By Anita Malhotra
Born in 1977, drummer, vibraphonist and composer Jason Marsalis is the youngest member of the renowned Marsalis family of New Orleans jazz musicians, which includes his father Ellis Marsalis, Jr., and his brothers Wynton, Branford and Delfeayo.
As a drummer, he began performing at an early age, first with his father and then in groups like Casa Samba, Los Hombres Calientes and the Marcus Roberts Trio. Fourteen years ago, he turned his focus to the vibraphone, forming the Jason Marsalis Vibes Quartet and releasing two vibraphone CDs: Music Update (2009) and In a World of Mallets (2013). His percussion skills are also featured on more than 65 other CDs.
Anita Malhotra interviewed Jason Marsalis over breakfast at the Who Dat Coffee Café in the Marigny neighborhood of New Orleans on February 12, 2014.
AM: How old were you when you started playing music?
JM: Five. Violin was my first instrument, and then drums was my second at age six.
AM: How did you decide on percussion ?
JM: I grew up playing in string orchestras. From first, second and third grade I always played in string orchestras. So in fifth grade I’m in a junior youth orchestra, and I walk in and I see percussion instruments in the back of the orchestra. And from that point on, the violin’s days were numbered. That was like, “Why didn’t anybody tell me that they had this?” I just didn’t know – seeing timpani and snare drum and bass drum. And so, the following year the violin was over, and that’s when I started pursuing percussion.
AM: I read that it was your mother who wanted you to play the violin.
JM: Yeah, I think deep down she probably wanted me to play classical music. I mean, she’s fine with what I’m doing now but I think she was probably thinking of something having to do with a stable lifestyle, so to speak.
AM: Were any of your brothers at home when you were young, and did they influence you musically?
JM: Yeah, but when I was really, really small. Now, Delfeayo had a big influence, only because he was the last one to go of the first four. Sometimes he would sit in on gigs, and sometimes I’d sit in with him. But I was really, really young when Branford left. By the time Wynton left I was two years old. I know that they would play records, and I would check some of those out, but that was about it.
AM: How did you develop your musical skills when you were young?
JM: As a kid it was playing violin and reading music. A little bit later I learned how to read snare drum music and I would practice that. There were three years we lived in Richmond, Virginia – ’86 to ’89, and I only point this out because in Richmond I wasn’t practicing as much as I should have. But when we came back to New Orleans, things changed drastically because I knew I was going to get a chance to play a lot more so I did a lot more studying, I did a little more practicing. That’s when I started listening to more people and absorbing more music. Let’s get into what Ornette Coleman is really dealing with. Let’s check out some Charles Mingus. Really getting into it.
AM: I understand you played quite a bit with your dad when you were younger.
JM: Oh yeah, I still work with him from time to time. I would always sit in on a song or two on drums with my father when I was a kid – you know, six, seven, eight years old. But when I turned 13 he started actually hiring me to do the full shows with him. It took me a while to figure out how to play with him. I mean there’s making the gig and trying to sound good, but then there’s really playing with him. It wasn’t until later in high school that I realized, “Oh, okay. This is what I’m supposed to do.”
AM: Did you play with your brothers as well during that period?
JM: Delfeayo, yeah. He was in town in the early ’90s and I was even on his first record. So we had the chance to play a lot. With Wynton and Branford, we did play, but not very much. They had their own groups and I’d sometimes fill in here and there, but it wasn’t as much.
AM: As a youngster, did you feel pressured to be as famous as your brothers?
JM: No, because I wanted to play. And as far as the fame thing, it looked very different when I was coming along. In my day, folks that were famous – it was very fleeting. I’ll give you a great example. When MC Hammer came out in the early ’90s, he was a humongous star on the level of Michael Jackson. And then within three years, all of the sudden, the same kids that were into Hammer were laughing at him. And there was just a lot of stuff that happened – especially in popular music – where I’m thinking, “I don’t know if I want to be a part of that. Y’all can have it.” So for me, fame was not something I really worried about. I worry about making great music – being successful at it, but fame – they can have it.
AM: One of your biggest changes was from being a percussionist to focusing on the vibraphone. What propelled you to make that transition?
JM: In high school, when my father noticed that I was moving into the direction of classical percussion, he suggested that I get a set of vibes to practice on. And my first thought was, “Yeah, sure, that’s a good idea.” Then my second thought was, “There haven’t been a lot of vibe players in jazz music.”
So that’s what started my playing of the instrument and pursuing of the instrument. Now, I decided to do shows as a leader because I had ideas and it was a direction I wanted to pursue. And after a while I started to hear more and more music and more possibilities of what I wanted to do. And when I saw that there were many things that could be done with the instrumentation of vibraphone with a rhythm section, that’s what inspired me to want to pursue it even more. Because earlier in the history of music there haven’t been a lot of groups in that format. You’d be surprised. I mean there’s the Modern Jazz Quartet and that’s mostly it. There hasn’t been a lot.
