Delfeayo Marsalis

Trombonist and producer, NEA Jazz Master
Delfeayo Marsalis

Transcript of conversation with Delfeayo Marsalis

That is an excerpt from “Pontius Pilates Decision”. It was composed and performed by Delfeayo Marsalis.

Welcome to Art Works, the program that goes behind the scenes with some of the nation’s great artists to explore how art works. I’m your host Josephine Reed.

It’s really no surprise that the first and only group NEA Jazz Master’s award went to the renowned Marsalis family, a family that’s produced one excellent musician after the next, numbering five in all.

Delfeayo, the third musical son in the acclaimed family -- after Branford and Wynton, is one of the top trombonists and producers working in jazz today.

Performing internationally with some of the great bandleaders, like Slide Hampton, Max Roach, and Elvin Jones, Delfeayo developed his musical chops both on the stage and in the studio. From an early age, he was interested in producing music that preserved an acoustic jazz sound. The recordings he produced for his brother Branford in the 1980s using a rich acoustic bass sound as opposed to the amped up bass direct—was key in changing jazz recording techniques. In fact, Delfeayo’s production work earned him a Grammy as well as a 3M Visionary Award.

Committed to arts education, Delfeayo founded the Uptown Music Theater in 2000 as a way of preserving and passing on New Orleans’ great cultural traditions to younger generations.

He’s also earned wide acclaim as a composer, writing over 80 songs that introduce jazz to kids, and releasing four cds as a bandleader. His most recent is the ambitious Sweet Thunder, a modern interpretation of the Duke Ellington/Billy Strayhorn suite, Such Sweet Thunder.

Delfeayo and I sat down for a chat in New York City the day before the 2012 NEA Jazz Master’s Concert. Given his family, I was curious to know if he ever considered a career that was not in music.

Delfeayo Marsalis: Not early on. And it wasn't until I was selected to man the tape decks, because I was, you know, old enough. And had the inclination to press the red button and, also, to watch the knobs, that it occurred to me, you know, after a number of years that maybe that would be happening. But we never really had a master plan.

Jo Reed: No. I didn’t think you did have a master plan. But because you were just so surrounded by it, it just would be difficult to think of another way to go.

Delfeayo Marsalis: You know, I guess, that's why I've always thought about it from the production end. Because early on, I when I first started playing trombone, Branford and Wynton were in a funk band and they needed a trombone. And I was, like, man, I had just started playing. And, you know, I couldn't really get those—well, I barely knew the scales at that point. So they said, "All right. Just, you know, start recording us." So I started recording. And it's led to some great things. That's my recollection of it.

Jo Reed: Why the trombone?

Delfeayo Marsalis: As I thought about it, the instruments tend to mirror the personality. And the trombone is the member of the band that actually keeps things together. You know, the trombone is the guy-- in the jazz band, the trombones sit in the middle of the band so they hear everything. The trumpets are in the back. That's because they aggravate everybody. They're always blowing loud. You want to keep them away from the saxophones, who are aggravated at the trumpets. So, you know, the trombone, to me, is really the peacekeeper in the band. That's, kind of, the function that I have. You know, just I kind of have that-- and also being a middle child, I think I gravitated toward the trombone a lot.

Jo Reed: Yeah, I can see. It does seem like a good middle child instrument.

Delfeayo Marsalis: And Jason, we say, generally, the youngest plays drums, because that's the first instrument-- generally the youngest plays drums because that’s the first instrument that you can just pick up. And Elvin Jones was the youngest of ten. "Tootie" Heath is the youngest of the Heath brothers. I think there are a number of jazz drummers who were the youngest in the musical family.

Jo Reed: What trombonists influenced the way you played?

Delfeayo Marsalis: JJ Johnson, the most. And then Curtis Fuller and so many guys; Tommy Dorsey, Urbie Green, Bill Watrous, so those guys. People hear me play. I play more in the lower register. Some of the guys, like Urbie Green, Tommy Dorsey, they play in the upper register; Bill Watrous. They're so smooth. And that's my goal is when I'm playing a ballad in the middle register, it's difficult to play it really smooth and connected to have that kind of sound. When I'm playing in maybe, what we consider, our swing set, Al Gray, certainly, Tyree Glenn, any of Ellington's trombonists. And then, of course, the traditional JC Higginbotham and Vic Dickenson. So it kind of depends. I take a little bit here, a little bit there, a little bit everywhere.

