Playing His Own Tune

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Ellis Louis Marsalis III cooks bacon and biscuits for his 13-year-old son Django's breakfast in their house on the north end of the Belair-Edison neighborhood. Django's eyes are drooping and his hair is tousled after sleeping late, but he manages a languid handshake for a visitor to his block.

Django and his father and sister, Maria, who's 12, are just back from Thanksgiving in New York at Uncle Wynton's.

Uncle Wynton, of course, is Wynton Marsalis, the brilliant jazz trumpet player, composer, artistic director of the new performing arts center for jazz at New York's Lincoln Center -- and leader of the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra.

Django, it turns out, is named for a piece on his grandfather's first album, the great requiem for the French guitarist Django Reinhardt written by John Lewis, the pianist of the Modern Jazz Quartet. Granddad Ellis L. Marsalis Jr. is the premier modern jazz pianist in New Orleans -- and the patriarch of the Marsalis family. Uncle Wynton has recorded Django, too, along with a tune he composed called Maria after his niece. The Marsalis family jazz quintet rounds out with brothers Branford on saxophone, Delfeayo, trombone, and Jason, drums.

It is a close-knit family that embraces equally the two non-musicians in the family, Ellis III and his younger brother, Mboya.

Ellis III says his father never encouraged his sons to play. But once they did, he insisted that they practice and play well. Ellis III gave up the flute in grade school, but found his music in poetry and his vision in photography. He also found that he had a knack for computer electronics and he makes his living as a network engineer. He's even done work for The Sun. A backup income is a very good thing, indeed, for a poet who loves photojournalism.

Marsalis barely paused in Baltimore last week, just long enough to drop off the kids with his former wife, before heading back to New York. He lectured -- on photography and the process of publishing a photo narrative -- before student photographers at his alma mater, New York University, where in 1987 he earned a bachelor of fine arts degree in photography.

He ricocheted back home at midweek for a talk at the Enoch Pratt Central Library about his newly published first book thaBloc, which puts together photo narrative and poetry in a kind of meditation on his neighborhood. In the 10 years he has lived here on Ramona Avenue, he has become embedded in Belair-Edison -- like a permanent correspondent in a half-forgotten frontier outpost.

Honest views of life

His book recalls the classic photo- poetry work that focused on Harlem in the middle of the 20th century: The Sweet Flypaper of Life, with words by Langston Hughes and photos by Roy DeCarava. Marsalis credits both as sources who inspired him. He's even fashioned a friendship with DeCarava, whose photography he likes but doesn't imitate.

Marsalis' pictures challenge the classical form of older black photographers such as DeCarava, James Van Der Zee and Gordon Parks with more edgy contemporary composition and an insistence on showing life exactly as it is lived, jagged edges and all. He wants to reinvent the photo narrative as a viable medium of communication for common people.

His influences include an eclectic bunch of poets and photographers from Tupac Shakur, the late rapper who paused briefly at Baltimore's School for the Arts, to W. Eugene Smith, the exemplary photojournalist. "Eugene Smith believed photography could change things," Marsalis says. "In his lifetime, it didn't. He bankrupted himself chasing that dream down. But he created some unbelievable work."

Smith was an incomparable combat photographer in World War II, and his late pictures of victims of mercury pollution at Minamata, Japan, established a new standard of excellence in humanistic photojournalism.

"When you look at the image, you felt this guy's trying to tell me something," Marsalis says. "And that's what I'm trying to do with my work. I actually am trying to say something."

And that's what he likes about Tupac: "What he's trying to say, not how he says it. The point he's trying to make. I think I'm trying to make the same point ... that being on the bottom sucks."

He spits out the word as if it tastes bad.

"And the way out of the bottom is really by opportunity, not by force, not by maze, not by luck, not by going to church on Sunday, or showing off your morality."

The hip-hop thug life that Tupac professed has provided Ellis and his brother, Wynton, a decade of friendly disagreement. Wynton, the virtuoso jazz trumpeter, doesn't simply dismiss hip-hop as music: "He tends to see it as something a little sinister that can do damage," Ellis says. "I don't believe that at all. I think it's the result of damage, not the cause."

Call him Mr. Luce

The poetic photographer is talking while he makes Django's biscuits. He's a youthful 40, tall and lean and fit in a Dickey hooded jacket that makes him look almost as young as the guys he writes poetry about. And he exudes a young man's passion, energy and outrage when he talks about how he thinks the world could be and how it's not.

He published thaBloc under the name "t.p. Luce," The Poet Luce -- luce meaning light, as in prima luce, first light, dawn. "It's a poetry club name," he says. He's been a lively presence on the poetry club circuit in Baltimore and Washington and as far south as North Carolina, especially since the publication of his book. He'll read this Friday at Notre Maison, the books, poetry and pastry cafe on 25th Street.

