Wynton Marsalis, Jazz Legend: Performer and Educator
One of the most surprisingly informative moments in a Wynton Marsalis interview comes when the Artistic Director of Jazz at Lincoln Center and Music Director of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra (JLCO) will suddenly, naturally, joyously interrupt his verbal discourse to make bopping sounds. It’s not that words fail him — he’s extremely articulate and passionate about the heritage of jazz, its current resurgence, and its increasing front-and-center presence in the music education initiatives he launched at Jazz at Lincoln Center – it’s just that he knows intuitively when best to make an emphatic point memorably effective. Jazz, America’s only original music, is rhythm, timing, improvisation. It’s in his soul, and he wants it to be embedded more deeply in the soul of the country, at least by this April, Jazz Appreciation Month.
Although Marsalis had recently appeared on the CBS news program 60 Minutes with Morley Safer when Education Update caught up with him, he was delighted to reiterate some of the themes he expressed on CBS but also to talk about his current and expanding activities, especially as these relate to education. He glows when he speaks about his latest album, the Vitoria Suite, a 12-part composition inspired by the 12-bar chord progressions in blues, as recorded by JLCO in Vitoria, in the Basque region of Spain. This reaching out to integrate American jazz with another culture and its music — in this case Basque and Spanish flamenco — can be said to be distinctively Marsalis. It’s what this Pulitzer Prize- and Grammy-winning American master and musical ambassador has been doing with New Orleans sounds, as they first insinuated themselves onto the streets of black parishes in Louisiana, and what he’s been concentrating on since, with swing. Surrounded by his musical brothers and father, a professor of music at University of New Orleans, Marsalis received his first trumpet at age 6 from Al Hirt.
Although Jazz has many traditions, the blues remains special for Marsalis — haunting folk songs, work songs, ballads, spirituals. Indeed, he says that an idea he’s been thinking about is having youngsters study a common curriculum — a dozen classic pieces in the jazz repertoire, “Amazing Grace,” for example, and then, after working the basic form . . . going for it, improvising. In addition, he would encourage youngsters to follow in the steps of one of his heroes, Duke Ellington.
Jazz at Lincoln Center’s 16-year-old Essentially Ellington High School Jazz Band Program, with a competition and festival, a highlight of each year, is “seminal” to the organization. The program selects 15 finalists, and ends with a three-day festival in May. It’s a cornucopia of workshops, rehearsals and performances with a culminating concert and awards ceremony where Marsalis performs with the top three bands at Avery Fisher Hall. Tickets are available now at jalc.org.
Essentially Ellington, however, is only one of many Marsalis initiatives at Jazz at Lincoln Center that bring students to JALC’s home, Frederick P. Rose Hall, and that send musicians to the schools. Designed to engage listeners of all ages and levels of interest and expertise, the programs reach over 50,000 participants a year through direct instruction and another 30,000 indirectly, by way of curricula and the Jazz at Lincoln Center print-music library. And of course, millions have access to Jazz at Lincoln Center’s five interactive Web sites.
Marsalis says that although the quality of the finalists is very high in Essentially Ellington, he listens particularly for how soloists do their thing. For him that means how they play with their orchestras and remain aware of their position in a larger group as they take off on their own. It’s a pretty good description for success for professionals in any field. On 60 Minutes, when asked why he was not playing star trumpet on tour, he replied that he was playing fourth trumpet in the back because he wanted others to shine.
In a speech to the graduates of Northwestern University last year, Marsalis said, “as your fortunes rise against the turbulent skies of uncertain tomorrows, there’s always the homing pitches of your song, of your dream. It tells you, ‘everything’s gon’ be all right.’ ” In a way he was echoing a sentiment made long ago: “music hath the power to soothe the savage breast.” Jazz is “killin’,” he’s been known to say, meaning it’s hard and great, but his energy never seems to slacken.
Indeed, just the opposite. He wants more national recognition for jazz, a more prominent place for it in curricula, and he doesn’t just mean music. Jazz is our history, our culture, and America’s “most significant contribution to world culture.” As Jazz at Lincoln Center’s mission puts it “Jazz: Bringing People Together Through Swing;” “We play, We Tour, We Educate, We Broadcast and Record, We Host.” Does he — do they — ever. #