Jo Reed: But when you play, and the bands that you lead, you swing.

Delfeayo Marsalis: Oh, yeah. You know, my brothers have been really influential on me. Like the early music of Branford and Wynton is always something that I've drawn from. And Kenny Kirkland and, kind of, the harmonies that he used. So I really use that as the main basis. And there aren't any trombonists that actually have played in that kind of a set up. So I, kind of, use what JJ did and Curtis and "Slide" Hampton more, their approach. But musically that's, kind of, where my concept-- you know, it comes out of their music. Which is what I think, I would say, for a trombonist, gives me a certain advantage.

Jo Reed: The way jazz is played in Europe seems to have less of a blues aesthetic than jazz in the United States. Do you think blues is a necessary underpinning for jazz?

Delfeayo Marsalis: Well, you know, I think that the first thing we have to address is that improvisation is not specific only to jazz. So the Europeans, what they consider European jazz, what they've done is they've, I guess, kind of created their own improvisational music. And they want to take away all the important elements of jazz, which would be blues and the swing component. And say, "Well, now it's European jazz." But that's mostly for two reasons. One, if you say, "This is European improvisational art music," people are going be like, "Aah." And the other thing is that by calling it jazz, be it a negative or a positive, you then can latch yourself onto Louis Armstrong and Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk and Count Basie and Duke Ellington. And this long history of guys that really paid dues and really swung and really played the blues. So it's kind of a Catch-22. It's one of those things where, if Ellington and the guys were still around, they would say, "Well, this is why we don't like the term jazz." Which is primarily because almost anything can be jazz. So I say that to say what I hear in Europe, I think, some of it's on a high level. And the improvisational reflexes of the guys are, are you know, they're very astute. But if it's not swinging, it don't have that blues element, to me, it cannot qualify as jazz.

Jo Reed: You've played with many people, but five really renowned bandleaders. And I'd just like to know what you think about each of them. And we can begin with Art Blakey.

Delfeayo Marsalis: Well, I was really young when I played with Blakey. And I always looked at Blakey as the guru for Branford and Wynton. Specifically, Wynton when he first came out, and he started playing with Art Blakey. So I came along. I was in the band for a little while. I learned a lot from him. But I have to say, honestly, I never really got into the groove. You know, I wasn't in the band long enough. But, you know, Blakey was such a great musician and orchestrator and an entertainer. And he understood all the aspects of his bandstand and the importance of the presentation of the music, how long your solo should be, what songs you should solo on. I mean, he was just such a master. And when I played with him, he must've been late 60s by that point. So I can only imagine, you know, it's like seeing someone, and being around someone that has so much information. And this is at the tail end of their life. But I learned a lot from him. I think, more conceptually than I did, actually, from the performance.

Jo Reed: And you worked with Abdullah Ibrahim?

Delfeayo Marsalis: Ironically, I realized later that a lot of my compositions have a similar harmonic structure, as some of what Abdullah Ibrahim did. And it was an interesting gig, in a number of ways. It centered around the piano trio, and the horns were added on. It was very different in the sense that the horns were not the focal point of the band, as the other bands that I've been in. But I learned a lot from him about a certain type of orchestration. And the way that he developed his music was definitely different from the way that Art Blakey did. So it's very interesting. And as I look back at it, I can really appreciate Abdullah and his music.

Jo Reed: And Slide Hampton?

