Jason Marsalis received his formal introduction to the drums at the age of 3. That's when his parents, the household heads of the famed Marsalis family that changed the face of jazz beginning in the early '80s, bought him a toy kit.
He also studied violin at 5 years old. But Marsalis' current instrument of choice, the supremely cool vibraphone, was still years away from making an entrance into his life.
"I first got a set of vibes while in high school but I didn't seriously start to do performances on it until around 2000," said the youngest of the Marsalis brothers, who performs a free convocation concert with his Vibes Quartet on Thursday at Berea College. "It's an instrument I've worked on bit by bit.
"The first appeal, honestly, was the fact that there have not been a lot of vibraphonists in jazz music compared to the number of horn players. The second appeal was that there were a lot of possibilities that just haven't been explored with the instrument. Also, there's the fact that it's a percussion instrument, just like drums. But now we're dealing with an instrument that produces actual notes and melody.
"Since I had already studied violin and already studied music to that level, I thought it would be great to play an instrument that expresses my understanding of melody and harmony."
One would think jazz music of any style would have surrounded Marsalis during childhood, especially with older siblings Branford (a saxophonist), Wynton (a trumpeter) and Delfeayo (a trombonist) in the house. But the reality is that for much of his upbringing, they weren't around.
"Because I was born so late, they were all out of the house by the time I was 6 years old. My brothers were all musicians who were serious about their craft and learning as much as they could. So what I learned from my brothers and my father (veteran New Orleans pianist Ellis Marsalis) was to learn all the music I could to become a better musician as well as a more knowledgeable one."
Although the youngest Marsalis had racked up considerable roadwork experience by the age of 9, it was his role as drummer in the trio of pianist Marcus Roberts beginning in 1994 that garnered attention from jazz audiences around the world. Marsalis still plays regularly with Roberts around his own band projects.
"I met Jason when he was 7 or 8," said Roberts prior to his September concert at the Opera House. "He started working with me, I think, in November of '94, so it's now been 20 years. So I just think the world of Jason. He is a brilliant mind. He's also a fantastic drummer, in my opinion, the greatest in a generation.
"Jason represents what you want to see when you mentor somebody. What you really want to see is that one day they end up knowing more about what you thought you taught them than you do. In other words, at this point, he's teaching me about drums."
Of course, on Thursday, Marsalis won't be playing drums. He will be manning the vibes for the sleek new tunes from his quartet's new album, The 21st Century Trad Band.
"Really the sound and concept of the group started to gel about six years ago and has been evolving ever since. But the reason why the group spirit is so strong is really quite simple. It's because the musicians want to play this music. They believe in working together and achieving the highest level possible to play music. But they also just love to play live."