Jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis remembers Singapore for ‘religious freedom’ and cleanliness

SINGAPORE – Age has mellowed musician Wynton Marsalis.

The 58-year-old muses: “I guess everyone mellows.”

Certainly the jazz superstar seems to be more tolerant of publicity demands these days, as The Straits Times discovers. Compared to previous chats with the newspaper, where the mercurial musician went from chatty and ebullient to bored and disinterested in a flash, Marsalis is positively zen in this latest conversation over the telephone from his office in New York’s Jazz At Lincoln Center.

He ponders a question about what advice he would give his younger self, muttering the question to himself before answering thoughtfully: “When you think something is not going to work out, you expend a certain type of frantic energy. If I could take my older self to go back to being younger, I’d be more deliberate and calm with my energy. When I was younger, I’d just be hollering and cussing and screaming. I wouldn’t do that.”

But the Louisiana-born musician, whose languid speech is littered with polite “Yes ma’am“s, is quick to add with a conspiratorial chuckle: “Some of that cussing stuff is fun now. I’m not going to take all of that away.”

It is evident that his sense of mischief is still alive and well. Music fans here will get to sample his Southern charm when the trumpeter returns for a fourth time to Singapore with his renowned Jazz At The Lincoln Center Orchestra.

They will be playing two gigs at the Esplanade on March 8 and 9, as well as a Saturday afternoon Jazz For Young People session, which is targeted at students.

Educating the young about jazz is a cause close to the heart of Marsalis, who won a prestigious Peabody award for his educational outreach in two 1995 programmes, the television series Marsalis On Music and the radio programme Making The Music.

He even remembers the Jazz For Young People Concert he last played at the Esplanade, 17 years ago, when the orchestra was part of the venue’s Opening Season lineup.

“It was Mingus,” he recalls of the programme, which featured the music of bassist Charles Mingus and trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie.

He adds: “That’s a beautiful hall too, I remember that.”

He and the orchestra had fun putting the then-new hall through its acoustic paces, and for an encore, he serenaded opera diva Jessye Norman, also in town for the Esplanade’s opening, with a sotto voce solo.

This time around, Marsalis and the orchestra will be playing a selection of Duke Ellington and Count Basie. He picked these two jazz greats for a reason.

“They represent two different perspectives on the orchestral tradition of jazz. Duke Ellington’s music, there’s a lot of very inventive compositions and a great deal of complexity. Count Basie’s music is like community music with rhythms, and very soulful but earthy phrases.”

It is no surprise that the one-time enfant terrible of jazz has chosen a conservative programme. His meteoric rise in the jazz world was accompanied by much controversy as he championed the older forms of jazz such as swing and bebop while scorning newer subgenres such as fusion and avant garde.

As the founder of Jazz At Lincoln Center Orchestra, he has put his aesthetic stamp on the outfit which has become famous for its tight musicianship, its role in establishing a jazz canon and its tireless education outreach. Marsalis’ ambitious output as a composer has also been inextricably tied to the orchestra, which debuted his Pulitzer Prize-winning oratorio, Blood On The Fields, in 1994.

After 31 years at its helm, from its genesis as a series of programmes to an institution at the Lincoln Center, Marsalis says he has thought about handing over the reins. “We think and talk about that all the time: What will our younger generation do.”

And he has a timeline for his handover. “In the next 10 years, it’s going to be time for us to make that transition.”

While he has put his stamp on the orchestra, he has also learned a few things in the process. He says: “One, I learned that a lifetime is not enough to learn how to play. The second thing that I realised, it’s important for you to be quiet if you are going to learn. You cannot listen and talk at the same time.

“The third thing that I learned is the importance of trusting others. Because there’s a lot more world you cannot see if you can’t trust other people. If you don’t trust other people, you only see the world you want to see. You trust others, you reveal a whole lot more of the world.”

His easygoing approach extends to his children too. The father of three sons, aged between 24 and 30, says jokingly: “If my kids do things that are legal, I’m happy. I don’t put things on them. It’s their lives. If I can help them do what they’re doing, I wanna help.”

He has helped his daughter Oni, 10, to record a couple of Christmas singles. Marsalis says it was his idea to get her to sing after he was approached by clothing brand Brooks Brothers.

“They were really just asking if they could use a picture of her. They saw a picture of her at a gala. I said, well, she can sing and she can do a song with us.”

The 2017 single Jingle Bells was the result. It proved so popular Marsalis recorded another single with Oni, Winter Wonderland, last year.

There is a note of pride as he talks about his daughter, but the perfectionist musician in him cannot help but add: “She doesn’t really practise all the time but she’s got a kind of natural feeling. If we do another song, she has to learn how to scat sing.”

As for his own musical plans, he is still planning to write the opera about America’s civil war which he first told The Straits Times about in 2012.

“I haven’t started working on it yet, but it’s called Babel On This Ground.”

In the meantime, he adds, he is looking forward to his return engagement with Singapore. The cheekiness returns as he says slyly: “I remember a lot of stuff. Some I can’t really talk about in the paper.”

What he can talk about: “I remember the kind of religious freedom that people have, the diversity of people, the industriousness of people, how clean everything is. I had a great time there.”

And as if to emphasise it, he singsongs again: “I had a great time there.”

Marsalis, it seems, is in a mellow tone.

by Ong Sor Fern
Source: The Straits Times

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