Marsalis, Delfeayo 1965–
Delfeayo Marsalis 1965–
Musician, composer and producer
As a member of one of the most influential musical dynasties in American jazz, Delfeayo Marsalis is a respected trombone player and record producer, with wide-ranging interests in music education and children’s theater. Performing and recording in the shadow of his two famous older brothers, Wynton and Bran-ford, Marsalis has worked to establish his own musical career, producing more than 75 recordings, releasing two albums as leader and working extensively with his father and brothers as a performer and producer.
Delfeayo Marsalis was born on July 28, 1965, in New Orleans. Marsalis was the fourth of six sons born to Ellis and Dolores Marsalis. Ellis, was a respected jazz pianist and educator, who played with trumpeter Al Hirt in his club in New Orleans’ French Quarter; his pupils were to include trumpeter Terence Blanchard and pianist Harry Connick, Jr. His mother, Dolores, was related to the well-known New Orleans musician Alphonse Picou, who played clarinet with New Orleans legend Buddy Bolden, and bassist Wellman Braud, who had recorded with Duke Ellington in the 1930s.
Marsalis spent the first year of his life in Breaux Bridge, Louisiana, where his father was the choral and band director at Carver High School. The family soon returned to New Orleans, living first in their old neighborhood in suburban Kenner and subsequently moving to Carrollton in uptown New Orleans. Dolores Marsalis was a Catholic, so the boys attended parochial schools. Ellis, struggling to make a living as a performer, started teaching at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts (NOCCA) high school in 1974 to help support the family. The boys moved to a public school, Benjamin Franklin High School, so they could attend NOCCA in the afternoon.
Growing up in an intensely musical household, four of the six Marsalis boys—Branford, Wynton, Delfeayo and Jason—were to become professional musicians. Marsalis was still a child when two of his older brothers, saxophonist Branford and trumpet-player Wynton, joined a local funk band called The Creators. Marsalis, however, did not feel pressured to become a musician; his parents encouraged his early interest in writing.
At the age of 13, Marsalis began playing the trombone. “I’m a big fan of the underdog,” Marsalis told the Big Easy website. “When I saw that instrument in school, I thought that was something unique. I thought it would be just my thing.” A gifted musician, Marsalis studied classical trombone at NOCCA and spent summers at the Eastern Music Festival in North Carolina and the famous Tanglewood Institute. In his senior year, Marsalis was invited to perform Gordon Jacob’s Trombone Concerto with the New Orleans Philharmonic. He also received the Jefferson Performing Arts Society’s Outstanding Performance Award for his performance of a Marcello sonata.
By the time Marsalis graduated from high school, he had also produced his first recording—Syndrome, for
At a Glance …
Born on July 28, 1965, in New Orleans, LA. Education: Berklee College of Music, BA, 1989; University of New Orleans, graduate studies in English, 1990s.
Career: Music producer, 1983–; jazz trombonist, 1989–; radio and TV host for jazz-related programming, including NPR’s “Notes from the Road,” 1990s–; Three Fifths Productions, founder and producer, late 1990s.
Memberships: Foundation for Artistic and Musical Excellence summer program, NJ, director, 1998–; Uptown Music Theatre, New Orleans, founder, late 1990s.
Awards: 3M Visionary Award, 1996; Artist Fellowship from the Louisiana Division of the Arts, 1998.
Addresses: Record label— Marsalis Music, 323 Broadway, Cambridge, MA 02139.
his father, Ellis—in 1983. His interest in producing manifested itself early in his life when, as a seventh grader, he helped Wynton position microphones in the living room to record demo tapes. Marsalis moved east to study performance and music production at the famous Berklee College of Music in Boston, the alma mater of older brother Branford. He spent six years at the college and was still a student when he produced Branford’s second album as a leader, Royal Garden Blues, in 1986.
