60 Minutes Profiles Wynton Marsalis and the JLCO

CBS’ 60 Minutes – Part I

CBS’ 60 Minutes – Part II

60 Minutes Extra: The Universal Language of Music

60 Minutes Extra: Different Countries, Different Audiences

60 Minutes Extra: Marsalis on Havana & New Orleans

60 Minutes Extra: Marsalis’ Musical “Insanity”

60 Minutes Overtime: Edward R. Murrow and Louis Armstrong

Wynton Marsalis, America’s Musical Ambassador (transcription)

(CBS) As we bring in the New Year, we thought we’d bring you some great music.

He is an American master – Wynton Marsalis – at age 49, arguably the best known living jazz artist and leader of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, probably the best big band at work today. They’re on the road constantly, bringing America’s most distinctive art form to the world, most recently to London, Berlin and Havana.

“60 Minutes” and correspondent Morley Safer were lucky enough to tag along – a joyous assignment, if there ever was one, trying to get a sense of this band of brothers, their music and their effect as unofficial ambassadors.

Marsalis is the leader of the band but he’s buried in the back row.

“It’s interesting. When you guys take the stage, you’re never front and center,” Safer pointed out.

“No. I play fourth trumpet. That’s my role. I like it. I’m comfortable playin’ in the trumpet section. It started because I can’t really conduct. I’m not a good conductor,” Marsalis explained.

He tried, until a brave member of the band delivered the verdict. “Every time I would start conducting, if I would mess something up, he would look down at his music and go (thumb over shoulder). That meant ‘Go get back in the trumpet section,’” Marsalis remembered.

And there Marsalis stays, storming his way through some of the most difficult, hair-raising music in the jazz repertoire.

“I like pressure. I like that. I like the challenge. I don’t have a problem with it at all. I like the feeling of nervousness. I like the feeling that something counts. And I like to be tested,” he told Safer.

Soloing certain tunes, a bass player said many years ago, is like trying to change the fan belt on your car with the engine running.

“Man, when you’re playing, and you’re playing with other people, it’s such a combination of emotion, it’s so intense. And when you make a tender statement or something’s real sweet and you just caress a note that takes more intensity. It’s powerful,” Marsalis said.

It’s hard to believe the boy wonder from New Orleans, who has been startling both jazz and classical audiences since his teens, is now pushing 50. He has won nine Grammys and a Pulitzer Prize for music.

And he has logged more miles around the world than your average secretary of state.

“You’ve spent 30 years since you were a teenager in the music business. That makes you, in a certain way, a very young elder statesman,” Safer remarked.

“I don’t feel like that. I mean, they will tease me, called me an old man since I was in my late 20s,” Marsalis said.

It was his old man, Ellis, a pianist, a New Orleans legend, who passed the jazz gene on to Wynton and three of his five brothers.

Marsalis himself, who has never married, has four children.

CBS) Back in 1995, this young “old man” sat down with our late colleague Ed Bradley to talk about his talent.

“How have you changed over the last 15 years of playing out here every day?” Bradley asked.

“Oh man, a lot. I mean, I’m calmer. When I was young I was always excited, you know? Got to do it today, and I was always paranoid about not ever being able to play good enough, you know,” Marsalis replied.

“I’m gonna ask you the same question that our friend Ed Bradley asked you 15 years ago. How’s your playing changed in the years since?” Safer asked.

“I think just a natural wisdom that comes with age. Mostly, I think I have a different type of weight in my sound. In just the 15 years I know more music. So when I’m playing I feel like it reflects a deeper knowledge. I think I hear better too,” Marsalis replied.

Their mission – his and the band’s – is to keep jazz alive, writing new music and paying homage to the treasures of the past.

Like Marsalis, most of his Lincoln Center musicians were classically trained, equally at home with Bach and the blues. They come from big cities and small towns, and include youngsters like pianist Dan Nimmer, 28, and veterans like Joe Temperley, an 81-year-old Scotsman.

“When you play in a big band, you sacrifice a lot. We have some of the greatest soloists. They know they’re gonna play one solo a night. It’s a tremendous sacrifice,” Marsalis said.

One night, you’ll find them at New York’s historic Apollo Theater, playing the score for a silent movie about trumpeter Louis Armstrong. The next night, who knows?