Delfeayo Marsalis: Slide Hampton, who is a guy that really works hard and has always worked hard, and he, to me, is a consummate trombonist. He is a great arranger and orchestrator. And, again, he knows how it's supposed to sound. So I played with him when we were doing "The World of Trombones." And it's very difficult to have ten of one instrument, you know, ten trombones or ten saxophones. Or, Heaven forbid, ten trumpets. Oh, my goodness. But, you know, Slide is a master of the instrument. And when you're around him, you always want to go practice. Just from being around him, because of his diligence and his seriousness. And, you know, he also grew up in a musical family and around guys like Freddie Hubbard. And he played with Maynard Ferguson. So his experiences are so vast that, you know, he had a lot to draw from. And we would talk a lot. And he'd give me a lot of great and inspirational information about, you know, the way that it was in the older days. And all these guys were really trying to sound like, you know, Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker. No matter what their style all the musicians in America were looking at these guys as the model for how they wanted to present their music and what they wanted to accomplish.

Jo Reed: Max Roach?

Delfeayo Marsalis: Yeah, Max was different. My great Max Roach story, Max would always ask the band, "What do you guys think?" So we played in Boston. And it was the So What brass quintet. So it was five brass and drums, and no piano or no bass. We had a tuba. So we played the first set. I think it was 75 minutes. And we played. And he asked everybody at the end of the set, he says, "What do you guys think? Y'all have anything to say about the set?" And I said, "You know," I said, "I thought we were really strong the first 50 minutes." I said, "We've got to really figure out how to keep that strength for the last 20, 25 minutes." And Max said, "Okay." So the next set we went up, and he said, "Donna Lee, Marsalis you got it." <Inaudible>. So at the end of that set, what did he say, now? "Anybody got anything to say?" I said, "Oh, it was all beautiful. It was beautiful, baby." But, you know, Max was a very elegant and astute, very scholarly type of person. And that's how his music was presented. And, you know, he was into art and artwork, and just everything about Max was he was very aristocratic. And, you know, I really could see how he would command respect. And speaking of jazz, I remember we went to Germany. We were somewhere. I don't remember where we landed. And they came to pick us up in two vans. It was supposed to be something specific, limousine, et cetera, et cetera. And, you know, the accommodations could not handle the group that we had. And Max, he just said to me, "You know, once they can call what you play jazz, you're in trouble." He said, "Because, you know, it's like Perlman never has this problem. Yo-Yo Ma never has this problem. And they shouldn't," he said. "And neither should I." And, you know, he was totally right. And that's one part of it. He said, "Oh, it's a jazz band. Oh, just send--"whereas, when they say, "Oh, it's a classical performer," they say, "Oh, he's going to be at the symphony hall. We've got to send a limousine. We've got to make sure the hotel is right." So, it's a balancing act because jazz really does come from the people. And you have to keep that element. But at the same time, you want to elevate it to that point where, you know, folks can respect what it is that you're doing. So Max is a guy that I would say he kept his head up all the time. And he would not allow, you know, a certain level of foolishness to go on.

Jo Reed: And, finally, the great, great, Elvin Jones.

Delfeayo Marsalis: Yeah, and Elvin was, you know, probably, the individual that I learned from and I grew the most while in his band. And he was like a father or a grandfather to me. And I really learned from Elvin that it comes from the heart. But from the standpoint of you have to give everything of yourself when you play music, all the time. And what makes, you know, the great musicians great is not how many notes they play, or how many scales or how much harmony they know. But it's how much of themselves. Like, if you can give 90 to 95 percent of yourself when you play, boy, which is a lot, every night, all the time, then, you have achieved greatness. And that's what Elvin did. And just never took a beat off. And he was just so phenomenal and, in a sense, a simple--not a simple person. But just, to him, things were simple. You know, you know what you're supposed to do. You just have to do it. He was not one that would really try to make a big deal out of-- it's, like, you know, if you say, "Well, what about such and such and blah, blah, blah? And Charlie Parker, he had this kind of concept, and Coltrane?" And he'd just-- his opinion about it was every individual has to find their own voice. And I remember one time I told him, my belief was that the way that I played was too much in the tradition. So I said, "You know, I think what I'm playing is too much in the tradition. And I'd like to take it more outside. I mean, what do you think?" And he thought, and he said, "Well, once you actually understand the tradition, and once you actually master that, then, you can take it into whatever direction you want." Okay. But that's how Elvin was, very thoughtful, very to the point. And I always say the great thing about Elvin, which I realize, is that Coltrane basically grew up as an only child. Which is a certain level of selfishness just from being an only child and self-centeredness. Elvin was the youngest of ten. So he understood about the negotiation and the diplomacy that has to occur when you're the youngest in a big family. So they were perfectly suited. It's not only musically, but, you know, Coltrane was just one of these guys that he could only see his vision and what it was. And he needed Elvin to really support that. And Elvin was a guy that could really see the kind of support that Coltrane needed. So he was such a great person and a great man. And, you know, he left so much on the bandstand. Every time he played, he just left it all out there. And that's always what I try to reach.

