Downbeat Celebrates Wynton’s 50th

With a Lincoln Center special airing on PBS, all eyes have turned to a special birthday taking place in the jazz community: Wynton Marsalis turned 50 on Oct. 18. In celebration of Marsalis’ birthday, a number of people in the music shared their thoughts on Wynton and his professional and/or personal impact.

As a member of Weather Report back in the late 1970s, drummer Peter Erskine was working in Los Angeles with Jaco Pastorius on his new album. Lo and behold, there was something going on around the corner. “During the mixing of Word Of Mouth, Jaco decided impulsively one night that we all had to go check out this new trumpet player and his brother [Branford Marsalis] who had just joined Art Blakey’s band,” Erskine recalled. “Jaco and me and my girlfriend plus two or three other folks all piled into a car and drove to some jazz club to hear Wynton. Excited by all that we heard the night before, I told [Joe] Zawinul about the gig that next morning. He told me, ‘Ellis Marsalis and I were very tight, very good friends. We would always hang out together when I would travel to New Orleans with Cannon’s band.’ Joe said, ‘I was the only white musician in an all-black band [with Cannonball Adderley], and Ellis was the only black musician in an all-white band [Al Hirt]. Ellis would always complain about how corny his band was, but how he had to keep doing the gig so he could feed his family. He had a lot of kids. Yeah, I remember Wynton. He was a little kid with glasses.’

“My two favorite things about Wynton,” Erskine continued, “are that, number one, he has a really cool family, and two, he played a huge part in getting the music of Duke Ellington into America’s schools.”

For Graham Haynes, the connection to Marsalis also includes classical music. “When I was at Queens College, I studied to be a jazz and classical trumpet player,” Haynes said. “Around mid-1979 I heard about a guy named Wynton Marsalis who was supposed to be a monster at jazz and classical. I met and heard him around the end of that year and I said to myself, ‘I’ll never be as great as this guy is at both.’ That was the end of my career as a classical trumpet player. I gave up the idea that I could do both. Soon after, we met and talked about several things that we were into, including classical trumpet. What amazed me in addition to his playing was that he sang to me all of the orchestral parts to, I believe, the Haydn Trumpet Concerto.

“Wynton and I didn’t agree on some things, like musical styles. We’ve gone in different directions, but I will always respect his mastery, knowledge and his love and dedication to music.”

Randall Kline, founder and executive artistic director of SFJAZZ, is a fellow music executive who, oddly enough, shares Marsalis’ birthday. Kline says upfront that Wynton’s unstinting support for SFJAZZ is a major reason why the organization is so successful. Like Erskine, his memories of Marsalis go back to the trumpeter’s early days playing with Art Blakey. Apart from his performances with both large and small ensembles at the SFJAZZ Festival, Kline cited another important role Marsalis has played. “I think of Wynton and his connections with young people,” Kline said. “What he’s done to encourage young musicians, he does it naturally. When he’s in San Francisco, there’s always some high school kid backstage who he’s giving a lesson to on the spot. High school all-star bands, middle school programs that exist at SFJAZZ, he’s just off and running with that stuff, teaching and playing with them.”

“My first encounter with Wynton was with him and Branford in New Orleans,” said veteran trumpeter Marcus Belgrave. “It was quite extraordinary because the two of them were able to perform quite well with only a drummer: no chord instrument or bass. I thought this was truly amazing because at the time they were only 14 and 16 years old. They were well-versed in tradition. I raved about them when I returned to Detroit. However, my comments fell on deaf ears with the local DJs until Wynton’s first record won him a Grammy—the rest is history. He has connected us from the 20th to the 21st century with his leadership in the traditions of jazz and the classical American music. His strong opinions and dedication have opened doors for many young people to express themselves and continue the legacy.”

“I’m very appreciative of all the great one-liners Wynton would whisper in my ear while playing on the bandstand with him in 1995–’96,” said bassist Reuben Rogers. “Things like ‘Sound!’ ‘Tone!’ Tempos!’ Makes me crack up just thinking about it. Ultimately, he was pointing out some of the key fundamental things I needed to develop as a young bassist. I can still hear him now.”

“Wynton’s superlative musicianship, leadership skills and unparalleled devotion to promoting the cause of jazz music and African American genius to a general audience needs no comment,” said pianist Aaron Goldberg. “He is prolific and a perfectionist according to his own musical and moral compass, expecting the most of himself and of others—from the musicians in his band all the way up to the federal government. Working with him is a joy and a challenge. Beyond the bandstand, it is an inspirational study in how to work hard, set goals and achieve them. Wynton’s gifts go beyond his uncanny ability to play the trumpet and his unique improvisational voice on his instrument. His greatest talent may be something that is not normally thought of as a talent—the ability to work hard, to apply himself fully, from the smallest details of technique to the largest problems of society. Apparently, without ever needing to sleep.”

Goldberg added, “One particularly underappreciated aspect of Wynton’s character is his psychological acumen, his nuanced ability to read the people around him. Touring with Wynton’s band means also trying to guard his lefty jump shot, hold your own in chess and joust over politics and esthetics, all great pleasures in their own right. I was nevertheless unprepared for one night in his hotel room when in the course of a conversation about Thomas Mann on democracy, Wynton offered insight into my own character that even a professional psychoanalyst would have found startlingly incisive. Wynton applies his formidable intelligence widely, including to the social realm, and he is far more sensitive and generous on a personal level than is commonly known.”

Perhaps speaking for the younger cats who have come up through the ranks and been touched by him over these past couple decades, vibraphonist Stefon Harris effused, “I want to thank you, Wynton, for believing in me and always being a shining example of what is possible when you have a confluence of vision, passion and determination. Your gifts are truly tremendous and plentiful. The most striking among them being your generosity and commitment to America’s greatest cultural contribution to the world. With love, respect and admiration—happy 50th, big brother!”

—John Ephland (Downbeat Magazine)

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