Jazz great Branford Marsalis returns home to New Orleans to continue father's legacy

“We have an opportunity to do our own version of a liberal arts education."

January 30, 2024, 9:34 AM

New Orleans -- For several mornings in a row last year, Grammy-winning jazz musician Branford Marsalis said he woke up trying to figure out the next phase of his long career. Then he heard a “little voice getting louder and louder” until its message revealed itself: “You have to go home.”

Home is New Orleans where, on Tuesday, Marsalis will be named the artistic director of the Ellis Marsalis Center for Music, a position held by his father, Ellis Marsalis, who died in 2020 from complications of COVID-19. The ceremony will include dignitaries in the philanthropic world, such as Ford Foundation President Darren Walker.

The Marsalis family is legendary in New Orleans -- Branford’s brother, Wynton Marsalis, is director of the Lincoln Center and a Grammy-winning trumpeter, Delfeayo Marsalis is an acclaimed trombonist who tours with the Uptown Jazz Orchestra, and Jason Marsalis is a prolific session musician as a drummer and vibraphonist.

In a statement provided to ABC News, Wynton Marsalis said that their father “was dedicated to creating a more conscious world through jazz. Branford knows this better than anyone. He is a fantastic teacher, dynamic musician, and engaged thinker. … We all sleep better knowing that Branford will continue in the high-minded spirit we were taught in the Crescent City.”

Although he served as a pianist to people like Cannonball Adderley and Al Hirt early in his career, Ellis Marsalis is primarily known as a jazz educator whose influence touched multiple generations as a teacher in the city’s public school system, the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts, and many local universities. Celebrated jazz musicians and composers Terence Blanchard, Harry Connick Jr., Donald Harrison and Nicholas Payton all credit his influence.

Filling the elder Marsalis’ shoes was a “bridge no one wanted to cross,” said Connick in a statement to ABC News. “Having Branford step in is a dream come true. I can think of no one more suited, talented, or qualified.”

The center is in the 9th Ward, an area of New Orleans that still has not fully recovered from Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Having it there was intentional when it opened in 2012, not just because it delivered music education to an underserved community of young people, but because Marsalis said they wanted to use music as a gateway to intellectual curiosity. The center's curriculum is to give kids somewhere to go after school and throughout the summer, where they’ll receive mentorship and guidance that will inspire them to think with great complexity and curiosity.

“The goal is not to turn them all into musicians,” Marsalis says. “We have an opportunity to do our own version of a liberal arts education, to get these kids to play music and use parts of their brain music allows them to use.”

The center features classrooms, a dance studio, recording studios, a large performance space, and a computer center and listening library, all designed to teach the full scope of skills at play in the music industry, from sound engineering to computer coding. Marsalis said the fundamental instrument of the school is the piano, which every student is required to learn. The reason, he said, is not just because it was his father’s instrument but also because “it is one of the few instruments where everything you need to know about music is directly in front of you. You can see every note, you can play every sound, you can hear every sound.”

Marsalis, who is relocating with his family from Durham, North Carolina, to New Orleans, said forming a vision for the center is not unlike jazz.

“I teach the philosophy of improvisation with my students, and every student comes in with a plan, and I take great joy in blowing up their plan because if you have a plan, it’s not improvisation,” he said.

He’ll take the next few months observing classes and working with the teachers about “what we can do in the best interest of the students.”

Enthusiasm for music cannot be forced, a lesson he learned from his father when he was a teenager.

“He didn’t encourage us, he didn’t discourage us. He never said, ‘Music is hard; get a real job.’ His whole philosophy was this profession is hard enough if you like it. If you don’t? You don’t stand a chance. Only do it if you’re compelled to do it,” he said.