The reputation of Ellis Marsalis, now well established in the jazz community, has been acquired, ironically, not through his contributions as a pianist, composer and educator, but vicariously through his achievements as a father. He is the father of six sons, two of whom, Wynton and Branford, are world-class names; two others, Delfeayo and 12-year-old Jason, seem destined for comparable musical success.
The reflected glory has earned him personal recognition; he's now playing major club dates of his own. Leading a quartet, he opened a six-day run Tuesday at Catalina Bar & Grill.
"I'm looking forward to being in Los Angeles again," said the senior Marsalis in a phone call from his New Orleans home. "I used to jam there when I was in the Marines, around 1956-58."
For his sons, learning about jazz was no problem, given the countless private teachers and public institutions available to students since the 1950s. A question arose, though: How did Ellis Marsalis, born when jazz education was in its infancy, acquire his own knowledge?
"It wasn't hard," he said. "For formal study of European music I went to Xavier University Junior School of Music; then I studied at Dillard University, with a major in music education. For jazz, there were ample opportunities for those of us who were adventurous in spirit. A lady at the Bop Shop on Rampart Street would spread the word any time a new Charlie Parker record came in. We also had a local radio show around 1948 that played Dizzy, Bird, Charlie Ventura.
"When I got to high school age I found out how many great players we had right in the city. There was no TV, and nightclubs were the primary source of entertainment for the black community. I began playing for strippers, comedians, dancers, and after hours we'd meet all the jazz guys at jam sessions."
He landed his first paying gig at 13, playing on weekends during high school. "Eight bucks a night was a lot of money then. My kids wound up doing the same kind of thing, but they were so much wiser and better paid."
At Dillard, Marsalis met saxophonist Harold Batiste, whom he calls a major influence.
After his two years in the Marines, Marsalis led his own quartet, worked at the New Orleans Playboy Club, and recorded with Cannonball Adderley. Then came marriage, the decision to settle down, and two years in the Louisiana backwoods as a choral director and high school band leader. Returning to the Playboy Club in 1967, he met Al Hirt, who offered him a job.
His music education degree served Marsalis well in 1974 when the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts offered him a post on the faculty. He stayed there more than a decade before teaching for two years at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond. Last year, back home, he took a teaching job at the University of New Orleans.
In 1982, Marsalis played four of his own compositions in an LP called "Fathers And Sons," along with Wynton and Branford. He is a featured soloist on a new album by British saxophonist Courtney Pine, whose group follows Marsalis into Catalina's next week.
The children, however, are not unaware of their debt. As Branford Marsalis put it the other day: "My dad is a great, charismatic guy. I never studied with him but I watched him; he leads by example. I can't really say enough about him. I love him to death."