by Christopher Blagg
These days, perhaps more than ever, we need to honor and protect our aging artists, the ones most vulnerable to Covid-19. A couple weeks ago we got word that one of our Rockport Music mainstays, the iconic folksinger Tom Rush, had contracted the virus. Thankfully, it seems that Tom, who has been living in Rockport this year, is now on the mend and on the road to a full recovery. Tragically, other musical legends weren’t so fortunate.
A few weeks back it was announced that the great John Prine succumbed to the virus. This was a gut punch, a jolt of heartbreaking reality for all of us in the musical community. John Prine never played the Shalin Liu Performance Center (he played much bigger venues), but you best believe that almost every songwriter who has played our hall, holds him in the highest regard. And if he never got to Rockport, his songs undoubtedly did, as his tunes are some of the most covered in all of popular music. “Angel from Montgomery,” “Hello in There,” “In Spite of Ourselves,” “Paradise,” “Spanish Pipedream” – everyone’s got their personal favorites, but the list is always long. For songwriters, John Prine is on Mount Rushmore, along with Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell. His songs could somehow be both hilarious and heartbreaking at the same time, his wry humor and genuine Midwestern warmth expressed in a breathtaking economy of words. Unlike many artists of his generation, he did not rest on the laurels of his youth. His last record, 2018’s Tree of Forgiveness was a stunning work, a Grammy-winning critical and commercial hit. Simply put, he was a singular talent.
Earlier this month we learned that jazz pianist/educator Ellis Marsalis, a New Orleans legend and patriarch to one of the most important families in jazz, passed away due to pneumonia stemming from Covid-19. While both Wynton and Branford have performed at the Shalin Liu Performance Center in recent years, Ellis was the first Marsalis to grace our stage, back in 2012. After performing the hall, he told staff, “Now I can check that off my bucket list.” Kind words from a kind, large-hearted man. Yes, Wynton and Branford have sold more records and have more name recognition, but it’s near impossible to quantify the enormous impact their dad had on the city of New Orleans and on jazz itself. As a pianist he put out close to 20 acclaimed records as a leader, and countless others as a sideman. But his biggest impact was as an educator. Ellis almost singlehandedly made modern jazz acceptable in New Orleans, educating not only his kids (Branford, Wynton, Delfeayo and Jason) in modern jazz, but an entire generation, including superstars like Harry Connick Jr., Terence Blanchard, Nicholas Payton, Donald Harrison Jr. and many others. He started the jazz program at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts (NOCCA), and also founded the now-heralded Jazz Studies program at the University of New Orleans. If you played jazz in New Orleans, at some point you got to experience the generous educational touch of Ellis Marsalis. Thankfully because of his enormous impact, his torch will be passed on.
We also recently learned about the passing of the jazz/swing guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli, who died in early April due to complications from the virus. Bucky had played our hall a couple times, most recently in August of 2014 (his son John Pizzarelli has performed our hall several times and will be playing this summer on August 2). The beloved guitarist was one of the most sought-after guitarists of the swing era, playing and touring frequently with Benny Goodman. He also performed with Les Paul, Stèphane Grappelli, Sarah Vaughan, Aretha Franklin and many others. He will be sorely missed.
Sadly, there are many more musicians and artists that have been struck by the Coronavirus. We send prayers and good wishes for the health of iconic tenor Placido Domingo, as well as German violinist Sophie Anne Mutter, who both announced that they had contracted the virus. We send positive healing thoughts to them and all those who are suffering from the illness.
Top Photo: Bucky Pizzarelli, Ellis Marsalis, John Prine