Composer/teacher David Morgan remembers his mentor Ellis Marsalis
Ellis Marsalis with students including David Morgan (second from right)
As Wynton Marsalis posted on Facebook following the death of his father Ellis Marsalis Jr. April 1 at 85, “my daddy was a humble man with a lyrical sound that captured the spirit of place--New Orleans, the Crescent City, The Big Easy, the Curve. He was a stone-cold believer without extravagant tastes.”
“Like many parents,” he added, “he sacrificed for us and made so much possible. Not only material things, but things of substance and beauty like the ability to hear complicated music and to read books; to see and to contemplate art; to be philosophical and kind.”
An esteemed recording artist in his own right, Ellis Marsalis clearly taught his son plenty—but it didn’t end there. He was also a renowned music educator, at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts, the University of New Orleans, and Xavier University of Louisiana. And besides influencing Wynton and other musician sons Branford, Delfeayo and Jason, he taught and immensely influenced many others including pianist/producer/musical director David Morgan.
Based in Redding, Connecticut, Morgan has worked with the likes of Wynton Marsalis, Jane Lynch, Peter Himmelman and Neshama Carlebach. He composes music for CBS Sports, Discovery, A&E, MTV, and TV shows including Pawn Stars, Little Women and Catfish, and produces recordings for other artists at his home studio.
And Morgan also incorporates Ellis Marsalis’s teachings into his own via his Music Shed instructional space.
Under the direction of Marsalis, Morgan graduated from the University of New Orleans (UNO) with a BA in Jazz Studies.
“He was a humble master—that’s the way I look at him,” says Morgan. “He was really easy to talk to, and didn’t try to force any type of method on us: He believed jazz education is an oxymoron, and while a part of him knew that having a jazz program in a school is a good way to spread the word, the best way to be a jazz musician is to be a jazz musician.”
A Bay Area native, Morgan was studying music at California State University, Northridge in Los Angeles when he learned of the jazz program at UNO.
“It was 80 percent classical and 20 percent jazz at Cal State—and I really wanted the opposite,” he says. “So I researched Ellis and set up an audition and flew out there, and it was a different world! It was really relaxed and felt right, and looking back now at all the decisions I’ve made in my life, it’s up there with getting married and having kids!”
Morgan also studied with Harold Battiste, another New Orleans music legend who was an arranger on recordings by the likes of Sam Cooke, Lee Dorsey, Dr. John and Sonny and Cher--and served with Marsalis on the UNO Jazz Studies faculty.
“There was a group of young musicians who were absolutely outstanding, and we were like a team: We studied all the time, in practice rooms and private lessons, every day. And we’d go back to school every night, or else get hired and play around: It was an incredibly fertile ground, being around the masters who brought modern jazz to New Orleans, who were steeped in traditional New Orleans music because that’s where they grew up and they knew how to play it--but with their own style and flavor and a special way of fusing it with modern jazz.”
The experience, Morgan continues, was like “being in a jazz family.”
“If you can play, they call you up to be on stage—and there’s no competition, like in New York. We’re family: You go to a gig, and you’re not only watching but sitting in. I played with so many musicians at the time, and had my own UNO groups and started getting hired to play gigs.”
And when Morgan expressed his dissatisfaction with his progress, he was surprised by Marsalis’s response.
“I told him I didn’t like my [pianistic] vocabulary and what I was playing, and thought he’d just give me an assignment. But he said, ‘Go get a gig with a singer!’ That’s how he was--24/7. He never changed for anybody, but remained true to himself and to his word. And the way he played piano expressed exactly who he was as a human being: warm, caring, brilliant, compassionate, creative, inclusive. You wanted to be great because he was great--but he wanted you to be you.”
Morgan, who has released a CD with his current jazz quartet Portal, also learned by watching Marsalis play.
“He had weekend gigs at [jazz club] Snug Harbor for years and years, and we’d go to hear him play—not because we were assigned to but because we just loved to see him play and how he interacted with the musicians and audience. He was so relaxed, with absolutely no airs, no conceit, arrogance or ego—and never got rattled. He was the real deal, man! He meant every note, and played from the heart and soul.”
He recalls one night when at the end of the second set, Marsalis said, ‘I’m going to step off the stage and let one of my students, David Morgan, finish the set for me.’ This was Ellis Marsalis giving me his bandstand for a couple songs! He did that a bunch of times, and it gave me a vote of confidence that he really believed in me, like a parent does for a child taking its first steps. That’s who he was: a wonderful human being. When he played I felt wrapped up in a warm blanket. There’s no other way to describe it.”
And if Morgan tried to play like Marsalis, “he’d tell me to stop. He didn’t want that, but wanted us to be who we are, and my philosophy of teaching comes from that: I try to impress upon my kids that they’ve got something to say in the music that no one else does, and even if they don’t think they can do it, I know they can. I tell them, ‘I know you’re nervous and afraid, but here’s the baton—take a run and go!’”
Morgan’s observations are echoed in Wynton Marsalis’s post.
“His example for all of us who were his students--a big extended family from everywhere--showed us to be patient and to want to learn and to respect teaching and thinking and to embrace the joy of seriousness,” he wrote of his father.
“He taught us that you could be conscious and stand your ground with an opinion rooted in something, even if it was overwhelmingly unfashionable. And that if it mattered to someone, it mattered.”
The Ellis Marsalis Quartet