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Branford And Wynton Marsalis Reflect On Their Father, Jazz Patriarch Ellis Marsalis


This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: We end today's show of remembrances by listening to what Wynton and Branford Marsalis had to say on our show about their father, pianist and educator Ellis Marsalis, who died of COVID-19 on Wednesday. He was 85. Ellis was the patriarch of one of New Orleans' most famous jazz families that also included his sons Delfeayo and Jason. In 2011, the National Endowment for the Arts named Ellis Marsalis and his four musician sons jazz masters. That was the first time the highest honor for an American jazz musician was actually given to a group. Here's an excerpt of my 2002 interview with Branford Marsalis, in which he spoke about his father.


GROSS: You grew up in what is now America's, probably, most famous jazz family, The Marsalis Family. Your father Ellis Marsalis is a pianist. When you were growing up, liking the pop music that you liked, did you feel about his music the way, say, I felt about my father's old Benny Goodman records?

BRANFORD MARSALIS: I felt about my father's music the way that my next-door neighbor felt about his father, the chauffeur driver - that was just what he did. How did you feel about your father's Benny Goodman records? (Laughter).

GROSS: Oh, yeah. I guess I didn't - I really disliked them until I got much older. Well, in my 20s, anyways.

B MARSALIS: Jazz is not for kids. And I know that's - there's an argument. My brother says jazz can be for kids. I don't think - jazz has a level of sophistication that's just way too hip for kids. It's not a music for kids. And it certainly wasn't a music for me. But it wasn't like he'd play them and I'd go, argh (ph). I would just leave the room...

GROSS: You just didn't care.

B MARSALIS: ...And turn on the television in the other room until it was my turn to listen to my music. And then I'd put on Cheech and Chong...

GROSS: (Laughter).

B MARSALIS: ...And Elton John and, you know, James Brown, whatever I wanted to put on. And my father would stay out. And then when James Brown came on, he'd come in and say, yeah, kid, yeah, Jack, I like that.

GROSS: (Laughter).

B MARSALIS: And then he would always dance to it. When he danced to it, he would snap his fingers on two and four, which was the funniest thing in the world, you know?

GROSS: (Laughter) That's great. Yeah. Yeah.

B MARSALIS: "Cold Sweat's" going on, you know? (Singing) Like a cold sweat (vocalizing).

My father's going, yeah (vocalizing). I'm like, no, Dad. It's just funny.


GROSS: It's on the one.

B MARSALIS: Oh, yeah. It was just classic.

GROSS: That was Branford Marsalis talking about his father Ellis. Here's what Wynton Marsalis had to say about Ellis Marsalis on our show in 1994.


GROSS: You know, your father Ellis Marsalis, the pianist, he played mostly in New Orleans. Was that by choice or by necessity?

WYNTON MARSALIS: I think it was mainly by necessity. It was hard for him - it's hard to get gigs, first, playing jazz music. And he was struggling in New Orleans. So I'm sure if he had the choice, he wouldn't have chosen to stay in the city with five or six children and try to make it, you know, eking out a living as a local jazz musician. That was hard for him.

GROSS: So he would've preferred to be on the road.

W MARSALIS: Just any way to play and make more money than he was making, to support his family more. I'm sure he would have preferred that.

GROSS: Did that discourage you from becoming a jazz musician?

W MARSALIS: No, because, you know, my daddy loved the music. And I remember asking him once when he, like, was down to his last gig and he was contemplating driving a cab or getting some type of day job whether he regretted playing jazz because nobody really liked to hear that kind of music. And he said, no, and he was very emphatic about how much he loved the music and it had defined a lot of his adulthood and put things in focus for him. And, you know, then I was like 13 or 14, so I really - the philosophical implications of what he was saying, I didn't really care too much about that. I just wanted to know if it was yes or no.

And he was fortunate in that my mother always supported him as a musician. And she would complain about the fact that we didn't have money, but she always wanted him to play music. She didn't - she was never pushing him to get a day job or say, well, you know, you shouldn't have played this music. She was always behind him as a musician.

GROSS: It's probably going to be hard for a lot of people to understand how a pianist or any jazz music musician can go without working in New Orleans, but I guess a lot of the New Orleans music that paid was a traditional, tourist-oriented jazz.

W MARSALIS: Right. My father was...

GROSS: Dixieland.

W MARSALIS: We just called it New Orleans music. You know, New Orleans musicians hate to be called Dixieland musicians.

GROSS: No, no. But I mean the commercialization of New Orleans music...


GROSS: ...That's probably what there were more jobs for.

W MARSALIS: Yeah. And he - my father played a traditional job for a while with the Storyville Jazz Band. They played in a club called Crazy Shirley's. But then when that gig ended - he really was a modern jazz musician. So, you know, he had a very, very hard time trying to play, like, music that came out of - not bebop, but whatever - they didn't - never really invented a term for the style that they were playing. But this post-bebop type of music, it just wasn't - the audience wasn't there for that.

GROSS: Wynton Marsalis talking about his father, pianist and educator Ellis Marsalis, on our show in 1994. Ellis Marsalis died of the coronavirus Wednesday. He was 85. Our sympathies to his family. And we send our best wishes for recovery to everyone who is sick and to their loved ones and sympathies to those who have lost loved ones.


GROSS: Monday on FRESH AIR, my guest will be Kerry Washington, who's starring with Reese Witherspoon in "Little Fires Everywhere," which is streaming on Hulu and is one of the new streaming series many people isolating at home are watching. Washington also starred in the hit ABC series "Scandal" as a political fixer. She served on President Obama's council on the arts and humanities. We'll talk about the new series, her life and how her life has changed in the COVID era. I hope you'll join us.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Mooj Zadie, Thea Chaloner and Seth Kelley. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Our technical director is Audrey Bentham, who is our engineer this week along with Adam Staniszewski. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF ELLIS MARSALIS' "COME SUNDAY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.