I will say that there is a resurgence with the vibraphone. There’s more and more people playing it. I’d like to see a bigger explosion of players because there’s people that come to me and say, “Yeah, vibes, there’s not many vibe players.” I’ve said, “Oh, there are. You’re just not hearing about them yet, but they’re out here.”
AM: You studied music at university, and composition as well. How has that influenced your playing as a drummer and a vibraphonist?
JM: I was in the classical division at Loyola University, and it was really continuing the studies of classical music that I had started in high school. I attended the Eastman music festival for two summers and the New Orleans Centre for Creative Arts, and I really put a lot together in those years. And so Loyola was just continuing and getting performance experience in classical music. But at the same time I did study composition with a gentleman named Roger Dickerson, and that was very helpful also, because what I learned there was how to develop material – how to develop theme.
You know, when I’m playing a drum solo, I want to develop a theme. I don’t want to play just a bunch of fast notes to impress music students and other drummers. And the same goes for vibes. When I’m writing music – what is the theme I’m working with, how do I develop this? And also, I think studying classical music has influenced me in terms of understanding form and structure. How do these pieces begin? How do they end? What is it that’s in the middle? There’s obviously the sonata-allegro form of symphonic music, but how did guys break from that? What did they do that was different? What rules did they understand that they were able to break?
I will never forget when I first heard Le Sacre du Printemps – The Rite of Spring of Igor Stravinsky – and it blew my mind. Because I had never heard anything like that before in classical music. And it also in a very abstract way reminded me of some of my brothers’ music. That’s when I said, “Yeah, this is the kind of music they were checking out” because of the abstract harmony and the complex rhythms and the power in the music.
AM: When you were young you played with a lot of different types of bands – like a samba band and a celtic group. Why did you do that?
JM: The reason I did it was because it was just other music to get into. I first heard the group Casa Samba and loved it and wanted to be a part of it. And I eventually got their number and showed up at rehearsals and I learned a whole bunch about playing drums and about Brazilian music from doing it. The Celtic music thing, I wasn’t really in a band per se, but there is a woman named Beth Patterson who does Celtic music, who’s somebody I knew from college. She’s a very interesting individual. And so she called me to record a few things and I said, “Yeah, that sounds great.”
AM: And there was also Los Hombres Calientes.
JM: Yes, Irvin Mayfield called me and said he had an idea for a band, that he wanted to get into some African music and he wanted me and Bill Summers. And I mentioned to Irvin, “If you haven’t been to Bill Summers’ house, you need to go because every Saturday he has Batá practice. Batá drumming is originally from Cuba. And he did. And eventually he got the other guys together and that led to us doing the first show at Snug Harbor, which for some reason just clicked with the audience. That’s why that band ended up being as big and as successful as it was. That very first show – people loved it – and I think it was probably because in New Orleans at that time, there weren’t really many jazz musicians merging with Afro-Cuban music.
AM: Tell me about your most recent CD, In a World of Mallets. How did that come about?
JM: Well, this record really documents that I have a band now. I started to seriously play vibes in performances 14 years ago, and it took me a while to figure out the sound that I wanted in the music and the kind of music that I wanted to play and the kind of music that I would write. And so I’d made a recording about six years ago called Music Update. And it was just a record to let the people know what I’ve been doing. It wasn’t the greatest record, but it served its purpose.
And shortly after that, the group I had started to tour more and started to play more shows. And the band’s sound started getting better and better. So there came a point where I knew the band was ready to make another record. And I think it was after hearing the bass player – his own session, which had the same guys – that I said, “Okay, I think we’re ready to go back to the studio now and make this record.”
AM: How do you compose something – let’s say for this CD?
JM: The way that it works is there are melodies, but a lot of times there’s composition. So I may write a melody that I’m playing and there’s parts that the drums and bass and piano may have. Sometimes, those are improvised and sometimes I’ll give the drummer a figure and then he plays based on that. And so, with each of the pieces that I wrote for this CD, I wrote the pieces first and then I came up with the solo sections based on whatever the harmony was under that melody. But I also tried to utilize different rhythms. So there were things that are improvised but composed also.
AM: At any point did you consider doing traditional jazz rather than the direction in which you went?
JM: That’s an interesting question, because our family was a bit of an anomaly in terms of New Orleans, and here’s why. On my mother’s side there were musicians on her side that actually were traditional musicians, like Alphonse Picou, who recorded with people like Jelly Roll Morton, and Wellman Braud, who was a bassist with the Duke Ellington orchestra.
