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Delfeayo Marsalis and the Uptown Orchestra

13th August 2012   ·   0 Comments

By Geraldine Wyckoff
Contributing Writer

It’s as if New Orleans woke up to Delfeayo Marsalis & the Uptown Orchestra during its invigorating performance at the Satchmo SummerFest. Led by trombonist Marsalis, the large ensemble has been active for four years and plays every Wednesday night at Snug Harbor. Apparently many in the audience had yet to catch on to this very hip group.

“Where does he find all these guys?” asked one person hearing the big band, which varies from 13 to 18 pieces, for the first time. The answer is exactly what makes this ensemble tick.


“The design was that we were going to be the only band in the city that really has a cross section of musicians from every community,” Marsalis replies. “What we have is rotating musicians that include high school students, college students, young professionals, middle-aged and old professionals. We have guys that reading (music) isn’t their specialty and then we have guys that reading is their specialty. No band has that combination because it really is opposing ideas.”

At the Satchmo Fest, Marsalis called upon trumpeter/vocalist Kenneth Terry, who is best recognized as the front man for the Treme Brass Band, to give the orchestra greater authenticity on its tribute tunes for Louis Armstrong. When Terry and Marsalis teamed during a section of “What a Wonderful World,” two musical styles – the trombonist’s sophisticated tone and the trumpeter’s street bravado – beautifully united.

“He really has that charisma and joy that Louis Armstrong brought,” Marsalis says of Terry.

“It’s important for me to have guys that have that authentic sound.”

Marsalis recalls reading in Duke Ellington’s book, Music Is My Mistress, that the legendary bandleader felt that an important part of his musical training was hanging at a pool hall where, he wrote, there were reading cats and ear players and great things happened. Marsalis is taking his cue from Ellington in the make-up of the Uptown Jazz Orchestra.

“We’re the only big band in the world that will play the majority of the music without sheet music so we’re spontaneously creating our own arrangements,” Marsalis explains. “We’re a big band that plays with a small band concept. In a big band, typically you would have a lot of written music. Because of the number of people, you pretty much have to have more direction. The smaller the ensemble the more latitude the individuals have.”

The stylistically broad repertoire performed by the orchestra also sets it apart and makes for a lively show with unexpected moments.

“We’ll play Mingus and then right after that Glen Miller,” Marsalis says, referring to modern jazz bassist/composer Charles Mingus and swing-era trombonist/bandleader Miller. “Who would think to do that? It seems like, man, that’s very far apart. But it makes you realize how close all of American music is.”

Marsalis is adamant about how he approaches music from certain eras like swing. “I don’t want to play ‘30s music like it’s the 1930s. I want to play ‘30s music like it’s 2012,” he proclaims.

Another element Marsalis employs with the orchestra is the use of riff charts or riff tunes. He describes a riff as a “short, melodic idea played in a groove.” In other words, it’s much like offering a core of a familiar tune like “Go to the Mardi Gras” or “C Jam Blues,” and working from there. As heard at Satchmo Fest, these keep a performance moving along and act as friendly touch stones for an audience.

Perhaps surprisingly, Marsalis says that listening to Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews, who is over 20 years his junior, has influenced his outlook. “His ability to entertain the audience is something that has made an impact on me and the decisions surrounding the band and the way we present the material,” Marsalis explains.

Delfeayo Marsalis, who continues to be active individually on the modern jazz scene and with his children’s Uptown Music Theater, wants to let musicians who can really play feel that the Uptown Jazz Orchestra is a place where they can come. “You’re going to be featured and we’re going to let you do what you do,” he promises.

While the orchestra boasts some heavy-hitting modern jazz artists such as longtime members saxophonist Roger Lewis, trumpeter Ed Anderson and saxophonist Khari Lee and a rotation of impressive drummers including Herlin Riley, Joe Dyson and Ocie Davis, the guys Marsalis is anxious to come out are those from the brass band tradition. “I think there may be a mystique that these {the guys in the ensemble} are school-trained cats. We play hard modern jazz but we also play party music. We play music that everybody can find their voice in.

“When folks think of you in one light, and they think, ‘Okay, this is the show we’re going to get,’ you’ve got to change it up. We’re gonna keep changing it up and bringing the heat. I’m just glad I can bring the music to the people and keep the groove alive and keep cats out here swinging.”

This article was originally published in the August 13, 2012 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper

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