My family has a long and deep connection to the Marsalis family. In fact, I had heard told since childhood that my Grandmother, Dr. Geneva Handy Southall, taught Wynton’s father, Ellis Marsalis, how to read music. That’s a picture of the two of them together in their later years above.
The story I was told was that my grandmother was the piano teacher in the New Orleans neighborhood both lived in at the time and she taught lessons out of her parents home. One day, Ellis showed up and explained that while he could play jazz and had been a seasoned club player at that point, he didn’t know how to read music. He played by ear. But, as his star was rising in the jazz music world he was increasingly getting gigs where he was expected to be able to know how to read. He asked if she could teach him and she did.
Fast forward to a few months ago. Wynton Marsalis was in town on tour with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. Through the daughter of a friend I was able to get tickets for my daughter, wife, and I along with an invitation backstage to meet Wynton afterwards. It was a really great night and it gave me a chance to verify the story I’d heard about my grandmother and his father and the music lessons.
"Yeah, that sounds right! You know, he still doesn’t really like to read music." Wynton explained when I asked. "When we play together he hands the music to me and makes me play it for him. He still plays by ear."
I’d be satisfied if I could say that was the most memorable and humbling thing about that night, but it wasn’t.
Wynton kept looking at my little girl and engaging her in conversation. He asked her if she played an instrument and what kind of music she listened to. She told him she takes lessons in piano, violin, and guitar and answered his questions with the courtesy and grace she’s known for.
After a few minutes of exchange between them he turned to my wife and I and said, "I teach kids all the time. There’s something about her… Listen, get her listening to folk music. Not modern folk but the real old stuff. Americana. That’s where the roots are. That’s where the soul is."
Wynton then turned to Beatrix and said, "Keep playing and someday I’ll be paying money to come watch you!"
To "stay inspired no matter what" also means to keep inspiring others at every opportunity. He certainly filled us with inspiration that night.