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Marsalis makes 3: Jazz musician combines works of Ellington and Shakespeare

Delfeayo Marsalis is scheduled to perform his take on Shakespeare through the music of Duke Ellington, “Sweet Thunder: Duke and Shak,” with his band on Saturday at the Southern Theatre.


Marsalis, a New Orleans native, is a jazz musician and composer best known for his trombone playing.


After composing and recording four albums of his own, Marsalis turned to Ellington’s work as a jazz pianist and bandleader to demonstrate his audio interpretation of Shakespeare.


Marsalis said he chose to mix the works of these two because he “couldn’t think of a better pair.”


“What I found is there are a number of similarities between Ellington and Shakespeare,” Marsalis said. “For example, obviously their level of genius and creativity.

Neither was university-trained, but their works somehow perplexed all the university’s wit.”


He described this performance as music with “theatrical drama.”


“We’re taking the best of Ellington and the best of Shakespeare and we’re combining them to tell a great and compelling story,” Marsalis said. “We’re taking two artists who seem very different and we’re just showing that they’re actually the same.”


Marsalis said the actors will portray the key characters of Shakespeare, such as Puck, Othello and Cleopatra; these actors will serve as a “prologue for the music.”

He said the characters will dance styles that incorporate tango and swing.


Graeme Boone, a professor in Ohio State’s School of Music, said that combinations like this aren’t at all unusual.


“If you think about rap as part of a grand interlocking set of poetic traditions through oral performance, that goes back to subculture going all the way back to Africa and Europe,” he said. “I mean, why can’t that culture take advantage of whatever materials are at hand? Why not Shakespeare?”


Boone also said there was a man named Brother Blue in Massachusetts who had been rapping Shakespeare from the mid-1980s until his death in 2009.


Marsalis was raised with music as a constant presence in his life. His father was a pianist and his brothers, Wynton and Branford, are also established jazz musicians. Marsalis said his mother was a music supporter as well.


“My mother was a big fan of having access to information, so music became part of that information and part of how we grew up,” Marsalis said.


He said when he was young he and his brothers went to his father’s gigs and got to hang out with the band and hear “grown-up stories.” With such a heavy music influence, Marsalis said he always knew he wanted to be a musician.


“I had a pretty good idea that it would always involve music in some capacity,” Marsalis said. “But you know, not when I was 5 or 6. We were not exactly like the Jacksons. My dad didn’t lock us in the closet and say ‘You have to practice so you can become musicians.’ He led by example.”


Marsalis said his musical family was not uncommon for the area, but rather a “New Orleans thing.” This is something Kenyatta Beasley, an assistant professor in the School of Music, understands.


Beasley is a New Orleans native and a jazz musician who knows the Marsalis family.


A previous high school student of Marsalis’ father, Beasley said he met Delfeayo through that connection about 20 years ago. He describes Delfeayo’s music as traditional.


“It’s more like traditional jazz, along the lines of Miles Davis or Duke Ellington,” Beasley said. “He’s definitely a traditionalist, there’s nothing really modern about it.

But what makes it special is that it’s traditional in its own way. It’s doing it’s own thing and it’s from New Orleans.”


Beasley recommends students attend the show this weekend because of the rare opportunity it presents to hear genuine New Orleans jazz.


“It’s one of the rare times that we can get one of the great musicians from New Orleans that stay authentic to that tradition in Columbus, Ohio,” Beasley said.


Fans of Marsalis’ previous work should expect a completely new experience when listening to this new project, Marsalis said. He said all of his work until this has been completely his own, so to change that was a new approach.


“This is quite different, to try to adapt someone else’s music and then of course someone as prolific as Duke Ellington is pretty different,” Marsalis said.


After establishing himself as a jazz composer, Marsalis offered advice to students trying to get into performing.


“I would say without question, study and be creative,” Marsalis said.

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