Jo Reed: Well, let me ask you. I mean, Elvin was clearly so important to you as a player. What about as a producer? Your experiences playing with Elvin, was there a way you could take those and then bring that into the studio?

Delfeayo Marsalis: By the time I started playing with Elvin, my production skills had, pretty much, been in place. And when I played with him, it was more of developing my concept of music and performance, more so than the studio. Now, I did ask him about when he recorded with Coltrane, how they set up. And he just says, "Well, Coltrane was there and I was here. And McCoy and Jimmy." It never dawned on me until then to set everybody up in a circle. I was, like, "phew," usually we sat with different set up. So I think, at that point, the next recording we did, everybody set up in a circle. That's why you get that real great stereo sound. Well, that's another whole thing. But yeah.

Jo Reed: Well, speaking of sounds that you get, okay, we have to talk about the dread.

Delfeayo Marsalis: The dreaded bass direct.

Jo Reed: The dreaded bass direct. First of all, what is a bass direct, for those of us who might not know?

Delfeayo Marsalis: Well, you know, a bass direct is, basically, the device that you use to make an acoustic bass turn into an electric signal. So it's the same device that you have electric guitar, you plug it into the amplifier. So that's what it basically does. The dreaded bass direct makes an acoustic instrument turn into an electric signal. So the quality of that electric signal in the early 80s was not very good, and in the 70s. And it actually almost made the bass sound more like a guitar. So early on, sixth or seventh grade, when the quest began to really obtain a great jazz sound, or a sound of recordings that were similar to the older recordings. Not like we wanted to imitate those recordings, but the quality of it. The quality of that sound, we wanted to reach that level. And we realized a lot of it had to do with the bass direct and the bass. So for the novices, what I would say is you have the drums that are always a problem. The drums are the loudest instrument. And the bass is, for all purposes, the softest instrument in the group. And the other thing is that the bass, it doesn't travel in one direction. The sound of the bass, you see, is like a trumpet or a saxophone. A horn, you put the microphone in front, or a voice, and it's going straight at the microphone. Whereas, the bass sound, yeah, it's a little more widespread. So that's the difficulty, as that bass sound is spreading out, the drums are washing it out. And they're making sure that you can't hear it. So what the bass direct does is it gives you that one signal. And it makes it, you know, so now we can say, "Oh, here's this one signal." We figured out early on we've got to some how get away from this bass direct. And that's going to give it that warmth and that full bass sound. We have to figure out how to capture that sound.

Up and hot, Housed from Edward

Delfeayo Marsalis: So when Branford started playing with Sting in 1985, he did an interview in Down Beat. In the interview he says, "My brother, Delfeayo, is at Berkeley College. And he's trying to come up with a microphone that's going to capture more of the acoustic sound on the bass." And a gentleman writes a response, the following edition. And he says,"Branford has to accept that the bass direct is here to stay and it's just the way the guys play and this is absurd and blah, blah, blah, you know? He really took offense to it which was kind of funny to us, you know? So...

Jo Reed: Maybe he manufactured them.

Delfeayo Marsalis: <laughter> Or he probably played with- yeah. That might have been it, actually. <laughter> But, I was, what, 21 years old, I said, you know what we ought to do on the record, the next record, is we should say that it was recorded without the dreaded bass direct with hopes that this guy will read it. So it really started off as a joke just to say, okay, maybe this guy will read it and say, "Ah, the dreaded..." to obtain more wood sound from the bass, this recording made without usage of the dreaded bass direct. There it is. Well, it's been a couple years since I've used it. And it stayed around. The next record had without the dreaded bass direct, the next record had it and then what I found was that, over the course of even three years, the bassists were more aware of it. And now the entire way that the bass was being recorded in the studio has changed. The actual quality of the bass direct improved over the next five years because the bassists started to demand it. They said, "Look, we need more of, we're going to use the direct for live situations but how can we get it to sound more acoustic?" So there was actually a bass revolution that I believe we can trace back to...

