A cool Cat Who Plays It Smart

Wynton Marsalis, the sensational 21-year-old jazz trumpeter from New Orleans – he’s a cool one. On the night of April 23 during a concert at New York’s Town Hall he was looking directly into the face of the man with whom he was playing music – it was Sonny Rollins, the tenor saxophonist – when the unexpected happened.

“Strange.” thought Marsalis, remembering the incident during a recent interview. “He just fell down. He fell backwards but he held his horn up. It looked, actually, like he had tripped over one of those boxes the guitar players use to get all those different sounds. I thought he was going to break his fall or something. He just kept falling but he made sure that his horn didn’t hit the ground.
“I kept waiting for him to get up, but he didn’t get up. We cut the tune off and he finally got up, 15 minutes later, and asked where his horn was.”

Rollins, it developed, was having blood-pressure problems. He checked into a hospital for tests and the interrupted concert was rescheduled. That Marsalis continued to play while Sonny was crumpling to the stage was a delayed reflex – but it is also characteristic of a brilliant young artist with the moxie to carry on and give one’s all in the face of dramatically changing circumstances.

(The Wynton Marsalis Quintet today kicks off the Philadelphia Kool Jazz Festival. 2 to 6 p.m., at Penn’s Landing. The concert is free. Also playing today are the local groups Siembra, Reverie! and Sound of Freedom. Sonny Rollins, by the way, is fully recovered and will appear Wednesday evening at the Academy of Music in concert with Chick Corea.)

Marsalis came to the interview dressed to the nines – sharply but subtly. It is one of his trademarks.

“I’ve read stories saying I was rich, that I come from an upper middle-class family and stuff. When I was in high school, my father (Ellis Marsalis, a jazz pianist) worked Dixieland jobs on Bourbon Street, and with five kids at home his weekly take-home pay was $175. Where do they get this material?
“In high school I would wear jeans. I said, ‘When I make some money I’m going to get rid of the jeans and buy me some suits and wear a tie.’ because I was tired of looking raggedy. Well, I make money now. I don’t make as much money as I should be making but I make money.”

Marsalis is virtually unique among his peers in that he is forging a career in two idioms.
His second album as a jazz leader comes out this month (“Think of One.” CBS) simultaneously with his first album as a classical soloist (for CBS Masterworks). The classical record includes the Haydn Trumpet Concerto in B-flat (which he first performed at age 14 with the New Orleans Philharmonic), a Johann Hummel trumpet concerto and one by Leopold Mozart, father of Wolfgang, all with the National Chamber Orchestra of London. In the fall he’s to share solo honors on an album with Maurice Andre, one of the world’s foremost legit trumpeters.

“I have a classical manager already, and two recitals. Probably in the fall of 1984 I’ll do a tour with orchestras, maybe playing repertoire from the album.
“I’m just trying to get better, to study, to do as many things as I can do and try to develop. There’s a lot of stuff out there to be studied and played. I’ll put on an Ornette Coleman record, I hear stuff that I don’t understand. I’ll put on a Miles Davis record and I’ll hear him do some things I didn’t know he did. I’ll put on a Louis Armstrong record and it’s incredible – it’s amazing to me how much stuff he’s got figured out. He did a lot of thinking – you can’t find anything he didn’t do.

“When you talk to Dizzy [Gillespie] he’s always saying ‘I studied that,’ and I used to sit down at the piano and figure this out.’ and ‘You have to know the chord and understand the harmony.” That was a real big thing to them, to know that and make sure what you were playing was correct.

“For some reason, over the years it’s come down and now we just play and it doesn’t have to be correct, and the more mistakes you make, the more soulful it is. or the more natural. In New Orleans, all the musicians say ‘Practice. And study. And learn how to play.’
In New York they all say. “Don’t practice Don’t learn how to play. Play out of tune, don’t worry about chords, don’t learn the music. f—- the tradition of jazz – just play and be cool.”

“And it’s not cool, man! It is not cool. We have to come up now and dispel all of these theories of ignorance which tell people you have to be ignorant to play jazz.”
Nonetheless, Marsalis exudes hope. “All over the country, everywhere I go, there are young guys playing. I heard two trumpet players in Atlanta – one 18, the other one 19. One cat sounds like Lee Morgan. Man, it was frightening!
This young kid, Bernard Wright – he’s playing with Johnny Griffin now – and he’s not even playing funk.
He put out a funk record about three years ago. and you couldn’t tell from the record that he could ploy. Bernard can really play, though. You know he’s going to be great.

“There’s a young kid in New York. 15 years old. You ought to hear him play the bass. A kid in New Orleans is 15, plays the piano – the D.A.‘s son, Harry Calvin Jr. He can play. Four, five years from now something innovative will come about, because a lot of people who are going to come on the scene are really concentrating and thinking and trying to learn how to play.
And then the music will he back.

“I have to be right. In 79, when I first came to New York, there was nobody. Every body was saying jazz is dead – fusion and all that. Now there’s a lot of cats out here. I mean, we haven’t figured out what we’re doing yet. We haven’t been doing it that long, either. And if you listen to recordings of Charlie Parker when he was 20, he wasn’t innovating – he was imitating. You’ve got to imitate first – then you innovate.

“It s going to take us a while to absorb all this great music that’s being played. Then – look out!”

by Nels Nelson
Source: Philadelphia Daily News

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