by Brian Clarey

_D5C5045brianI took a call from my old friend Delfeayo Marsalis last week, the scion of New Orleans’ First Family of jazz, because I really wanted to let him know that I’d be in town for French Quarter Fest.

Or something like that.

We’ve never actually met, and it’s possible the only reason he called me was because he’ll be in Greensboro next week to play with the NC A&T University Jazz Band. And it’s also possible that I gushed over him a little.

The Marsalis family — his father Ellis the pianist; brothers Branford (reeds), Wynton (horn) and Jason (drums) — are as integral to the culture of that city as the Reynolds family is to Winston-Salem.

“The irony is that my brothers and I are more like my mother than my father, in most ways,” he said. “My mother has musical relatives: Her uncle, Wellman Braud, was Duke Ellington’s bassist. Whereas my dad has no musicians on his side. His dad was a businessman — who had no interest in him playing jazz.

“The myth of how we grew up has shifted into something it actually isn’t,” he continued.

And yet, it’s part of the fabric of New Orleans. Delfeayo still lives there, an Uptown ruler, and even the way he says the name of the place gives me palpable pangs of homesickness.

N’Wallians. Like that.

Delfeayo and his trombone are fitting emissaries of that city’s main export: jazz, one of but a few indigenous American art forms that came out of the brothels of Storyville and after 100 or so years has reached a form of respectability.

The trick, he said, is bringing young people into the fold.

“The main thing with the kids today is the internet,” he said. “It was supposed to give us access to everything, but I think it’s made our kids less aware. In every region the kids are listening to the same music, wearing the same clothes. They’re influenced by the same things.

“Homogenized,” he added.

“If we wanted to play Stevie Wonder or Prince — the challenge today, if you’re trying to adapt those songs, you have to have a vocalist. For these kids, there’s not enough meat to go with the potatoes. The kids’ perception of the value of instrumental music is decreasing.”

It’s not unlike the city of New Orleans itself, reeling from a rapid post-Katrina gentrification that threatens to alter the city’s culture forever.

“You know, the great thing about jazz,” he told me, “it’s a survival music. It figures out how to survive. You can go back and look at newspaper articles from the 1930s — they were saying you’d be better off opening a rib joint than a jazz club. It’s like a chameleon; it becomes what it needs to be.”

Delfeayo Marsalis plays with the NC A&T University Jazz Band on April 16 at 7 p.m. See for details.

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