"It is with great pride and humility that I accept this award on behalf of the Marsalis family. The NEA Jazz Masters Fellowship Award has special meaning to me as I was a member of the jazz panel at the inception of this award and had the opportunity to cast subsequent votes for many of the surviving jazz giants during my tenure. At that time I had no idea that we would be so honored by the NEA and placed in the company of such an esteemed group of individuals.
"I hope my sons and I continue to exemplify the quality of excellence in the work that is expected from the recipient of such an honor. I wish to thank all of those panel members who consider our family worthy of this award and assure them we will not disappoint them in the future." - Ellis Marsalis for the Marsalis Family
It is perhaps not surprising that the first group award of the NEA Jazz Masters has gone to the Marsalis family, which boasts five members who have impacted the field of jazz.
The story starts in New Orleans, with the birth of Ellis, Jr. in 1934. Although the city was noted for Dixieland and rhythm-and-blues, Ellis was more interested in bebop. In addition to his skillful piano playing, he became the director of jazz studies at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts high school in 1974, mentoring such contemporary artists as Terence Blanchard, and Harry Connick, Jr. (Branford, Wynton, Delfeayo, and Jason attended the center as well). Later, he headed the jazz studies department of the University of New Orleans for 12 years. In 2008, Ellis was inducted into the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame.
The story doesn't end with Ellis though -- four of his sons continued in the family business of music, including Branford and Wynton, both whom started out in Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers and then began working together on albums that introduced some of the emerging stars in the music: Marcus Roberts, Kenny Kirkland, Jeff Watts, and Wessell Anderson, among others.
For two years during the 1990s, Branford was the musical director of The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, making jazz more widely known to the general public. After Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans in 2005, Branford teamed with Harry Connick, Jr. and Habitat for Humanity to create Musicians' Village in the city's Uppe Ninth Ward to assist New Orleans musicians.
In 1996, Wynton co-founded Jazz at Lincoln Center (JALC), becoming its artistic director and music director of the JALC Orchestra. In 1997, he became the first jazz artist to be awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Music for his work Blood on the Fields. In addition to numerous awards and honorary doctorates he received, Wynton was also awarded the National Medal of Arts in 2005.
Younger brother Delfeayo has proven himself a well-regarded jazz producer, working with various family members throughout the years. His insistence upon recording "without usage of the dreaded bass direct" for Branford in the 1980s was the key element to the change in jazz recording techniques over the past 20 years. As a noted trombonist, Delfeayo has also played on his brothers' albums as well as fronting his own band.
Jason, the youngest of the Marsalis sons, took up drumming at age six and began sitting in with his father's band at age seven, then made his recording debut at age 13 on Delfeayo's Pontius Pilate's Decision. He joined the band Los Hombres Calientes with Irvin Mayfield and Bill Summers in 1998, playing on their first two albums, which blended Afro-Cuban and Latin American elements with jazz.
The Marsalis family, together and individually, have made significant contributions to the preservation of jazz, the expansion of the art form, and the education of students of jazz.
Ellis Marsalis, The Classic Ellis Marsalis, Boplicity, 1963
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