Jazz is Everything - The Artful Life of Wynton Marsalis

Wynton Marsalis was born in New Orleans, the same city that also birthed jazz. However, just as the music couldn’t be contained, neither could the people who made it. Marsalis left when he was still a teenager and has lived in New York City for almost 40 years, but it was under the early guidance of Newark jazz legends Sarah Vaughan and Woody Shaw when he really began to soar.

In 1982, the year trumpeter Wynton Marsalis released his acclaimed self-titled debut album, he was already being thought of as the savior of jazz. It didn’t matter that this former sideman for Art Blakey. who was also studying under trumpet master Shaw, was only 21 years old. The traditionalists on the circuit were hoping that the custom-suited, eyeglass-wearing “young lion” posed in profile on the album cover might finally be the one to save the music from the avant-garde who called their work “free” and “fire.” These players were, in the words of Pitchfork critic Andy Beta, more about “chaos, noise and tumult” than presenting real jazz.

Whereas the “free jazz” and “fusion- ists” that emerged in the 1960s and ‘70s were wild and loose with the genre, often soaring beyond notes and comprehension, Marsalis just wanted to swing and played as though Louis Armstrong, Count Basie and Duke Ellington were still kings. While another cool cat might have been intimidated by such responsibility, Marsalis was more than ready to step to the plate and roar, his music full of youthful heat and a different kind of fire.

Under the tutelage of mentors such as Vaughan with whom he sometimes performed, keyboardist Herbie Hancock who produced his first album, saxophonist Chico Freeman and writers Stanley Crouch and Albert Murray, who taught him about literature, art and the politics of jazz intellectualism, he began to grow. Often, in interviews from that period, Marsalis came across as cocky as he relegated popular music (rock, rap, soul) to the lower rungs of the cultural ladder and elevated jazz as though it were untouchable.

“I can remember shooting Wynton’s picture early in his career when he came to (Newark-based jazz radio station) WBGO,” former station photographer William May said. “He was a skinny kid in his early twenties, but you just had to hear him speak to know how smart he was. His musicianship spoke for itself, but his knowledge was deep too. He was very articulate and he knew what he was talking about. It was obvious he was going places.”

Although he came from a family of musicians that included father (and early music teacher) Ellis Marsalis, Jr. (piano), older brother Branford (saxophone), and siblings Delfeayo (trombone) and Jason (drums), it was great trumpeter and family friend Al Hirt who gave Wynton his first trumpet when he turned 12. “When the boys were small we wanted them to have something to express themselves creatively,” mother Delores Marsalis told a documentary interviewer (Catching a Snake) in 1983. “My husband was a really good teacher and knew to give them enough space to let them improvise.”

Although Marsalis was good, he claims he was far from a child prodigy and struggled every day to get better on his instrument. A few years later, under the guidance of Dr. Bert Braud, he studied both classical music and jazz at New Orleans Center for Creative Arts (NOCCA) where he developed the prac- tice discipline of facing the corner of a room for hours while fiercely blowing his instrument. “He was constantly kicking himself about how bad a trumpet player he was and he wasn’t far from wrong,” Braud said in 1983. Marsalis didn’t stay bad for long, however, and began playing professional gigs while still in high school. He was accepted to Juilliard and moved to New York City in 1979.

Without a doubt, in the near 40 years since he first came north, moving to Brooklyn with his big brother Branford, Marsalis has more than proven to be the perfect ambassador of jazz and culture throughout the world. In addition to having won numerous Grammy Awards and receiving honorary degrees from Yale, Harvard and Princeton, in 1997 he received a Pulitzer Prize for Blood on the Fields, a jazz oratorio about a couple’s journey from slavery to freedom. Newark native, the late Amiri Baraka, poet, playwright and commentator on American culture, wrote positively about Marsalis in his book Digging: The Afro- American Soul of American Classical Music.

Describing Marsalis as an “in- teresting and inventive player,” Baraka also said, “In published interviews and on television he has shown himself to be at times courageous…as well as deeply knowledgeable about music.” Perhaps nothing was more remark- able than when he co-founded and became Artistic Director for Jazz at Lincoln Center and Music Director for the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra in 1987. In July 1996, due to its significant success, Jazz at Lincoln Center was given a permanent home and installed as the new constituent of that cultural hub, giving jazz equal stature with the New York Philharmonic, Metropolitan Opera and the New York City Ballet. It was an historic moment for jazz as an art form.

In total Marsalis has recorded over 80 albums that include his own stunning solo efforts, collaborations with Willie Nelson (Two Men with the Blues, 2008), tributes to tortured torch singers (From Billie Holiday to Edith Piaf, 2010), a blues album with “god” guitarist Eric Clapton (Wynton Marsalis and Eric Clapton Play the Blues, 2011) and recordings with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra.