After graduating from Berklee in 1989, Marsalis performed as a sideman with a number of more established musicians, including Fats Domino, Ray Charles, and Art Blakey. From 1993 until 1997, he toured six months of each year with veteran drummer Elvin Jones’ Jazz Machine. Jones, who played with John Coltrane in the 1960s, was an important figure in Marsalis’ musical development, demanding high standards of his band members and pushing them to experiment as musicians and composers. Marsalis continued his trombone studies, working with David Baker and, from 1993, with Curtis Fuller to help establish his own approach to improvisation. He has appeared on a number of recordings as a player, working with artists like Ruth Brown and Wycliffe Gordon.
But Marsalis realized that his choice of instrument limited his career options. There were musical precedents, including Kid Ory, the trombonist and New Orleans band leader who was the first black American to make a jazz record; Tyree Glen, one of Duke Ellington’s sidemen; and Marsalis’ musical idol, contemporary player J.J. Johnson. But, he told OffBeat in 1997, he sometimes regretted not taking up the saxophone instead, because very “few trombone players have record contracts, or are in the public eye.” Even finding long-term work as a sideman could be problematic. “There are not many gigs for trombone players,” Marsalis told Mike Zwerin of the International Herald Tribune in 1996. “I’m not at the point where I’m comfortable being a leader. I just want to play.”
Whatever his feelings about leading his own band, Marsalis recorded his first record, a concept album called Pontius Pilate’s Decision, released by RCA/ Novus in 1992. In addition to drawing on scenes from the New Testament, the recording was intended to evoke the fraught, corrupt political world of contemporary New Orleans. The track “Barrabas,” which also featured Marsalis’ younger brother, Jason, on drums, was a pointed attack on gubernatorial candidate, David Duke. All “jazz musicians, all true artists, have to be in contact with reality,” Marsalis told Mary Ellison, quoted in her essay “Subverting Commodification” in Popular Music and Society. His three musician brothers—Branford, Wynton and Jason—are featured on the album.
Marsalis decided to return to his home town, New Orleans, as a permanent resident in 1990. He embarked on graduate studies in English literature at the University of New Orleans. In 1992 he was appointed host of “New Orleans Live!,” a WGBH radio series broadcast from the annual jazz festival. The series won a silver medal in the Best Music Special category at the 1993 International Radio Festival in New York. On television, he hosted the 1994 Jazz Festival on the Bravo Network.
Marsalis did not enjoy a meteoric rise like Wynton or, to a lesser extent, Branford. His first album peaked at number ten on Billboard’s Jazz Albums chart, but it was not a commercial success. However, his skills as a producer were increasingly in demand. Often working with Berklee classmate, engineer Patrick Black, Marsalis produced over 75 recordings for jazz artists, including Harry Connick, Jr., Marcus Roberts, Terence Blanchard, Nicholas Payton and Courtney Pine. Spike Lee hired him to take charge of all live music and orchestral production for his 1989 film, Do the Right Thing, and 1990’s Mo’ Better Blues.
He has produced several of Branford’s records in addition to Royal Garden Blues, including Trio Jeepy, The Beautyful Ones are Not Yet Born, the Grammy-winning album I Heard You Twice the First Time, and The Dark Keys, the latter featuring the track “Judas Iscariot” from Pontius Pilate’s Decision. Marsalis has worked as producer with other family members on a number of albums, including Branford and Ellis Marsalis’ joint project, Loved Ones, Branford’s Buckshot LeFonque projects, Wynton’s acclaimed Citi Movement, and his father’s 1995 recording, In the Sweet Bye and Bye.
The liner notes of his brothers’ records provided Marsalis with a forum for his views on the historical and social significance of jazz, as well as on the excellence and visionary qualities of his brothers’ music. An unapolo-getic enthusiast for both Wynton and Branford, Marsalis is known for his idiosyncratic, overly theoretical and often verbose notes, which have provoked accusations of eccentricity and brotherly bias from some critics.
In 1996 he was presented with the 3M Visionary Award for his production skills. By this time, however, his ambitions as a performer and composer began to detract from his producing work. Production was “not a creative endeavor” for him anymore, he told OffBeat in 1997. Producing his brother Wynton’s score for the John Singleton movie Rosewood in 1996 (ultimately an unused musical contribution), Marsalis confessed to Mike Zwerin of the International Herald Tribune: “My mind is not really 100 percent there right now. A few years ago, all I wanted to do was stay in the studio 12, 15 hours a day doing this sort of thing. Now my mind is on the horn.”
