Wynton in the New York October issue of WHERE magazine
Legendary jazzman Wynton Marsalis brings beautiful music to the masses as artistic director of Jazz at Lincoln Center, which inaugurates its breathtaking new home this month.
Jazz has always occupied a unique space in America’s cultural imagination. Though its rich tradition includes such singular artists as Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker and John Coltrane, it has often been looked upon as too esoteric for public tastes instead of being hailed as our nation’s preeminent homegrown art form. Perhaps no one has done more to dispel this myth and bring jazz into the world’s consciousness than Wynton Marsalis. A peerlessly virtuosic trumpet player, Marsalis has spent his career both creating beautiful music that evokes his musical forbearers and enlightening the general public about the music and how much it has to offer, most significantly, through his role as artistic director of Jazz at Lincoln Center. On the eve of the unveiling of JALC’s new home in the Time Warner Center (Broadway and 60th Street, 212-258-9999 jazzatlincolncenter.org), which opens to the public Oct. 18, Where New York sat down for a chat with this living jazz legend.
Marsalis, like jazz itself, was born in New Orleans in 1961. The son of jazz pianist Ellis Marsalis, he began classical training in trumpet at the age of 12 and played in local marching bands, jazz and funk bands, and classical ensembles throughout his teen years. He moved to New York, like many of his jazz heroes, in 1979 and enrolled in the prestigious Juilliard School, where he instantly distinguished himself as a trumpeter of great promise. “At a certain point, everybody comes to New York. It’s the excitement of the place, the energy. The word metropolis was invented for New York,” Marsalis says glowingly of the city he calls home. That same year, he also joined Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, that venerable jazz institution with a list of alumni that reads like a virtual Who’s Who of jazz since the 1950s.
In 1982, he made his recording debut as a bandleader, showing the undeniable influence of great trumpet players like Freddie Hubbard and Miles Davis. His impact upon the jazz world was instant and resounding. In Wynton Marsalis, jazz had finally found an eloquent spokesman for the music’s storied past and cultural value. His work as a jazz artist did not distract him from his simultaneous love of orchestral music, however; and as a classical player, he distinguished himself as one of the world’s masters of the trumpet. After two decades and more than 40 albums for both Columbia Jazz and Columbia Classical, he continues to develop as an artist and has moved beyond technical brilliance to become one of jazz’s most distinct instrumentalists. He recently recorded The Magic Hour, his first album on the world-renowned Blue Note label.
Marsalis is surprisingly unassuming. He speaks in the same measured New Orleans drawl about musical intricacies like Phrygian chords as he does when he speaks of the virtues of a good meal. His down-home yet scholarly demeanor shows none of the hubris you would expect from a man who has won eight Grammy Awards for both his jazz and classical work. “I try to consolidate many different styles [in my music],” he says. “To reconnect the New Orleans tradition with the modern tradition of playing, while also bringing jazz and symphonic music closer together.” This delicate balance of styles is best heard in his Pulitzer Prize-winning epic, Blood on the Fields. On this three-disc set, he borrowed from slave songs and Stravinsky alike to relate the African-American experience. “I wanted to incorporate things like the fiddle music and the slave songs, things from the 19th century, and bring that into the sound of the 21st century. To say all this comes from one sound and one consciousness.”
Despite such an impressive résumé as a recording artist, Marsalis’ vision extends far beyond his own musical career. Through Jazz at Lincoln Center, for which he is both co-founder and artistic director, he has worked tirelessly to promote musical education, particularly among children. “It helps them to develop a concept of what it means to be an adult,” he intones passionately. “Youths are more in need of education now. These are very sophisticated times, and kids have a lot more to deal with than when I was growing up.” But children are not the only ones who have enjoyed Marsalis’ Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. His touring schedule keeps him on the road over half the year as he teaches audiences all over the world about jazz’s rich heritage and why it deserves to be appreciated.
