Jazz pianist Ellis Marsalis sits in his small, windowless office at the University of New Orleans and glances around. The next several weeks require packing up his belongings and filling out the necessary forms in preparation for his Aug. 10 retirement from his post as UNO's Director of Jazz Studies Division -- a position he's held since its inception in 1989. Then Marsalis, in his typically nonchalant style, makes a remarkable declaration.
"A lot of times, I've never considered myself a teacher," says Marsalis. He then adds, "I've always considered myself like coaches do and borrowed that term from sports to describe what I do best.
"I've never even heard of a course called the theory of football or the theory of basketball," Marsalis continues. "Now, they have sessions where they talk about plays and the means by which to develop execution. But what follows is that you go out there on the court and you do it."
In a sparse auditorium of a classroom holding only a piano and a few music stands, Marsalis practices what he preaches. Once, during a class session at the start of a new semester, Marsalis wasted no time getting his combo students down to the business of playing. He asked a young trumpeter if he knew the jazz standard "Caravan." The student replied that he had the sheet music. This got a rise out of Marsalis. "The sheet is always secondary, always," he said. "They are a good reference, but only a reference. We've become slaves to books."
Marsalis, a New Orleans native who began playing professional saxophone when he was still in high school, began his education career in the early 1960s -- early teaching gigs included teaching elementary school music in Breaux Bridge. Always active on the New Orleans jazz scene, he joined the faculty of the newly instituted New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts (NOCCA) in 1974, to head the jazz department. Marsalis' reputation as a jazz educator quickly soared. He used his tenure at the school as his own workshop, a place where he could further consider how best to impart to students the concepts of improvisational music.
Early on, Marsalis realized that there is no simple formula, no one-size-fits-all approach to education. He remembers the time when then-theory and composition instructor Bert Braud gave a series of tests to his students, in an effort to get a composite view of his class to evaluate his teaching methods. Marsalis recalls that, at the end of the school year, Braud had thought his evaluative work was done.
"The following year the students come," Marsalis continues the story, "and they start from scratch, because it's a whole different bunch of students. You don't get anything that is so together that you can plug it in.
"That again reminds me of the idea of coaching," says Marsalis. "I mean you have to look at who you have, what you have, what the conditions are that you're functioning under and what you can expect in the way of support."
Wynton Marsalis, Ellis' second-oldest son, remembers his own NOCCA classes with his father. He says that one of Ellis' greatest assets is his ability to deal with who and what is on hand.
"When my daddy would be in class in the 1970s (at NOCCA), he'd be trying to teach us how to play (jazz)," Wynton recalls. "Most of the cats would be playing funk tunes by the time he turned his back to go to the blackboard. But he knew how to work with people and students who were hard-headed. That's one of his truly great specialties.
"You could put my daddy in some of the worst schools in New Orleans -- in the worst areas where people think the kids couldn't be taught -- and you give him a band, and in like five or ten years, he'd have a group of the most swingingest people ever.
"He would wear them down," explains Wynton, "because he believes in excellence. He would treat you like a human being and that you had stuff you thought about too. He was so used to toiling, see, trying to play his music and fight off that depression that came with the fact nobody wanted to hear it. He was so used to the struggle, that the fact that you didn't want to learn something wasn't going to wear him down."
Like the UNO jazz studies program, NOCCA has graduated many students who went on to achieve prominence in jazz. In addition to Wynton, who's now the Director of Jazz at Lincoln Center, NOCCA's alumni include three more of Marsalis' sons -- Branford, Delfeayo and Jason -- along with notables such as Harry Connick Jr., Terence Blanchard and Donald Harrison Jr. On Aug. 4, Ellis' four musical sons plus will join the pianist for the historic concert "From Satchmo to Marsalis" (see sidebar).
