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Delfeayo Marsalis'

Jazz Party

by Howard Lawes




Delfeayo Marsalis


Each year in the USA the National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Masters Fellowship is awarded to a small number of jazz musicians who have made an outstanding contribution to the advancement of what many regard as an uniquely American art form; exceptionally, in 2011 the whole Marsalis family of musicians was awarded a fellowship. The Marsalis family are Marsalis familyunequivocally linked to the city of New Orleans, birthplace of jazz and also birthplace of father Ellis Marsalis Jr. and sons Branford, Wynton, Delfeayo and Jason, sadly Ellis Marsalis died there on 1st April this year after contracting Covid-19. 


The Marsalis family: (l-r) Ellis Jr., Wynton, Delfeayo, Jason, and Branford.
Photo by Jos L. Knaepen


The music and culture of New Orleans derives from its cosmopolitan history and climate.  Many nationalities have combined to influence the music, food and way of life; African-Americans developed jazz but Cajuns, Creoles, Europeans, Latin Americans and emigrants from the Caribbean were all part of the mix.  The climate of New Orleans is mild in winter and hot and humid in the summer, so people spend a lot of time outdoors with sports and games, having picnics, Saturday night fish fries and camping along the shores of Lake Ponchartrain.  From early days, their music has been good time music, dances in local halls were very popular as were (and still are) second line parades which include a brass band and exuberant dancers dressed in brightly coloured costumes. The iconic New Orleans jazz funeral parades feature a "first line" that includes the family and mourners while the "second line" follows on behind, the music played by the brass band having its own distinctive sound.

The very first commercial recording of music that came to be called 'jazz' was by the  Original Dixieland Jass (Jazz) Band in 1917.  Dixieland Jazz developed out of ragtime, blues, gospel and the New Orleans brass marching bands but it was Charles "Buddy" Bolden who is generally credited with playing early jazz style music in New Orleans. Buddy Bolden was a cornet player from a district of New Orleans called Uptown and his bands were much sought after to play at dances and entertain revellers in the city parks during the period from 1895; sadly in 1906 Bolden collapsed during a street parade and never played again.  Innovations Bolden introduced included the rhythm section of double bass and guitar and a front line of cornet, trombone and clarinet that played blues and improvised collectively.

That first recording by The Original Dixieland Jazz Band (ODJB), Livery Stable Blues, was followed in 1918 by Tiger Rag, but the ODJB were no longer resident in New Orleans, they moved north to Chicago in 1916 and then to New York where the recording took place. In 1919 the ODJB spent several months in London including a performance at Buckingham Palace for the royal family. Other musicians who began their careers in New Orleans such as Joe "King" Oliver, Kid Ory, Louis Armstrong, Sidney Bechet and Jelly Roll Morton sought their fortunes elsewhere and further developed the New Orleans jazz style with Louis Armstrong's Hot Five from 1928 one of the most successful. As we know, many of their most recordings, including West End Blues, Basin Street Blues and St James Infirmary with Louis Armstrong's incredible solo performances set a new standard that moved away from collective improvisation and set the ground rules for so much jazz music that was to follow. In this video, Delfeayo's brother Wynton plays tribute to Louis' Potato Head Blues:





It was only a few years later, in 1934, that Ellis Marsalis Jr. was born in New Orleans, and unlike many of his illustrious predecessors he remained there.  Ellis was an acclaimed jazz pianist but his greater achievement was probably his mentoring of young musicians. He was Director of Jazz Studies at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts High School, which was attended by his sons, and then he became Head of Jazz Studies at the University of New Orleans. 

In this video, Ellis and Delfeayo travelled from New Orleans to Maryland to play at a concert at at the Bethesda Blues and Jazz Club and then talk to Eric Felton about their home town:




Trombonist Delfeayo Marsalis is the fourth of six sons born in 1965 to Ellis and Dolores Marsalis, older brothers Branford and Wynton and younger brother Jason have all become professional musicians,  two other brothers are Ellis III and Mboya. Ellis Jr. for many years entertained at the famous Snug Harbour Jazz Club on Frenchman Street in New Orleans and such was his popularity and influence that many of his protégés got their first commercial gig at the venue. Delfeayo must surely have Snug Harbor Jazz Clubenjoyed the support of his father and brothers in developing his musical career but as with any artistic family there must have been a desire to stand out from the crowd. 

Jeff Simon in The Buffalo News sums it up: "Delfeayo is in many ways the most fun of the Marsalises, he is the family trombonist and record producer and he seems to be the family wise guy too."  Delfeayo decided on the trombone after trying bass and drums and was inspired by J.J. Johnson and other trombonists from the great big bands of Duke Ellington and Tommy Dorsey.  He studied music, producing, and engineering at Berklee College of Music and made his initial reputation as a record producer starting in 1985.  His first album as a band leader was called Pontius Pilate's Decision which is perhaps not the catchiest of titles but notwithstanding that, the album made a great impression with a track called The Weary Ways of Mary Magdalene attracting particular praise.



