Marsalis, Jazz’s Jack-of-All-Trades

WYNTON MARSALIS is a haberdasher’s dream — the cat in many hats. In fact, Marsalis wears multiple hats with such confidence and style that it hardly matters which one is sitting atop another in a Dr. Seuss-like pileup.

For proof, you have only to look to the Lincoln Theatre, which this weekend hosts the world premiere of “Suite for Human Nature,” a work commissioned by the Washington Performing Arts Society that pairs Marsalis’s music with text by lyricist Diane Charlotte Lampert. It will be performed by the Marsalis-led Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, the Boys Choir of Harlem and several guest vocalists.

Marsalis is also artistic director of Jazz at Lincoln Center, which in 1996 became the first cultural institution to give jazz the same status as classical music, opera, ballet, theater, dance and film, and the orchestra expanded a prestigious roster that includes the New York Philharmonic, Metropolitan Opera and New York City Ballet. Those companies all had home bases, and now, thanks to efforts spearheaded by Marsalis, so, too, does Jazz at Lincoln Center.

Or, to be exact, Jazz near Lincoln Center: The $128 million Frederick P. Rose Hall, which opened in October, is actually a three-hall venue a few blocks away in the new Time Warner complex. The 100,000-square-foot center is the first performance and educational facility created specifically for jazz and the first in the world whose acoustics have been designed specifically for jazz. It’s also home base for the globetrotting jazz ensemble, which next month will release an orchestration of John Coltrane’s classic recording, “A Love Supreme.”

Earlier this year, Marsalis released “The Magic Hour,” his first small-ensemble record in five years, and just last week released the original score for “Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson,” Marsalis’s latest collaboration with filmmaker Ken Burns. The four-hour documentary, airing on PBS Jan. 16 and 17, tells the story of America’s first black heavyweight champion, whose 1910 victory over Jim Jeffries sparked race riots and who in 1913 fled to Europe because of trumped-up charges of violating the Mann Act’s stipulations against transporting white women across state lines for prostitution (Johnson eventually returned and served a year-long prison sentence, but his boxing career was finished).

Marsalis’s score consists of mostly new compositions in early 1900s jazz styles, mirroring Johnson’s lifespan (1878-1946), as well as interpretations of classic material by Jelly Roll Morton and W.C. Handy.

Somehow, Marsalis also found time to write the recently published “To a Young Jazz Musician: Letters From the Road.”

Not surprisingly, it’s not always easy to catch up to Marsalis, and on this particular day, he’s speaking by cell phone while negotiating the streets of New York on his way home from an interview at MSNBC. While Marsalis might be excused for feeling extremes of either exhilaration or exhaustion after the six-year campaign to create Rose Hall, it’s simply the capstone of a career devoted to affirming the value and the importance of jazz in American culture, to making it as respected as classical music has been.

“All of us who worked on all these projects, we work because we want to see people in the halls, we want to see the arts come together,” Marsalis explains. “We were guided by a goal that’s near-but-far, but the art is the main thing. I feel that when we affirm jazz, we affirm the best of what our culture has to offer.”

Marsalis’s “Suite for Human Nature” will have its Lincoln Center premiere next weekend, but first there are three shows this weekend at the (unrelated) Lincoln Theatre. With a libretto by veteran songwriter Lampert, the satirical fable is a family-friendly story of “the Four Winds coming to the rescue when Mother Nature and Father Time create the world, only to find the troubles of mankind are almost too much to bear,” according to the program notes.

The work was commissioned by the Washington Performing Arts Society and will serve as the cornerstone of the organization’s 2004-05 season. Friday’s premiere and a reception following will benefit the Black Student Fund and honor the society’s recently retired founder, Douglas H. Wheeler. The fundraising celebration will take place at the Thurgood Marshall Center (1816 12th St. NW). Tickets for that are $200 ($75 for the performance only). XM Radio’s Real Jazz Channel 70 will air delayed broadcasts of the Sunday matinee on Christmas Day at noon and Dec. 26 at 2 p.m.

According to Marsalis, “Suite for Human Nature” had been “in progress” for a decade before Friedman Billings Ramsey, a national investment bank that has been a longtime WPAS supporter, underwrote the commission. “Diane and I were talking about the project and we wanted to do it here, wanted to do it there, but there were always other things happening. And we never really had the impetus to get it done. [The commission] gave us the impetus to get everything solidified,” he says. “I always say that for me to finish something, I need a deadline, I need to know that it’s going to be on.”

