Ellis Marsalis took me to college recently, and what he said about jazz made me think about life. But first, the music. Where do those Marsalis boys get it? Not to mention Harry Connick Jr. and others.
Well, New Orleans pianist/educator Ellis Marsalis taught music to his sons, trumpet superstar Wynton Marsalis and brothers Branford (saxophone), Delfeayo (trombone), and Jason (drums), as well as to singer/pianist Connick, who is set to star in a Broadway revival of "The Pajama Game" next year.
Students at Boston's Berklee College of Music got a touch of the senior Marsalis in two recent workshops onstage. I attended the first one and had a fellow feeling with the seven young musicians who couldn't escape Marsalis's benign inquisition. He was nudging them to definewho they were in musical terms. His nudging reached beyond the footlights to make me wonder how I'd define myself.
There was Ellis Marsalis, live, in person, illustrating what he said on NPR after years in the classroom: "I never thought of myself as a teacher. I used to always look at myself as being a coach.... I always tried to key off of wherever the student was and just figure out what I needed to present to them to move from Point A to B."
I used to attend workshops for newspaper editors, and I recall that coaching was considered the best form of teaching. Isn't it better than rote and regimen in any field?
Marsalis began asking questions after all the students played extended solos in an ensemble piece they had prepared. What did one player think of another's solo? Oh, you thought it was good? Well, why?
Here's where life comes in. I thought how far Ellis's questions could be applied to personal relations and even world relations. Were the players merely listening "at" the music as if it were elevator music? Or were they listening "to" the music as if they wanted to hear it? Was each player listening not only to the others but to himself?
I'm sure I'd be appalled, embarrassed, or occasionally even pleased if I listened to myself. I can guess how often I've been thinking of something else and have listened at what people were saying instead of to it. Now I understand why people so often make a point of it when they feel listened to: He gave me his undivided attention. She made me feel I was the only person in the world at that moment.
Marsalis said he was known for being hard on bass players. And he did keep asking this swift-fingered one to loosen up, maybe play more half steps like the great Ron Carter. Don't err on the side of caution. Err on the side of adventure.
After they played some more, Marsalis asked a saxophone player what he heard in the bass playing. He thought there were more half steps.
Instant results. Think of the occasions in life when you hear about a fresh way of doing something, and then actually do it.
You don't have to be reckless, but err on the side of adventure.
Marsalis sat at the piano and, without preamble, started a bass figure. The young players gradually synched into it. Why did it sound different? Because Marsalis was playing the blues not in the traditional four beats to a measure but in five. And then, by example and with a few words, he taught - er, coached - how that could be done.
At one point a student said that something sounded "wrong." What did he mean? Oh, a misplaced chord? Marsalis discussed tonality and atonality, taking us by the hand to show how what seemed "wrong" might not be wrong when heard in its intended context.
That was another hint for daily life.
How many times had I said or thought a child was "wrong" about something before a bit of listening let me know how the child had reasoned. Do I know why I think something is wrong? Am I open to being convinced otherwise?
To Marsalis it was important to become comfortable in different contexts. He suggested listening to some records more than once.
As an example, just down the street that night, maestro James Levine would be giving a pre-concert talk, trying to help a Boston Symphony Orchestra audience become comfortable with more "new music" than it had been used to.
Usually jazz is a musical conversation among the players, appreciated by the audience. Ellis Marsalis brought the spoken word into it, listening "to" the young players' words as well as their music and, in a sense, joining the band. May I go so far as to say it's not a bad way to be part of the human race? After all, as he said: Don't err on the side of caution.