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Wynton Marsalis has graduated from young star to respected eminence

Back in the 1980s, when he was one of the most exciting faces of the new generation of post-bop jazz, Wynton Marsalis was anointed a “Young Lion.” Now, he’s an eminence.

That’s what happens when you receive the National Humanities Medal from the President of the United States for your cultural contributions, as Marsalis was so honored last week.

“It’s a great honor,” he said by phone on the day he was to receive the medal. Marsalis is on the road with his Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, which makes an appearance Sunday at the Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium. Because of his touring schedule, he was not able to appear in person for the awarding of the medal by President Obama.

Still, he said, it brought him to mind of what a long-time assistant told him once.

“He said, ‘One of these days, you’re going to sit down and listen to all the music you’ve put out and all the stuff that’s been done, and you’re going to remember all the people you’ve had a chance to work with. And you’re just going to start to cry.’ And he was right.”

At 55, Marsalis has graduated from a jazz star to a kind of American institution. As the artistic director of the celebrated Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, he has consistently been engaged not only in the preservation of jazz tradition but in the innovation of global music as it intersects with jazz. He’s the most well-known in a New Orleans family that has become American musical royalty. And he’s a thoughtful critic of American musical culture, especially when it comes to reaffirming the place of jazz in the American story.

He’s also a heck of a trumpet player, arranger and bandleader. The Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra comes to town roughly every other year. “I wish I could come every year,” said Marsalis of his long-standing relationship with Santa Cruz and the Kuumbwa Jazz Center, which is presenting Sunday’s concert. “I wish I could come all the time. I love it there in Santa Cruz.”

Marsalis first began playing the Kuumbwa back in his Young Lion days, but has camped at the Civic since first bringing the JLCO to town. Of Kuumbwa’s artistic director Tim Jackson, Marsalis said, “I absolutely love him. He’s the last of the great jazz presenters.” He also shouted out to Santa Cruz’s David Kinch, the celebrated restaurateur of Manresa in Los Gatos. Marsalis and Kinch were high-school buddies, said Marsalis. “He was 15 years old when I first met him and he said, ‘I’m going to be a great chef.’ I just started laughing.”

For Sunday’s concert, Marsalis said that he has looked up the set lists from past shows in Santa Cruz going back several years in order to make sure he can program a new set list that will feature some genuine surprises for Santa Cruz audiences. The orchestra, said Marsalis, is not a jazz revival big band and doesn’t usually traffic in audience-friendly jazz hits like “Take the A Train.” Instead, the JLCO casts a wide net for material, leans heavily on original songs – “We have 11 arrangers and composers in the orchestra,” he said.

“Look at the ‘Presidential Suite,’ which (saxophonist and composer) Ted Nash just wrote. That’s got everything from chorale-type writing to South-African jump band music. We’ll do Afro-Latin grooves, Brazilian music, anything. It’s a wide range of music. You’re not in any danger of hearing anything that you’ve been saturated with already.”

As part of the orchestra’s explicit mission to be relevant to today’s audiences and today’s cultural currents, Marsalis also has in mind the role of jazz and of his orchestra in the ongoing socio-political struggles roiling the nation in this election year.

“It’s hard to communicate with a populace whose only relationship to music is as a product,” he said. “I’ve been too much a part of people’s lives on a serious level to be reduced to a product. That’s not a product. Teaching your children, that not’s a product. Even a concert is not a product. We are dedicated to the uplift of our country, but we are not naïve about how difficult it is to create change when everything is viewed as a product. Even violence now is a media product. It starts with customs, traditions and education. That’s how you be part of positive uplift.”

Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis
When: Sunday, 7:30 p.m.
Where: Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium, 307 Church St., Santa Cruz.
Tickets: $36.75 to $68.25.
Details: kuumbwajazz.org

by Wallace Baine,
Source: Santa Cruz Sentinel

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