Of the four music-making brothers in a storied jazz dynasty, Delfeayo Marsalis, the producer and trombonist who turns 52 this month, is the only one of those siblings living in New Orleans. Last summer, his younger brother Jason, the percussionist, moved to France with his wife and three kids. Wynton lives in New York, anchored to Jazz at Lincoln Center; Branford lives in North Carolina, and like the other three brothers travels often for concerts and productions.
You can live anywhere now and make any kind of art, so transient has the digital revolution made our lives; but getting the work out into the world, and ringing up sales, is the same old hurdle.
Delfeayo made his mark in the 1980s as a producer of acoustic jazz. In 2000 he founded the Uptown Music Theatre, which has educated scores of young people who have performed in its musicals. He also leads the Uptown Jazz Orchestra, a superb big band in a town that has few regular venues for orchestral jazz.
Marsalis has a pair of recent CDs, which seem like opposite faces of the same coin, each a showcase for Delfeayo’s melodic inventiveness, each colored with a seasoned comic touch.
The Last Southern Gentleman is a tribute to the ballads and romantic side of jazz, with serene renditions of “Autumn Leaves” and “I Cover the Waterfront,” among others. The trombone in New Orleans-style jazz is known for its role as a rhythm-keeper and anchor of harmony. (The most famous exception is Kid Ory’s melodic lead on “Ory’s Creole Trombone.”) On The Last Southern Gentleman, Delfeayo plays the trombone with the delicate hand of a melodic engineer, a role we’re accustomed to hear from the trumpeter.
As I replayed this record over several hours on automotive excursions, Delfeayo’s five minute-and-forty second version of “Sesame Street,” with a sweet wah-wah, brought back the smiles that warmed me on hearing Aaron Neville sing “The Mousketeers’ Song” from The Mickey Mouse Club. Some of those old TV tunes have staying power, though it’s a serious challenge to make them sound fresh and sparkling. Marsalis’s ease and playful sense of melody stem from a commanding grasp of the music.
The Last Southern Gentleman has stellar support from Ellis Marsalis on piano, John Clayton on bass, and Marvin “Smitty” Smith on drums. “All early jazzmen had an extraordinary sense of etiquette, respect, kindness and humanity accompanying their toil,” the Southern Gent writes in his liner notes.
There is another side to Delfeayo’s talent that takes the whimsy of “Sesame Street” to comic heights on the second CD – Make America Great Again! with the Uptown Jazz Orchestra. The melodic clarity shimmers on cuts like “Java,” the Al Hirt hit written by Allen Toussaint. You know by virtue of the title, drawn from Donald Trump’s campaign slogan, that Delfeayo is sharpening the satirical knives on the title cut; but first, there is the first cut – “Star Spangled Banner,” played with a resonance and respect that reminded me of club owner Johnny Blancher on stage at Rock ‘n Bowl, entreating fans to sing for the flag, which I have done there and shall do again.
“Make America Great Again” features a witty sing-along chorus that rolls on a highway of smiles behind the sardonic monologue read by actor Wendell Pierce. The record came out months before the city’s dismantling of Confederate statues, which set off bitter fireworks in the press and social media. Pierce spoofs a college prof: “Rather than uphold the basic tenets of our Constitution these good old boys waged war against our United States of America…without a good back-up plan!”
The satire on national greatness, echoed in another song about slavery’s descendants, “Living Free (and Running Wild)” is another side of Delfeayo Marsalis’s wit.
The Last Southern Gentleman is a gem to play when close ones gather. Make America Great Again! will get ‘em laughing or yelling, depending on whether they want Robert E. Lee back on the pedestal or contentedly imagine vistas to come.