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In jazz as in life - err on the side of adventure

Think of the occasions in life when you hear about a fresh way of doing something, and then actually do it.

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Ellis Marsalis took me to college recently, and what he said about jazz made me think about life. But first, the music. Where do those Marsalis boys get it? Not to mention Harry Connick Jr. and others.

Well, New Orleans pianist/educator Ellis Marsalis taught music to his sons, trumpet superstar Wynton Marsalis and brothers Branford (saxophone), Delfeayo (trombone), and Jason (drums), as well as to singer/pianist Connick, who is set to star in a Broadway revival of "The Pajama Game" next year.

Students at Boston's Berklee College of Music got a touch of the senior Marsalis in two recent workshops onstage. I attended the first one and had a fellow feeling with the seven young musicians who couldn't escape Marsalis's benign inquisition. He was nudging them to definewho they were in musical terms. His nudging reached beyond the footlights to make me wonder how I'd define myself.

There was Ellis Marsalis, live, in person, illustrating what he said on NPR after years in the classroom: "I never thought of myself as a teacher. I used to always look at myself as being a coach.... I always tried to key off of wherever the student was and just figure out what I needed to present to them to move from Point A to B."

I used to attend workshops for newspaper editors, and I recall that coaching was considered the best form of teaching. Isn't it better than rote and regimen in any field?

Marsalis began asking questions after all the students played extended solos in an ensemble piece they had prepared. What did one player think of another's solo? Oh, you thought it was good? Well, why?

Here's where life comes in. I thought how far Ellis's questions could be applied to personal relations and even world relations. Were the players merely listening "at" the music as if it were elevator music? Or were they listening "to" the music as if they wanted to hear it? Was each player listening not only to the others but to himself?

I'm sure I'd be appalled, embarrassed, or occasionally even pleased if I listened to myself. I can guess how often I've been thinking of something else and have listened at what people were saying instead of to it. Now I understand why people so often make a point of it when they feel listened to: He gave me his undivided attention. She made me feel I was the only person in the world at that moment.


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