In the 1980s, growing up in an Ohio farm town, the jazz sound mesmerized this fumbling (still fumbling, four decades later) musician, playing keyboards in the high-school jazz band. While running through pat charts of Glenn Miller and other big-band standards, deep down, I suspected there was more to jazz.
“At least they were playing that,” Delfeayo Marsalis said, in all seriousness, when I told him a little about myself, interviewing him for Fluckwittery at his home in New Orleans’ Garden District late last year.
At the time modern jazz seemed to be at loose ends, with the cool-era greats slowing down and ’70s fusion running its course. Hair-metal and synthesizer drones ruled the pop charts. Jazz was not cool to the average music consumer. It was kinda hard to find, as many people had tossed out their record players, but the compact disc was just coming into its own.
Then the Marsalis family bum-rushed the scene. Trumpet god Wynton came first, playing classical and jazz, demonstrating acute academic understanding of anything he touched. Branford and his sax came next, evangelizing the art of the funky jazz jam with his crack band backing Sting on his post-Police records, most notably on the 2-LP Bring on the Night live set.
Without Sting, Branford’s band had their own popularity arc. I somehow scraped together enough quarters to see them when they played at my college, Ohio University. Ellis, the father, was a University of New Orleans professor during this period, but also found time to record his music.
Their records even made their way to rural Ohio, and were my gateway drug to the broader jazz world. Used record stores today usually have some Marsalis records in their jazz crates. Post LP-era Marsalis recordings can be found in the CD stacks (if you run across Wynton and Willie Nelson’s live set Two Men With the Blues, it’s a freaking riot). All are worth checking out, if you’ve got even a teaspoon of jazz appreciation in your veins or, if you are like 1980s me, beginning your explorations.
Listening to those guys led to the appreciation of Miles, Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, Diz and Bird, Herbie Hancock, Ahmad Jamal, Dexter Gordon, and on and on and on. Later, a soul-jazz thing took root, too, as I ran down piano and Hammond B3 organ players from Oscar Peterson to Les McCann to Ramsey Lewis and Jimmy Smith, Groove Holmes, Jimmy McGriff, Brother Jack McDuff, Shirley Scott and many more.
Hearing Wynton play his reinterpretation of “When You Wish Upon A Star,” specifically, pried open my brain and made me want to hear more jazz. Branford playing “St. Thomas” and Wynton’s “Cherokee” made me run down everybody else’s version of those songs I could find.
In the early 1990s, Jay Leno took over Johnny Carson’s seat on late-night TV. Branford was Leno’s new Doc Severinsen, and continued our Marsalis jazz educations weeknights in our living rooms at every commercial break.
Younger brother Delfeayo, a trombonist by trade, produced Branford’s records at his Columbia Records peak. I came to appreciate him later in the 1990s, as I visited New Orleans and fell in love with the city, its food, its music, its culture, its Louisiana spirit.
On one of these trips, my wife Kate and I went to Snug Harbor down on Frenchmen Street to catch Delfeayo, who was playing with a quartet or quintet at the time. Jason, yet another Marsalis brother, was on drums. We didn’t know much about Delfeayo, but with that last name, it had to be good, right?
Oh, yes. The gig blew us away. First off, the piano player was late, stuck in a hotel gig downtown. But Ellis happened to be there, picking up food to go. Seeing Delfeayo was short a pianist, he strolled up to the stage, set his to-go bag on top of the piano, and started playing. It didn’t matter that Ellis was in sandals, shorts and a madras shirt while the others were in perfectly fitted suits; when he took command at the keyboard, the others stood up a little straigher at attention. After a few tunes, the regular piano player came in — wearing full tails — and Ellis took his leave, food in tow.
Such are the experiences that a jazz fan remembers, always.
Delfeayo is part showman, part educator, and part businessman, always putting a record producer’s attention to detail on everything he does. His Uptown Jazz Orchestra, a little big band, has been together since 2008 and is tight, perfectly rehearsed, and plays a blend of standards, original compositions, tributes and jams. When they’re in town, they play regularly at Snug Harbor. I had the privilege of seeing the band in New Orleans last November and then again at the Iridium on New York last month.
They have fun, stretch out in hot solos, and yet…Delfeayo pauses between songs to set the context of each, explaining how Roy Hargrove, Basie, and a host of others who came before are worth remembering — and reimagining. He sneaks in Marsalis family jazz education while bringing down the house with equal parts funk and swing. There’s no weak spot in the lineup; each player blows with withering abandon.
The group’s new recording, Jazz Party, comes out this week, a blend of New Orleans party music and headier stuff that pushes jazz forward while invoking those 20th-century greats.
“Raid at the Mingus House Party,” a cacophonous rave-up with a second-liney New Orleans beat, perfectly catches the zeitgeist of what Delfeayo’s trying to accomplish: Onstage, he introduces it as a tribute to Mingus. Yet it thoroughly captures today’s life, “like opening a lot of windows on your internet browser,” he says, testing how many different melody lines at once the human brain can keep track of.
“The answer is ten,” he says. “Maybe eleven.”
Go get the record. It’s polished, smart, variegated in sound and style, and infused with New Orleans energy. And of course, produced by Delfeayo with an assist from Branford. That means, while it’s not yet out on vinyl, the recording will make your audiophile rig reveal all those nuances sometimes lost listening to so many dusty grooves of well-loved wax.
Next: An interview with Delfeayo Marsalis on what makes New Orleans jazz so recognizeable.