighbors will be a cohort of displaced New Orleans musicians who reside in the 72 single-family homes and 10 elder-friendly units constructed several years ago under the auspices of the New Orleans Area Habitat for Humanity. Connick—whose father served many years as the District Attorney of the Big Easy—and Branford Marsalis were the instigators.
“Jazz is a tremendous part of the city’s tradition,” Connick said, “After the storm, we had to do more than just hope that the tradition would continue.”
Funded primarily through private donations, the Center augments the complex with a state of the art performance space and recording facility, as well as computer facilities and classrooms where musical instruction and cultural enrichment programs will be held.
“Other people and organizations have created some wonderful programs,” Branford Marsalis said, before noting that many are operating out of dilapidated facilities, and often are unaffordable. “Our idea was to offer not just music but computer literacy, Mardi Gras Indian culture, dance and all kinds of things in one place.”
“We intend to be more than a music school and more than a performance space,” Ellis Marsalis stated. “We intend to connect the art forms—music and theater, music and dance, including hip hop, films and the visual arts. We’re creating a new world, and only fragments of what already exists will suffice.”
These activities are congruent with the Marsalis patriarch’s work in New Orleans since 1964, when he began dual tracking as a performer-educator. From 1974 to 1986 he taught and designed a curriculum at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts (NOCCA), a multi-disciplinary arts magnet high school that students attended on elective from their home school. Marsalis’ pupils included his four sons -- saxophonist Branford, trumpeter Wynton, trombonist Delfeayo, and drummer Jason -- as well as Terence Blanchard, Donald Harrison, Kent Jordan, Reginald Veal and Connick.
In 1986 he left New Orleans to head the jazz program at Virginia Commonwealth University. He returned in 1989 to create the jazz program at the University of New Orleans, remaining there until his retirement.
The beginning of Marsalis’ teaching career coincided with the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which abolished Jim Crow laws that had stood for decades. Living under statutory segregation, he had accumulated and processed the vocabulary of jazz "in a sort of shotgun approach - a piece here, a little there," and could draw upon no codified pedagogy to teach it.
“There was virtually no sound, formal training ground that emanated from a specific black tradition where you could learn to play jazz on the instrument,” Marsalis told me several years ago. “You learned just about everything on the job, because there wasn't any place else for you to get it. Jazz was always second-class."
“My dad forced all of us to think about what we were doing,” Branford said. “Instead of rote learning, which encourages memorization rather than understanding, he asked us to think about why we did something. This forced me to approach music in a different way, one that gave me a great advantage when I became a professional.”
"Ellis’s strengths are his greatness as a pianist coupled with his ability to let you discover things on your own,” Connick said. “Instead of insisting on teaching you his way, he watches and lets you discover. He definitely taught me a lot about playing the piano, but his work ethic and constant quest were even more important. That someone so great never stops learning and practicing was his ultimate lesson.”