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Family affair The Marsalises to kick off 'Big Easy' series

Forget Joseph P. Kennedy, who raised his incredible family with the help of ill-gotten zillions and Harvard University.

Ellis Marsalis has got to have been the Father of the Past Century.

A lifelong jazz pianist and educator in New Orleans, he gave to the music he loved no fewer than four truly remarkable musicians: older sons Wynton and Branford, the best known of them and among the greatest living jazz players; and younger sons Delfeayo, a superb trombonist and first-rate record producer, and Jason, an excellent drummer who will accompany his father to Western New York for a rare gig outside their native city.

Nor is that all in modern-day jazz that can be laid at the doorstep of this utterly amazing father and teacher. A whole generation of New Orleans jazz musicians owes Ellis Marsalis for his tutelage and some of their formative musical experiences -- everyone from Harry Connick Jr. to Terence Blanchard, Donald Harrison and Nicolas Payton.

How on earth did he do it?

On the phone from New Orleans, Ellis Marsalis says, "When I look at our kids, I think that first of all my wife ran a pretty tight ship and really did wonders with the very small amounts of money that I was making."

He also credits the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts -- where Ellis Marsalis taught: "They got a level of instruction that was necessary to make important decisions about professionalism in careers, and they got it early enough."

It was when he was teaching that Marsalis came to see the flaws in the educational system -- and how he might truly begin to teach young musicians.

"The only people who seemed to be getting information and experience that was leading to any kind of professionalism were athletes," he says. "When I looked at the way coaches were doing what they were doing, it was sort of like a beacon for me. There were only three of us on the music faculty. . . . Once I began to realize the potential of those who went through our kind of instruction, when they got out of high school, it would have been the same kind of thing as those people looking at Peyton Manning."

At age 72, Ellis Marsalis, then, is among the most famous residents of the most tragically ravaged of American cities -- one of the few which, like New York City, almost all Americans can claim as an integral part of their heritage.

Hurricane Katrina, blessedly, left him and his wife largely alone.

"New Orleans is like a bowl," Marsalis says. "Those people who are at the bottom of the bowl suffer the greatest. We happen to be among those residents whose houses were built on brick pillars at a time when the people who were building houses had a lot more respect for Mother Nature."

"It's a poor people's town. When it comes to the cultural aspect of that, everything is basically the same, with some interruption because of the hurricane," he says. "The jazz festival, for instance, is back. . . . The tourist industry is basically how New Orleans really functions. There are so many hotels that have been built, even before the storm, I can't even count 'em. The latest I've heard is that Donald Trump is about to put up one of those 62-story condominium [with] businesses on the ground floor kinds of things.

"They play up the element of crime in the [nation's] newspapers, but every time I play in another city I think, 'Damn, I think I'm in New Orleans.' They always play up crime in New Orleans, but everywhere I go the headline news is about who killed who, who got busted for drugs -- you know. I'm saying, 'Man, what happened here? Everybody seems to think nobody else has crime except New Orleans.' "

Among the shared characteristics of all the Marsalis brothers is a high -- sometimes injurious -- level of articulation and candor. A contempt for cliche is a Marsalis family trait, passed on from parents to children. So great, at one point, was the Marsalis family's reverence for Miles Davis -- the ultimate jazz enemy of cliche -- that Wynton was named for Miles' pre-Bill Evans pianist, Wynton Kelly. In fact, says Marsalis, "my wife wanted to name him Wynton Kelly Marsalis, and I said 'no.' "

The Ellis Marsalis Trio's appearance kicks off the Big Easy in Buffalo series. The series consists of nine Western New York concerts taking place through February 2008 and featuring the sounds of New Orleans. Proceeds will help buy instruments for Buffalo and Niagara Falls public schools.

e-mail: jsimon@buffnews.com

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PREVIEW

WHAT: Ellis Marsalis Trio; first installment of the Big Easy in Buffalo series

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday

WHERE: UB Center for the Arts, Amherst

TICKETS: $25

INFO: 645-ARTS or www.bigeasybuffalo.com

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