Jazz at Lincoln Center, under Marsalis’ direction, is now moving into its most ambitious phase to date with the completion of Frederick P. Rose Hall in the Time Warner Center. Although New Orleans is universally acknowledged as the birthplace of jazz, New York has been the epicenter of the jazz universe ever since the Original Dixieland Jazz Band had its first booking at Reisenweber’s restaurant at 58th Street and Eighth Avenue in 1917. “Jazz grew up in New York,” Marsalis opines. “It had all the great ballrooms like the Savoy, Duke Ellington and the Cotton Club, Count Basie at the Famous Door, and 52nd Street in the 1940s.” It is only fitting that the Jazz at Lincoln Center program should have created this cultural center at Columbus Circle, directly adjacent to the site of New York’s first jazz performances. Finally, jazz has a monument as grand and beautiful as the music itself.
Negotiating the dual roles of artist and artistic director would seem daunting to most, but Marsalis has embraced the symbiotic nature of his two responsibilities. “You can do more artistic things with an institution than you can actually do by yourself. On your own, you can work on your music or you can go to a school and teach. With Jazz at Lincoln Center, I have an education department, and I can have a program that extends far beyond what I do.” Still, even after all the accolades and achievements through his numerous programs, Marsalis’ goals seem nobly modest. “People like music. People go out to hear some music, and they have a good time. They’re not mad at you for playing.”
The $128-million state-of-the-art Frederick P. Rose Hall is the result of a collaboration between architect Rafael Vinoly, Jazz at Lincoln Center’s artistic director, Wynton Marsalis, and a team of acoustic engineers. “We went to Japan and saw a couple halls that Rafael had designed. We discussed the halls, what we liked about them and didn’t like about them,” Marsalis says of the design process. “We discussed a lot of different rooms and concepts, and he came back to us with his design and thoughts about the space.” The result of this partnership is three beautiful rooms of different sizes that share the distinction of being the first concert spaces specifically designed structurally and acoustically to enhance the playing of jazz.
The first space, the 1,100-seat Rose Theatre, is instantly reminiscent of many of the great European opera houses, but with a distinct New Orleans flavor in the design of the balconies. The theatre manages to maintain the intimacy of a jazz club, as the audience chamber measures only 80 feet from the stage to the uppermost tier. It is also completely adaptable from a standard proscenium configuration to a theater-in-the-round setup allowing greater immediacy through the use of movable seating towers.
The Allen Room, a more informal, midsize space, recalls the design of a Greek amphitheater with its series of tiered platforms ascending from the floor. Musicians are able to interact with the audience as they play before the Manhattan skyline, which can be seen through a 50-foot-high glass wall.
The smallest space, Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola, is a 140-seat jazz club that is destined to become one of the city’s best-loved jazz performance spaces. The S curves of Dizzy’s carved bamboo walls lend the club a distinct warmth, accentuated by the city lights that shine through a glass wall behind the stage’s risers.
Frederick P. Rose Hall is much more than a place to enjoy the best jazz in the world. It also houses the genre’s history at the Ertegun Jazz Hall of Fame, a multimedia installation that provides an interactive tour of jazz’s past. Each year, a new class of jazz greats will be welcomed into its membership, voted upon by an elite international panel of jazz experts.
FOUR OF WYNTON MARSALIS’ FAVORITE THINGS TO DO IN NYC
1. Village Vanguard (178 Seventh Ave. South between 11th and Perry streets, 212-255-4037): Greenwich Village’s famous jazz club first opened its doors in 1935. “I love going out to all of the great jazz clubs.”
2. Pink Teacup (42 Grove St. between Bleecker and Bedford streets, 212-807-6755): Great soul food in a restaurant famous for its sweet potato pie and all-pink décor. “There are so many great restaurants; it depends on what neighborhood you want to go to. You have all the upscale and trendy spots, but I also like the down-home places.”
3. Lipstick Building (885 Third Ave. at 53rd Street): This 34-story office building became an instant classic upon its completion in 1986. “I like to go skyscraper-seeing, to go and look at all the beautiful buildings in New York.”
4. Striver’s Row in Harlem (West 138th and 139th Streets between Adam Clayton Powell Jr. and Frederick Douglass boulevards): A lovely stretch in Harlem of beautiful tan-brick residences on tree-lined streets. “It’s great to just walk around the city because it’s so scenic, a pedestrian’s paradise.”
By Jonathan Forgang
Source: WHERE New York