America’s greatest living jazz icon Wynton Marsalis swings into Houston for must-see performance

American jazz trumpet icon Wynton Marsalis has long transcended “performer” status; the 61-year-old could easily be viewed as the living patron saint of jazz, which, like rock ‘n’ roll, is an original American art form that’s been exported to the world for decades.

Boasting multiple Grammy Awards, millions of records sold, global accolades, a Pulitzer Prize in Music, more than 70 records produced, and even statues erected in his honor, Marsalis is America’s standard bearer for jazz standards, an art honed in his native New Orleans, the nation’s jazz mecca.

Indeed, the pride of New Orleans is jazz royalty; his father Ellis and brother Branford are also noted figures in the art form. Never forgetting his Gulf Coast roots, the worldwide icon created the Higher Ground Hurricane Relief Concert after Hurricane Harvey devastated the coast, raising more than $3 million for musicians and cultural organizations.I

In town for a residency with local organization Jazz Houston, Marsalis will perform in a show appropriately dubbed Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra at 7:30 pm Thursday, November 3 at the Wortham Theater Center (501 Texas Ave.). Tickets range from $53-$103 and can be found online. A meet-and-greet option is also available.

Marsalis is co-founder and artistic director at Jazz at Lincoln Center and has also opened the Frederick P. Rose Hall, known as the world’s first institution for jazz. He is here to support his friend and frequent musical partner Vincent Gardner, a noted trombonist in the’ Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra who co-founded Jazz Houston with his wife, Belinda Munro. Marsalis shares Gardner’s passion for instilling jazz as an art form into young players.

“I think that young people are very knowledgeable about their self identity,” Marsalis tells CultureMap via Zoom. “And I think that there’s no better music in the world to, to proclaim your identity with than jazz music. And I think they recognize that in the music and that’s why they like to play it.”

They may like to play it, but do they like to play it in Houston? That was the challenge Gardner faced when he came to the Bayou City to create the nonprofit. “Everybody comes to New York,” says Gardner. “ I came to New York, Wynton came to New York — we all came to New York because that is the mecca of the music. And that’s where you can, can get the most direct and meaningful instruction in it and with the most opportunities.”

“But when Belinda and I decided to come to Houston, we started to just look at all of the bad cats that had come from Houston throughout the years. With Houston having such a wonderful art scene, but no jazz representation in that same format, why couldn’t we create an environment where that kind of home-grown talent would have opportunities in the city that they are from?”

“With Houston having such a wonderful art scene,” Gardner continues, “but no jazz representation in that same format, How, why can’t we create this in Houston? That was part of our motivation. What we’re trying to create here with Jazz Houston is create an environment here where those musicians interested in playing jazz and are serious about it can have an opportunity to stay there, to grow their craft, to have opportunities to work, and to teach others and to bring others along all within Houston.”

When asked about his friend and fellow musician, Marsalis points to Gardner as the great jazz mind — not himself. “I don’t look at myself like that in any way. — the actual historian is Vincent. If I have a historical question, I call him and ask him. Both of our fathers are jazz musicians. His father would come play with, with us. His mother is a singer and choir director. He’s coming from a background of music and he’s educated.”

Fans can expect classic jazz, standards, and execution by the best in the business. “I think that inherently, to me the most powerful aspect of jazz is the is the conversational,” says Marsalis. “It’s the fact that in real time, all the members that are participating in it are communicating with each other. And that’s the thing that I love about our orchestra — the Jazz Lincoln Center Orchestra.”

As an art form, jazz has been sampled, covered, weirdly morphed into “Smooth Jazz,” and utilized as noir movie soundtrack material. But like America, it’s somewhat fluid.

“The terminology that we use is jazz is a hybrid form,” says Marsalis. “So it’s not possible for it to be pure. It’s like pure gumbo — you know, there’s such thing is a ‘pure gumbo.’ But there’s a set of proportions that make gumbo good now. There are endless variations on their proportions, but there’s also a lot of proportions that make it nasty too,” he says with a chuckle.

Jazz aficionados and enthusiasts would do well to catch the show, namely as it could be a one-off. “I can’t say when it’s gonna happen again,” says Gardner of a Marsalis accompaniment.

