Thank You, Ellis Marsalis — Learning To Improv During a Pandemic

Originally posted on Medium on April 3, 2020

Coping with the Grief

I didn’t sleep well last night.

Not because coronavirus is spreading faster in Louisiana than anywhere else in the world. Not because I’m running a startup studio that’s in the process of spinning out three new companies at the same time. Not because I feel like I’m the worst homeschool teacher my kids could ever have. And not because my wife and I haven’t had a moment alone for nearly 3 weeks.

Last night I didn’t sleep well because we lost a legend of legends. We lost a king. We lost the best jazz musician the world has known since Louis Armstrong. We lost the great Ellis Marsalis.

Honestly, I have no idea how we’re going to deal with a loss like that at a time like this.

Lessons from Ellis

Not only did Ellis teach all of his equally iconic kids — Branford, Wynton and Jason to name a few — he taught or mentored every famous musician in this town. They, in turn, challenged the rest of us to play the best we could, in our own way, with our own voice. His first principle was to give back. In his giving, his teachings touched us all.

I’ve played drums since I was a little kid, and I’ve had a number of teachers. Some were really good. One was awful and abusive. None of them were as great as Mr. Marsalis. I wish I had the opportunity to study with him. But I still learned from him.

Check out the video below. Watch the whole thing but pay special attention at (1:13). Talking to Mr. Rogers, Ellis says, “I’m still learning myself and even now there’s things that I’m working on. I don’t think one teaches jazz. In fact, I think jazz education is in an oxymoron.”

To me, that means he understood that you teach character.

You teach creative discipline. You teach original voice. And through that, people learn to play jazz.

I’ve taken lessons like this to heart in my life. But still, this is going to be rough y’all.

Celebrating a Life, New Orleans Style

You see, in New Orleans when just about anyone dies, we do what’s called a second line. This is a parade of people dancing down the street, marching behind a brass band. When someone as iconic as Ellis Marsalis dies, these second lines are massive. Easily 20,000 people would show up for his second line, as they should.

If they could…

This is what’s really keeping me up right now. New Orleans needs to celebrate this man’s life. We need to give him a proper send-off. We need to have a second line.

But right now, we really, really need to avoid being together on a crowded street to dance and party. Trust me when I say this goes against every grain of our culture. It’s like asking us to change our DNA.

Still, we must resist the temptation. We must find another way to honor the man now while we’re in quarantine, while we wait to honor him like we always do — with a big ass parade.

I started to think about this as I tossed and turned last night. How the hell are we gonna do it? What old tools can we use to manage this new way of life?

This whole “work from home” thing is new for many. And while working and homeschooling kids during a pandemic is very new to me, working remotely has never been.

As founder and CEO of Audiosocket for 11 years, we had offices in four cities across three time zones. As Managing Director of Revelry Startup Studio, our team is constantly working “asynchronously.” Collaborating via Google docs. Communicating via Slack. Having face to face meetings on Zoom. These are old methods to me, and I think I can use them in a new way. I’m inviting you to join me.

A Virtual Second Line

This weekend I’m gonna do what I’m calling, “the asynchronous social distancing second line.”

There is no specific time. There is no specific date. Anytime it strikes your fancy, get your family out of the house and onto your porch. Grab your handkerchief, blast some great brass band music, and start dancing.

Let’s celebrate the life and legacy of Ellis Marsalis.

Film it. Share it with the world. Let me second line with all of you, in an asynchronous and social distance kind of way.

This may not be the farewell Mr. Marsalis deserves. But it’s the one that keeps us the most safe. Soon enough this pandemic will pass. When it does, I’ll be on the street with all of you, dancing in the largest jazz funeral the world has ever seen.

In the meantime, live the lessons Ellis taught us. Give back. Share inspiration. Feel the beat and keep on riffin’.

Looking forward to seeing you second lining on the front porch.

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