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‘Fueled By Passion,’ Ellis Marsalis On Music, Success And Teaching

Courtesy of The Kurland Agency
Ellis Marsalis will perform with his trio at the University of Northern Colorado/Greeley Jazz Fest.

No conversation about jazz is complete without talking about the Marsalis family. Brothers Branford, Wynton, Delfeayo and Jason are known around the world. Then there’s Ellis – the patriarch.

The New Orleans composer, pianist and teacher is known for forging his own path – playing bebop instead of Dixieland, and for pursuing teaching over touring. We caught up with the 81-year-old ahead of his performance at the University of Northern Colorado/Greeley Jazz Festival to find out more about his life and his legacy.

Interview Highlights With Ellis Marsalis

On The ‘Jazz’ Label

“See the thing about jazz is that the term itself serves as a certain amount of obfuscation in terms of Western music. Duke Ellington disavowed jazz as a significant title of anything. He said, ‘you got three types of music. Good music, bad music and the other kind.’ I’m not sure if I could think in terms of jazz in any absolute sense… I’m always trying to figure a way – not to cause any controversy – but a way to explain what I do outside of the terminology referring to jazz.”

On The Idea Of ‘Making It’

“I never thought of myself as having a career because I didn’t start to play significantly out of the city of New Orleans until Wynton’s management asked me if I wanted to find some jobs for me to play with a group and I said, ‘Well, yeah, OK.’ … Careers come with understanding of the business of something, whatever your career is. I was only fueled by the passion to play this music.”

On Teaching

“There were several different periods where things that came together helped me to get a better understanding of the music that I was trying to play. One of those things was having a teaching position at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts, which meant that I had to figure a way to teach young people about this music that I have a passion for and which most of them couldn’t care less about.”

Stacy was KUNC's arts and culture reporter from 2015 to 2021.
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