He and his dad talked at some length about whether he should use the Marsalis name. "I was concerned," he says. "I didn't want to lead with the name Ellis Marsalis. I didn't want that to become the issue. I'd done a show on computers one time and I had people calling me up, asking about Wynton when he was at the Newport Jazz Festival -- way off topic. I want to avoid that as much as possible. So I thought I'd just use my club name."

Later, at his reading at the Pratt, he doesn't mention his non-poetry name. He notes in passing that his Dad is a piano player when he describes his book as fashioned in four parts like a classical symphony, with the poetic equivalents of allegro, andante, sonata and finale movements.

He's close to his father, whom he describes as the cool one in the family. His "fire and energy" come from his mother, Dolores Ferdinand Marsalis, whose maiden name implies Spanish ancestry in New Orleans, like the Spanish "tinge" that Jelly Roll Morton found in jazz.

She and his father have been married 44 years. She's Catholic and the boys were raised Catholic. His father was a Methodist from Mississippi where his family were sharecroppers. But Ellis III and his brothers all were all altar boys. And Boy Scouts: Branford and Delfeayo were Eagle Scouts and Wynton and Ellis were Life Scouts.

"I didn't grow up in a coddling environment," Marsalis says. "We were introduced to responsibility at an early age. When Delfeayo and I were 15, my dad said, 'Let me explain to you guys: As far as I'm concerned, you are grown men.' "

And he expected them to act like grown men.

"My dad was playing in clubs when he was 13," Marsalis says. But he doesn't think his father favors his musician sons. "If anything, he favors me. I'm the one who talks to him more than my brothers do, now. Me and my dad actually get on pretty well."

Ellis is perhaps closest to Delfeayo among his brothers. Born just 11 months apart, they're the middle brothers in the Marsalis menagerie. But "I get along fine with all of them," he says. "Branford's in Atlanta. I talked to him yesterday. He was playing the national anthem for the Hawks game. We all get along."

Turn it upside-down

For a guy with a penchant for order -- and an altar boy and Boy Scout background -- he perhaps is surprisingly tolerant of the kids on his block who tote guns and smoke weed.

"I'm not their parents. I don't act like their parents," he says. "I've got two kids. I am their parent. My relationship with them is entirely different from these guys. I know these guys. I respect these guys. I don't disrespect them. ... They're fellow human beings. They're citizens. They're neighbors. I'll help them just like I'll help you.

"Part of my motivation for the book," he says, "was to try to paint [the] picture that we look at things upside-down. And that drugs are not the cause of the problem. It is the result of the problem. Attack the problem.

"It's something that's very difficult because we're all slowly but surely conditioned to believe what we're told. And that's what Mylar Balloons is about."

His poem and photographs Mylar Balloons and Teddy Bears is inspired by those ubiquitous sidewalk memorials to people killed in the drug wars.

is this how they pay homage to the dead?

was it like this 100 years ago . . .

hanging from a tree

twisting in the wind from a porch pole

from a telephone pole

from the light pole on the corner of that bloc

that the house is on

how we pay homage

mylar balloons, t-shirts and teddy bears

He thinks the Mylar memorials sprung into existence after the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall was built. "I remember people dying in New Orleans, and I didn't see anything like this," he says. He was an emergency medical technician in New Orleans for about a year after he graduated from high school.

And he's utterly realistic when dealing with the guys with guns.

At NYU, he served in the ROTC, then after he graduated in 1987, he was on active duty at Fort Sill, Okla., learning to be an artillery officer. He was a captain when his reserve commitment ended in the early 1990s. Among the "Propers" -- the acknowledgments -- at the beginning of the book, he thanks his old artillery commander, Gordon Sims, "for showing me how to lay a barrage [and] fire a cannon."

One image in his book, titled wholly ironically manchild: eyes on the prize, shows a youth about 13 years old sitting on a back stoop with a gun and a couple of bullets beside him. He's sucking his thumb. He was waving a .38 automatic when Marsalis encountered him.

"I was acutely aware he was 13," Marsalis says. "It might be loaded. He doesn't know and I don't know. But we're going to find out. I told him we are not going to proceed until we clear the weapon. He didn't know what that means."

He sighs. Marsalis sighs a lot when he talks about the kids on his block.

"A lot of my poetry is about that," he says. "It's trying to tell their story, as ugly as the story is, as dumb as the story is, as painful as the story is. Just as it is. Without dark clouds, woe is me, isn't this a shame, these poor kids, none of that is in there. And I don't want to put any of that in there."

His outrage mounts as he talks, not unlike one of Wynton's trumpet runs, reaching for a high note.

"These kids come to the schools completely broken," he says. "These kids come to school damaged. Yeah, it's parents' fault. Yeah. All of that is true. But the whole point is they're damaged. The question is: What are we going to do about it? The answer is always -- nothing!"

Copyright © 2020, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
55°