Friday, November 11, 2022

DOC NYC ’22: Ellis

Ellis Marsalis is a lot like the Archie Manning of jazz (the Saints quarterback and father of Eli and Peyton). They were both closely associated with New Orleans, but Marsalis was still playing in his prime when his sons came to prominence. He kept playing brilliantly for decades, right up until his Covid-related death. Sascha Just profiles the late, great jazz great and explains his significance in the simply-titled documentary Ellis, which screens again during this year’s DOC NYC.

For years, Ellis Marsalis was a musician’s musician—the sort they knew deserved to be nationally known. However, he stayed in New Orleans, even while the local jazz scene struggled. Initially, he took a teaching job to help make ends meets, but he became the pioneering model of what we know consider a modern jazz educator.

As jazz fans know, Marsalis had five sons to support, four of whom also became celebrated jazz musicians. Roughly, in order of descending fame, that would be Wynton, Branford, Jason, and Delfeayo—roughly, five out of ten jazz fans might change that order around. Here in 2022, it is hard to understand how big Wynton and Branford were in the 1980s and how unusual that was for jazz at the time (or any other time). Thanks in part to their success, jazz listeners (and discerning ears) started re/discovering the senior Marsalis.

Since then, Ellis Marsalis toured all over the world, but he always returned to teach and play in New Orleans. I heard him play in-person at Snug Harbor, NOLA’s premier jazz club for contemporary mainstream bop-based jazz, on several occasions, including what might have been one of his final sets. It stirs up wonderfully sentimental feelings seeing Just’s footage of him holding forth in Snug Harbor.

Of course, we hear from all four of Marsalis’s musician sons throughout the doc. Frankly, we don’t really need very many more, given their stature, but there are complimented by a few other New Orleans stalwarts, like Herlin Riley (also of the Jazz @ Lincoln Center Orchestra). Fortunately, Just had a great deal of footage with her subject, talking about music and his life. He could very well be the only musician who played with both Al Hirt and Ornette Coleman. Arguably, Hirt was a NOLA institution who gets somewhat short shrift from jazz fans (seriously, check out the often-sampled
Soul in the Horn), but Marsalis explains how the bandleader gave him Wynton’s first trumpet (a sample comp from the company he endorsed).

Given the commentary the film presents, Just probably has a better understanding of jazz than just about any other documentary filmmaker (and maybe film editor Michelle Barbin too). The film really gets how Ellis Marsalis related to the jazz developments during his lifetime and how he was shaped by New Orleans’ music and cultural environment. Notably, most of the music incorporated are Marsalis’s originals. The organization is a bit loosey-goosey, sort of like a jam session, but it brings out a lot of good stuff. Highly recommended for fans of the Marsalis family (and jazz or NOLA culture in general),
Ellis screens in-person again today (11/11) and online through the 27th.