“We’ve played everywhere from prisons to parks, picnics, old folks homes and nursery schools. On the subway,” Marsalis said. “I spend more time on the road than at home. I love to be in a different place.”

But he told Safer he is afraid of flying, which makes things more difficult.

“But you travel across this country…by car. You won’t get on a plane,” Safer remarked.

“I love it, too,” Marsalis said, referring to the road trips. “I get to stop at people’s homes. I get to get good meals. I get to connect with all the people I’ve known.”

He took to the car after a white-knuckle flight years ago. Traveling overseas though, he has no choice but to bite the bullet and fly.

“I don’t really have to steel myself. Especially if I’m with my guys, then they’re teasing me the whole time. So I have to…act like I’m not afraid of it. But some of the ones that are teasing me are afraid, too. So we’re all acting,” he told Safer.

Wherever they travel, Marsalis and company are hailed as America’s best. And local music royalty, like rocker Eric Clapton in London, come to pay their respects.

Chatting in the shadow of the Tower Bridge, Marsalis says that for all his renown and decades of experience, his baby face gets in the way.

Like an incident he had when he walked into a bar: “And the young lady said, ‘Well, sir, we’ve got to see some ID.’ So I’m laughin, I’m sayin’ ‘My sons, they’re old enough to drink.’ I’m like, ‘These are my kids.’ And she says ‘Well, I can’t, I’ve got to see some ID, sir.’ And they just shake their heads and say, ‘Boy,’” Marsalis said.

He is a walking encyclopedia of jazz history, the legends and their music.

The London concerts focus on jazz giants of the past, their work a revelation to listeners who seldom experience the power of a big band at full throttle.

There’s music from the 1920s by the deliciously named Jelly Roll Morton. “Raconteur. Pool shark. The first great composer of jazz,” Marsalis said.
(CBS) There is the music of Benny Carter, a founding father of the big band sound. “He is a great arranger and composer, great gentleman. We had the privilege of playing under him. But also a guy who could whip some behind if it needed to be whipped,” Marsalis said.

And the maestro himself, Duke Ellington, who to Marsalis and many others, is the greatest American composer ever.

“The broadest variety of pieces, the greatest depth of insight into the nature of the American character,” Marsalis said. “A lover of our country and its people.”

“(A) quote from Duke Ellington, who says ‘By and large, jazz is like the kind of man you wouldn’t want your daughter to associate with,’” Safer said.

“Well, that’s true too. It deals with matters of romance. It deals with sexual things,” Marsalis agreed.

“There is a certain seductive nature to the music,” Safer said.

“Man, if you don’t have that your music is not worth listenin’ to. Yeah, you have to have that edge. You have to have that sexuality, that sensuality, you have to have that primitive feelin’. And the more primitive you have, the more refined your concert is, the more primitive you have to be,” Marsalis said.

Practically from childhood he has worked back and forth between jazz and classical music. His latest composition, the Swing Symphony, combines the two. The Lincoln Center band and the Berlin Philharmonic played the premiere: a survey of how American jazz evolved, with echoes of Ellington, Charlie Parker and other jazz greats.

“Does it sadden you that, for the most part, young people may not even know who you’re talking about when you say Charlie Parker or Duke Ellington?” Safer asked.

“It saddens me that people my age may not know that. And it’s a comment on the failure of our education system to deal with cultural education. Not just Duke Ellington. Walt Whitman. The list goes on and on. So, it saddens me for us as a nation. Because we have such a rich cultural heritage and we would be so much better for it and we would make such better decisions if we understood what brings us together,” Marsalis replied.

Jazz at Lincoln Center does its part to keep the heritage alive, bringing high school bands to New York for classes with the pros and for a chance to strut their stuff. But they are the lucky ones – across most of the country, cultural programs in the schools range from spotty to non-existent.

“The arts are our collective human heritage. You’re a better person if you know what Shakespeare was talkin’ about. If you know what Beethoven struggled with, if you know about Matisse. If you know what Louis Armstrong actually sang through his horn, you’re better. Because it’s just like, you get to speak with the wisest people who ever lived,” Marsalis said.

