Marsalis Masters: New Orleans’ First Family of Jazz

By: Ian McNulty

When the University of New Orleans wanted to hold a concert in 2001 to mark the retirement of the school’s jazz studies director, organizers had to recruit just one bass player to round out their ensemble for the show. They knew all the rest of the players they needed – the trumpeter, the trombonist, the drummer and the saxophonist – would be at the retirement party regardless. Of course, that’s because the honoree was their father – Ellis Marsalis, the modern jazz master and patriarch of what has been called “the first family of jazz.”

That this retirement party concert would be recorded, packaged and distributed as a major musical release is no surprise given the stature the members of the Marsalis family performing on it hold in the jazz world. “The first family of jazz” is quite a title to live up to, though this clan does so in several distinct but related ways.

Firstly, they are a family of talented musicians. Ellis the father is a pianist, and four of his six sons – Branford, Wynton, Delfeayo and Jason – each took up the mantle (his sons Ellis III and Miboya chose other careers). As musicians, they are prolific, with enough recordings bearing the Marsalis name to constitute its own collection. But the family’s full impact comes not just from their commercial successes but from the various roles they have held in the development of modern American jazz, both in terms of innovation and education.


Ellis had his first gig in 1949 playing tenor sax for a local New Orleans band called the Groovy Boys, but soon devoted himself to serious study of the piano. He joined the Marine Corps and was assigned to the service’s band, which gave weekly TV performances in the mid-1950s. Returning to New Orleans, he gigged around town, playing with Bourbon Street jazz legend Al Hirt among many others. By the 1970s, however, he began a career in music education that would become a cornerstone of his legacy in music. From his post at the public school system’s New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts, he taught countless young people including many who would go on to great musical acclaim, including Grammy Award-winner Harry Connick Jr. and Grammy Award-nominee Terence Blanchard. Through the 1990s, he led the jazz studies program at the University of New Orleans.

Of all the musicians who learned at his side, however, Ellis’ sons proved the most apt pupils. His two eldest sons, Branford and Wynton, each burst onto the music scene in the early 1980s, first joining jazz master Art Blakey for a tour of Europe with his ensemble the Jazz Messengers. Solo recordings quickly followed for Branford the saxophonist and Wynton the trumpeter as did international attention.


Wynton left New Orleans for New York, where he has since built a musical career that has made him both a world-renowned performer and recording artist as well as a leader in promoting the art form to new audiences. In addition to contemporary jazz, Wynton has maintained a highly successful classical music career including concert, chamber and solo music for trumpet. In 1983, he won Grammy Awards in both classical and jazz, making him the first recording artist to win in both categories simultaneously. He has since netted a total of eight Grammy Awards for his jazz and classical recordings. In 1997 he won the Pulitzer Prize in music for his composition Blood On the Fields, a musical work about slavery.

In 1987, he co-founded Jazz at Lincoln Center, the world’s most prominent jazz institution where he serves as director today. Jazz education has been a centerpiece of Wynton’s work with the New York organization, with highly successful programs such as his Jazz for Young People series. This program in turn spawned his award-winning National Public Radio series Marsalis on Music. While touring, Wynton and his bands regularly conduct classes at local schools, using the star power of his name to engage young audiences.

Though he lives in New York, Wynton is still very much involved with the cultural life of his native New Orleans. Soon after Hurricane Katrina struck, Wynton was named to the mayor’s Bring New Orleans Back Commission cultural committee and he frequently appeared in national media as a commentator and advocate for the city’s cultural traditions after the storm. He had long been working in collaboration with the Ghanaian master drummer Yacub Addy on a composition called Congo Square. This 80-minute, 14-piece work drawing on the history and spirituality of Congo Square, a modern day park where in antebellum days slaves were allowed to congregate, play drums and dance. Wynton debuted the piece in the same park on a sultry afternoon during the 2006 French Quarter Festival, an especially celebratory event for the community in the year after Hurricane Katrina.


The diversity of Branford’s musical projects seems as boundless as Wynton’s, bringing his influence to a wide range of areas. From contemporary jazz, Branford has also taken on classical material, recording and performing with chamber orchestras. In 1991, his work on the music for Spike Lee’s film “Mo’ Better Blues” resulted in a merging of jazz and rap. A year later, he found himself on national TV every night as musical director for the Tonight Show. In 1994, his direction took an avant garde bend with the formation of Buckshot LeFonque, a project blending rock, R&B, hip-hop and blues with a jazz sensibility with a dash of spoken word poetry courtesy of Maya Angelou.

Following in his father’s footsteps as a jazz educator, Branford has been artist in residence at several major American universities, and brings his Marsalis Jams educational music series to other campuses around the country. A Grammy-award winner, Branford began the recording label Marsalis Music, which produces his own music and that of promising young performers.


Delfeayo picked up the trombone, and by age 17 cut his first recording with his father. He has since been part of more than 70 major-label recordings, working with his brothers Branford and Wynton and many other top names in jazz. Four of his productions have won Grammy awards. Delfeayo has been the featured trombone soloist with such heavy hitters as Ray Charles and Fats Domino.

Like his brothers, Delfeayo’s work has tackled often difficult subjects and taken him far outside the realm of jazz standards and the classical canon. For instance, his original composition Pontius Pilate’s Decision is a 70-minute meditation on the pivotal biblical figure.


The youngest of the musical Marsalis brothers, Jason became the family’s drummer boy at the tender age of three when he started playing on toy drums. At age 14, he made his first appearance on the recording Heart of Gold with his father and played on two more Ellis Marsalis releases in the next few years. One of Jason’s most well-received projects was Los Hombres Calientes, a cross-cultural group he co-founded with New Orleans trumpeter Irvin Mayfield and legendary percussionist Bill Summers. The group combined Latin, Afro-Cuban, African and other styles with modern jazz, creating a hot sound that proved very popular in New Orleans and elsewhere. Jason left the band to pursue his solo career. He is now working with his father and his mother Dolores on a new recording label, to be called Elm Records.

Apart from scoring an invitation to the next Marsalis family celebration, the best place for visitors to New Orleans to catch a Marsalis performance is at Snug Harbor (626 Frenchmen St., 504-949-0696), the city’s premier contemporary jazz venue. Ellis performs there regularly, often with Jason on drums.