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Wynton Marsalis talks music, sports and jazz as a religion

How busy is Wynton Marsalis?

So busy that the Pulitzer Prize-winning jazz trumpeter, composer and band leader had to skip the Sept. 22 White House ceremony honoring him and this year’s other National Medal of Arts and Humanities recipients. Instead, he was preparing for that night’s 2016/2017 season-opening concert of Jazz at Lincoln Center, where he has served as artistic director since its inception in 1988 and has collaborated with countless jazz greats, as well as with Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, Willie Nelson and Crosby, Stills & Nash.

“I’ve been up since 5:30 this morning and I’ve got so much more to do before tonight,” Marsalis, 54, said, from the living room of his Manhattan apartment overlooking Lincoln Center.

To illustrate his point, he took a photo with his phone and texted his interviewer an image of one of the many musical scores he was updating. He then returned to honing the scores, while simultaneously answering questions by phone to preview his Thursday concert with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra at San Diego’s Balboa Theatre. (Ticket information appears below.)

Soon after this interview concluded, Marsalis would turn his attention to honing his between-songs script for that night’s “A Century of Jazz Piano” concert in New York. It was the first in a three-day run to team the Marsalis-led orchestra with six leading keyboardists, including 89-year-old master Dick Hyman and 13-year-old wiz kid Joey Alexander, whose virtuosity and musical sophistication are almost mind-boggling.

“Joey is not something you can even explain!” Marsalis said. “We’ve never had anyone like him in this music, not with that harmonic maturity.”

He immediately dismissed any comparison between himself as a teen-aged trumpet prodigy and Alexander, whose audacious second album, “Countdown,” has just been released. Marsalis was just 18 when he began touring the world in 1980 as the youngest member in drum great Art Blakey’s storied Jazz Messengers. It was the start of a career that saw him become one of the most accomplished, prolific and prominent jazz champions the music has ever known.

“I wasn’t anywhere near Joey’s sophistication at his age, nor has anyone I know ever been,” Marsalis stressed. “I didn’t ever think of myself, at all, being on his level.”

‘I was always aggressive’
But music came easily to the young Marsalis, as it did to his similarly gifted brothers, drummer Jason, trombonist Delfeayo and saxophonist Branford, who from 1992 to 1995 was the musical director and band leader on “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno.” Their father, Ellis — who was stationed in San Diego during a stint in the U.S. Navy in the late 1950s — has long been one of New Orleans’ most revered jazz musicians and educators.

As a child and teenager, Wynton split his time between learning jazz, playing in a funk band called The Creators with his brother, Branford, and sports. Lots of sports.

“I played sports my entire life in Louisiana,” he affirmed. “We were always playing football and basketball. Many a night, I closed the basketball court down in Harrell Park. It’s difficult not to be able to play now.”

Why did he stop?

“Oh, man, I had to retire from basketball; I have too much tendinitis,” Marsalis replied. “I’ll still mess around with my kids. But my ball skills are, well, I’m relegated to just talking about it! Now, I run, I jump rope, do yoga. I need to do more ”

He chuckled knowingly when asked if he had been an aggressive basketball player.

“Yeah, in all the sports,” he said. “I was always aggressive.”

And in music?

“I’m just offense-minded, always trying to make something happen. And, always, with teams and with bands, you have to figure out the skills of your teammates and facilitate the offense. Also, in both music and sports, you realize it’s not about you, so you play offense and defense.

“Sometimes, you step up (into the spotlight), but it’s the whole statement of the team, or band, that counts. That’s what makes golf, boxing and tennis different. They feature one person and have more to do with individual strategy and your wherewithal. Whereas, in team sports and bands, there’s a psychological complexity to the game and how we negotiate the space with each other.”

Marsalis chuckled again when asked how often he makes mistakes, both small and large, and how much he has learned from making them.

“I have made so many mistakes, professionally and personally,” he said. “Any time one of my bands broke up, it was always painful for me. But I kept going and learned things from each instance. And my young musicians have mentored me and helped me mature.

“If you have a musician you worked with when they were 13, and then you still know them when they are 23 or 24, they will tell you things another person wouldn’t tell you. I’ve learned how to listen and be more patient from musicians in my band, like (drummer) Ali (Jackson) and (bassist) Carlos (Henriquez).

“I’ve had many, many failures in music, with arrangements that didn’t work, or something I wrote that wasn’t successful., And, personally, like many of of us, there have been many things, (including) hurdles with family. It s always a learning process. I don’t care who you are; you’re not a master of this game — there’s too much going on.”

‘We play the history of jazz music’

For the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra’s national fall tour, Marsalis and his 14-man band have rehearsed no fewer than 60 compositions.

The list includes jazz classics by, among others, Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk Wayne Shorter, Ornette Coleman, Chick Corea, Billy Strayhorn, Oscar Pettiford, Don Redman and Marsalis himself. Other options include pieces by everyone from George Gerswhin and Steve Wonder to Pakistani composer Quadir Shaggan, Brazilian music giant Hermeto Pascoal and such Marsalis band mainstays as Ted Nash and Sherman Irby.

With a repertoire so diverse and extensive, exactly how does he decide what music to perform from city to city?

“It varies from night to night,” Marsalis said.

“Sometimes, we play the history of jazz music, from the 1920s to today, but it really varies. Generally, I include some Ellington, because that’s our mainstay. We pick a lot of originals that members of our orchestra wrote that we find are effective and that people want to hear. Some things are ceremonial. I mainly try to come with a set I know will be effective, that show our soloists in the best light, and showcases the range of music we play.”

He chuckled again.

“In general, because so little of our music is being (widely) played, we have a joke that if we play Fletcher Henderson’s (1939) arrangement of ‘Bolero,’ that will be the only time you’ll hear it (performed live),” he said. “We have the luxury of playing the complete history of jazz, without worrying you’ll be over-saturated by it.”

Marsalis was just 22 when, in 1984, he became the first artist to ever win Grammy Awards for both jazz and classical music albums in the same year. It was a heady feat that he repeated the following year.

In a 1985 Union-Tribune interview, Marsalis lamented: “My biggest problem seems to be that music is like a philosophy and a religion to me.”

Is that still a problem today?

“Nah, because I’ve embraced that way of thinking!” he replied.

“I feel younger now than I did then, just in that I’ve laid out a lot of work. But I don’t feel like I’m touching even a third of the stuff I have to do. I feel fortunate being able to work with all the artists I have.”

In the same 1985 Union-Tribune interview, Marsalis also said: “The aesthetic contribution it takes (to play jazz) isn’t recognized, and I don’t mean me. It’s hard for a black man to say something intelligent and get heard if he’s not repeating cliches.”

How much does he think things have improved over the past three decades?

“I think they’ve improved,” Marsalis replied. “Just the presence of President Obama alone. And the impact Michael Jordan had on culture and, also, Bill Cosby — before (the current controversies) — he had a certain impact with his TV show being that popular and showing black people in another light. But Jordan and Obama had the ultimate impact.

“There are opportunities that exist now that didn’t at that time. But we don’t have the leadership to capitalize on those opportunities. In the U.S., as a country, everything leads away from tribalism. And it’s difficult, because — in four or five decades — you can’t go against thousands of years of human history. So it’s a slow process of enlightenment.

“We’re trying to help people ascend by their common human heritage, instead of their ethnic heritage. And when you do that, then you have a longer battle.”

by George Varga
Source: The San Diego Union-Tribune

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