Maestro Marsalis speaks his universal language with his band, swingin’ in the rain with Marsalis sounding for all the world like Louis Armstrong, New Orleans’ other favorite son. In London, when Marsalis played on stage, the crowd responded with great enthusiasm – it’s a moment that tells you all you need to know about the music’s infectious appeal.

“I want us to give 100 percent all the time. We know that we’re here to serve, serve the music and to serve everyone who comes to check our music out,” Marsalis explained.

(CBS) Safer and the “60 Minutes” team also joined Marsalis and the band in Havana, a city that is forbidden to most Americans.

New Orleans and Havana are sister cities in many ways: both are on the Gulf of Mexico, their climates sultry, their cultures exotic. The French built New Orleans as the Spanish built Havana: on the backs of African slaves whose rhythms are the living pulse of both Afro-American and Afro-Cuban music.

So when New Orleans native Wynton Marsalis took his Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra to Havana, it was a meeting of musical minds, a musical bridge over the troubled waters that have separated the United States and Cuba for half a century.

From the band’s very first stop, it was obvious this would be a hot visit, in more ways than one. Marsalis and his musicians were just off the plane. They went to the Rumba Palace not to perform, but to acclimate.

“Cuba, that’s like one of your cousins,” Marsalis said. “They do their thing, they have their way of dancing, their way of cooking. You know, red beans and rice, the kind of food that we have.”

The great Cuban musician Compay Segundo once said it all: Cubans are frantic when it comes to appreciating music. Their moves aren’t so bad either.

The Rumba Palace crowd partied long into the night.

Soon, it would be the Americans’ turn to show their stuff, with an old fashioned New Orleans street parade, with a gaggle of music students in tow. They were spreading that timeless New Orleans rule of life: let the good times roll.

“The music touches people, the students. If you’re receptive to it and you have a little bit of it, you want it,” Marsalis said.

Havana, of course, is the city of the brothers Castro, of Che, the Cha-cha, and the classic Chevys – a city still off limits to most Americans, but a city where Cubans nearly broke down the doors to hear the American music. And the city where trumpeter Marcus Printup and the rest of the band nearly blew the roof off.

It’s the African rhythm that drives the music on both sides of the Gulf. Wandering through old Havana, the heart of the city going back 500 years, we got a lesson in clave – the basic beats.

And the Havana beat, laid down by Marsalis’ bass player, Carlos Henriquez. Put them together and they fit like beans and rice.

“It’s unbelievable, right, how that works. They have it. I mean, it’s all African,” Henriquez remarked.

And the bedrock of it all – from Africa to Cuba to America – are the drums. The band’s drummer, Ali Jackson, calls it a kind of musical DNA.

“The drums represent the people and where they’re from. And you would never lose sight of where you’re from because it lives through the music,” Jackson explained.

And the music was nonstop. Havana was hooked. For five grueling days, the band played a series of concerts and jam sessions with the best of Cuba’s musicians, young and old.

Among them, Evelyn Suarez. “What I loved about her was the type of passionate intensity that comes with being serious about sounding good. They just have a lot of people who can play,” Marsalis told Safer.

(CBS) The Lincoln Center band is an engaging and thoughtful group, fiercely competitive, yet each others’ biggest fans.

“We all get along,” Walter Blanding said. “We fight and stuff and things get a little crazy sometimes, but in the end, we all know why we’re here.”

Ted Nash and Blanding have been on the road with Marsalis for years, a blur of airplanes, hotel rooms and 18-hour days.

It is a band that is on time, sober and committed to the music. But old stereotypes die hard.

“I think people have a conception that a jazz musician is like from the 1930s or 40s. Back in the days where they all took drugs and these kinda things. And I think we’re at a different time now where we’re more serious about what we’re doing ,” Blanding said.

“And we’re nerds,” Nash added.

“That could be one way of looking at it,” Blanding said.

As for their leader, from the day he arrived, Marsalis was the toast of Havana, making the rounds of music schools, trying his fractured Spanish on admiring bystanders, and stopping for a cafe Cubano – talking about a key ingredient of jazz improvisation: taking chances.

Asked how important and valuable mistakes are, Marsalis told Safer, “Very important, because if you’re not making mistakes, you not trying. That is the art of jazz. It’s an art of negotiation, of communication.”

