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It’s a family affair

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Ellis Marsalis and his four jazz playing sons will be awarded a National Endowment for the Arts 2011 Jazz Masters Award as a family.

It’s the first time the U.S. arts organization has made a group award.

The family band is lead by pianist Ellis and includes trumpeter Wynton, saxophonist Branford, trombonist Delfeayo and percussionist Jason.

The other 2011 Jazz Masters are flutist Hubert Laws, saxophonist Dave Liebman, composer and arranger Johnny Mandel, and record producer and author Orrin Keepnews. The awards ceremony will be held in January in New York at Jazz at Lincoln Center.

I had the pleasure of seeing and hearing the Marsalis family perform in New Orleans in August 2001 in a concert to mark Ellis’s retirement as director of jazz studies at the University of New Orleans, a show recorded and broadcast by PBS and released on DVD.

The Marsalis clan was augmented by bassist Roland Guerin in what was a formidable band, and a rare appearance by the brothers who, at the time, were spread between New Orleans and New York City.

But as formidable as the whole band was, it couldn’t touch the two best-known brothers, Branford and Wynton, when they took off on Branford’s tune, Cain and Abel.

With Branford on tenor sax, the brothers turned in a truly stellar performance that, with all due respect to Ellis, the man of the evening, was what people will remember from the show. The brothers, who had had their difficulties in the past, hugged each other after the tune ended.

Besides being a very good jazz pianist, Ellis imbued a love of jazz and music in general to his sons, and to countless high school and university students through his long teaching career. Harry Connick Jr., the pianist, singer and band leader, was one of those students and performed with Ellis at the tribute concert as well.

Former Winnipegger Glenn Patscha was another student. He travelled to New Orleans when he was 18 to study piano with Ellis and has had success in jazz and rock.

While Wynton and Branford have eclipsed their father in terms of performance and recording success, Ellis’s legacy will be broader and longer-lasting in the number of musicians who owe at least part of their success to him.
 

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