This week, the Duke Ellington Jazz Festival here in Washington, D.C. presented a lifetime achievement award to New Orleans pianist Ellis Marsalis. The festival organizers put on a special concert featuring Ellis playing with — count 'em — five of his sons, all paying homage to their old man with music and humorous family stories. The timing was especially appropriate given this weekend's celebration of Father's Day.
The Marsalis family band, taking a curtain call at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. From left to right: Ellis, Wynton, Branford, Jason and Delfeayo Marsalis, with Herlin Riley and Eric Revis. Ellis Marsalis III is not pictured. (And sorry, Harry Connick Jr. — had to crop you out of this one.) Photo Credit: Margot Schulman/The Kennedy Center
It got me thinking about dads and jazz. As jazz-loving fathers well know, passing on a deep passion for jazz to your offspring is at the top of your To Do list during the nine months of your wife's first pregnancy.
"I'll play Trane's Ballads every night instead of lullabies!" "Kind Of Blue will be his or her nursery music!" "He'll hear nothing but Basie until he's 3 years old!" "I'll take her to jazz concerts as soon as she's able to walk!"
I'm sure I wasn't the only expectant father to have these and similar thoughts. And we do it because we want our children to experience the same joy we get from listening to a great walking bass line or a soul-shattering saxophone solo. It seems to be one of the greatest gifts we can offer to the miniature beings who have been entrusted to our care and guidance.
But what we don't factor in are outside influences once they get older: day care providers that play Muppets CDs, school buses tuned to Top 40 radio stations, producers of children's television shows who pipe in hyperactive music to keep kids' interest levels high.
Pretty soon, Dad's jazz sounds kinda ... well, Dad-like.
My own two sons (Alessandro, 8 and Joaquin, 5) have heard enough jazz that they can both identify Miles' trumpet within three notes. But nowadays they demand I change the frequency when I tune into jazz radio in the car. In fact, they love to tease Dad by yelling, in unison, "We hate jazz" from the back seat.
At least I think they're teasing me.
I'm reminded of a story trumpeter Ray Vega once told me. It was a peaceful Sunday morning in the Vega household and he thought he'd lay some mellow Coltrane on his kids to keep them chilled out. His teenage daughter looks up and asked, "Dad, is that Coltrane?"
Ray told me he felt as if the clouds parted and the angels sang. His baby girl could identify Coltrane: he had a fellow jazz connoisseur in the house.
"Yes, dear, it is Coltrane!"
[heavy sigh] "I hate Coltrane!"
Ah well. Such is the lot in life of many a father who shares his love of jazz with his children. At this stage, I'm content that my boys have a healthy interest in one of my other musical passions, The Beatles. Though I still have hope that some day in the future my sons will be fighting over my jazz vinyl collection.
However, as a life-long jazz fan and part-time musician (wannabe bebop drummer, enthusiastic conguero) my heart melted recently when Alessandro told me, "Daddy, I hate all kinds of jazz ... except the kind you play."
Happy Father's Day to my own dad (Luis, age 80) and all jazz-loving dads out there.
Have you tried to play jazz records for your children? Do you remember your parents playing jazz for you? Let us know, in the comments below.