Jason Marsalis on His Family Dynasty and Jazz As Open Architecture

Jason Marsalis starts a four-night residency at SFJAZZ this Thursday

It's one thing to stand at the crossroads of musical tradition and modern sound. It's quite another to stand at this crossroads as the youngest member of the Marsalis dynasty, New Orleans' famous “first family of jazz.” Percussionist Jason Marsalis hopes to prove the modern relevancy of traditional New Orleans music — whether in a standard jazz ensemble or with fusion sensation Snarky Puppy — and to this end, he brings his Vibes Quartet to SFJAZZ this week in promotion of his new record, The 21st Century Trad Band.

Marsalis has played the drums from a young age, adding the vibraphone to his active repertoire in 2000. The large mallet instrument, resembling a xylophone or marimba but distinguished by a series of resonator tubes topped with motorized valves (which provide the eponymous vibrato), holds a distinguished if limited role in jazz, with luminaries ranging from Lionel Hampton to the Bay Area's own Bobby Hutcherson.

Like his outspoken and conservative older brother Wynton, Jason has sparked some controversy within the jazz community — in this case centering around a 2010 YouTube video in which Marsalis disparaged musicians whom he described as prioritizing certain technical ambitions over melody, history, and consideration for the audience. Yet  this antagonistic rhetoric obscures a serious commitment to musical achievement, and looking past it reveals a genuinely appealing love of the art form that both sides of the tradition/modernism debate can agree on. We checked in with Marsalis ahead of his SFJAZZ residency, which runs Thursday, Dec. 4 through Sunday, Dec. 7.

[jump] Your new record is called The 21st Century Trad Band — what does it mean to be a “trad” band in the 21st century, and how does that differ from a “trad” band in the 20th century?
A trad band has to do with traditional jazz music that really is associated with New Orleans. Honestly, I have mixed feelings about it in this sense: It is true that the music started and was formulated in New Orleans, but unfortunately people see that music as a separate culture, and not the roots of all American music. For example, a lot of people don't realize that if you take a musician like Louis Armstrong or Sidney Bechet or Jelly Roll Morton — that's who all the musicians after came out of. But you have a lot of musicians who see that music as old and dated and not a music that anybody wants to listen to anymore. Or they see it as some separate thing that's different from Charlie Parker, and it's really not.

So that's why I have mixed feelings about it. It's music that I love playing, and it's a music that is definitely relevant in New Orleans, but it's unfortunate that others don't see the value in that music. I mentioned the 21st century because you're starting to see updates to the traditional music. You have guys that still play these tunes; they play the same style but it sounds like 2014, it doesn't sound like 1920.

While that's great, on the other hand, there haven't been enough updates to the music. You hardly hear traditional elements used in more contemporary or abstract writing in jazz music, and you don't hear traditional rhythms being used in other forms of music. That's a thing that I've been trying to do, and I think there are other people starting to do the same thing.That's the difference. In the 20th century it was a music definitely played within the style even when musicians brought in their own ideas, but for me the 21st century is about taking the traditional elements and bringing them into other settings.

You've referred to jazz as “open architecture” — is this what you're talking about?
Yes, it is. It's open in the sense that you can bring any music into this art form. Traditional music doesn't have to stay in one style, it can be used in many other styles. What a lot of people don't realize is that the rhythm of Motown music comes out of New Orleans music. If you think about the press rolls, or the roll of drums in Louis Armstrong's music, and you re-orchestrate that in a different way you're going to get a lot of the rhythms you hear in Motown or rock and roll. It's really the same sort of rhythms, just re-orchestrated on different parts of the drums.
What have musicians lost by not paying attention to the tradition?
Most importantly: content, substance, and context. When you study the history of the music there's so much you can gain from it. The more you learn, the more informed of a musician you'll be, and the more context you'll have inside of the music.

You've grown up quite literally in the history of the music. What have you gained from that perspective, growing up as a Marsalis?
I was fortunate to grow up around musicians who were serious about studying music, and they were serious about achieving the highest level of music that they could. I consider myself very lucky in that regard.

What inspired you to take up the vibraphone more seriously?
Well, it only had a handful of contributors, compared to other instruments, and I felt there was a lot that could still be done with the vibes. There were things that I could express melodically that were different from the drums.

Who are you influenced by, as a vibraphonist?
Lionel Hampton, for sure, and Milt Jackson. But also Bobby Hutcherson, and to another degree Gary Burton. Even some of the newer generation players, like Stefon Harris and Warren Wolf — there's things I've learned from them. I'm pretty much interested in anybody who's played the instrument.

I've noticed more vibraphone players in the last 10 or 15 years, starting perhaps with the prominent use of vibraphone in Dave Holland's band. Do you think there's any kind of resurgence at all?
It's funny, Dave Holland uses Steve Nelson, but Nelson's been around for a while. Nelson was in a lot of ways the go-to guy in the 90's, but he was more of a sideman. He's one whose music I've checked out. I remember his work with Mulgrew Miller, for example, very fondly.

I think with Nelson in Dave Holland's band, you may have had different guys paying attention to him that may have not, previously. But while there have always been people who play the instrument, I think there's been a resurgence. Even in New Orleans, when I decided to play the vibes, within two years there were three more vibraphonists in the city. I think you'll hear about more and more people playing the instrument.

Have you played the new SFJAZZ Center before?
I have not. I did a show once with Marcus Roberts for SFJAZZ (but not at the Center). This will definitely be my first show there as a leader. It's great to play four nights in a row, because the music gets better and better the more you play, so I'm looking forward to doing this.

The Jason Marsalis Vibes Quartet plays at 7 and 8:30 p.m. (two shows each night), starting Thursday, Dec. 4 through Sunday, Dec. 7, at  the Joe Henderson Lab at the SFJAZZ Center. $40; sfjazz.org. 

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