“Look at each other”: Wynton Marsalis brings his jazz message to town
“What kind of mouthpiece do you use?” asked the earnest young jazz student.
Wynton Marsalis knew that sooner or later, a kid would ask that question, and he would have to lie. “I’m not an equipment person,” Marsalis shrugged. “I use what they give me.” Oh, really. The world’s most famous jazzman, director of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, a supremely accomplished trumpeter in both classical and jazz, doesn’t know what he’s putting into his mouth every night.
But life is short, Monday’s jazz workshop at MSU’s Wharton Center was even shorter, and Marsalis would rather climb to higher ground than talk shop. “This music is designed for us to listen to one another,” he told the students. “I don’t like it when you look at the music too hard. Look at each other.”
Monday morning, Marsalis began a three-day residency at MSU by giving an assembly of high school and college jazz musicians from across Michigan a whirlwind life lesson under the pretext of jazz. Mouthpieces? Try mortality. At one point, Marsalis turned to a teen trumpeter and gave him a lecture out of “Hamlet.” “Long after you’re dead, somebody will hold onto that trumpet,” he told the open-mouthed kid. “They’ll be like, ‘Oh, a trumpet.
Wonder who this belonged to?’” It may take the youngster years to get the takeaway from that, but when he does, Horatio, it will hit him hard. The workshops Tuesday were part of a jammed half-week that included a World View lecture Monday, a small-group benefit concert Tuesday night at the University Club and the world premiere of a new Marsalis composition, with the Lincoln Center group and the MSU Symphony, Wednesday night.
Later this week, Marsalis goes through the same whirlwind in Detroit. The residencies, and the new piece, were commissioned jointly by the MSU College of Music, the Detroit Symphony and the Wharton Center.
It takes a block of evenings on the scale of “The Ring of the Nibelung” to fully absorb Marsalis the trumpeter, Marsalis the speaker-author, and Marsalis the composer.But Marsalis the educator — with a newly sharpened message of personal and national deliverance through jazz — was on full display at Tuesday’s workshop, the lowest-profile part of the residency. And that’s as close to the totality of Marsalis as you can get. He blew a mean solo with MSU Jazz Orchestra I on “Cherokee.” He cajoled, blandished, and confronted the students.
“One thing the music can teach you is how to get in touch with the grandeur of yourself,” he told the assembled youth. The statement drew stifled laughs. Grandeur? Me? Who had ever talked to these kids that way before? But Marsalis addresses everybody that way. In his new book, “Moving to Higher Ground,” he hefts the whole jazz tradition, like Archimedes lifting his lever, and tries to move the world with it. Marsalis is convinced that the give and take of jazz, its disciplined chaos, its lovingly contained spark of life, can somehow show us how to be better, as individuals and as a democracy.
“Jazz is a celebration of musical freedom of speech,” he told me in a phone interview last week. “That is reflected on jazz’s insistence on you finding your own sound, projecting it and defending it. It insists that you sing your own song.” But in jazz, as in life, that’s only half the challenge.
“Then there’s the responsibility of respecting the space of other people who have that power,” he added. “Those two things are part of our way of governing. Checks and balances.”
I asked Marsalis which of the two parts he found most challenging. “The second one,” he said. “It’s much harder to respect the space of other people and make that space than it is to respect your own.” He paused. “That’s not necessarily true for everyone, but for me that’s true.” Marsalis has plenty to say, by horn or by mouth, but who is listening?
by Lawrence Cosentino
Source: Lansing City Pulse