… the dreaded bass direct.

Jo Reed: You started producing very young and you sit before me and you're very youthful looking now, I can imagine how youthful you were looking back when you were more youthful.

Delfeayo Marsalis: <laughs> Okay.

Jo Reed: And you're producing your father and your older brother. Was it difficult to establish authority in the studio or was it challenging, let me put it to you that way. Was there a bit of a challenge?

Delfeayo Marsalis: Let me say that, if I had known, in all the years that I was producing, the level or the degree to which my brothers relied on me, I would have benefited them much more and more greatly. But, being the younger brother, there was always that younger brother thing where, if had a valid point, they would never let me know, even if they adhered to what I suggested, it was always this thing about, "Oh, blah, blah" so it wasn't until I actually stopped producing and I could look back and I said, man, when I see the process of it, so it was not difficult to establish authority in the sense that they always knew that, first of all, I had their back. I had their best interests at heart when I was producing. And, second of all, it's something I get from my mother. Like, my mother will come, she comes to the house, she will start cleaning up because she just- she can't stand to see a mess so she comes to the house, she's, like, "Child, how can you live like this?" and she's picking stuff up and we're, like, "Mom," but there's something about her where she always wants to see things hooked up and correct. So, when I'm in any situation in the studio, if I go sit in on the bandstand with guys, I'm moving the mike or fixing the cables. So I'd say, from that standpoint, they knew that about me, that I'm always going to do whatever I can to really present it very well. Yeah, I really do wish that I had known the degree to which I actually could have really taken over and run the session. I think it would have helped them even more.

Jo Reed: You went back to school and you got a master's degree in jazz performance. Did that help you to claim a space as a performer?

Delfeayo Marsalis: Well, no. I had performed, you know, when I came out with Pontius Pilate's Decision in 1991 on RCA, that was kind of the beginning of what really could have been a great performance career early on and a number of things happened. The first thing that happened was RCA and I couldn't come to terms with RCA on the personnel that I was going to use on my recordings. So I got out of the contract and one of the stipulations was not to sign with a major label for a certain number of years, five years or whatever it was. And I was so stubborn, at that point, that was a major change- something that would have made a change. The other thing was, in 1993, when I was on the road, it was only me an J.J. were the only trombonists that actually had their own bands performing. And, when Elvin asked me to join his band, and I did that,

Jo Reed: Elvin Jones

Delfeayo Marsalis: I learned a lot from Elvin, believe me, and it was a great experience but, looking back, you know, I always wondered, had I stuck it out and really led my own band at that point, it would have, you know, had a different outcome. So I played with Elvin for a number of years and then it kind of had run its course so I said, "What to do?" Go back to school, re-energize, regroup, and that's what happened. But I led bands all along the way. I had bands at some point and all along the way I was….even before I went to Louisville, I put out two recordings and I recorded with Elvin, of course, that CD was made right before I went to school.

Jo Reed: I want to talk about your interpretation of Duke Ellington’s and Billy Strayhorn’s Such Sweet Thunder.

Delfeayo Marsalis: Yea, there it is.

Jo Reed: Which is quite remarkable.

Delfeayo Marsalis: Such Sweet Thunder is almost like the Charlie Brown Christmas Special music. It's, like, you grow up hearing it and it affects you and you don't necessarily know to what degree. But I remember hearing Such Sweet Thunder and just that first opening <makes musical sounds of intro> it's just so strong and, you know, masculine sounding, it's, like, guys are going to war or something. It's, like, man, that's- and it's all a unison line. It's, like, man, who would think of that?

Such Sweet Thunder by Duke and Billy up and hot

Delfeayo Marsalis: Anyway, I remember hearing that early on and the opportunity came while I was in Louisville to write a thesis paper and the teacher suggested it. She said...

