Jason Marsalis has worn many musical hats. Drummer in Los Hombres Calientes. Leader of the Jason Marsalis Vibes Quartet. He has his own deceptively adventurous recording career that includes last year’s “21st Century Trad Band.”
He’s a teacher at NOCCA and has been a member of John Ellis’ Double-Wide with Matt Perrine. Recently, he played a New Orleans drum summit at a festival in France with Herlin Riley and Shannon Powell.
But one of his longest-running gigs has been as unofficial caretaker of his father Ellis Marsalis’ musical legacy. Since 1998 and the trio album “Twelve’s It,” Ellis’ last album recorded for Columbia Records, Jason has been involved in his father’s projects.
He was the drummer in the trio, which was rounded out by bassist Roland Guerin. Jason thought the trio was hot and suggested that they record it one night at Snug Harbor. They did, but Ellis didn’t think of it as a possible album until Jason pitched the project to Ellis’ label.
“I pretty much had to put it together,” he said. “I fell into the producer’s role.”
On Friday, Jason Marsalis will play a night of Ellis Marsalis’ compositions at Snug Harbor.
It might seem like an occasion to interpret and reconsider Ellis’ music, but that won’t be the case. Because Jason is so closely involved in his father’s music, he hears the compositions the way Ellis does.
“We’ve been playing together for years and pretty much collaborate on things,” Jason said. “I don’t think there’s been a time when I’ve gone a direction that he doesn’t like. I know where the tunes should go, and he’s been in agreement with that.”
Today, Jason knows exactly when he started to understand his father as a musician. He was 7 and the family still lived in Richmond, Virginia, two years before Ellis returned to New Orleans to teach at University of New Orleans.
Jason found a box set of music recorded on the Harold Battiste-organized AFO label that included photos of Ellis as a young man. Reading the liner notes, he saw songs credited to the Ellis Marsalis Quartet, which made his father’s musical career more real. Then he cued up one of his dad’s songs.
“It was ‘Monkey Puzzle,’ and from the first moment, I was floored,” Jason remembered. I was like, ‘Whoa, this is different.’ The music had complexities that weren’t associated with New Orleans at all.”
Once Jason became involved in Ellis’ recorded legacy, he worked to get a couple of albums his father released on vinyl on his own ELM Records out on CD. He has been working on getting music Ellis made on small, regional labels back in circulation, including one with sax player Eddie Harris.
Because New Orleans was known for traditional jazz at a time in the 1960 and ’70s when the center of the modern jazz world was in New York City, Ellis’ work, along with that of Harold Battiste, James Black, Alvin Batiste and Nat Perrilliat was largely overlooked.
“I’ve always believed in my father’s music,” he said. “I felt that he was an individual who should be documented. People should be able to hear this music.”
At 38, Jason is the youngest of the Marsalis brothers. While in France, he got a pleasant surprise: an opportunity to play with brother Wynton.
Because Wynton, Branford, Delfeayo and Jason all have active and different careers, they don’t get the chance to perform together often.
“I hadn’t done full shows with Wynton in a really long time,” he said.
For Jason, the shows were a mark of how he had grown as a drummer.
“I always understood the music, but there were nuances in my playing that weren’t on the highest level,” he said. “It’s not an easy gig to play, but I’m at a point where I can come in and really do the job.”