Listen to The Weary Ways of Mary Magdalene




A more recent album that probably hints at Delfeayo's views on society is called Make America Great Again with the title track including a narration by actor Wendell Pierce.  Pierce took the lead role in a TV drama called Treme, named after a working class neighbourhood of New Orleans that was badly damaged by Hurricane Katrina and then suffered in the ensuing chaotic response from the government authorities. Delfeayo has also worked as an educator for many years, composing jazz music specifically for young people,  lecturing in schools, serving as director of the Foundation for Artistic and Musical Excellence summer programme in Lawrenceville, New Jersey (1998-2002), founding the Uptown Music Theatre (UMT) in 2000, and implementing its Kidstown After School in three New Orleans grammar schools in 2009. 


Here is Delfeayo working on a blues with a young trombone student.




To date, UMT has staged 12 of Delfeayo's musicals involving more than 2,500 young people from New Orleans.  His Swinging With The Cool School, an introduction to jazz for parents and their children, was premiered at Children's Hospital as an experimental music therapy programme in 2006. In this video from March 2020, just before social distancing hit New Orleans, the kids at UMT made this video:




Delfeayo Marsalis formed the Uptown Jazz Orchestra in 2009 with the ambition of providing high class performances of great jazz orchestra pieces, either classic tunes composed by the likes of Duke Ellington, or more modern pieces that Delfeayo has composed himself or borrowed from other contemporary New Orleans jazz and brass bands.  They have a regular weekly gig at the Snug Harbour Jazz Club (where Ellis also regularly played). 


Here is the Uptown Jazz Orchestra playing Charles Mingus' Moanin'





Delfeayo Marsalis Jazz Party


Their new album Jazz Party is accompanied by an information booklet that contains an introductory section from Delfeayo that puts the music into the New Orleans context and also allows him to express some views on modern American society.  Talking about how music identifies a country he says "Ironically, in America an ethnic group that has been dehumanized, disregarded and disenfranchised is the one most responsible for creating the intangible sound of liberty, freedom and democracy through music." The impact of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 on his beloved city and its aftermath ("The world witnessed chaos, confusion, vulnerability and hysteria on such a grand scale that its occurrence in our United States was unbelievable to some.") sounds like a vivid and bitter memory.

The title track of the album Jazz Party has Tonya Boyd-Cannon on vocals and a gospel style groove clearly designed to get you into the Jazz Party mood while Blackbird Special, which was originally recorded by the Dirty Dozen Brass Band in 1984, includes whistles, a baritone solo and a very tight yet frantic big band sound. 7th Ward Boogaloo, is inspired by Creole style music and Raid On The Mingus House Party is a feast of polyphonic improvisation and according to Delfeayo is a  "song inspired by aspects of the social climate in America amidst steadily increasing social tensions - heightened by extreme political negativity, mass shootings and racial community divisions" - clearly a 'Jazz Party' may generate a darker mood.


Listen to 7th Ward Boogaloo





Mboya's Midnight Cocktail, named after Delfeayo's autistic brother, features an amusing but totally one-sided chat up line from a friendly, female bartender played by Karen Livers accompanied by spiritual music that is instantly recognisable as originating in New Orleans and if added emphasis were needed the thrack So New Orleans is a rap by Dr. Brice Miller sharing his experiences and recollections. Following a tribute to the great trumpet player Roy Hargrove the next track, Let Your Mind Be Free, is a classic from another New Orleans band - the Soul Rebels Brass Band - with a really quite inspirational melody and freely improvised backings with an outstandinggroove. Click on the picture if you would like to hear the Soul Rebels version of Let Your Mind Be Free.

Soul Rebels Brass Band


The last three tracks all feature musical conversations between the different members of this great band with Caribbean Second Line not only highlighting the iconic second line parades of New Orleans but also the contribution to the music from Caribbean rhythms, while the instrumental version of  Mboya's Midnight Cocktail is a great example of the collective improvisation first conceived by Buddy Bolden.


Soul Rebels Brass Band






Listen to Caribbean Second Line




The album is dedicated to the memory of Delfeayo's mother, Dolores Ferdinand Marsalis, and it is a sad and unfortunate coincidence that his father, Ellis Marsalis Jr., passed away shortly after the album was released.  

Delfeayo Marsalis is clearly not shy of expressing his opinion, nor taking action to improve a situation he feels strongly about, whether it be family, education, politics or the musical heritage of New Orleans.  Two of his creations, the Uptown Music Theatrewhich has won many awards for its outstanding productions and the Uptown Jazz Orchestra are testament to his skill and leadership.  The Jazz Party album is a very enjoyable collection of jazz music with a constant New Orleans theme running through it. It was designed to lift the spirits in a time which for many Americans left a lot to be desired - given the current situation it is needed more than ever.

Click here for details and samples of Jazz Party by the Uptown Jazz Orchestra


Delfeayo Marsalis Uptown Jazz Orchestra




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