Jo Reed: And Such Sweet Thunder, we should say, for listeners who might not know, was written by Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn and it's based on characters from the plays of William Shakespeare.

Delfeayo Marsalis: William Shakespeare, right. In 1956, Ellington and Strayhorn were at the Shakespearean Festival in Stratford on Avon, Ontario, in Canada, and they commissioned him to write something for the following year while they were still working on A Drum Is a Woman. So what I think happened was Duke just told Strayhorn, "Look, you work on A Drum Is a Woman and I'll handle most of this." So we can look at it and say Ellington definitely wrote the majority of this music. In a lot of the suites, they would collaborate and you didn't know what was what but there are very specific movements that you say for sure, it's all in Ellington's, you know, his hand and I think he understood the importance of that connection with Shakespeare and a great work of art, very great. It's very different than some of his other works and not as well developed in a certain way as far as the, you know, the three minute songs so it's easy to misunderstand what it actually is. But it's just very rich and it's killing, totally killing.

Jo Reed: Explain what you did with it? Because you didn't just reproduce it.

Delfeayo Marsalis: How can one explain such a thing? <laughter> Well, let's see. It's very challenging to work something like that, you know? It's very different when you're writing your own music and you can make certain decisions and make twists and turns. But, when you have something that exists and the thing that I'm most proud of, I played it for Clark Terry and Monsignor John Sanders, who are the only members of the original recording that are still with us, and they seemed to think that Ellington really would have appreciated it.

Such Sweet Thunder by Delfeayo up and hot

Delfeayo Marsalis: The goal for me was not to disregard what Ellington did, nor was it to recreate what he did. The goal was to use that material and create something that was uniquely mine but that paid homage and showed respect to the original intent and it's very difficult to not get lost in your own selfishness or with your own ego and say, "Oh, man, I could have done this or I could have done that," and there are only a couple of places where I actually extended the melodic lines, a nd we did little things like Clark Terry plays one of the great solos in the history of jazz on Lady Mac. It's a song in three and he starts the solo off <makes musical sounds> that's how the solo starts. So it's a saxophone solo on my version and he has to start off with that phrase <makes musical sounds>. Now, he can take it wherever he wants after that but that way, when Clark heard that, he said, "Oh, okay," you know? And these are the kinds of things that I think the older generation looks at the younger generation, I think the greatest frustration is that the youngsters don't have the appreciation and the respect to really check out what was done and use it some kind of way. I've never met an older musician who said, "Man, you guys need to sound like us." All the older musicians say, "No, you need to be doing your own thing but you got to know what we did." And I think that's the greatest compliment an older musician could pay, for me, was to say, "Yeah, man, I know you checked out what we did," and that's always been my aim.

I'm hoping the great legacy of musicians and their memory and what they actually created lives on and more people find out about what that is and how great it is.

Jo Reed: Thank you so much. It's a pleasure. Thank you.

Delfeayo Marsalis: My pleasure. All right

That was Delfeayo Marsalis. He, his father, Ellis, and his brothers Branford, Wynton, and Jason were awarded the first and only group NEA Jazz Master’s award.

You’ve been listening to artworks produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. Adam Kampe is the musical supervisor.

Excerpt from "Such Sweet Thunder," from the album Such Sweet Thunder, composed and performed by Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn.

Excerpt from "Such Sweet Thunder," from the album Such Sweet Thunder, composed by Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn and performed by Delfeayo Marsalis, used courtesy of Troubadour Jass Records.

Excerpt from "Pontius Pilates Decision" from the album Pontius Pilates Decision composed and performed by Delfeayo Marsalis.

Excerpt from "Housed from Edward" from his album Trio Jeepy, composed by Branford Marsalis, produced by Delfeayo Marsalis.

All other excerpts used courtesy of Sony Music Entertainment.

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Next week, Jonah Lehrer, explains how creativity works.

To find out how art works in communities across the country, keep checking the Art Works blog, or follow us @NEAARTS on Twitter. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.

Delfeayo Marsalis: it's all in the family. [34:32]