For Jason Marsalis, being in the family business is all about making the best music possible

Jason Marsalis and the 21st Century Trad Band appear Jan. 12, 2018, at the Arts Center in Carrboro.
Jason Marsalis and the 21st Century Trad Band appear Jan. 12, 2018, at the Arts Center in Carrboro. Invision/AP

Jason Marsalis didn’t have to take part in the family business – jazz – though it might have seemed like he was destined to.

His family is filled with acclaimed musicians.

As a refresher, his father, Ellis Marsalis, is a venerable jazz pianist and educator. Brothers Wynton and Branford Marsalis are legendary. Wynton Marsalis is an acclaimed trumpet player and Pulitzer Prize winner. Branford Marsalis is an adventurous saxophonist who helped Sting reach another level as a musician and was a bandleader of “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno” for several years. Delfeayo Marsalis is a gifted trombonist.

Jason Marsalis, the youngest of six siblings, was encouraged to explore other endeavors. But at the age of 14, he started playing drums with his father and never looked back.

“It’s just what I always wanted to do,” said Marsalis, now 40, in a phone interview from Uruguay. “It was just natural for me. It’s what I was always passionate about, and I remain that way when it comes to percussion.”

He had other options he could have pursued, he said. Playing an instrument, and eventually drums, seemed like a natural choice.

“It was wide open for me in terms of what I wanted to do,” Marsalis said. “When I came along, my brothers were already out of the house. Music was always around the house. Music was being played, and there were instruments around. I had a toy drum set when I was 3. I studied violin not long after I was 3, but I gravitated toward the drums when I was 12. I embraced the drums and I never looked back.”

The New Orleans native went solo in 1998 with his debut album, “The Year of the Drummer,” which not only showcased his work as an inventive percussionist but also as a gifted composer.

Marsalis has seven albums to his credit. “Melodies Reimagined,” which will drop at some point in 2018, will be previewed when Marsalis performs Friday, Jan. 12, at the Arts Center in Carrboro, with the 21st Century Trad Band.

Marsalis is taking harmonies and chord changes from other compositions and applying them to his own songs throughout “Melodies Reimagined.”

“There is historical precedence,” Marsalis says. “Charlie Parker would take John Coltrane’s chord progressions and turn them into his own song.”

Coltrane’s “Training In” and Michael Sembello’s “Maniac” are some of the chord progressions used by Marsalis.

“Those chords by Michael Sembello are really incredible,” Marsalis says. “I took those and built my own composition. The music is always evolving and getting more and more fascinating.”

Marsalis will also deliver tracks from his prior albums. “I’ll play as much as I can,” he said.

Fans of Marsalis often ask whether there are family jam sessions during the holidays. However, the reality is that the Marsalis brothers don’t usually pull out instruments after breaking bread. They hardly see each other.

“It’s rare that we jam,” Marsalis says. “We’re usually in different places. I live in France now with my wife and children, and that’s great for us. I appreciate what my father and brothers have accomplished. I’m very proud of everyone – from my father to my brothers. I want to do what everyone in my family does, which is push it as far as I can musically.”

For Marsalis, a music career has never been about fame for him or his talented relatives.

“Fame was different for me as a kid than it was for my brothers when they were kids,” Marsalis says. “When I was 13, MC Hammer was huge. He was everywhere. He was crazy popular, but a few years later, people were laughing at him. I didn’t think I wanted a part of that. Fame has never been something I or my family ever cared about. It’s always been about making the best music possible. That will never change.”


Who: Jason Marsalis & The 21st Century Trad Band

When: 8 p.m. Jan. 12

Where: the Arts Center, 300-G E. Main St., Carrboro

Cost: $29

Info: 919-929-2787 or www.artscenterlive.org