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This Is the Spawning of the Age of Marsalis : The Marsalis brothers create some of the most important music of the decade; there are other musical brothers not yet heard from

November 05, 1989|LEONARD FEATHER

It is becoming increasingly clear that the 1980s will go down in jazz history as the Marsalis decade.

Wynton Marsalis rose first to fame, followed rapidly by his brother Branford. Their father, Ellis, was a long-respected teacher and pianist in New Orleans. Now it appears that another brother is about to make a swift rise to acceptance. He is the trombonist Delfeayo Marsalis, who graduated recently from the Berklee College of Music in Boston.

Not long after, he found himself in fast company, working on a jazz cruise with a band headed by the veteran cornetist Nat Adderley. Playing with world class musicians, he earned an uproarious ovation at every show, displaying a style marked by technical expertise, swirling melodic lines and frequent touches of humor.

"I'm the fourth oldest," he said during a rest between sets. "Branford is 29, Wynton's 28, Ellis III is 25. Ellis was married in September, and for the first time in many years the entire family got together.

"I was born July 28, 1965. My younger brothers are Mboya, who's 19, and Jason, who's 12 and plays drums. At first I wanted to play electric bass, but it hurt my fingers, so while I was in the sixth grade I figured I'd be like big brother and pick up a horn."

Oddly, his father did not encourage Delfeayo. "He saw that I wasn't too interested in practicing, and he knew the level of proficiency that Branford and Wynton had attained, so he tried to persuade me to be a writer."

Unfazed, the youth went on to Tanglewood, playing classical music, but his technical ability was not matched by a talent for improvising, until he went to Berklee.

"I studied with Phil Wilson and all the other trombone teachers there, but my ideas about jazz playing really came from the records of J. J. Johnson."

Armed with the albums of that bebop pioneer, Delfeayo Marsalis honed his skills, though for the first three of his six years at Berklee he was mainly involved with learning record production. "While I was in the fifth grade, Branford showed me how you could create a tape loop, and from that point on I was fascinated with tape recorders. I was 17 when I produced my first album, 'Syndrome,' a piano session my Dad made."

Though he also put together and played with a band composed primarily of fellow Berklee students, Delfeayo remained unknown as a trombonist while racking up an imposing series of producer credits.

"I've done four albums for Branford: I produced Harry Connick Jr.'s first album when he was 19; I made 'Crystal Stair' for Donald Harrison and Terence Blanchard and 'The Truth Is Spoken Here,' (pianist) Marcus Roberts' debut album."

These were all New Orleans musicians, but there have been other credits: He assisted on a session for the Polish pianist Adam Makowicz and has produced two albums for the British saxophonist Courtney Pine. ("My Dad played on the new one--it's due out soon.")

"I did the acoustic sound track for Spike Lee's 'Do the Right Thing,' and lately we've been working together on his new movie, 'A Love Supreme.' It's a story about a jazz trumpet player; he's portrayed on the screen by Denzel Washington, with Terence Blanchard dubbing the trumpet parts and Branford's band featured as well."

Last January Delfeayo's Berklee group competed in the national college band contest held by the National Assn. of Jazz Educators in San Diego. The band won first prize, and those of us who heard the young trombonist were convinced that his career could never be limited to producing.

He agrees. "I want to do more playing. I haven't worked in my brothers' groups. I did road-manage Branford on a couple of his gigs, but I'm not interested in that type of work; I really want to play.

"They are much more advanced, and being my older brothers they have a different perspective on life. But I'm fortunate to have had an opportunity to see their mistakes, observe what they were doing correctly, and use that as a guide in making my own decisions."

His career may not be confined to playing and producing. As his liner notes for the recent Branford Marsalis album "Trio Jeepy" revealed, he is a literate and knowledgeable writer who may yet justify his father's original ambition to see him take up journalism and criticism. He has written a number of unpublished poems and short stories.

"I enjoy writing. I want to get some columns into the papers, and I hope eventually to document enough material for a couple of books. It seems to me important to get someone from this generation--musicians of our age group--to provide written information on how they think and feel about the music."

Yet another direction in which he will aim is composition. "Whenever I tour with my own band, I do some sporadic composing and arranging. I've been working on a new concept in which the trombone is playing the melody underneath the harmony, instead of writing the melody on top of the harmony as everybody usually does."

Clearly there is no limit to the potential successes of this brilliant youth. As knowledgeable as brother Wynton, friendly and outgoing like Branford, tall (almost 6 feet) and good looking, with a rare improvisational talent on an instrument that has been too long on the sidelines in jazz, he seems ready to take on the world. It is safe to predict that within a year or two, the name Delfeayo Marsalis will be as well known and respected as that of his two older brothers.

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