By Jeremy Ganter, Director of Programming, The Mondavi Center | UC Davis
My life and Ellis Marsalis’ have intersected in a few, fleeting moments. For me, at least, those interactions—some in person, most not—have made powerful impressions and abiding memories. Until this week, when the news of Mr. Marsalis’ passing reached the Mondavi Center family, it hadn’t occurred to me just how often I have thought, and thought deeply, about someone I barely knew.
In the 1950s and 1960s, Mr. Marsalis worked with Al Hirt in a band that sometimes included my bassist uncle, Lowell Miller. Last September, it was a thrill to inadvertently find both “Lowell Miller” and “Ellis Marsalis” on a roster for Hirt’s band in the Tulane University jazz archives. I never knew my Uncle Lowell, but I’ve learned a lot about him. That he had possibly shared a stage with Mr. Marsalis, even for a moment, impressed me more than everything else I know about my uncle’s considerable New Orleans career with Al Hirt and his notable stint with Pete Fountain.
In the 1990s, Mr. Marsalis visited Davis twice under the auspices of the Mondavi Center’s predecessor, UC Davis Presents (UCDP). In February of 1993, he did a duo-piano date with Marcus Roberts. In October of 1994, he opened UCDP’s 40th Anniversary Season with his son Wynton who, at the time, was about halfway into the second decade of his now-legendary career. In those days, the tradition was to have high-profile pianists sign the huge, cast iron “piano plate” inside UCDP’s model “D” Steinway. Mr. Marsalis signed during his 1993 visit. The piano has since been refurbished and refinished. It continues its heavy rotation in the Mondavi Center’s inventory and it still sounds great; if you’ve attended a Mondavi Center concert with a pianist, there is a good chance you’ve heard it.
The signatures on the piano plate are still there. Every time I see that Steinway I think about Ellis Marsalis. I am reminded by ink inside a piano how—as a musician and a family man and an intellectual—Ellis Marsalis is written indelibly into our history in so many ways. How, as Wynton Marsalis puts it, he “made so much possible. Not only material things, but things of substance and beauty.”
In September of 2014, twenty years after his last appearance with us, Mr. Marsalis returned. Once again, he helped us kick-off a season, this time also making his Mondavi Center debut. He was joined by his son Delfeayo on what was deemed “The Last Southern Gentlemen Tour.” The name of the tour had a ring of genteel finality to it that had us wondering a little if Mr. Marsalis might be in musical decline in some way; especially considering that his 80th birthday was just around the corner. I worried a little more as he slowly shuffled onto the stage. As he began to play, it all became timeless and beautiful. His brilliance, his impeccable touch, and his ability to swing (man did that show swing!) were all still there and in full effect. It was a night when we all felt extremely lucky just to be anywhere in the room.
The night before the concert, I had a casual dinner with Mr. Marsalis, Delfeayo, and Mondavi Center Executive Director Don Roth. We ate at Delfeayo’s favorite spot in Davis – our go-to when he comes to town, where our tradition is eating our way through the menu together, family style. To be there, this time, with Ellis Marsalis at the table, had me awestruck and giddy. Watching Delfeayo talk with his dad—in Delfeayo’s sweetly acerbic and humorous way—was an utter delight. Their mutual respect was palpable. Mr. Marsalis seemed relaxed and quiet. He said little for much of the evening, until I posed an idea about a popular musician he did not agree with. Mr. Marsalis perked up at my comment. What followed was a pointed, intensely smart, and indeed very gentlemanly disquisition on why I didn’t know what I was talking about. It changed how I think about music and why music matters. It was a fleeting moment with a legend that felt like family dinner at its level best. I doubt the interaction carried much weight in Mr. Marsalis’ day. I think about it all the time.