Jazz pianist, composer and music educator Ellis Marsalis headlines WWOZ-FM’s 26th annual Piano Night. Taking place Monday, Piano Night features five hours of continuous keyboard performances in three House of Blues venues.
Piano Night is a major fundraiser for the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival Foundation-linked WWOZ. Featuring a host of music-loving volunteer DJs, the community radio station broadcasts recordings by local artists and an array of music genres not aired by commercial stations.
Marsalis, New Orleans’ 79-year-old modern-jazz piano master and patriarch of the Marsalis family of jazz musicians, is a loyal WWOZ listener. He’s played for Piano Night many times.
“I feel good about it,” he said of being this year’s Piano Night honoree. “It’s always good when people in your hometown decide to give you an honor.”
Marsalis’ many previous honors include honorary doctorates from the Juilliard School, Tulane University, Dillard University (his alma mater), Ball State University in Muncie, Ind., and Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Va. In 2011, Marsalis and his sons Branford, Wynton, Delfeayo and Jason were, as a group, awarded the National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Masters Fellowship.
Deborah Harkins, the piano fan and longtime WWOZ supporter who’s this year’s Piano Night committee chair, said the committee sought to honor a pianist who’s made significant cultural contributions to New Orleans.
“Ellis was a natural fit,” Harkins said.
Marsalis’ careers as performing musician and music educator date to the 1950s and ’60s. He’s taught generations of students, many of whom, such as Harry Connick Jr., Terence Blanchard and the pianist’s sons, are in the midst of major careers.
“Ellis has taught many of New Orleans’ best musicians,” said Dwayne Breashears, WWOZ’s program director. “He continues to be a positive force in the New Orleans music community.”
From 1974 to 1986, Marsalis taught instrumental music with a jazz studies emphasis at NOCCA. After three years as a Commonwealth Professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, he came home to be the first occupant of the Coca Cola endowed chair for jazz studies at UNO.
Since his 2001 retirement from UNO, Marsalis has continued to perform and record. He appears every Friday at Snug Harbor with his Ellis Marsalis Quartet. He also has a new album, “On the Second Occasion.”
Piano, the instrument Marsalis built his career upon, wasn’t the first instrument he took seriously.
“Growing up in New Orleans, everybody played some piano,” he said.
Marsalis began his music study at Dillard University as a clarinet major. He played tenor saxophone, too. He moved to piano while playing in a modern-jazz group including saxophonist Harold Battiste, clarinetist Alvin Batiste and bassist Chuck Badie.
“Harold and I both couldn’t play saxophone,” Marsalis said. “So Harold said, ‘Look, you play the piano.’ I’d had some lessons and could play the instrument. But, to me, whatever it took to be a part of a group and to be playing, I didn’t care what instrument it was.”
Clarinet wasn’t Marsalis’ preferred instrument because most clarinet players in New Orleans performed traditional rather than modern jazz. And after hearing brilliant saxophonist Nat Perrilliat play a jam session one Sunday at the Dew Drop Inn, Marsalis decided his own sax-playing days were over.
“When I went home, I put my horn in the case,” Marsalis said. “It never came out after that.”
The piano became Marsalis’ foundation for a distinguished career.
“It did,” he said. “But first I had to develop an appreciation for the piano as a solitary instrument. I already understood how to use it to write some tunes, but to move beyond and become a pianist is whole other thing. And the older I got, the more I realized, ‘Well, if I’m going to be playing music, I need to step up my game with this piano.’ Basically, that’s what I did.”