“You don’t need me,” Marsalis says flatly. “Vince is there doing this thing. Vince is actually our music director, I play trumpet, we got a band full of people can play. Vince has a tradition and an investment in the community. He’s gonna pay dividends for people. He’s gonna be there. And it’s important for people to come on and support Jazz Houston because of the significance of jazz and the good fortune of having a representative of that quality to seed a forest that’s gonna grow around.”

Pressed on whether he’ll return to Houston, Marsalis holds up a breakfast plate and informs us that he’s “trying to negotiate these grits and bacon.” He promises a good show, advising us” “Tell ‘em it’s not gonna happen again — so they go out and buy tickets.”

Arguments these days about what constitutes jazz feel almost quaint. Contemporary performers — many of them Houstonians such as Robert Glasper, James Francies and Chris Dave — have approached creative expression with a blank slate. They can and will use any tools and sounds necessary to put across music they feel is vital and contemporary.

Though Wynton Marsalis is only 61, his arrival as a teen phenom decades ago allowed him to shed skins to become an elder statesman for jazz early on. And he suggests all the old fuss in jazz — the debate between innovation and traditionalism — was pointless.

That’s the proposition of our Constitution,” says Marsalis, who bring his Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra to Wortham Theater Center this week as he swings through southeast Texas. “You don’t want to rewrite the Constitution. Why would you do that? You had nine, 10 geniuses around it. I don’t think you push music ahead and do something different. Is Schoenberg ahead of Beethoven? I never heard that. It doesn’t sound like that. First of all, I don’t think any of them are ahead of Palestrina. They do different things. But you can play Palestrina’s music and think, ‘Man, what is that?!’”

He believes one needn’t destroy and rebuild. Rather music should exist untethered from time and place.

He cites his father, pianist Ellis Marsalis, as encouraging him to learn the music’s history and then find his mode of expression within it. That experience ran parallel for Vincent Gardner, trombonist in Marsalis’ Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra and co-founder of Jazz Houston. Gardner also learned from his father, a jazz musician. “We had our own way of playing, and they encouraged us to be that,” Marsalis says. “Why should we then destroy our art form? Especially to imitate popular forms, for what? What do we have to give?” he asks. “That’s what I’m looking at.”

Marsalis in a Zoom call repeatedly deferred on matters of history to Gardner. The trumpeter and composer heard Gardner in Florida decades ago and knew he wanted the trombonist in his band. That Gardner is a top-shelf arranger added value, as did his ability to sing. Marsalis leans on him for other matters, too.

“He’s the actual historian,” Marsalis says. “If I have a question, I call and ask him.”

Following a stop in Galveston, Marsalis will be in Houston for a series of Jazz Houston events, including a performance for students at the Barbara Bush Plaza at the Central Houston Public Library, as well as visits to the Houston and Klein school districts for master classes and workshops. He does so because Gardner and his wife, singer Belinda Munro, saw an opportunity in Houston — a city with a rich jazz history that remains alive despite formidable attrition of musicians from the city to New York or Los Angeles. Gardner and Munro uprooted their lives in New York to reseed jazz in Houston through Jazz Houston, an organization that produces concerts, runs a local jazz orchestra and also manages educational doings, including a youth orchestra.

Weeks ago, they produced a program of music that celebrated Arnett Cobb, Illinois Jacquet and other Houston jazz legends.

“We try to celebrate the past, present and future,” Gardner says. “All centered on the city of Houston.”

Seeding jazz in H-town

Marsalis’ creation of Jazz at Lincoln Center was crucial in a codification of jazz as an American music form worthy of concert-hall treatment. His goal wasn’t to remove it from the clubs where the music was born more than a century ago, nor the tight spaces where it began to flourish. He simply wanted to bestow on jazz an institutionalized reverence comparable to classical music. He sought to canonize an American art form.

Jazz at Lincoln Center blossomed in New York. Gardner and Munro saw opportunities beyond a city with built-in jazz infrastructure, including legacy clubs and smaller spaces for more experimental fare.

“We’re only supporting his idea,” Marsalis says. “His baby.”

