Parenting Lessons from Ellis Marsalis

Last night I had the incredible pleasure of sitting at a friend’s small dinner party for Jazz at Lincoln Center and listening to Wynton Marsalis jam with his quintet in her living room(!). As Wynton introduced their final piece, “Take the A Train”, he mentioned that he had the opportunity to meet Duke Ellington back in 1971, when he was 10. Ellington was in New Orleans performing and Wynton’s father, jazz great Ellis Marsalis, offered to take him to meet the world famous musician and hear him play. “I had the opportunity”, Wynton explained ruefully, “but I decided to stay home instead to watch the Oakland Raiders game on TV.” His father did not pressure Wynton, who at 10 was already an accomplished musician, and went on to hang with Ellington without his son.

While bobbing my head and tapping my feet to the wonderful music, I couldn’t stop thinking about Wynton’s intro. What a great parenting story! Marsalis in all likelihood was surprised and disappointed that his son was choosing to watch a football game over the chance to meet and hear a musical legend. But he didn’t force him to go, or try to make him feel badly about not wanting to go. He allowed Wynton to make the decision and accept the consequences of his actions. A pretty good lesson, since Wynton is still telling the story some 40 years later.

Many parents, myself included, would have cajoled or forced our sons to go, frustrated that we had to do so, but determined that they would not miss this opportunity. But truth be told, wouldn’t that effort be as much for ourselves as for our sons, so that we could feel good about giving them every opportunity we can? Marsalis the father recognized that for Wynton the opportunity would only be valuable if Wynton wanted it. He gave Wynton the freedom to make a decision and resisted the temptation to tell him it was not a great one. Very impressive.

There is another lesson in this story: have patience and faith when your son is not interested in your efforts to help him pursue his passions or when he makes a decision you understand and can accept but don’t agree with. After all, who would have thought that a boy who chose to watch the Oakland Raiders on television over meeting the legendary Duke Ellington and hearing him play would grow up to be a Pulitzer Prize and National Medal of Arts winning, globally heralded and revered jazz musician, composer, bandleader, and our international ambassador of American culture?

Patience and faith. Words to parent and live by!

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