‘One big, human family:’ Marsalis, big brass to bring sounds of New Orleans, Philadelphia to Amp


Rodney Marsalis Philadelphia Big Brass

Rodney Marsalis knew he was serious about the trumpet at 11 years old. And he already knew it would take some serious practice.

Marsalis grew up in New Orleans, surrounded by a musical family — his cousin, Wynton Marsalis, is also a trumpeter and a Chautauqua favorite — and learned early how important music-making was to him. 

“It was around that time — 11 years old — that I went and heard Wynton at a recital, playing ‘Carnival of Venice,’ ” Marsalis said. “I had never heard the trumpet played like that. I wanted to do that.”

And he did. With the blessing of his mother and of Ellis Marsalis, Rodney’s uncle and the jazz pianist-patriarch of the family, he began lessons with Wynton, before his older cousin set out to attend the Juilliard School. 

“My mom was used to going to (Ellis) for wisdom,” Marsalis said. “I remember him saying to me and my mom that if I was serious (about the trumpet), I needed to practice five hours a day.” 

Marsalis and his brass ensemble, the Rodney Marsalis Philadelphia Big Brass, will perform at 8:15 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 11 in the Amphitheater.

Marsalis made his solo debut with the New Orleans Symphony at 15. He later attended Curtis Institute of Music and reached national attention at 19, performing as a soloist alongside the Boston Pops Orchestra. Since then, he has played with symphony orchestras worldwide, including the San Diego Symphony, the Tenerife Symphony, L’Orquestra Simfònica de Barcelona i Nacional de Catalunya and the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia.

After a fellowship at the renowned Tanglewood Music Center, he was given the Seiji Ozawa Award for Outstanding Musicianship.

Marsalis has given master classes at the Juilliard School, North Carolina School for the Arts, the National Trumpet Competition and the International Trumpet Guild Conference. He has taught at the Eastern Music Festival and Interlochen Music Academy. 

Marsalis counts himself lucky in his teachers and role models. 

“I was so fortunate,” he said, “because they told me what I needed to do. People showed me. I just locked myself in the practice room in college.”

After a stint with the San Diego Symphony, Marsalis called up his uncle, Ellis, again. 

“He said, ‘Form a group. Share what you do with a wider range of people,’ ” Marsalis said.

Ellis Marsalis, a staple of the New Orleans jazz scene since the 1940s, died in April of last year from COVID-19 complications. 

“He was the smartest, wisest man I’ve ever known,” said Marsalis. “We lost so much — but he gave so much.”

The Rodney Marsalis Philadelphia Big Brass is now acclaimed nationwide, having performed with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center and the Canadian Brass. During the pandemic, however, their appearances stopped.

“Everyone suddenly had a lot of practice time,” Marsalis said. “I had a lot of time to work on things I didn’t know how to do, too — I had to change my own faucet.”

Marsalis also put together a virtual seminar for trumpet students and was able to facilitate master classes from trumpet players he’d never expected.

“People who would have been much too busy were available,” he said. “We had my cousin Wynton, Alison Balsom, principals of major symphonies — they were all available to teach classes.”

Years ago, playing with a band in the streets of the French Quarter, Marsalis learned to appreciate the closeness of the audience.

“You felt much more connected to the audience,” he said. “Sometimes, they’d even lean over your shoulder.” 

He also appreciated the ease of collaboration between street musicians, and the surprising connections they made. 

“We’d be on this corner,” he said, “and we’d go back and forth all day with another band. We’d play a set, I’d signal them, they’d play a set. Their young trombone player ended up being Trombone Shorty.” 

Trombone Shorty will perform at Chautauqua on Saturday, Aug. 21, alongside The Roots. And when Marsalis looked at the Chautauqua program, he got another surprise: Harry Connick Jr., who will perform at 8 p.m. Friday in the Amp ­— two days after Marsalis. 

“Harry and I were roommates at summer camp,” he said. “The only time I ever sang on stage was with Harry.”

Now, Rodney Marsalis Philadelphia Big Brass has performed all over the world, but they still “try to bring the “New Orleans feel to our music,” Marsalis said. 

“New Orleans is a huge mix of cultures. … Growing up there, I never saw that as strange,” he said. “That’s what’s underneath it all: We’re all one big human family. Music can make these connections.”

He hopes that Chautauquans will feel a little healed listening to the Philadelphia Big Brass.

“The world’s been through a lot,” he said. “We are glad to bring a little happiness to people after all we’ve been through.”

Tags : big brassEvening EntertainmentMarsalisPopular EntertainmentRodney Marsalis Philadelphia Big BrassWeek Seven

The author Laura Philion

This is Laura’s second season with the Daily, but her first on the grounds! Although born in Buffalo, she has spent most of her life in the South, bouncing between North Carolina and Virginia. In the fall, Laura will return to Sarah Lawrence College as a senior studying writing and art history. When not copy editing this summer, she will be on the lake, getting a sunburn.