Tanglewood to host first family of jazz
LENOX -- Ellis Marsalis Jr. wanted to make sure his kids came into their own as musicians, but according to his son, trombonist Delfeayo Marsalis, playing with his father gets right to the heart of what the music means.
"He's really old school," Delfeayo said. "He just wants to play piano."
The father and son will play together at Ozawa Hall at Tanglewood on Aug. 17, touring ahead of the release of their first album together, "The Last Southern Gentlemen," a collection of jazz standards and original compositions. For their performance in the Berkshires, they'll also play a few numbers with guests, the Rodney Mack Philadelphia Big Brass ensemble.
The Marsalis clan is the first family of jazz, working to spread the love of the singular style of jazz from their hometown, New Orleans, to a new generation of listeners. It began with Ellis, who plays the piano, and includes Delfeayo's older brothers Wynton on trumpet and Branford on saxophone. Younger brother Jason is an accomplished drummer.
Delfeayo said music was always a part of life in the house, but the decision to pick up his particular instrument wasn't directed, or even suggested, as much as it was subtly steered.
"My mother was a strict believer in individuality," Delfeayo said. "It wouldn't have occurred to me to play one of those other instruments."
He said the choices have worked out for the best.
"We all picked instruments that perfectly match our personalities," he said, describing the trombone as the "peacemaker," between the trumpet and saxophone as they battle it out between each other.
Growing up, Delfeayo studied classical trombone and, in high school, he spent two summers at the Tanglewood Institute for young musicians. He later went on to study at Berklee College of Music in Boston, but he said he always was guided by his father's lessons on the right spirit to approach music and the way to find his own presence on stage.
"He never was one to take charge of the musical situation," he said. "He always set us up to lead the band and give the right kind of direction."
Ellis, who has been a mentor to many prominent younger musicians, seemed to shrug off the praise as part of his job as a teacher all along.
"It's hard to know how your children are going to to view you, in the process of trying to help them become individuals and make their way in the world," he said.
And what really matters, he said, was the music.
"It's actually like performing with any other musician," he said. "We all listen to the same people and draw from the same canon."
Delfeayo said "The Last Southern Gentlemen" project aims to present jazz to audiences within its organic, historic context, bound up with the idea of the South and its history and various cultures, and the humanity and warmth that shaped the sound.
For him, jazz remains a living thing, not bound by its rules and boundaries.
"It used to be jazz was functional," he said. "Guys played like they talked."
He fears that some of that is lost among younger players.
"Everybody is playing a version of the same thing," he said. "A version of those notes on the page."
His father said he sees the project as a way of coming to understand the past without being tied to it, and realizing the music is an expression of an entire world.
"We tend to think of musicians in a vacuum, without realizing their function within society," he said.
Multiple generations playing together is a part of that idea, Defleayo said.
"Older musicians provide that relaxation, tone quality, and harmonic construction," he said, while younger ones offer "fire, naivete and the quest for discovery."
For Delfeayo, the idea of music is about an entire cycle, of playing and performance and recording. Indeed, he is in many ways as well known for his work as a producer as for his playing. He's produced more than 100 albums, for his brothers, as well as artists like Harry Connick Jr. and Marcus Roberts.
He describes this as a skill he picked up in fifth or sixth grade "out of practicality." Delfeayo joked his older brother, Wynton, needed audition tapes and he "needed someone to press the red button."
"That really set me on a journey to capture the best acoustic-sounding jazz," he said, as opposed to the digital takeover that is easy and quick, but lacks the warmth of music recorded in analog formats.
Chris Ruigomez, director of concert operations at Tanglewood, said bringing the Marsalis family is about "concerts that fit within the season and appeal to everyone."
He said they were particularly interested in bringing jazz artists after the Tanglewood Jazz Festival -- once a late summer staple -- ended in 2011.
"We want to keep jazz going here," he said. "It has been a part of Tanglewood for a long time."
If you go..
What: ‘The Last Southern Gentlemen' with Ellis Marsalis Jr. and Delfeayo Marsalis
When: 8 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 17
Where: Ozawa Hall, Tanglewood, Route 183, Lenox
Information: (888) 266-1200 tanglewood.org
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