By Lolis Eric Elie
Delmond Lambreaux (Rob Brown) sits in with Delfeayo Marsalis and the Uptown Jazz Orchestra at Snug Harbor during the second episode this season. We get to see Delfeayo wearing one of his hats, but there's much more to the work and music of the fourth of the six sons of Ellis and Delores Marsalis. Delfeayo is playing music out on the road now, as is often the case. We conducted this Q&A in a series of email exchanges.
My first memories of you are as the family recording engineer. The trombone came later, as I recall. You've produced some of the most important albums of our generation. Do you still do any of that work?
Delfeayo Marsalis: I started trombone and recording simultaneously, but since you don't need technique or tone to start recording (just check out 96 percent of today's pro-tools home studios), I was able to work immediately. As I see it, I had two major advantages over everyone else: One, I wanted to produce/record acoustic jazz and two, no one else my age wanted to produce/record acoustic jazz. The process I use can be costly, so I seldom produce anymore. When I do, it's usually a soundtrack or just as a favor to someone local.
What does a producer do on a jazz record?
Delfeayo Marsalis: Understanding and fulfilling the needs of the artist is paramount. For example, as complete as Branford and Wynton's musical concepts are, they need someone to provide critical thinking. Even if they don't accept the suggestion, it helps them understand their own music. I focus mostly on capturing a pure, rich sound and editing seamless songs. Sometimes I read scores, mark edit points or create the arrangements. Most great producers in jazz have complete musical skills.
How did you choose the trombone?
Delfeayo Marsalis: It looked like the most unique of the instruments. And it perfectly suits my personality as the peacekeeper in the family. Why do you think trombones are in the center of the jazz orchestra? To keep the trumpets as far away from the saxophones as possible!
The trombone is front and center in New Orleans music, but not so much in modern jazz. Which trombonists have influenced you?
Delfeayo Marsalis: I've learned a great deal about melodic construction and blending with other horns from the great traditional players like J.C. Higginbotham and Vic Dickenson. Playing ballads with a high level of emotion comes from Al Grey, Tyree Glenn and Tommy Dorsey. And articulation on faster tempos from J.J. Johnson, Curtis Fuller and Slide Hampton. Duke's trombone players were important, too, but I've also learned about flexibility (from both a technical and musical standpoint) from the avant-garde players like Roswell Rudd and George Lewis.
Tell me about the Uptown Jazz Orchestra, the group featured on 'Treme.' It's one of the few jazz big bands working in New Orleans.
Delfeayo Marsalis: I originally formed the Uptown Jazz Orchestra in 2008 so that New Orleans students could hear what a real swinging big band sounded like. It's important that in addition to seeing the many great brass bands and other funk-based groups around the city, students know about the more sophisticated styles of American music. It all emanates from the blues, but the emotional range of expression of a jazz orchestra that reads music and plays by ear is far greater than what is possible through only reading or only playing by ear. We have not connected with as many schools as I had hoped, but it's in the plans.
And yes, we're the only full-time jazz orchestra performing in public venues in New Orleans. It's a challenge, but the guys in the group are really committed to preserving important cultural aspects of the music. I also like that we're one of the few modern groups that dresses clean! It's always important to me that people and students see that we have enough respect for the music and the audience that we dress the part.
On your latest album, 'Such Sweet Thunder,' you've put down your composer's pen and taken up the rich scores of Duke Ellington. Why that particular Ellington piece?
Delfeayo Marsalis: The project began as a thesis paper at the University of Louisville, where I matriculated in 2004 and got a master's degree in jazz performance. It took on a life of its own after that. It was right up my alley because it required research and was a large scale work (similar to my first CD, 'Pontius Pilate's Decision'). 'Thunder' contains some of Duke's least developed material, so it was perfect for a modern-day makeover. In addition to scoring for fewer instruments, I added solo sections and expanded the material in several places, while maintaining the integrity of Duke's original intention. Compare mine to the original and you'll really realize how brilliant 'tis [laughs]!
We haven't even mentioned your public access television show and your summer musical theater program for kids. How do you balance all of this?
Delfeayo Marsalis: Barely! W.E.B. DuBois spoke of the Talented Tenth and their responsibility to the other 90 percent and yes, I feel I have been blessed in so many ways that I have a responsibility, especially to the younger generations. My brother Mboya, who is autistic, provides a lot of the inspiration, as well I feel indebted to the folks who invested time in me during my youth (and put the strap to my backside). They make me realize how long we've come in America and how much further we have to go.