It could be said that Jason Marsalis was born to a family of innovators. It could also be said he was born into the first family of jazz. His father, Ellis Marsalis, is a renowned pianist, jazz educator, and patriarch of a musical dynasty that includes four independently minded sons: eldest Branford Marsalis, a saxophonist who no one ever called a conformist; visionary trumpeter and Pulitzer Prize-winner Wynton Marsalis; Delfeayo Marsalis, going his own way on the trombone; and youngest brother Jason Marsalis, extending the horizons on the drums.
It is some indicator of that genetic maverick spirit that Jason Marsalis left the wildly successful Los Hombres Calientes at the height of their popularity to explore other musical avenues with the Marcus Roberts Trio. The multi-award-winning Los Hombres Calientes, of which Marsalis was a founding member, along with trumpeter Irvin Mayfield and percussionist Bill Summers, brought the young drummer a degree of exposure that even his famous name could not guarantee. Only talent could do that.
Jason Marsalis started on toy drums at three, moved to violin, then back to drums for good at 12. In 1991, at age 14, he made his first appearance on the Heart of Gold CD with his father. The drummer appeared on two more Ellis Marsalis CDs: Whistle Stop (1993) and Twelve's It (1998). The youngest Marsalis continued to develop his skills on CDs with artists including Roland Guerin, Harold Battiste, and Marlon Jordan, as well as working with the local Brazilian dance group Casa Samba.
Marsalis, taking a cue from other drummers he saw putting out their own work, cut his first CD, The Year of the Drummer, which received accolades for its thoughtful, straight-ahead jazz approach. The same year, opportunity knocked when Mayfield called to say he was interested in forming a Latin fusion group. Marsalis suggested the trumpeter check it out with Summers, the former percussionist in Herbie Hancock's Headhunters and a longtime student of Afro-Cuban rhythms. The three musicians formed Los Hombres Calientes in 1998. The group's hot dance music was an instant sensation. In what Marsalis felt was a precipitous move, the group immediately put out a CD to coincide with its appearance at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. Despite Marsalis' misgivings, the CD won numerous awards. Marsalis was more satisfied with the group's second release, Los Hombres Calientes, Vol. 2, which appeared in 1999.
Marsalis left the group in 2001 to pursue his affiliation with pianist Marcus Roberts. Marsalis also formed his own quintet, featuring John Ellis, tenor saxophone; Derek Douget, alto and soprano saxophones; Jonathan Lefcoski, piano; and Peter Harris, bass. Marsalis produced a CD, Music in Motion, in 2000, which featured all-original material by the drummer. Marsalis drew on his New Orleans roots on the cut "Seven-Ay Pocky Way," while exploring world rhythms from Africa to Brazil in pursuit of his artistic role as "keeper of the groove."
Marsalis moved from sitting behind the drums to standing behind the vibraphone for the studio release Music Update. Marsalis stuck with the vibraphone for 2013's In a World of Mallets. A year later he delivered his third album of vibraphone-oriented music, The 21st Century Trad Band. In 2016, Marsalis returned with his soundtrack to the independent documentary film Heirs of the Crescent City.