Marsalis’s relationship with WPAS goes back to the early ’80s, when he left Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers to embark on what has become a stellar solo career in both the jazz and classical fields (in 1983, he became the first artist to win Grammys in the jazz and classical fields in the same year). “I love WPAS and Doug Wheeler for all the years [they have presented him] — it’s been a steady thing,” says Marsalis, noting their educational initiatives and community outreach programming.

WPAS also presented the Washington premiere of “Blood on the Fields,” Marsalis’s brilliant and moving oratorio about slavery, the first jazz composition to win a Pulitzer Prize in 1997. That one was commissioned by the Lincoln Center, whose New York Philharmonic commissioned and performed 2002’s “All Rise” with the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra and the Morgan State University Choir. Those two extended works are monumental, complex and at times overwhelming in their ambition and achievement.

“Suite for Human Nature,” Marsalis says, is “a lot lighter in spirit. It’s jazz that has improvisation in it, but it’s using a lot of childlike themes. . . . I would say there’s a lot more music than dialogue, but the music is inspired by the dialogue, though Diane wrote some songs that people sing.”

“Suite for Human Nature” is the kind of work Marsalis would like to see turned into regular holiday fare, and it showcases another of the hats he wears, that of the tireless educator (Lincoln Center’s Jazz for Young People program, the Leonard Bernstein-like DVD series “Marsalis on Music,” etc. ). The 43-year-old Marsalis, who has three sons ages 8 to 16, has logged uncounted hours preaching the glories of jazz to kids and admits he’s “worked in a lot of arenas where they can be bored, so I’m always kind of aware. When you have an hour or 40 minutes to teach elementary school kids, you get a sense of what events you have to have happen in a certain time.

“In this case, because we have narration, because we have songs, because we have a children’s choir, we have a lot of things that will interest them. In general, kids are more interested in things in which they participate, in which kids are involved. . . . [Use] a lot of good ‘color’ changes, things that are higher pitched or lower pitched, they’re like ‘icky greens.’

“And you don’t want to go on too long with any one thing.”

On a more serious note, there’s “Unforgivable Blackness,” which teams Marsalis and Burns, who first worked together on Burns’s 2000 PBS documentary “Jazz.” Marsalis served as senior creative consultant for the 10-part series that explored the history of the music he loves and knows so well. About Johnson, the complex champion who inspired the play and film “The Great White Hope,” Marsalis knew somewhat less.

“I had read about Jack Johnson, but one thing I didn’t know was his command of the English language,” says Marsalis of the boxer’s eloquent writing. “I knew that he had fought and won, that he had chased Tommy Burns [white heavyweight champions had refused to box against blacks, believing them unworthy of the title]. I knew about the prostitutes and the wildness and all of that. I knew certain things, but I had no idea of the magnitude of his personality, the heroism of him. I didn’t know he played bass and he had a club that became the Cotton Club [the Club de Lux in New York] That he was on the vaudeville circuit . . . I had none of that information.”

That, of course, is one of the reasons Burns chose Johnson as a subject; it’s also fertile ground for Burns’s continuing exploration of race in America.

“I have nothing but the utmost respect for the methods that he works by and the seriousness that he addresses his subjects,” says Marsalis of Burns, adding “It’s very easy to work with him. You know, I’m a perfectionist, and just to be around him is to breathe a sigh of relief. He’s obsessed with his work so he’s always working on it. He’s very clear about what he wants, but he works with what you give him; he’s not rigid. You’d think that somebody who’s as obsessed as that, it would have to be one way, but he’s not like that: He’s adaptable, he can improvise. He changes things, he makes adjustments, he goes by his own sense of what’s right and proportionate. I just watch his method of putting things together, how he explains what he wants the music to do.”

Come to think of it, that sounds like a pretty good description of Marsalis, too.

WYNTON MARSALIS — Appearing Friday through Sunday at the Lincoln Theatre. * To hear a free Sound Bite from Wynton Marsalis, call Post-Haste at 301-313-2200 and press 8101. (Prince William residents, call 703-690-4110.)

“When we affirm jazz, we affirm the best of what our culture has to offer,” says Wynton Marsalis.

By Richard Harrington
Source: The Washington Post

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