Trombonist Delfeayo Marsalis, who’s performing with his band at Soka University on Saturday, is a man on a mission. “What the country and the world need now more than ever is some good New Orleans music to give everyone a little joy,” he says. “And that’s just what we’re gonna deliver.”
His surname guarantees that promise. Marsalis, 56, is part of New Orleans’ most famous musical family. His older brother Wynton is one of the world’s most renowned jazz and classical trumpet players. Siblings Branford and Jason are masters of the saxophone and percussion, respectively, and their late father, Ellis Marsalis Jr., was a celebrated jazz pianist and music educator. The Marsalis name has dominated American music for more than four decades.
Marsalis and his band, the Uptown Jazz Orchestra, are well-respected practitioners of traditional jazz, grounded in the distinctive rhythmic, melodic and harmonic characteristics of New Orleans style. But he takes good-natured issue with the “traditionalist” label.
“I don’t consider myself a traditionalist,” he said. “The foundation of the music that I play is very important, true, but I’d say it’s a combination of traditional and a more modern funky sound that’s popular today in New Orleans music. I’m also really trying to engage audiences and (acknowledge) the music of today.”
Marsalis is active as an educator. The Uptown Jazz Orchestra was formed in 2008 in part to introduce students in the New Orleans area to the music of their city. Hundreds of talented students have been mentored by Marsalis and his band, and Marsalis is featuring two of them in his upcoming concert at Soka University: alto saxophonists An Tran and Donovan Lloyd, both high school seniors.
“They’re both very talented, although they come from different traditions,” Marsalis said. “An is more of a smooth jazz player, and Donovan is more straight-ahead.”
It wasn’t merely an act of generosity that prompted Marsalis to bring two teenagers into the band. They’re also there because they’re needed, he said.
“Two of my regular saxophonists weren’t available, so I figured it would be a great opportunity to introduce the next generation of talent to the professional world. And I think it’s always better whenever you can have a multi-generational band.”
Although Marsalis acknowledges that many young jazz musicians possess impressive technical talents and a solid knowledge of jazz styles and the characteristic sounds of famous artists, he said he sometimes feels that they exist in a kind of artistic vacuum that’s separated from contemporary culture.
“I’m trying to encourage the younger students to engage with their peers, because none of their peers listen to jazz,” Marsalis said. “And almost none of the jazz students listen to the music that their peers listen to.”
Recently, Marsalis asked the students in one of his jazz master classes to name any song in the Billboard Top 20. “Almost nobody could. So we started the class by listening to ‘Montero’ by Lil Nas X. I wanted them to engage with this kind of music and absorb it. I find that many young jazz players today are kind of hiding behind their music and not thinking creatively enough about how to make it interact with other kinds of music.”
Keeping the Trumpets Away from the Saxes
Marsalis said there were no rules about what instrument to play when he was growing up in a family of supremely talented musicians.
“Well, you know, we all chose the instrument that kind of suited our personality. And my dad was playing piano, and two of my brothers had solo instruments, so it only made sense to me to play the trombone. For some reason, it really spoke to me.”
Marsalis has been described by his colleagues as easygoing, with a good sense of humor, and it comes out regularly in conversation. Describing the mellowness of trombonists, he said, “There’s a reason trombones are in the middle of the big band. They’re there to keep the trumpets away from the saxophones.”
Although Marsalis avoids the traditionalist label, he lists many old school jazz greats as his inspiration: trombonists J.J. Johnson, Slide Hampton and Tommy Dorsey, and other Golden Age stars like Louis Armstrong and Cannonball Adderley. He said he prefers “musical extroverts,” those who could convey “the joyousness of the music.”
While Marsalis respects the technical prowess of some of the new generation of jazz stars, he places more value on other elements of musicianship.
“Some of (the younger players), they’ve absorbed the styles, man. But you know, the thing is that it doesn’t always resonate with the people. I think it’s more important to find your own unique voice. It’s like when you’re watching basketball: Nobody’s gonna sit there and enjoy watching somebody make 40 or 50 straight free throws. Our enjoyment of anything involves more than just technique.”
Marsalis is happy to be playing concerts again after two years of waiting for the gigs to reappear. “New Orleans is a town that’s full of musicians,” he said. “Yes, it’s been tough, but you know, man, (in) New Orleans, we know how to make it. (My band) came up with one of the first live streams from down here and it was just uplifting, man.
“But what I realized over the last couple of years was how much the musicians need the music. Not just to make a living, but for their souls. And the same goes for everyone who loves what we do.”