Delfeayo Marsalis Pairs Jazz, The Bard In New Work

Jazz greats Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn broke new ground when they paired the works of William Shakespeare with the sweet sounds of jazz in 1957, and now a jazz master from a younger generation is putting a new spin on their work.

On Thursday, acclaimed trombonist and composer Delfeayo Marsalis opens a 36-city tour in his hometown of New Orleans and brings his interpretation of their musical suite, “Such Sweet Thunder,” with an original theatrical production called, “Sweet Thunder: Duke & Shak.”

“This is a reworking of Ellington’s 12-movement suite,” Marsalis said. “It’s still based on Shakespearean characters and themes and there are still composed character portraits.”

Ellington composed his suite after being commissioned by the Stratford, Ontario, Shakespeare Festival to create music linked to Shakespearean characters like Othello, Romeo and Juliet, Julius Caesar, Lady Macbeth, Puck and Hamlet. His title was drawn from a line in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

“So much great jazz is the result of the younger generation’s interpretation of the older generation’s work,” Marsalis said in an interview before the show’s opening.

“In the original, the song lengths ranged from 1 1/2 to three minutes. Ours average five minutes. He wrote his for a 15-piece jazz orchestra. We use a jazz octet. Ellington’s piece was rich in melodic content but modest in development. Our primary way to expansion was by inserting solo sections in the work and we’ve changed the grooves on a number of compositions.”

Photo: AP Photo
Wynton, Branford and Delfeayo Marsalis, National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master Awards Ceremony and Concert, New York City.

In addition to opening the tour, Marsalis has released the show’s accompanying recording. Marsalis’ acclaimed brothers – Branford on saxophone and Jason on drums – contributed to the project and Branford is among the special guests expected to appear during the opening show.

“It’s always fun working with my family,” Delfeayo Marsalis said. “I was hoping my dad would be there, but he’s got a gig so I’m not sure if he’ll make it.”

Pianist Ellis Marsalis is the patriarch of the renowned musical family that also boasts Grammy Award-winning trumpeter Wynton Marsalis.

Delfeayo Marsalis, who’s been playing the trombone since age 13, said because Ellington was such an important American composer he felt a duty to present Ellington’s work to the next generation.

“I’ve always believed that each generation is responsible for preserving and furthering the work of their forefathers while maintaining originality,” said Marsalis, 45.

Marsalis also spreads that belief as part of his work with the New Orleans-based Uptown Music Theatre, which nurtures young actors and exposes them to meaningful stories through music.

The company also provides a soft introduction to jazz for children in kindergarten through the fourth grade.

He said producing “Sweet Thunder” incorporates two of his loves – music and theatre.

“I’ve always liked opera and Shakespeare. I like the idea of storytelling and the dramatic. It’s exciting to put together a show that combines both my loves in one fell swoop,” he said.

In the show, Marsalis plays the role of Ellington, while actor Kenneth Brown Jr., who has worked on the HBO series “Treme,” embodies Strayhorn.

“I’m here with my collaborator to talk about music and Strayhorn comes out and believes himself to be Billy Shakespeare,” he said, laughing as he explained how the production evolves.

Earlier this month, Marsalis, with his father and brothers, received a high jazz honor with the 2011 NEA Jazz Masters Award.

“Being acknowledged in that way is very humbling,” he said. “It’s humbling to have been recognized for sharing the stage with so many great masters. I love jazz and have devoted most of my life to it. And to garner an award for spreading the love of music is fantastic.”

He said he’s hoping the response to “Sweet Thunder” will be favorable.

“A standing ovation,” he said. “It’s such a unique and interesting project. Nothing less than a standing ovation.”