IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Ellis Marsalis III chose poetry over music

Has book of poems, photos and prose about tough neighborhood
/ Source: The Associated Press

He’s t.p. Luce, reading poetry at clubs in Baltimore and Washington, and he’s also Ellis Marsalis III — a Marsalis brother who decided early that music wasn’t his gig.

Under both names, he returned recently to his hometown to promote “thaBloc,” a paperback of black-and-white photos, poetry and prose about his tough East Baltimore turf — the Belair-Edison neighborhood.

It’s very much his book: he produced it, worked with the designer and, with several investors, paid the printer. It’s partly because Marsalis, who has degrees in history and photography from New York University, wanted to keep the price low enough for the people he was shooting to buy it. Big, glossy photography books run $40 to $100 or more while his book — small and matte — often goes for $15 face-to-face ($20 to $25 elsewhere).

“Literally on my block, I’ve sold about 15 copies. Right on my block,” Marsalis said.

In all, he’s sold about 500 copies — almost half the 1,200 needed to break even, he said. He also supports his 12-year-old daughter and 14-year-old son as a freelance computer network specialist.

“I’ve been doing it a long time, so I’m lucky enough to be able to do it freelance and make ends meet. They don’t overlap, but they meet.”

That’s not why he lives in the inner city, though. He sees suburbs as a place for blacks who want to assimilate. He’s a city guy.

“Black people in this country are in a state of rapid evolution right now. I find it fascinating. It’s happening underneath the radar. Because the dominant culture media institutions and the storytellers aren’t telling the story.”

Disarming a child
In Belair-Edison, as Marsalis wandered about photographing children for the book, he realized he needed to get them past the television versions of themselves.

In one photo, a muscled 13-year-old contemplates his guns while sucking his thumb. Marsalis was photographing tattoos when the boy came by, pulled up his shirt and displayed his own tattoo.

As Marsalis continued to take pictures of other people, the boy “pulled out a gun, put it right at his breast, where the tattoo was, and said, ‘Take a picture of this.”’

“In my head, I was saying, ‘I’m not going to let a 13-year-old wave a gun around in this neighborhood.”’

Marsalis took the gun. The boy pulled out a second. Marsalis told him to unload them. The boy wasn’t sure how to unload the larger one. Marsalis, who had been in the military, showed him, then went back to tattoos. A half-hour later, the boy was looking at the weapons and bullets, thumb in mouth.

On trips to hear his brothers, Marsalis has had to convince hotel clerks that he wasn’t trying to run a scam with a famous name. So he publishes as t.p. (for “the poet”) Luce.

That’s the name he uses when reading in poetry clubs. “I said, ‘You know, I’ll just do it under my club name. ... In some ways, I don’t look on my name as necessarily being my name because it’s my dad’s.”

And, he said, “I don’t want the book to become the book by the Marsalis brother who doesn’t play anything. As a marketing strategy, I think to use the family name may gain legs — but they’re very short legs and don’t last very long.”

As Luce (Latin for “light”), Marsalis writes clear-eyed portraits of his neighbors and poems of anger at their situation and, in spite of everything, hope.

“... their sun’s light,

eclipsed by rules and conditions

which apply only to them,

is had

only around the edges

and in their dreams

befitting their state

what they end up with

is light they cannot look at

and light that cannot be seen

still, some voices can be heard

to break with song

from within life’s quicksand ...”

His father is proud enough of the work to make a reserved man almost voluble.

“I think it’s a great book. It’s timely. And the kinds of things that really need to be done.”

Could the poems be set to music?

“I don’t know. I haven’t read it with that in mind,” the elder Marsalis said. “I’m sure there are some lines in some of the poems that would make for a very good song. I may do that.”