There was no struggle for identity. His path was always obvious for Jason Marsalis.
“I was into music at a very young age. It wasn’t something that I was forced to do, or felt that I had to do. I love doing it,” Marsalis said. “That was always what was going to happen.”
He came by it honestly. He’s the son of pianist and educator Ellis Marsalis, the patriarch of New Orleans’ “First Family of Jazz” which includes siblings Wynton, Branford and Delfeayo.
When most kids are learning to read and write, Jason was already on the drums, having acquired his first set at three. But it wasn’t due to peer pressure.
“Now realize, by the time I was 6-years-old, my four oldest brothers were already out of the house so it was a much quieter household when I was growing up,” Marsalis said. “Their careers were just getting started.”
By age seven, Jason was sitting in with father’s jazz group and his trombonist brother Delfeayo. Though also picking up the violin at a tender age, he eventually concentrated on drums, gigging intermittently.
Jason went on to enroll in the prestigious New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts (NOCCA). After graduation in 1995, he took a job with pianist Marcus Roberts and that brought him into contact with the Azalea City.
“I had driven through (Mobile) quite a bit because New Orleans isn’t that far,” Marsalis said. “I played there once, I want to say with Marcus Roberts. That was a long time ago, like the mid-90s.”
Marsalis will be the headliner at the 2014 Gulf Coast Ethnic and Heritage Jazz Festival’s centerpiece concert Aug. 2 at the The Temple on the corner of St. Francis and Claiborne streets downtown. He’ll be preceded by the Bay City Brass Band and Keep It Live. The concert is free.
Marsalis will be featured on a different type of percussion instrument, though, one with a sparsely known niche. The show is deemed MF Productions presents The Celebration of Lionel Hampton – for legal reasons, it’s a long story – and Marsalis will be front and center on the vibraphone.
Akin to the xylophone, the vibes employ resonating metal tubes containing motor-driven butterfly valves to make a magical tone both elegant and ethereal. Some have called it “the sound of a chilled martini.”
“There’s still a lot of people who play them but Hamp (Lionel Hampton) and Bags (Milt Jackson) are definitely the most well known,” Marsalis said. “After that, you get people who follow the music who have heard of Bobby Hutcherson and Gary Burton. Then you have some who may know the instrument through Roy Ayers who did a lot of funk records in the 1970s who started out playing jazz as well.”
Marsalis had opportunity to meet Hampton years back and even played drums with him, but he never had the chance to reconnect after Marsalis added vibes to his resume.
“People are very curious about the instrument and they don’t hear it very much, they’re surprised when they do hear it and see what it’s really about,” Marsalis said. “I think there’s a lot that can be expressed with the instrument so there’s a lot of territory to be explored for sure.”
The free concert is the culmination of the multi-day event celebrating its “sweet 16th” this year. Most important to the duration of the art form is the free jazz camp occurring July 30 through Aug. 1 at the History Museum of Mobile.
Clinician and Excelsior Band leader Hosea London will lead the instructors and students each morning from 9 a.m. until noon. Registration information can be found at www.gcehjazzfest.com.
On Thursday, July 31 a night devoted to poetry and spoken word performance begins at the History Museum of Mobile at 6:30 p.m. All the word nerds in town are served notice: this is where you want to be.
But Saturday’s main event should capture a lot of attention, especially once the afternoon begins with the 4 p.m. second line procession from Cathedral Square up Claiborne Street to The Temple. Umbrellas will likely be a requisite for the one-block march; there’s bound to be sun or showers since it’s August, after all.
Food vendors will be available outside the Temple. A cash bar will be inside.
Marsalis’ combo – drums, bass, keys, three horns, vibes and an occasional vocalist – will feature plenty of Gulf Coast musicians and sounds that blend a little of the old through younger hands.
“We’re going to do some tunes Hamp wrote and some tunes he played,” Marsalis said. “I try to use his ideas but I try to use some of my own ideas as well so you’ll hear a good combination of both things.”