Last week, Ellis Marsalis Jr. was honored in New York at the gala for Jazz at Lincoln Center, which was founded three decades ago by his son Wynton Marsalis.
Wynton is in New Orleans this week to perform in a Jazz Fest tribute to Ellis, along with brothers Branford, Delfeayo and Jason. The performance will focus on songs written by Ellis, reaching back to the 1970s with songs like “The Garden.”
“I like the sophistication of a song like ‘Nostalgic Impressions,’” Wynton says. “And the beauty of ‘Orchid Blue.’ It’s in a difficult key and it’s hard to play the harmonies — it has a tricky chord progression.”
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The selections show the range of Ellis’ compositions.
“We’ll play ‘12’s It,’” Wynton says. “That’s a great tune to blow on because of the cyclical nature of the form. It doesn’t really end. It just goes around in a cycle.”
The Lincoln Center gala also celebrated music from Charles “Buddy” Bolden to Louis Armstrong. Marsalis wrote and arranged music for “Bolden,” director Dan Pritzker’s biopic drama about the creator of jazz. The soundtrack was released April 19, and the film opens May 3 at The Broad Theater.
The movie follows Bolden from boyhood in New Orleans through the end of his life at a mental health institution in 1931. The film imagines Bolden’s impressions of the world, sometime in surreal visions, some beautiful and others featuring stark imagery surrounding relationships and rivalries as well as his struggles with alcohol and drugs.
Jazz Fest celebrates its 50th
There are no recordings of Bolden’s music, and his legacy owes much to Donald M. Marquis’ book “In Search of Buddy Bolden: First Man of Jazz.” Despite the lack of recordings, Bolden’s role is clear, Marsalis says.
“He invented the music because everybody who could play around that time said he invented it,” Marsalis says. “The three trumpet players who were influenced by him, whose music we have recordings of, said he could play. … Bunk Johnson, Freddie Keppard and King Oliver — all three recorded in some way, Bunk Johnson albeit at a later time. Buddy Bolden had to play better than them.”
Bolden played in parades, for dances and in the clubs around South Rampart and Perdido streets, including the so-called Funky Butt Hall.
“The most telling thing about Buddy was a quote from a lady who was one of his contemporaries,” Marsalis says. “She said, ‘Every time Buddy played, his heart broke.’ That tells you he had the kind of sound we equate with a trumpet player like Miles Davis — a really personal sound that touches you when you hear it. That was his ultimate skill.”
The 50th anniversary New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival kicks off Thursday with a fresh lineup of music performances and events.
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