The shift in focus coincided with the release of his second album, Musashi by independent label Evidence, and a move back to New York, both in 1997. Musashi was recorded in Tokyo in 1996 and features a Japanese rhythm section, including his former Berklee classmate, Masahiko Osaka. He and Osaka had played together in the Berklee Jazz Ensemble, changing its name to No Corporate Rubbish after winning a National Association of Music Educators competition in 1989. The name change reflected Marsalis’ antipathy to commercial constraints on artistic expression. Disappointed that Pontius Pilate’s Decision had failed to connect with audiences on a large scale, Marsalis was now prepared to present a more orthodox mix of standards like “Summertime,” and “Too Marvelous for Words,” and originals. But the spirit of uncompromising freedom and cross-cultural intellectual endeavor still informed Musashi, named for a legendary samurai warrior, its original songs based around stories from Japanese history and folklore.
In New York, staying with Branford (the new head of Jazz A&R at Columbia Records), he hoped to find more performance opportunities and explore new media for his work. He continued to tour internationally with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, Abdullah Ibrahim, Elvin Jones, and Max Roach, as well as with his own ensemble. He was commissioned to write several original scores, including music for the ABC Television mini-series, Moon Over Miami, in 1994, and an off-Broadway production, Girl Gone. He has also written the scores for two ballet productions of Tennessee Williams plays, Streetcar Named Desire and The Glass Menagerie.
Like his brothers, Marsalis was trained as both a classical and jazz performer, and held strong feelings that the two were not mutually exclusive pursuits. In 1999 Alabama’s Oakwood College commissioned a full-length orchestral work, “Crescent City Suite,” and he received two commissions from the Detroit Symphony Orchestra in 2002: “Jaz and Jazmine meet the Jazz Band,” a puppet opera, and “Blues Abstractions,” for full jazz and symphonic orchestras.
On August 4, 2001, Louis Armstrong’s 100th birthday, Marsalis performed in New Orleans with his father and three brothers, to celebrate Ellis Marsalis’ retirement from the University of New Orleans faculty and the establishment of a chair in his honor. The attention from press and public encouraged the family to tour the United States together for the first time. They released an album in 2003, The Marsalis Family: a Jazz Celebration, on their own label, Marsalis Music. They also were featured on a PBS special that aired in February of 2003 and released a DVD of concert and interview footage. It “was an accurate representation of our family, collectively and individually,” Marsalis said to the All About Jazz website. “Who we are as people and where we are as musicians.”
Following his father’s example, Marsalis has participated in various music education programs, commissioned by both the Bravo Network and the Dallas Opera in 1995 to lecture in high schools. The Filmore Arts Center in Washington, D.C., commissioned a piece, “D-Blues,” for its Meet the Composer Series in 1993. He has served as director of the Foundation for Artistic and Musical Excellence summer program in Lawrence ville, New Jersey, since 1998.
He has also been active in the musical life of his home town. After writing a jazz musical, Luther, in 1997 for the Summer Stages theater workshop in New Orleans, Marsalis founded the Uptown Music Theatre, a musical training program for high school students and wrote another jazz musical for them, The Pirates’ Conspirate, in 2001. He also developed a co-operative publishing and management business, called Three Fifths Productions, based in New Orleans. In 1998 he received an Artist Fellowship from the Louisiana Division of the Arts. Marsalis still writes fiction, his earliest talent, in his spare time. In 2003 he became host of National Public Radio’s “Notes from the Road” series.
(Contributor) Fab, Al Grey, 1990.
Pontius Pilate’s Decision, 1992.
(Contributor) It Don’t Mean a Thing, Elvin Jones, 1993.
(Contributor) Jazz Machine, Elvin Jones, 1997.
(Contributor) Fertile Crescent, Edward Anderson, 1998.
(Contributor) Buckshot LeFonque, Buckshot Le-Fonque, 1994.
(Contributor) Place to Be, Benny Green, 1994.
(Contributor) Music Evolution, Buckshot LeFonque, 1997.
(Contributor) R B Ruth Brown, Ruth Brown, 1997.