“I first met Wynton early in his career and watching him evolve has been amaz- ing,” says Philadelphia radio personality Dyana Williams, who was the vice chair of the Marian Anderson Award com- mittee that honored Marsalis in 2016. “We awarded him for his philanthropic endeavors all over the world as well as his tremendous give back to young musicians. There were kids that performed at the ceremony and Wynton shook every hand and took every picture. He gives back so much love, which is part of what makes him remarkable.”

In 1995-96, Marsalis spearheaded establishment of the annual Essentially Ellington High School Jazz Band Competition & Festival. Held each May in New York City, the competition and celebration are the culmination of the yearlong Essentially Ellington program, during which participating bands are invited to submit a recording. Fifteen finalists are selected through a rigorous screening process. Each finalist band receives an in-school workshop led by a professional musician before coming to New York to perform before Marsalis and a panel of respected judges. The prestigious Newark Academy, located in Livingston, New Jersey, has a jazz band called Chameleon. Directed by alto saxophone player and teacher Julius Tolentino, the band won fourth place/honorable mention at the 22nd assembly this past May.

“This was our best year,” said Tolentino, who also guided the group through competitions in 2012 and 2015. “We also won 10 other awards as well.” Tolentino, who once studied with sax legend Jackie McLean, first met Marsalis years before when the trumpeter came to Hartford, Connecticut to teach a master class at The Artists Collective, a culture and education center providing area youth with professional training in music, dance and drama. “Wynton came in and he said some nice things to me about my playing which, as a young musician, gave me the affirmation that I could really do this. His encouraging words made me feel good about my playing and, a few years later, I played with him in various jam sessions.”

Last November when Marsalis and the orchestra performed a tribute to jazz luminaries Dizzy Gillespie and (former Newark resident) James Moody at New Jersey Performing Arts Center (NJPAC), Tolentino was invited to bring his New- ark Academy band to both the show and the dress rehearsal at Lincoln Center. “The orchestra was so welcoming to the kids. We watched them warm up and, after the rehearsal, they invited me to come play as well. Wynton’s entire band is just so cool and fun.”

Wynton Marsalis’ mentorship of young players can be traced back to his own early years when he was an emerging musician playing and studying under the likes of Art Blakey, for whom he dropped out of Juilliard in 1980 to join on the road, and from post-bopper Woody Shaw, whom he studied un- der before becoming a soloist. Shaw, who lived in Newark until his death in 1989 at the age of 44, told Down Beat magazine in 1983: “I’ve tried to pass on my experiences to young musicians like Wynton Marsalis and this young man has greatly inspired me by combining the experience of New Orleans with his aca- demic background of Juilliard. It’s a very difficult instrument to play and it takes a certain personality to play the trumpet.”

Woody Shaw III, who was 10 when his dad died, is currently working on a book and documentary about his father’s life, art and legacy. “Dad was a young leader who understood that passing on knowledge was part of the task of jazz artists,” Shaw said, “and he took that responsibility very seriously. Wynton is obviously gracious to his mentors.”

In 2004, Marsalis released the best-selling (and still selling) book To a Young Jazz Musician: Letters from the Road (Random House), which he co- wrote with author and former magazine editor Selwyn Seyfu Hinds. With Rainer Maria Rilke’s classic Letters to a Young Poet (1929) as their model, they wrote a book that has become sacred text to aspiring students in search of insight and inspiration.

“When collaborating with someone you want to make sure you both get along socially, mentally and spiritually,” Hinds said. “So I went to his apartment in Lincoln Center and we vibed so well. He’s one of the most open people I’ve ever met.” He added, “People say, ‘Wynton doesn’t like rap, Wynton doesn’t like rock,’ but the truth is, as a musician, he’s fascinated by everything.”

Hinds travelled with Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra throughout the world including Europe and South America. “I would be surprised, because no matter where we went Wynton would give so much time to music students, always devoting space for teaching and discussing ideas. To be a fly on the wall between master and student, it was powerful.” In the evenings, Hinds interviewed Marsalis about the experience of working with both the band and the kids. “Besides Wynton being a genius as both a bandleader and a teacher, I find his willingness to be present and his humility as a source of exchange and power to be impressive.”

No longer a young lion, Wynton Marsalis continues to roar. He will be 56 in October, 2017, but while other middle-aged men are slowing down and dreaming of retirement, Marsalis is still touring the world with his big band, inspiring students across the globe and maintaining the artistic stance that, of course, jazz is everything.

by Michael A. Gonzales
Source: Newark Bound (5th Anniversary Edition)

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