Blues Fanfares for the Matriarch

Sound the Brass in Celebration

N’orleans Pays Homage to the Queen Mother of Jazz

Deloris Marsalis: Elegant, Charming, Intelligent and Compassionate

One a sizzling summer day in the Crescent City Deloris Marsalis, mother of the marvelous musical Marsalis Clan, and wife to the master musician Ellis Marsalis, danced and joined the ancestors in her eightieth year.  Although I met the grand lady only once, I feel close to her by virtue of my twenty year friendship with her illustrious son Wynton – the peerless trump virtuoso, bandleader, and brilliant composer – and her husband Ellis; two paragons of the musician as intellectual and cultural leader.  And the there were all the wonderful stories I heard about her from family friends.

However according to her obituary and the testimony of friends she was quite nonchalant about the fame of the Marsalis men.  Indeed we are told in the obit:

Being the matriarch of what would become a famous family of Jazz musicians should have been the lede, but for her it was not. That note would be reserved for the second paragraph. If you came to her to talk about her famous husband or sons it would not have been a very long conversation. If you wanted to talk about what you were doing, what you were interested in and how you were making it in the world, she was all ears.” 

We are also reminded of her generous but no-nonsense disposition.

But the absolute best of her was her…love for those who have been brought low, by life, by circumstance, by mishap, or even by their own hand. She would help those in trouble financially, and she would often lend an ear of support by letter, postcard or phone call whether you were in your home, hospital, jail, or just waiting for your next place. Other than her husband, few if any would know of the scope of her ministrations.”

However Deloris was no pushover that could be easily gamed, rather she was a schrewd judge of character who could detect the okey doke or con before it was played:

Not one to favor pity – she could sniff this out with the best – over actually helping you by getting you to help yourself. She would not tolerate “foolishness” or self-pity, if you needed a shoulder to cry on it was there, but only for a minute before you would get the “Now let me tell you something…”.

Despite her stoic manner in dealing with people in crisis, she is also remembered as a witty woman with a great sense of humor: “One of the more unique parts of her was her funny bone. It was a sudden wit and humor that would present itself no different than a strike of lightning. If you had ever thought you could get the best of her, you were quickly reminded that you had not.”  But the thing that won the heart of Ellis Marsalis, the man with whom she would spend 57 years of her life and have six sons with, was her love of music especially Jazz.  “She was one of the few girls who that I knew who actually liked jazz” Ellis recalls.

Hence, although she was not a musician, her life became deeply embedded in the music scene.  And New Orleans was the perfect venue, where the action was.  New Orleans is a city where music making is intricately intertwined with the basic rituals of life in a unique way.  It is the fabled “birthplace of Jazz,” the quintessential American art, a complex instrumental music whose origins lie in the church, the Opera House, the whorehouse and street festivals.  It is an enchanted city where people will make music and dance in the streets at the slightest inticement…a cultural phenomenon that bewitched my dancer daughter who fell under the spell of the “Big Easy.”

It is in the nature of things that music should play such a central role in the last rites for the departed in N’orleans, especially in the culture of the Afro-American community from whence the Jazz tradition sprang.  And thus it is fitting and proper that her gifted sons – whose contribution to keeping that tradition alive is incalcuable – should turn out and lead the parade in the funeral of their beloved mother – just as Wynton has done at the funerals of so many Jazz greats in New York City.

I have witnessed the black musicians of the Crescent City rise up and express the mourning of the entire city after the devastating blow from hurricaine Katrina, when the whole town went under water.  In a concert held at Lincoln Center, filed with memorable performances, the passion and pathos in the sound of the music the Crescent City players made was a healing balm for wounded spirts that gave hope to all who heard it.

Just as all who heard the musicians of the community, led by the son’s of Deloris Marsalis, joined by singers from all stations in life, felt their spirits dance while joyously singing the old hymn “I’ll fly Away.”  There was more triumph than tragedy in the air as the lyrics rang out, soaring above the sound of the horns: “I’ll fly away O glory/I’ll fly away/When I die halilujah by and by/I’ll Fly away,” while the funeral marchers cut a jubilant “second line” step for which New Orleans funeral processions are world famous.

Although the pain of loss was clearly visible on their faces – Wynton and Jason especially – one could see in the dance an affirmation of the wonderful life she lived, and the lives that are yet to be lived by future generations of the Marsalis clan.  Ellis Marsalis, her long time husband and patriach of this family that has given so much beauty to the world, was a paragon of calm dignity as he turned out to pay his final respects to his partner and queen.

Ellis Arriving at the Church

Pater-familias of the Magnificent Marsalis’

The triumphant procession was led by her grandson Mckenzie Marsalis, decked out in the grand New Orleans style with Bowler hat, gloves, shoulder sash, colorful parasol and drill master’s whistle; Cake walking down the avenue steppin high.  Mother Marsalis was given the kind of grand send off befitting a culture hero who worked her magic from the wings as her husband and progeny took center stage and weaved their alchemy in the lime light.

Yet anyone who has ever spent any time in the company of the Marsalis men will recognize the civilizing touch of this wise mothers hand.  For there is not to be found a more gracious, charming, humble bunch of superbly gifted men.   While Ellis was their muse and inspired them to make a living in music, she was their pre-eminent guide to making a good life as men of substance.  Their deep sense of loss at her departure from this life was palpable – which is poignantly portrayed in the photographs – even amidst the celebration of her life in the transcendent ambiance of the occasion conjured up in the majesty of their song.

Scenes from the Going Home Ceremony of the Queen Mother of Jazz

Wynton Directs the Musicians Waiting to follow the Casket

McKenzie Marsalis Leading the Procession

Let the Trumpets Sound!

“I’ll Fly Away”…Delfayo Marsalis Raises his Voice in Song

And Joy Cometh to his Soul

His Drumsticks Put Away…Jason Marsalis Walks in Silence

While the Brass Celebrated with Fanfares

Spike Lee Offer Words of Consolation to Wynton
The Marsalis Brothers offer a Libation to The Ancestors for their Mother

A Sunday Kind of Love

Ellis and Deloris in the Autumn of Life

*****************

Click on link to see the Funeral Procession.
First there is the dirge as the leave the church.  The band is playing “Amazing Grace.  Later they perform Elijah Jane.

“When I die halilujah by and by/I’ll fly away”
See the performance at:
http://video.theadvocate.com/Wynton-and-Delfeayo-Marsalis-sing-Ill-Fly-Away-for-their-mother-Dolores-Marsalis-at-Jazz-Funeral-32777304

 

Text by: Playthell G. Benjamin
Photos and Video: courtesy of the New Orleans Advocate
Harlem, New York
August 6, 2017

 

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