(Contributor) Funk If I Know, Michael Ray, 1998.
(Contributor) Live at the Blue Note, Irvin Mayfield Sextet, 1999.
(Contributor) Blessed, Blessed, 2000.
(Contributor) Search, Wycliffe Gordon, 2000.
(Contributor) Serve You, Maam, Robert Morre, 2000.
(Contributor) Spirits of Congo Square, Donald Harrison, 2000.
(Contributor) Til Now, Gabby, 2001.
(Contributor) Marsalis Family: A Jazz Celebration, The Marsalis Family, 2003.
Syndrome, Ellis Marsalis, 1983.
Royal Garden Blues, Branford Marsalis, 1986.
Harry Connick, Jr., Harry Connick, Jr., 1987.
Crystal Stair, Terence Blanchard, 1987.
Steep, Branford Marsalis, 1988.
Trio Jeepy, Branford Marsalis, 1989.
Ellis Marsalis Trio, Ellis Marsalis Trio, 1990.
Within the Realms of Our Dream, Courtney Pine, 1990.
The Beautyful Ones are Not Yet Born, Branford Marsalis, 1991.
I Heard You Twice the First Time, Branford Marsalis, 1992.
Citi Movement, Wynton Marsalis, 1992.
If I Could Be with You, Marcus Roberts, 1993.
From This Moment, Nicholas Payton, 1994.
Loved Ones, Branford and Ellis Marsalis, 1995.
In the Sweet Bye and Bye, Ellis Marsalis, 1995.
The Dark Key, Branford Marsalis, 1996.
Music Evolution, Buckshot LeFonque, 1997.
Duke in Blue, Ellis Marsalis, 1999.
Citizen Tain, Jeff “Tain” Watts, 1999.
Hombres Calientes, Vol. 3, Los Hombres Calientes, 2001.
Half Past Autumn Suite, Irvin Mayfield, 2003.
Gourse, Leslie, Wynton Marsalis: Skain’s Domain, A Biography, Schirmer Books, 1999, pp. 22–27.
Popular Music and Society, Winter 2000.
Race and Class, July-September 2001.
“Delfeayo Marsalis,” All Music Guide, www.allmusic.com/cg/amg.dll (June 21, 2003).
“Delfeayo Marsalis,” VH1, www.vhl.com/artists/az/marsalis_delfeayo/bio.jhtml (June 21, 2003).
“Delfeayo Marsalis: Doing It His Way,” OffBeat, www.offbeat.com/text/delfeayo.html (June 21, 2003).
“Ellis and Branford Marsalis: Loved Ones,” Sony Music, www.sonymusic.com/artists/EllisAndBranford/ (June 21, 2003).
“Ellis, Branford, Delfeayo, Jason and Wynton Hit the Road February 23,” All About Jazz, www.allaboutjazz.com/news/pf/20030416/2657/the_marsalis_family_new_dvd_npr (June 14, 2003).
“Ellis L. Marsalis Jr.: A Brief Bio and Discography,” Louisiana Music Commission, www.louisianamusic.org/ELMBioandDiscog.html (June 14, 2003).
“Elvin Jones’ Jazz Machine Powers Up At the Jazz Bakery,” All About Jazz, www.alIaboutjazz.com/cdreviews/cl102_05.htm (June 21, 2003).
“The Marsalis Family,” SBG Music, www.sbgmusic.comAtml/teacher/reference/performers/marsalis.html (June 21, 2003).
“The Marsalis Family: A Jazz Celebration,” All About Jazz, www.allaboutjazz.com/reviews/r0203_049.htm (June 21, 2003).
“Musician Notes: Delfeayo Marsalis,” Big Easy, www.bigeasy.com/music_archive/delfeayo_marsalis.shtml (June 21, 2003).
“Notes from the Road: Host, Delfeayo Marsalis,” National Public Radio, www.nprjazz.org/nftr/delf.html (June 13, 2003).
“Third Marsalis: Making His Own Sounds,” International Herald Tribune, www.iht.com/IHT/SOUND/96/mzl22096.html (June 21, 2003).
—Paula J.K. Morris
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