Delfeayo Marsalis: ‘To say the epicentre of jazz has moved is ridiculous’

The New Orleans trombonist rejects the fashionable late idea, beloved of the fonder critics round here, that Europe is now the crucible of jazz invention

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Delfeayo Marsalis. Photo by Zac Smith

“The innovators of jazz will always come from the black community because the music is rooted in the black American experience”, asserts New Orleans trombonist Delfeayo Marsalis. “That’s just how it goes.”

The argument, oft-heard in recent years, that European jazz is now more vibrant and adventurous than American jazz doesn’t wash with Marsalis. “The Europeans, to their credit, have come up with their own improvisational music and they use the name ‘jazz’ because they have a drum set and they’re improvising. It’s good music but a lot of it is not jazz.

“Jazz is the sound of America [and] ironically it came from the traditions of those who were the least celebrated, the Africans. We’re in a tough time now but, man, think how tough it would have been 200 years ago and suddenly somebody snatches you up and puts you on a boat and you’re headed to America and your life will never be the same. But somehow the African [slaves] were able to rise up from that and find some joy. They were brought to America to make certain individuals financially wealthy but they ended up making the whole world rich in entirely different ways.

“So to say that the epicentre of jazz has moved is ridiculous. That can’t happen – because jazz represents a certain culture.”

Marsalis, whose latest CD with his Uptown Jazz Orchestra is the upbeat Jazz Party, believes that celebration is central to jazz. “Think about Louis Armstrong and how joyous he sounded all the time”, he argues. “There’s never a time you hear Louis Armstrong and you don’t feel uplifted and that’s the spirit we wanted to represent on Jazz Party.”

The title track is particularly stirring. “It’s a fun song and has that relaxed church groove, but the main point is we want you to leave your worries behind. During this pandemic there are so many people worried about the future and we’re saying, while you don’t want to be irresponsible, at a certain point you have to celebrate the joys of life.”

Another song, Mboya’s Midnight Cocktail, with vocals by Karen Livers, is even rather comic. The song was inspired by Marsalis’s younger brother, Mboya, who is autistic. “He doesn’t express himself verbally so a couple of times we’re sitting at a bar and it’s not obvious he’s autistic and women will flirt with him”, chuckles Marsalis. “‘Oh, you’re a quiet one, huh?’ So the song came to me one day about a bartender flirting with him and she mistakes his autism for playing hard to get!

“On that song the melody is written out but the rest of the horn parts are improvised. And that’s the greatness of New Orleans music, the ability to have 12 or 14 horns and eight of them are improvising. If you listen you hear the ongoing melody and it’s harmonised three or four different ways and then the additional horns answer and they’re just making their parts up.”

So New Orleans features Dr. Brice Miller rapping. “Sometimes rap can be challenging due to the vulgarity and the language is tough sometimes but I enjoy the rhythm and the creativity. And rap can put you in a good mood especially with the beat of the groove so that’s what inspires us. And that’s a good song with Dr. Brice talking about the things that make New Orleans great.”

Another song, Dr. Hardgroove, is a tribute to New Orleans trumpeter Roy Hargrove, who died in 2018. “He had a joyous sound”, says Marsalis. “He did go to school and study but he sounds like a guy that grew up in the clubs and he played the fonky side of jazz so we wanted to capture that with that song.”

Unlike most of the tracks on the album, Raid On The Mingus House Party feels edgy and tense. “The idea was to recreate the chaos of opening an internet browser and there’s news and information coming at you from every angle. But it’s also a precursor to the pandemic and the deaths of George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor and the protests and the chaotic time we’re in. It represents the tension in the country today.”

‘I was influenced by George Martin and the Beatles, Earth, Wind & Fire, Parliament, Funkadelic and Michael Jackson records. Jazz production didn’t really evolve: they just put the microphone in front of the musicians and let it happen’

Jazz Party was produced by Marsalis who has in the past produced albums for his older brothers Branford and Wynton and for artists like Harry Connick Jr. “My primary style [as a producer] is to capture the acoustic sound so that when you’re listening you feel like we’re in your living room not in a studio.”

Marsalis acknowledges that as a producer he has learnt more from listening to pop and soul than to jazz: “I was influenced by George Martin and the Beatles, Earth, Wind & Fire, Parliament, Funkadelic and Michael Jackson records. Jazz production didn’t really evolve: they just put the microphone in front of the musicians and let it happen. If you hear a jazz record that I produced there is a similarity to that because the musicians sound like they were in a room together and I just put the microphone up and captured what they did. But the difference is that some of my productions required a lot of manipulations. The key to the manipulations is to have them sound effortless and seamless so you have no idea how many edits are in the CD or when we were adjusting the faders for certain notes.”

The music on Jazz Party never sounds like it’s made by a star name with backing musicians. The creativity is clearly collective. “The musicians really love playing in the Uptown Jazz Orchestra because everyone has an opportunity and a voice and we’re very supportive of each other. Black folks understood democracy [and] jazz represents democracy: you have an opportunity for individual expression but most importantly everyone has a responsibility to work together for the common good. That’s what makes jazz.”