Dealfeayo Marsalis on New Orleans jazz, and the vinyl renaissance

When I travel to New Orleans, it’s my custom to book bed-and-breakfasts in the Garden District instead of staying at the cookie-cutter hotels downtown. Well, it used to be B-n-Bs; today it’s all Airbnbs or Vrbos. When I reserved one last November, I went to give up my credit card and oh my gosh! It was run by Delfeayo Marsalis. At first, I thought it was some sort of scam, or maybe a rental management company using his name. Nope.

It was indeed Del’s place. We chatted a bit on the website’s messaging system about check-in and logistics, and I finally mustered up the courage to confess I was a longtime fan. Always the gracious host, he let me twist his arm and agreed to sit down for an interview for Fluckwittery.

New Orleans jazz is a particular strain. Beyond the second-line beat, how do we know it when we hear it?

Delfeayo Marsalis: New Orleans music is more rooted in what we would consider funk. You go back to someone like Jelly Roll Morton, and much of his music is based on a groove. So, at a certain point when swing was introduced, more of what is swing is identified as jazz, so, we always say the swinging ,which is the basic pattern, chang-chang-a-lang, that kind of groove.

New Orleans music, first of all, is major key, and not minor tonality. And it is sometimes referred to as happy jazz. So, the elements would be the groove, major key, and it puts you in a good mood. The specifics of it — like on piano for example — it’s a combination of the Spanish tinge and the rhumba.

Another aspect — not all New Orleans music is the same — but is what we call the “big four,” which is the accent on the fourth beat. But it’s always rooted in the groove.

What differentiates New Orleans funk from Parliament-Funkadelic, or “Jungle Boogie” and other popular ’70s funk?

New Orleans was the basis for most of it. So just like Louis Armstrong and the early New Orleans sound — Freddie Keppard, King Oliver — once it moved to different places, then you hear individuals who were giving their interpretation of what that is.

What makes New Orleans the most unique city in America, still, is that we have kept more African traditions than any other city in the country. That goes back to the way the music makes you feel. It’s directly related to the Africans’ interpretation of what is important about music.

So many times we try to describe music in technical terms, but the idea of how the people are down here, very warm in the idea of the southern hospitality. That’s African, that’s straight out of kind of the African handbook. So I’d say that that’s an extra crucial element to it, not only the Africanism, but just the kind of the spirit of the music.

Having studied [European composers such as] Beethoven, Stravinsky, Bach and Monteverdi…that feeling that you get from jazz when it’s played correctly, does not exist in the European tradition.

I was reading an article saying something to the effect that classical music was the greatest music ever because of its range of emotion. It does have a wide range of emotion, but there is something [about] the human existence it doesn’t get. It doesn’t get the 20th century human the same way. When you hear that feeling of Duke Ellignton’s jungle sound or Louis Armstrong, it hits you inside a certain kind of way. The classical music tradition just is not those roots.

When you name someone who really embodies New Orleans music, my family would not really be that. We’re from New Orleans, obviously, but we play more modern jazz. It would be Fats Domino, James Booker, Professor Longhair, Dr. John. Today it would be Trombone Shorty, the guys who come out of that funk tradition.

I love my folks [like] Parliament in the funk. My point is, when Louis Armstrong came out and the other guys took it, that funk from New Orleans, once it spread out, it became reggae, ska. You can hear all of those sounds in the early New Orleans music, and it’s just another culture’s — or another part of the country’s interpretation — of what that is. Like the Motown scene. That’s definitely New Orleans, straight up New Orleans.

Do you listen to vinyl, and it is part of the music you’re putting out?

I used to listen to vinyl a lot. It’s regrettable that none of my albums have not been released on vinyl yet, with the sound quality that I made. But as a producer, I take the sound quality and the packaging, very seriously. I’m going to put some vinyl out probably by next year.

Why do you think vintl has made such a strong comeback after being dead so long

Being analog, vinyl has the wider dynamic range than digital. The human ear can hear
the high highs and low lows, whereas digital doesn’t get a high high or the low low, it gets just the high and low, right?

You put a CD in and it sounds really clean and it’s really good. But it doesn’t have the same range. Whereas you have the album and an album that’s recorded analog. And you crank that bass it’s for real? We feel it, it’s not pretend bass, it’s the real deal. So I think that’s really the appeal. Americans are enamored with the bass, moreso than the European tradition.

Delfeayo’s Uptown Jazz Orchestra performing at Snug Harbor in New Orleans, November 2019.

What’s the story behind your Wikipedia page talking about the “dreaded bass sound,” anyway?

I just put a mic in front of the bass instead of the direct signal, it’s more difficult — I’ve been using more bass-direct lately because of the volume.

It started off as a joke. Branford did a Downbeat article when he was first played with Sting, and he mentioned me. He mentioned that I was at Berklee trying to develop a microphone capture more bass, which was that wasn’t accurate. I was at Berklee, but I wasn’t making microphone [laughs]. But there was a guy that wrote into Downbeat and said that “Branford has to accept it! Bass-direct is here to stay!” and he was really defensive. So as a joke on the next CD, Renaissance, we said “This was recorded without usage of the dreaded bass sound.” It was a complete joke.

After that, we just kept putting it on there, it became this thing. It’s like, “no bass-direct!”
The whole movement started off as a joke.

Does the vinyl renaissance help you as a musician? How long do you think it will last?

No, but only because of the the cost of vinyl. I don’t see that being lucrative. Well,
it could [drive new fans to shows who discovered us on vinyl], but I don’t think so. I think it is it’s almost like a novelty. It’s easy to sell you know, maybe 100 copies, maybe even a couple of hundred, but I don’t think we will ever see 10,000 albums being sold. Maybe Beyoncé or whoever, I don’t know.

It’s not only the cost of manufacture, but when you deal with vinyl there’s so much more that you have to deal with — a certain percentage of breakage in the returns, and then you have the freight and the weight. Whereas with CDs, you just don’t. And companies are trying to make the music so that it just disappears. Now you have the MP3, you have it on your iPad, your iPod, your iPhone.

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