Marsalis: Mastering Two Modes

Considering the impact trumpeter Wynton Marsalis had on the music scene when he was so young, it might be assumed that he started playing the instrument at about the age of, oh, 2 or 3 maybe.

Relatively speaking, though, Marsalis was something of a late-bloomer. Even though he received his first horn at age 6, it took him another six years to really get into it. But at that point, he got into it in a big way, studying classical music.

Marsalis, who will conclude a two-day engagement at the Theater of Living Arts tonight, not only took on classical music. In later years – after establishing himself as the hottest young jazz musician around – he began recording classical albums.

He recorded them, and he won Grammys for them – along with his jazz albums.

As a result, there are those – especially among the classical-music-oriented, who perhaps regard the playing of jazz as a few points down on the artistic scale – who feel that Marsalis is a classical musician who plays jazz.

Marsalis is quick to issue a correction: “I’m a jazz musician who can play classical music.”

At no time, even as a youngster, was the New Orleans native intimidated by classical music.

“I studied classical music because so many young musicians were scared of this big monster called classical music on the other side of the mountain,” he said. “I wanted to know what it was that scared everybody so bad. I went into it and found out it wasn’t anything but some more music.

“After you sit up there and play all of those scores, you find out that classical musicians are like all other musicians. Most of them are mediocre and a handful are excellent. You learn the composers’ tricks, the ideas they use over and over and the difference between an inspired piece of writing and just some notes that are there to get you from one place to the next.”

At this point, Marsalis issues a point of view that is likely to spark debate:

“As far as both musical idioms are concerned, I think – I know – it’s harder to be a good jazz musician at an early age than a classical one. In jazz, to be a good performer means to be an individual, which you don’t have to be in classical music.”

Marsalis, who will turn 28 in October, came by his talent quite naturally. His father is Ellis Marsalis, a highly respected pianist, composer and educator. The talent also was passed on to Wynton Marsalis’ brother, Branford, who has made an impressive mark of his own in the jazz world as a saxophonist.

Throughout high school, Wynton played first trumpet in the New Orleans Civic Orchestra. He was admitted to the summer program at the Berkshire Music Center at Tanglewood at 17, although the age requirement usually is 18.

At the end of that session, Marsalis received a citation for his accomplishments, the Harvey Shapiro Award for Outstanding Brass Player.

At 18, Marsalis enrolled at Juilliard in New York. At the same time, he performed as a pit musician for Broadway’s Sweeney Todd and also played with the Brooklyn Philharmonic.

Marsalis then joined the legendary Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers. About a year later, he went on the road with the Herbie Hancock Quartet, featuring Ron Carter and Tony Williams.

“Being on a bandstand night after night with great musicians always makes you feel how important this music is and how great the tradition is,” Marsalis said. “With Art Blakey, you have a man with so much talent it sometimes seems unbelievable. He’s a real soldier for the music, too. He’s an iron man with a whole lot of heart.

“With Herbie, Ron and Tony, you get the same kind of power, but in younger guys. But all of them have the same ability to be individuals every second that they’re playing. Every second. All of my biggest influences have had that in some way – Clifford Brown, Louis Armstrong, Don Cherry, Miles Davis, Freddie Hubbard, Woody Shaw, Fats Navarro. Some set standards in sound and conception rather than technique, but the great thing about it all is that it provided for so much quality.”

In early ’82, Marsalis’ debut album, Wynton Marsalis, was released, and the young trumpeter suddenly was a hot item. That LP was named jazz album of the year by Down Beat and a number of other publications.

But the ultimate honor came in 1984, when Marsalis became the first instrumentalist in the history of the Grammy Awards to win Grammys in the categories of jazz (best soloist for Think of One) and classical (best soloist with orchestra for Trumpet Concertos).

Here we have a crossover success that was achieved with pure playing rather than commercially trendy gimmicks.

Wynton Marsalis at the Theater of Living Arts, 334 South St., tonight at 7:30 and 10:30. Tickets are $21.50. Phone: 922-1011.

by Jack Lloyd,
Source: Philadelphia Inquirer

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