Such an impressive roster of alumni speaks to the performing arts school's success at its mission. But with the total number of students in Orleans Parish schools topping off at 84,000 -- and with NOCCA now accepting applications from around the state -- the school can't accept all local students who demonstrate talent. Yet Marsalis doesn't center his criticism of jazz education on issues of accessibility at NOCCA. In fact, when asked to address music education in both public and private schools, he flatly says he doesn't believe it exists. He's aware of what he calls "football bands" at half-time shows, and he acknowledges that some students receive music theory from certain teachers. But these don't jive with his view of education.
"My concept of any kind of education -- science education, math education -- is that there exists a consistency from whatever point it starts ... until it no longer continues and the goals have been reached," he explains. "What little I've seen (of music education) has been happenstance and depends upon the dedication of a particular teacher."
Until the arts reach the level of importance of sports in area schools, Marsalis says, he sees little hope for change. He recalls a time when his son Jason, now 24, was in high school, and Ellis asked him how many coaches he could name. Jason wasn't active in sports, but he still came up with five names. In contrast, Marsalis points out that a fairly typical marching band performing at a football game might have over 100 members and just one band director. It's a student/teacher ratio that's unthinkable in other situations, he notes.
Marsalis adds that he sees little difference between public and private schools when it comes to an overall emphasis on music -- except that private schools might have greater means to incorporate a desired program.
Most of all, Marsalis says, he is frustrated by the school system's disregard for students' individual talents and interests. Schools, he finds, are unable to celebrate differences. "I am by no means anti-school," he assures, but then continues: "They seek to conform and make everyone ride the same conveyor belt towards the same end. They talk about individuality like it's something you buy at the grocery store."
Whether it's students with a gift for mechanics or a gift for jazz, Marsalis says, people continue to be placed in classes and situations that have little relevancy to their unique interests. At UNO, he notes, undergraduate jazz majors are required to take six hours of science. Marsalis suggests that if a reduction in these hours isn't possible, at least he'd like to see courses that would be more applicable to his students' needs. For example, he proposes that a physics class could address such matters as the physical properties of instruments, and elements such as pitch and vibration.
Wish lists aside, Marsalis says he was fortunate to be able to head and develop UNO's unique jazz studies program. "Chancellor (Gregory) O'Brien is the first chancellor that I've heard of that supported four-full time tenure-track jazz teachers -- not just adjunct -- at a university in a degreed program," says Marsalis of the man who offered him the position.
At the time, Marsalis was teaching at Virginia Commonwealth University. His departure from New Orleans had been noted as a sign of the general ill health of jazz in the city.
"When I came to the University of New Orleans in 1987, I read about Ellis and (his wife) Delores leaving and how it was a real blow to the life and future of jazz in New Orleans," remembers O'Brien. "Several people in the community said to me, 'If you really want to help New Orleans and make a good impression for UNO, call Ellis and see if you can get him back.'"
O'Brien took their suggestions. He told Marsalis that he wanted to figure out a way to bring him back home. Marsalis' telling reply was that they had never sold their house.
"It was really important that New Orleans not lose its role as the birthplace and center of jazz that it had been earlier," continues O'Brien. "It was good for the university in terms of building a quality program that could quickly achieve national prominence and national preeminence. That has been done under Professor Marsalis' leadership and, I need to add, with the great faculty that he brought."
Adds O'Brien: "When he first came (back) to New Orleans, he said, 'Jazz isn't about music, it's about life. I want our students to learn more about this community and the history of American culture because jazz is an American art form that mixes all of these different cultures.' His philosophy about teaching was truly amazing to me and it's clearly been wonderfully effective."
Like the rest of his musical brothers, Jason Marsalis learned first-hand his father's approach to education. "He always stresses the art of discovery," he says. "What that means is instead of telling a musician everything, you tell them just enough so he'll discover certain things on his own."
From Ellis Marsalis' perspective, UNO enjoyed two advantages in its success in instituting a successful jazz studies program -- its comparative youthfulness and its location. Opened in 1959, the university remains in a state of continuum that allows for new ideas.
"I remember years ago, there seemed to have been a plethora of ignorance in this town -- across the board -- and there were seven universities at the time," says Marsalis. "And I said, 'Man, this don't make no sense.' It dawned on me later on that there was no public university -- all of them were private schools.
