Long before Ellis Marsalis Jr. had six sons — four of which went on to be accomplished jazz players, including Wynton, Branford, Delfeayo and Jason — the elder Marsalis played clarinet as a kid while growing up in New Orleans. He switched to tenor saxophone when he got into high school and played R&B in a group with some friends.
“Clarinet didn’t make it with rhythm and blues,” the 81-year-old Marsalis says of his instrument change.
While Marsalis had also studied piano in high school, he says it wasn’t until he graduated from college in 1955 that he really started to take the instrument seriously. “As I got older [jazz] just sort of spoke to me more and more,” Marsalis says. “Basically that was it.”
He says Oscar Peterson, who came to New Orleans as part of the Jazz at the Philharmonic touring group, was the first pianist that Marsalis heard in a live setting that he really dug. “He was my first main influence on piano,” Marsalis says. “He had tremendous facility and command of the instrument and he was able to do anything he wanted to do on it.”
Marsalis went on to work with Ornette Coleman for a short stint in Los Angeles in 1956 and later performed and recorded with brothers Nat and Julian “Cannonball” Adderley. Marsalis also led the house trio at the Playboy Club in New Orleans in the mid ‘60s followed by a stint in Al Hirt’s Dixieland group.
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In 1974, Marsalis started a long career as one of the country’s leading jazz educators when he was named director of the jazz studies program at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts High School, where he mentored musicians who went on to be stellar players, like trumpeter Terence Blanchard, pianist and singer Harry Connick Jr. and saxophonist Donald Harrison. Marsalis was also headed up the jazz studies program at the University of New Orleans.
While Marsalis has shared his immense knowledge of jazz with numerous players, he’s also remarkable pianist himself, as evidenced by many of the albums he’s recorded under his own name, including his more recent efforts, On the First Occasion and last year’s On the Second Occasion.
When Marsalis, who says he hasn't performed in Denver in quite a while, plays two solo sets at Baur’s Listening Lounge on Thursday, December 10, he says he’ll do some original material as well as some holiday songs from his 2011 album A New Orleans Christmas Carol album, and he might have his son Jason, who is traveling with him, sit on a song.
“Since he was going to be there and he’s not really on the job,” Marsalis says, “I thought it would be a good idea if could finish the set with ‘The Little Drummer Boy.’”