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Leader of the band tells students to listen

October 19, 2009|By RICHARD F. BELISLE

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    SHENANDOAH JUNCTION, W.Va. -- Delfeayo Marsalis stood before Jefferson High School's first-period jazz ensemble and told the 25 young musicians to turn their sheet music around, that they were going to learn by listening, not reading.

    He got his point across by playing "Happy Birthday" on his trombone, then asked if any of them learned it by reading the music.

    Not one hand went up.

    "It's good to read music, but you learned this by listening to it, not by reading it," he said.

    The band had just performed "Jefferson Blues," off sheet music for Marsalis. He said they played well.

    Marsalis, Grammy Award-winning jazz composer and trombonist, is the youngest of three Marsalis brothers, including trumpeter Wynton and saxaphonist Branford, to follow in the footsteps of their father, the legendary jazz pianist Ellis Marsalis.

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Delfeayo Marsalis, who lives in New Orleans, was in Jefferson County this weekend for the 150th anniversary of John Brown's raid in Harpers Ferry. He composed and performed the premiere of his "Tattered Souls," a highlight of the four-day celebration at Harpers Ferry National Historical Park.

Marsalis is known for working with young people and introducing them to jazz. He said he spends a lot of time in schools, summer programs and in the Uptown Music Theater, which he founded to teach jazz to those ages 6 to 12.

He brought 26 Uptown students to Harpers Ferry to perform two productions this weekend, one on Harriet Tubman, the other about black tennis pioneer Althea Gibson. Like "Tattered Souls," he composed both pieces for the John Brown anniversary.

Marsalis is scheduled to hold another workshop today for the jazz ensemble at Washington High School in Charles Town, W.Va.

"The park service called in September and asked if we would like to have him here," said J.P. Lynch, band director at Jefferson High. "I've seen his brothers, Wynton and Branford, but I've never seen Delfeayo perform."

Marsalis said he learned by listening to music, "to its big sound, by ear. Today they do it more through reading techniques."

"It's easy to teach them to read music," Lynch said.

He reiterated Marsalis' point that once they hear the music, they will know it forever.

"When you write something down, you will forget it," Marsalis told the band.

He played a jazz tune called "steerage" on a CD player and told the kids to listen, and then to play what they heard.

He worked with them on this for nearly a half-hour, playing bits on the CD, then listening to what they learned, over and over, including solos.

To the guitar player he warned, "You're focusing on the notes, not the rhythm."

To Molly Fink, a junior, on her trumpet solo: "How was your confidence factor?"

"I think I did pretty good at that," she said.

Marsalis: "From the top. Listen again to the phrasing. It's real important. It's the No. 1 skill in jazz. Let's see who mastered it. We got the vibes together that time. That to me was a pretty sizable improvement," he said after they played the entire piece without music.

He ended with a bit of advice about becoming a professional musician.

"If you want to play music, play it if you love it. If you want to make money, do something else," he said.

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