Measured words from a master

Wynton Marsalis walked onto the stage at Moravian College’s Foy Hall Monday morning and saw a familiar sight: a packed house.
Less than 24 hours before, his touring quartet had performed before a sold-out audience in the Bethlehem Hall. But Monday’s appearance was different. Music was on tap, but the famous jazz trumpeter was on hand to critique the student musicians – all from Moravian College – in a master class.

Dressed in a light gray suit, Marsalis began by noting that everything he was about to say should be taken “in a spirit of love.” But, he warned, “I am going to have a little fun with you.”

Marsalis said he had experienced similar master classes as a young musician. “The musicians always told me things I didn’t want to hear, but what can you do? You just have to stand there and smile.”
The student ensemble, which included professional drummer Gary Rissmiller, a Moravian faculty member, then began a reading of the Oliver Nelson tune, “Stolen Moments,” with vocals written by Mark Murphy, the jazz vocalist.

As the group played, Marsalis walked around the stage, looking at both the musicians and the audience. At one point, he silently motioned for someone in the audience to be quiet. Marsalis then spent the better part of an hour talking about what the group did, or didn’t, do. The group was too loud, Marsalis noted. The musicians weren’t listening to each other. He pointed to small, specific things: the bassist and the drummer weren’t making eye contact, a vital part of “keeping a groove,” Marsalis said.

But always, he leavened his criticisms with good humor and tried to relate the more technical aspects of music to everyday life. The rhythm section of bass, piano and drums is the most important part of a jazz group, Marsalis said, but often, at least two of the three members are in the background.
“It’s like the offensive line in football,” Marsalis said. “They don’t get the media interviews after the game, and they all weigh 350 pounds. But if they don’t do their jobs, some pretty boys are going to get hurt.”

Even his musical suggestions were delivered with a direct-but-dignified New Orleans homespun simplicity. On the subject of soloing, he told the musicians, “Soloing isn’t about getting off. It’s about getting off intelligently.”
Occasionally, to make a point, he would play the drums and piano, prompting a questioner to ask exactly how many instruments Marsalis played. “I only play the trumpet,” Marsalis said, modestly. “I play just enough of the other instruments to make people think I can play.”

After some pointed suggestions, Marsalis asked the group to play “Stolen Moments” again. The group wasn’t two measures into the song when Marsalis stopped the musicians again. “Now, isn’t that much better?” he asked the audience, which applauded in agreement. Three tunes were on the program, but the group only got to play a second piece, an up-tempo reading of Ray Noble’s jazz classic, “Cherokee.” Marsalis liked what he heard. It was also clear the audience, a mix of retirees, high school students and music buffs, equally enjoyed hearing Marsalis talk about his craft.

By Tim Blangger
Source: The Morning Call

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