"In talking to students at UNO, they come from Franklin, they come from Houma, they come from places where if there's no public university, forget it. At one time, especially if you were black, if you were from the southern part of Louisiana and you wanted to go to college you went to Southern (Southern University of Baton Rouge). If you were from the northern part of the state you went to Grambling. That was it."
UNO's location also meant the school could provide more than professors and buildings to its jazz students. As UNO jazz studies faculty member and saxophonist Harold Battiste once pointed out, the university's campus is really the city of New Orleans.
"Being in New Orleans has much to do with the success of these kids developing as players," Ellis Marsalis agrees. "There's only so much we can do as teachers anyway. If you go in this club or that club you'll see the results of what happened here. And that, I think, is necessary."
In Marsalis' book, the college classroom is certainly not the only source of education. He jokingly confides that nobody has ever asked him if he had a college degree when he was on a bandstand.
"To say that Louis Armstrong didn't have a formal education, is simply to say that he was not certified by an institution," Marsalis says. "Louis Armstrong sat in Fletcher Henderson's band. You had to read fly specks to be in that band. Now, Louis Armstrong learned the fundamentals from someone who taught him that. That's formal education."
Marsalis remembers participating on a panel discussion in which someone asked how the kids playing music on the streets could be brought into universities. In what was undoubtedly an unanticipated response, Marsalis answered: "Hey man, if ain't broke, don't fix it. Why would you want to do that?'"
He explains: "That's not even what they're even about. And when they get there, what are they supposed to do? Now if you want to talk about inducing a better education overall, then you fix the schools they go to."
Marsalis has seen enviable high school music programs in other parts of the country, but he doesn't believe that many of those students necessarily went on to careers in music. After the students graduate, he surmises, horns and drums are likely packed up as remnants of an extracurricular activity that now mainly serves to brighten college applications.
"Now a lot of the kids in New Orleans that get two or three scales and a couple of trad tunes in junior high school and start a brass band go out on the street, open up their cases and start making some money."
Marsalis encourages his students to participate on the local scene -- a scene in which he himself has long been thoroughly entrenched. He has held a regular spot on Snug Harbor's schedule since the club opened in 1983, and he's gained international recognition from his recordings and personal appearances. With all that, however, Marsalis begs ignorance in commenting on the state of jazz in New Orleans today.
"I don't really know because I don't hang out," he says, "and if you don't really hang out, you don't know what's going on."
However, Marsalis is encouraged to hear in conversation that many of this city's bassists turned up at a recent Nicholas Payton-led performance that included bass wizard Bob Hurst.
"See, now that's an indication right there," declares Marsalis. "If the information can get to instrumentalists about a player like Bob Hurst who is not a headliner, then the jazz community is alive and well."
Marsalis' post-retirement plans remain vague. He will continue to play jazz and spend more time with his family. He talks about continuing teaching, perhaps in residencies, and he looks forward to working with Jason in further developing the ELM recording label. He also wants to document his work in jazz education, including a possible book.
Don't look for any titles like "How To Learn To Play Jazz," however. Says Marsalis: "I have no interest in doing that, because I don't think that it has very much validity."
If Marsalis ruled the world, he says, his wishes for jazz would be modest. Acknowledging that jazz is contingent on free enterprise (which he wouldn't want any other way), Marsalis would first proclaim that all music clubs -- not just jazz spots -- should receive favorable tax considerations. "They not only supply people with jobs but live music," he explains.
His second proclamation comes as no surprise. "All the clubs that were serious about music would get a break on grand pianos."
In addition to celebrating the legacy of Louis Armstrong, the purpose of the "Armstrong to Marsalis" concert is to begin the process of raising money to endow an expanded jazz program at UNO in Ellis Marsalis' name. It's an altogether suitable tribute to a teacher and musician who touched many musicians, not the least of which will be joining him in concert.
"He left people different from how he found them, and I like to think in a better way," says Wynton Marsalis. "He's a consciousness man."