Jazz giant plans to stir up a storm in Canberra

Arts editor HELEN MUSA talks exclusively with legendary trumpeter Wynton Marsalis ahead of his Canberra performances this month.

“FOR an hour or so of jazz, people will see the truth of what we do,” legendary trumpeter and Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Wynton Marsalis says ahead of his planned visit to Canberra later this month.

Few musicians on the world stage occupy a position of such responsibility as Marsalis, artistic director of Jazz at Lincoln Center, the first jazz composer to win the Pulitzer Prize for Music and still the only musician to have won a Grammy Award in both jazz and classical categories in the same year – he was just 22 at the time.

With a foot in the two camps of jazz and classical music and a giant reputation, he’s long been in a position to take on the great issues of our time in music and culture.

He was even bold enough to question the role of hip-hop in creating a negative stereotype of African-Americans, although when I catch up with him by Zoom to Verbier in Switzerland, where he’s performing at the town’s 30-year-old music festival, he admits that battle was fought and lost decades ago.

Regarded by some at the more avant-garde end of the jazz spectrum as a musical conservative, even his detractors concede that he has made jazz respectable beyond anyone’s wildest dreams.

Now 61 and keeping up a cracking pace as a working musician, Marsalis is also a noted educator who, in the ’90s, hosted the educational program “Marsalis on Music” on public television, and will make himself available in practical sessions for a masterclass and jazz workshop while he and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra are in residence at the new Snow Concert Hall at Canberra Grammar School.

But it’s not just him. As he says: “All our orchestra members are excellent educators who run jazz programs.”

Marsalis is not just a jobbing trumpeter who takes his place in the line-up with the other members of the band, but he is a significant contemporary composer who uses his broad-ranging knowledge to incorporate classical symphonic elements into his compositions.

In Australia, he’ll perform his 1999 composition “All Rise” with both Melbourne and Sydney Symphony Orchestras and a 100-voice choir, telling me how it blends the sounds of jazz, blues, classical and indigenous music and adding, “I wanted to get the choir to sound like a didgeridoo”.

On Zoom we both try twisting our mouths to see if we can produce the desired effect, with hilarious results.

Raised in a family of jazz musicians in New Orleans, Marsalis was always going to be a musician, but for a long time the question was whether that would be jazz or classical, and indeed he studied trumpet performance for several years at the Juilliard School in New York, where now heads up the Jazz Studies program.

“I love jazz but I also love and play classical music – they are not mutually exclusive,” he asserts.

Over the years, he’s been a regular visitor to the metropolitan cities of Australia, is an avowed fan of Brisbane’s Quigley family who have taught a lot of eminent Australia’s jazz musicians, and his latest recording of his fourth symphony, “The Jungle”, was done in “a quality, collegiate way” with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra.

But he thinks he hasn’t been to the nation’s capital since the late ’80s and says, “I remember its futuristic buildings”.

Canberra will get the 15-musician line-up of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra performing full blast – “that’s why we call it a big band,” he quips – as they cruise through the great jazz masters, from Jelly Roll Morton to Duke Ellington, while performing compositions by band members and Marsalis himself.

They plan to run the gamut of the 100+ year old art form, but it definitely won’t be museum music, for as he says, “improvisation means you can take an old piece and make it new”.

“Improvisation is at the heart of jazz,” he says in an almost pedagogical moment as he defines its component elements – blues, swing and improvisation. All will be on show as he and the band, hellbent on having a fun time in all their concerts – stir up a storm with Canberra audiences.

Wynton Marsalis and Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, Snow Concert Hall, August 17-18.

Source: CBR CityNews

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