During these hard coronavirus times, Delfeayo Marsalis has founded Keep NOLA Music Alive.The nonprofit organization will benefit New Orleans musicians who, because their city’s music venues are closed during the pandemic, can’t pursue their livelihood.
Marsalis is raising funds for KNOMA.org via his “Double-Nickel” 55th birthday celebration, streaming live at 6 p.m. August 2. The online event will feature the trombonist, composer, music educator and band leader with the Uptown Jazz Orchestra and vocalist Tonya Boyd-Cannon.
Delfeayo Marsalis is a member of the famous New Orleans jazz family that includes his brothers Branford, Wynton and Jason. Their father, Ellis Marsalis, the pianist and educator who died April 1 at 85 due to coronavirus complications, inspired the creation of Keep NOLA Music Alive.
“My dad dedicated his life to growing and promoting New Orleans musicians,” Marsalis said. “The global health pandemic presents a threat to New Orleans’ culture bearers like none before. Our centuries-old musical heritage is at risk.”
Artists who are native New Orleanians or long-term resident performers can apply for grants through the Keep NOLA Music Alive website at KNOMA.org. Donations may also be made at the website.
Delfeayo Marsalis — a middle sibling between his older brothers Branford and Wynton and younger brother Jason—created a distinguished multi-tier career for himself. A Grammy-winning producer, he’s helmed more than 120 recordings, including projects for Harry Connick Jr., Terence Blanchard, his brothers and the new Uptown Jazz Orchestra album, Jazz Party. Marsalis founded the latter 16-member ensemble in 2008 with the mission of playing swinging, grooving music from the early 1900s to the present day. He also created the Uptown Music Theatre, a nonprofit musical theater training program, and he’s composed 16 musicals based in African-American history and community themes.
A sign at Peaches Records store that expressed appreciation for your father inspired Keep NOLA Music Alive.
The sign said “Thank you Ellis Marsalis for keeping NOLA music alive.” He certainly did that. Keep NOLA Music Alive is a memorial to his legacy and the fact that he stayed in New Orleans and was a champion of New Orleans music.
Keep NOLA Music Alive is designed to support New Orleans musicians who are unable to perform during the pandemic?
Right. All donations are going straight to the musicians. It’s something that we’re hoping we can continue on an ongoing basis. Yes, there are musicians who’ve received some unemployment benefits and maybe grants, but sustained assistance is needed. And because we weren’t able to do a big sendoff for my dad due to the pandemic, we’re planning to a citywide celebration sometime next year. We will certainly enlist these musicians to come out and celebrate.
What would say your father’s legacy is?
There are many branches to his legacy. He’s known primarily as an educator. His teaching style combined the tradition of mentorship and apprenticeship with the in-school model. That’s a great combination, but you often learned the most from him on the bandstand. He led by example. That’s probably the strongest branch of his legacy. And he’s known as a great New Orleans modern jazz pianist. He played modern jazz in a city where folks only wanted to party and celebrate.
What would you say about him as a pianist?
His sound was always comforting. It’s funny, because modern jazz, in many respects, is music designed to put you in an uncomfortable space. “Modern” is an expression of what’s going on in society’s most tense moments. But my father was a romantic. Talking to him or being around him, you might not glean that he was a romantic; but when you listen to him play piano, it’s obvious he has an optimism in his playing. It was comforting to listen to and still is.
Native New Orleans musicians will be the main beneficiaries of Keep NOLA Music Alive?
Our primary concern is the folks who, when you hear what they’re doing, you’re like, “This is New Orleans.” We have a large pool of musicians who have come into town, so I hope there will be enough to go around. But the brothers in the brass bands, for instance, who were playing on the street corners for tips even before the pandemic, we want to reach them. We needed to make sure that the authentic music is preserved, that people can hear what the real deal is.
How do you feel about turning 55 on July 28?
Who knew it would come up this quickly? But I’m in good spirits. And I’m more optimistic than many are about our current situation. I know that through history folks have endured challenging times and that the human spirit can overcome these types of things.
Resilient is a word that was applied to New Orleanians after Hurricane Katrina.
No one has shown more resilience, I would say, than New Orleanians. Especially the folks who came from Africa and helped to build this country. And so, the fact that they were able to overcome that and still have a celebratory spirit that exuded love, that’s the important thing. We have to embrace that. It’s our time to show that example.
And music is a healing force.
Oh, definitely. Roger Lewis, who plays with the Uptown Jazz Orchestra, he’s 78. Sometimes he’ll call me right before the gig. He says, “Man, I’m not feeling good. I’m going to have to stay home.” I say, “Roger, if you stay home, how are we going to play the gig?” And he says, “Well, let me see if I can make it out.” And then by the end of the night, he says, “Man, I’m some glad you talked me into coming out here tonight. I feel way better than when I was at home.”
How do you anticipate that this virus situation will play out for musicians?
At some point the vaccine will come up and it’ll be business as usual. That’s what I suspect. But the great thing about being a musician is that we’re used to going stretches of time without a gig. For example, there’s not a lot of business in the summer months. So, now, instead of not having a lot of work for the next two months, it’s for the next eight months. But I’m hoping that folks are still shedding on their instruments and using this time to be creative.
Besides organizing Keep NOLA Music Alive, what have you been doing during the pandemic?
I’m turning some good stories that I’ve heard over the past couple of months into songs. I’m going to break a couple out during the birthday bash live stream.
And you contracted COVID-19?
In the middle of March. That had me out for a month-and-a-half. Quarantined and really sick. I never got the test result, but after I donated blood, they indicated that I have the antibodies.
Your brothers Branford and Wynton play saxophone and trumpet respectively, high-profile instruments. Why is the trombone right for you?
Well, in the right hands, trombone is the sexiest and most romantic instrument. And trombone suits my personality. As a middle child, that’s my disposition, to look at what’s going on and offer good solutions. And trombone is in middle of a jazz band to keep the trumpets away from the saxophones. You have the trumpets, who are the trouble makers, and the saxophones, who are mad because the trumpets can blow louder than them. And the trombone is like, “Hey, everything is cool.”
How are you and your brothers doing following the loss of your father?
He had a number of ailments and challenges over recent years, but he never complained. I always felt like he was going to be around. It’s tough—but knowing his disposition about things has helped us to cope. My dad was such realist. He was about “What’s the next move?”
You mentioned being a facilitator, but you also take the leader role for the Uptown Jazz Orchestra.
Right. But the uniqueness of the Uptown Jazz Orchestra is that everyone is featured. It’s a family effort. There are no egos where, OK, a certain person must have a certain number of solos. Playing with a smaller group, there’s more opportunity to solo and improvise, but there’s something special about the Uptown Jazz Orchestra—we really capture the sound of New Orleans. That’s the ingredient that sets up apart. We can play the New Orleans street sound; we can play the traditional New Orleans sound; we can play bebop, swing and modern. But not just playing at it. We play it with authority. To me, that is the future of the jazz musician—to play all of the generations of American music with understanding.
You released the new Uptown Jazz Orchestra album, Jazz Party, in February, just before the pandemic.
We had some gigs that were canceled, but that’s how it goes. The album is still out there for people who want to have a good time. We’re going on to wherever this adventure takes us, but we can’t wait to get on the other side of this thing and bring some joy to people.