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Speaking on jazz education: Ellis Marsalis – Interview

Ellis, Marsalis, regarded by many as the best modern jazz pianist
in New Orleans, is the director of the jazz studies program in the
Department of Music at the University of New Orleans (UNO).

Born Nov. 14, 1934, he began formal studies at the Xavier
University Junior School of Music when he was eleven years old.
Marsalis graduated from Dillard University with a bachelor’s degree in
Music Education and earned a master’s degree in Music Education from
Loyola University in New Orleans.

Aside from UNO, Marsalis has taught at Xavier University, Loyola
University, and the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts. In addition
to nurturing the skills of the likes to trumpeter Terrance Blanchard,
saxophonist Donald Harrison, and pianist Harry Connick Jr., four of his
six sons — trumpeter Wynton, saxophonist Branford, trombonist
Delfeayo, and drummer Jason — have also gone on to distinguished
careers in music.

In December, Black Issues Staff Writer Ronald Roach traveled to New
Orleans to visit the birthplace of jazz and talk with one of the
medium’s most-respected teachers and performers. The following is
excerpted from the discussion.

Why was it important to establish a jazz performance program at the University of New Orleans?

Well, first of all, I was given the opportunity. The chancellor of
the university wanted that. It wasn’t something that I just decided to
do and create it myself. But I think that New Orleans is the best
learning town in the country, if not the world, as far as jazz is

The nature of the economy here, as well as the laws that have been
established over many years, make it conducive for musicians to work.
For example, most places in most states say you cannot go into a bar,
buy a drink, and decide to leave and tell the bartender to give [you] a
cold cup and walk out the door with the drink in your hand. That kind
of a situation makes New Orleans unique for people who want to come
here to party.

Anyplace where you have the legal means to party to the excess, the
opportunities for musicians increase — certain kinds of musicians.
Now, we don’t have a Carnegie Hall; we don’t have a Lincoln Center; we
don’t have Alice Tully; the Metropolitan is not here; and all of those
things which attract huge orchestras — major performances at $50 a
ticket — and all those things that are in New York and to some extent

You see, we as a city cater to people who come in with a slightly
different kind of budget…. People who want food and music and a good
time will come to New Orleans because it’s rather difficult to find
what you can find here if you go to Little Rock, Arkansas, or Jackson,

What is your outlook on jazz in the academy?

Now, I don’t know what the future is for jazz in a certain context.
What we’re looking at is the training of musicians who are acquiring
jazz skills as a part of other musical skills that are marketable.

For example, there are ensembles like “Bela Fleck and the
Flecktones.” How many kinds of music are contained inside of that band?
You see that’s what I’m talking about. That’s a twenty-first-century
group. You may find people who are in that group who have Bluegrass
skills, who have jazz skills, and who have classical skills.

The skills are the things that count. And I think essentially the
universities could eventually begin to provide the development of
skills in a lateral sense. Universities have always provided skills in
a vertical sense. So when we look at music [education), music in
colleges and universities has always been [used to] a vertical approach.

Now, what we try to do is a lateral approach and it’s changing.
Like the percussionist here: he recently went to Florida State in
Tallahassee to interview. They have a world percussion ensemble. They
have a classical percussion ensemble. They have a jazz percussion
ensemble. They have a thousand music majors. They have marching bands
[and] symphony orchestras. They have a piano faculty. So they are
looking at music laterally, you see.

But they also seem to have the bucks. We don’t have the bucks.

In reality, when it comes to universities, the thing that I see as
far as jazz is concerned is that jazz is one more skill. And that, to
me, is the only thing that the university can really [teach]. If you
are a musician, you need to have skills which prepare you for the
marketplace. So jazz becomes another skill.

Now within the context of jazz, there’s a wider flexibility in
terms of employment. So having jazz skills means that you can get
convention jobs. You can play in different kinds of groups.

What do you consider to be strengths and weaknesses of the UNO jazz program?

One of the strong points is that we are able to create an
atmosphere — an atmosphere plus a laboratory effect for students to
practice and learn the skills of actual performance. We have courses
which are designed for that purpose.

On the downside, our vocal program is very weak. First of all, we
don’t have the funding line from the university to actually get a
full-time vocal person. So it means that what we really have to do is
go out and get the cart, and make sure it’s in good condition and then
try to go out and get the horse — which is the way things usually
operate. So we have about eight or nine students in our vocal

We have one person who is adjunct — which is a fancy word for
part-time — who is dealing with our percussion segment. That’s not
adequate, but it’s better than what we’ve been having. Our physical
facilities are woefully inadequate.

What are your concerns regarding the state of jazz in the public schools, particularly in the urban areas?

I’ve been concerned about it. Well, you see, here’s the thing you
got to realize: jazz is not an entity. It may be viewed as sort of a

If you’ve got a navy fleet, the flagship — the destroyer out there
— is probably the toughest thing out there. But that flagship doesn’t
mean a whole hell of a lot if you ain’t got a fleet. So jazz becomes
like that flagship.

But then, hardly any states at all mandate the arts as a
requirement for graduation. So that means that principal Y will say
that everybody in the elementary school has got to take music. And I’ve
seen that. Principals A,B,C,D,E,F,G, and H will say nothing. So it’s
almost like winning $10 million in the lottery. it’s the luck of the
draw with public schools.

Now if you understand that your kid needs to have certain kind of
development in artistic areas, you can search around and see what you
can find… Until we get a mandate and state legislatures say that the
arts must be required for graduation, we won’t make much progress.

COPYRIGHT 1998 Cox, Matthews & Associates

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