To band member Victor Goines, who’s also from New Orleans, the attention Marsalis gets is no surprise.

Goines and Marsalis went to kindergarten together. Asked what he was like then, Goines said, “He was always a standout from the rest, I will say.”

He’s musical standout who sets the pace for the band in another way as well.

“He works harder than anybody I know. No question,” Ali Jackson said.

A jam session with local musicians starts at dusk and goes well into the night. And anytime, anywhere, band members give master classes in the fine art of swing.

At the band’s hotel, a young musician named Shaula Ortega showed up with her husband and baby. She wanted Ted Nash to show her how to coax that distinctive jazz sound out of her horn.

They repaired to the hotel bar, other band members joined in, and soon, she was bending the blue notes just like the pros.

“It’s so beautiful to travel, because we get to mix with people. Maybe at a point when we would normally be getting kinda worn out and our batteries run down, I mean, I think we get kinda recharged a little bit from the energy of the people,” Nash said.

In a Havana restaurant, to the accompaniment of birds – exotic and domestic, plus one very hip cat – we renewed acquaintance with bass player Carlos Henriquez.

“The Cuban audience. What do you make of it?” Safer asked Henriquez.

“This audience is very smart. And they listen to details. And that’s, that’s, very deep,” he replied.

“60 Minutes” goes back a ways with Henriquez.

“You’ve said that music is gonna be your ticket out of the South Bronx,” Safer remarked. “Ticket to where?”

“To fame, I guess. That’s what I want, fame,” he replied.

He was a 14-year-old bass and guitar player when we first met him in 1994, on a story about inner city kids getting free lessons at Juilliard, New York’s famous music school. His mother made him get in the program and stick with it. As he progressed during his teens, word spread among musicians.

“And they would always say, ‘Look out for Carlito. Look out for Carlito,’” Marsalis remembered.

(CBS) He joined the band 12 years ago, and served as its co-maestro in Cuba, leading rehearsals and announcing the tunes, including some he wrote and arranged.

“I just wish my mother was around to see this. You know, and she would have been a happy, you know, a happy lady,” Henriquez said.

Inevitably, the elephant in the room – politics – comes up. At a press conference, Marsalis was asked about relations between the U.S. and Cuba.

He sidestepped the issue, saying essentially that’s not his job. “You know, could I give you a barbershop, stand on the street corner, yeah, that’s what I think? Of course I could do that. But put me in the position to have to solve it, all of a sudden – like my daddy used to say, you’d be lookin’ at a football game or something. You comment on what somebody shoulda done. He’d say, ‘I’ve seen you play ball.’ That’s all you gotta say,” he said.

There is no official diplomatic recognition of Cuba, but there is something called the “United States Interests Section,” housed in the old U.S. embassy, with about 50 State Department employees – sort of non-diplomat diplomats exercising both very quiet and sometimes very melodious diplomacy.

At the old U.S. ambassador’s residence, there was a party for Marsalis and company and Cuban musicians and artists, hosted by the “non-ambassador ambassador.” Call it cultural diplomacy, no rhetoric allowed.

Havana itself has become an exquisite corpse: a gorgeous city in ruins, from neglect, poverty, the cruel salt air. The capital of an island too broke, too distracted by shifting priorities and political jockeying to do much about it.

Still, the country is much more than yet another graveyard of the failed socialist experiment. The Cuban psyche is so deeply rooted in music that in a way, politics become irrelevant. At the national school of music, Marsalis and the kids were all in the same groove.

For this new generation, political freedom may be on hold, but musical freedom is still a wondrous thing.

“You(‘ve) talked about how music transcends politics. Do you see that in Cuba, that the music has some, I don’t know, liberating effect, or what?” Safer asked.

“I see that about music and the arts everywhere. Because we create community. And we speak to the human soul,” Marsalis explained.

It’s always dangerous to draw sweeping conclusions from events like this. Suffice it to say, that with the Jazz at Lincoln Center band in town, for five nights, Cuba and the United States were speaking the same language.

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  1. I loved being informed on Wynton Marsalis, his band, and the curent state of jazz. The arts bring people together!

    Quadeer Belin on Mar 18th, 2011 at 10:23am