My father’s side – there weren’t any. He was the first one. And when he was in his 20s, be-bop music was really the thing that was of his era. That’s what he was into. He didn’t really get into traditional until the ‘70s, and ironically enough his children – both Wynton and Branford – had the same path. When they first came out they were not interested in traditional music either. They were interested in the music of the ‘50s and‘60s: Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Wayne Shorter, Freddie Hubbard, Clifford Brown. Later on, they had realized, “Wait, we’ve actually taken this traditional music for granted. We should go back and check more of this out,” which they did.
Now, in my case, it was a little different. I was into a lot of different things growing up, and trad was something that I wasn’t playing but I was interested in. In fact, I remember first getting the recordings of Warren “Baby” Dodds, which I loved, and I started appropriating a lot of that right away.
And then, it was somewhere later after college, I started giving in to playing that music. And so now it’s a part of what it is that I do. You know, I do create things that are modern but I also play traditional things. And I’m also interested in using those traditional elements in modern ways. That’s going to be the next step. In fact, there’s a tune that I’ve written that’s going to be on the next record that explores that. And I’m looking forward to folks hearing it.
AM: Tell me about your work with the Marcus Roberts Trio and what that did for your playing.
JM: I think what it taught me was how to let music take over and how to use space effectively. The reason why I stayed so long is because Marcus was really looking for something to do differently in a trio format and he figured it out. And his latest record, From Rags to Rhythm, is a great demonstration of that. We use different themes that we play on but there’s these different changes in the music. So we’ll be playing a groove one minute, then we’ll be playing real quiet, then we’ll be swinging out – it’s not conventional trio music at all. It made me think more of the drums as a percussion instrument and not just a drum set. When it becomes a percussion instrument then you think of orchestration and how you want to orchestrate the drums and the music, and not just playing time.
AM: I read somewhere that you said “If jazz is to keep moving forward, all of the musical styles in jazz history have to be advanced while including musical styles outside the jazz realm.”
JM: Well, there’s a lot of things that can be done with rhythm. I mean, there is swing and I’ll never abandon that. But there are a lot of other rhythms and grooves around the world that can be used. There are sambas – Afro-Cuban rhythms, obviously, but there’s rhythms from Africa – things from New Guinea or from Ghana. Even music from Asia, for instance. And there’s other ways that swing can be used in other settings. But to explore that it’s important to understand all the things that have happened in the past and all the things that are possible there and say, “Okay, we can bring this into the future with these things.”
AM: What do you think of the trends in jazz these days?
JM: At some point – I can’t say when – I’m going to estimate probably either the ‘60s or ‘70s, it became about “what’s the next new thing.” And so, when jazz fusion hit, “Oh, that’s the new thing.” And that music would change every two years. It would be this, and then it would be something else, and then it would go more pop, and then it would be more mainstream.
And so then all of a sudden, when Wynton first hit the scene, you had a lot of guys that were not happy at all with what he was doing. Now mind you there were other reasons for it. There was the fact that you have this 19-year-old kid who was very outspoken with these opinions and folks were like, “Who are you? You’re 19. Go away.” So when Wynton did music that was swing-based, the attitude was, “Well, that’s been done already. Why are we going back to this?” Even though he was writing new music, it didn’t matter.
Writers and critics now – it’s all about the new thing. That’s why a lot of the music in New York I can’t stand because it becomes about, “They’re not slaves to the past. They’re bringing in new ideas. And they’re not going to let the music die by being stuck in the past.” What you get is this new music that takes out a lot of the traditional elements. And I believe that kind of conversation is what drove the music to where it is now when you have guys that don’t swing, don’t know any tunes, they don’t know any standards. Now, one thing I like about a place like New Orleans is that music is a part of the culture. You’ll get things that are passed down, too, each generation. In a place like New York, that hasn’t happened.
AM: What do you have coming up musically?
JM: I’m working on my next recording as a leader on the vibes – the follow-up from In a World of Mallets. And the music is in place – we just have to play it more and more and get comfortable with it. Also, there’s a recording I made with my father years ago that’s finally going to be released like soon. It’s called On the Second Occasion. It was trio music we recorded 10 years ago that hasn’t been released and I’m just glad that I’m finally able to release it.
And also, there’ll always be music from Marcus Roberts. There’s a suite that he recorded with horns called Romance, Swing, and the Blues. I’m not sure when he’s going to put that out but he is working on it. We’ve done on live shows a trio version of the John Coltrane album Crescent, and I’m hoping we get to record that this year. I’m really hoping we get to do that because the last time we did it was in Nashville a few weeks ago, and the audience just loved it. They couldn’t believe it.
Jason Marsalis will be performing on vibes with Chase Jordan at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival on May 2 and with several other bands throughout the festival. When not touring in the Americas or Europe, he can be heard in New Orleans at Snug Harbor, Irvin Mayfield’s Jazz Playhouse and other venues. For more information about Jason Marsalis, visit jasonmarsalis.com.