NEW ORLEANS — It was Louis Armstrong's 100th birthday, but Saturday night belonged to Ellis Marsalis.
The weekend was rife with centennial celebrations dedicated to the city's most famous native son--the world-renowned jazz trumpeter and vocalist often called "Satchmo" or "Pops," who died in 1971. Festivities included a ceremony renaming the city airport after Armstrong, a jazz Mass, a second-line parade, and a free, three-day music festival in the French Quarter, dubbed Satchmo Summerfest, which city officials hope will become an annual draw.
The main event, however, was "Satchmo to Marsalis: A Tribute to the Fathers of Jazz," a fund-raising concert that, despite the title's nod to Armstrong, was essentially a homage to 66-year-old pianist-jazz educator Marsalis on the eve of his retirement as director of jazz studies at the University of New Orleans (the concert's beneficiary). More than 5,000 attended the sold-out event at the university's Lakefront Arena, many showing up simply to witness history in the making, since the famous Marsalis jazz family--Ellis and his four musical sons, trumpeter Wynton, saxophonist Branford, trombonist Delfeayo and drummer Jason--has performed in concert together only once previously, and that was more than 10 years ago.
While few jazz buffs would put him on the same level with Armstrong, most would agree that the Marsalis patriarch deserves serious praise. "He was one of the first torchbearers for modern jazz in New Orleans during the postwar years," says Charles Suhor, a New Orleans-bred musician and critic who recently published "Jazz in New Orleans: The Postwar Years Through 1970."
"Over the years, he became a primary educator of young jazz musicians [in the city], and, of course, as the father of some of the most prominent young modern jazzmen, he's also indispensable. The directions of modern jazz in the city, and nationally, would be vastly different without the younger Marsalises, as well as other Ellis students like Terence Blanchard, Donald Harrison and Nicholas Payton."
One of the elder Marsalis' most famous students, pianist-vocalist Harry Connick Jr., was an added attraction at the concert Saturday.
"I can't even believe I was invited to play," Connick said. "To be the only non-family member up there with them is really an honor. It's like being asked to be in somebody's wedding party.
"Just to be up there with Ellis, who I know can still kick my behind on the piano anytime he wants, and Wynton and Branford, who are really heroes of mine, it's overwhelming. All I can do is hope I make them all proud, and show Ellis how much I love him and what he taught me over the years."
The normally unflappable Connick, who studied under the elder Marsalis in the early 1980s at the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts, appeared visibly nervous when he took the stage with his own band to sing "Gypsy," a fragile ballad that seemed ill-suited to the arena's large-scale acoustics. Fortunately, he recovered composure on a rousing "St. James Infirmary," bolstered by Lucien Barbarin's expressive "gutbucket" trombone.
Later, two grand pianos were pushed side by side so that Connick--after jokingly falling to his knees to pray for musical strength--could face off with Ellis Marsalis on several duets. Their elegant, swinging interplay on "Honeysuckle Rose" and "Caravan" hushed the crowd completely, momentarily converting the cavernous arena into an intimate nightclub setting.
Connick left the stage and the other Marsalises came out gradually, song by song. First the youngest, 24-year-old Jason, displaying both precision and intensity on drums. Then Delfeayo, fluid and conversational on trombone. Then Branford and Wynton emerged to tackle "Cain and Abel," a Branford-penned composition chosen to poke fun at the perceived sibling rivalry between the two, but which ironically displayed remarkable cohesion as they soloed simultaneously in counterpoint style.
Eventually, everyone was swinging hard--including Connick, returning to share the piano chair--on the encore, an Ellis Marsalis original, "Twelve's It."
After the concert, it was evident that personal agendas had been checked at the door to pay tribute to the family patriarch.
"It's about playing with my daddy, for all of us," Wynton said. "I have such respect for him and what he went through in his life. And not just him, his whole generation of musicians that I knew growing up. I remember my daddy and all the musicians, going to their gigs with the same 15 people [watching]. And I learned from my father, whether you make it or you don't, whether people know you or they don't, you bring the maximum energy to whatever you're doing, and you'll be successful on your own terms."