Gardner took note of the migration patterns of Houston musicians from Wheatley High School, Kashmere High School and also the High School for the Performing and Visual Arts. Houston had a regal history of storied jazz artists who stayed here — as performers or educators: Conrad Johnson, Cobb, Don Wilkerson.

“New York is a mecca for the music, where you get the most direct and meaningful instruction,” Gardner says. “And the most opportunity.”

But he was intrigued by “all the bad cats that came from Houston over the years.”

He spent time digging into the rudiments of the Texas tenor sound, the ways the saxophonists made prominent use of the low register as a contrast to what others in the ensemble were playing. “I have a deep understanding and a deep appreciation for it now,” Gardner says. “A lot of great elements came from Houston musicians that were melded into the greater jazz pool. I’m excited to figure out more of them and bring them to light, so people can see what this great city brought to the jazz tradition.”

And he wants to nurture that tradition among younger players, too.

“Why can’t an environment be created where that kind of homegrown talent has an opportunity in the city where they’re from?”

Admittedly, Gardner’s and Munro’s timing likely had them second-guessing their notion. They arrived before after Hurricane Harvey raked the Gulf Coast and flooded Houston.

Education and history

Like Marsalis, Gardner is a next-gen jazz performer. They both believe that education is every bit as crucial as putting on performances. “You have to have that educational wing,” Gardner says. “To reach out to young people and encourage them to keep going. And to put an emphasis on those coming out to listen to what you’re doing.”

Which is what he and Munro have done here. Their programming is notable, with thematic concerts that celebrate jazz’s history. Their work digs deep into the soil, too: Last month, Munro sang works associated with Anita Moore, an under-heralded Houston native who sang with Duke Ellington.

Moore died in 2001 with not nearly enough attention for her distinguished career. That September Jazz Houston show also included pianist Helen Sung, an HSPVA alum and a performance by the Jazz Houston Youth Orchestra.

Like Marsalis, Gardner and Munro believe fully that jazz can honor history without becoming a museum piece.

“I think young people of this generation, they’re knowledgeable about self-identity,” he says. “And there’s no better music in the world to proclaim your identity than jazz music. They recognize that in the music. And I think that’s why they like to play it.”

‘Let the music be what it is’

“Pick who you want to pick in the history of the arts,” Marsalis says. “They were taught. Bach was taught. With the exception maybe of Berlioz. Maybe.”

Marsalis namechecks a local teacher, Bob Morgan, for years the storied head of jazz studies at HSPVA. In fact, Marsalis drops scores of names in the course of a conversation. The effect isn’t to create awe at his knowledge or his contacts list but rather to try to mute the notion of jazz as some “other” art form. The classical composers, iconoclasts like Willie Nelson, educators like Morgan: They’re referenced to flatten discussions that create a sense of otherness, which can often be applied casually with regard to race and class.

“Black and white are constructions that are not real,” he says. ‘When you start to live in unreal constructions, you have to start inventing more and more things to make it real. Prejudice is real. But somebody says ‘the Hispanic vote’ … What’s that? Ecuador? Cuba? A certain class from Mexico?”

He says his mentor — the legendary writer Albert Murray — asked: “How can you be a minority in your own country? Can somebody French be a minority in France? The terminology we use ‘jazz as a pure form’ … jazz is a hybrid. There’s no such thing as a pure form.”

Gardner says: “There are a lot of things we scrutinize, but I believe in letting the music be what it is. That will define what it is.”

And Marsalis adds: “We need a different mythology.”

So Marsalis, at 61, and Gardner, a decade or so younger, are helping codify a new mythology. Gardner cites Marsalis as crucial in helping him structure Jazz Houston: things involving a board, finances, management.

They’ll both take the stage for a performance as part of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra.

Marsalis’ name is there prominently. But he sees their workload as shared.

“They don’t need me, Vincent is there doing his thing,” he says. “The thing is getting away from the cult of the personality. I think it’s about all of us. Vince is our music director for this time.

“We’re part of a continuum. And I love that continuum. … Vincent has the tradition and an investment in community that is going to pay dividends. We have the good fortune to have a representative of that quality who’s going to see a forest grow around it.”

by Steven Devadanam
Source: CultureMap Houston

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