Q&A: Wynton Marsalis On Music Education, Duke Ellington And More

This past weekend (May 9 – 11), Jazz at Lincoln Center put the spotlight on the music of Duke Ellington as part of the Essentially Ellington program and to celebrate the 125 birthday of the man Wynton Marsalis, Managing and Artistic Director of Jazz at Lincoln Center, calls “The highest level of what has come out of the United States of America.”

More than 300 students and 15 band leaders descended on New York City over the weekend for a competition and festival encouraging students to learn and celebrate the music of the Duke. While there is a competitive element, with New Jersey’s Chameleon, from Newark Academy, taking the honor this year for best high school jazz band in the country – their first win after six trips to the finals – Marsalis proudly points out there is a true camaraderie and love of music among all the participants.

I spoke with Marsalis, as well as Todd Stoll, Vice President Education, Jazz at Lincoln Center, and Ori Moore, this year’s Student Composition/Arranging Contest winner. Under Ted Nash’s mentorship, Moore is preparing for the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra to record his winning composition “Fallin’.”

What I found from speaking with all three is the importance of music education, of passing on the music and legacy of jazz, specifically jazz from Duke Ellington, how the weekend is educational for all involved and much more.

Steve Baltin: For so many musicians it’s very invigorating to be around young musicians. How rewarding is doing this program for you?

Wynton Marsalis: My father was a teacher, and I grew up playing in high school bands.

Baltin: So, you’ve always been around it. But I imagine after all these years being around their energy is a lot of fun?

Marsalis: Yeah, I love that. We’ve been doing it for the last 30 years and so many great musicians have come through the program. So many of them have had a fantastic impact on the scene. All the things that have happened as a result of the program, it’s all enriching to see the students respond to one another and to see it’s more festival than competition. Everyone gives ovations to the kids that they’re impressed with, and there’s a camaraderie of that subset of kids across time. It’s just incredibly enriching.

Baltin: The last few years have seen a steady increase in the popularity of jazz. Have you seen a change in student interest?

Marsalis: I always found a lot of kids and people who wanted to play and for the whole years we’ve been doing this it’s been a steady crescendo. There have been great musicians through the ‘90s, 2000s, twenty-teens, they just have become better. It’s been a steady crescendo.

Baltin: Do you see a change in the way the students interact with the music?

Marsalis: The generations work in certain ways. You want your generations coming in to have a different idea of how to do things, otherwise civilization will stagnate. But, like all things it’s a matter of balance. Like soloing in relation to playing in an ensemble. I would like to solo. But, if you’re sitting in a band and I’m soloing for 25 minutes and you’re only playing for two because I have the freedom to do it, so, in jazz, there’s always a great way to teach regulation. So, you have two things that teach you to find your personality and to express yourself and be free about how you feel about things. But it also teaches you other people have a way they feel about things, so you have to also create space for them and embrace the things they create.

Baltin: What lessons do you take from the kids?

Marsalis: Also, to what you were saying before, when you’re around younger people it keeps you learning because they’re always challenging what you say. Also, they’re learning stuff. When you’re around people who are learning and can learn at the velocity they learn at and the new things they know they encourage you to learn. They have different ways they look at things. If you can follow your young leadership then you can enjoy a certain cycle of your life, one where you were the one leading and telling people and doing things. And then you reach a point where you need to be told, you need to understand. And many times, as you get older it’s important to become humbler and express more gratitude by following your young leadership.

Baltin: Is there a joy at getting to share the music that you love?

Marsalis: Yeah, but the Duke Ellington music I didn’t grow up listening to that. I grew up in the 70s, we didn’t listen to big band music. So, I also discovered the greatness of the music in the 1980s. I was also discovering the music. I had the good fortune to play with surviving members of his great band from mid-1950s to his death in ’74. Then I was in my 20s and those older members taught us how to play Duke Ellington’s music and what his music was about. I have an incredible feeling of pride and joy about, first of all, the greatness of his achievement. Seventeen hundred compositions, 800 albums, the originality of his vision, the generosity of his spirit, he is an ultimate universal humanist, just an unbelievably creative man with a great sense of humor. When you play his music you feel clean after you play it. That this many, hundreds of thousands, maybe millions of kids, have played Duke Ellington’s music due to this program around the world, and this music has been distributed everywhere, that is a source of tremendous joy. I feel like we, Jazz at Lincoln Center, contributed something to the world of value. The music of Duke Ellington is certainly the highest level of what has come out of the United States of America.

Baltin: Why is an event like this important to continue to teach people about jazz?

Todd Stoll: Firstly, Essentially Ellington shows just how accessible jazz is to people of all backgrounds. We have kids from Wisconsin playing with kids from Staten Island playing with kids from Seattle and Southern California and Florida. The music brings them together, all with the common purpose of swinging, which, and this is important, involves sacrifice for each other and the “common good,” which is the band sounding good. Essentially Ellington is also a showcase for the very best of the best of our music: Duke Ellington. Essentially Ellington programs also highlights other important and overlooked composers and arrangers. What you hear at this event is like the greatest meal cooked by the greatest chef you will ever have. Here is a partial list, after Duke and Billy Strayhorn — Benny Carter, Mary Lou Williams, Dizzy Gillespie, Benny Golson, Gerald Wilson, Tadd Dameron, Fletcher Henderson, Machito. In 2025, next year the program offerings will pair Gerry Mulligan with Duke. So, when one comes to this event, it’s an opportunity to showcase the very best our music has to offer.

Ori Moore: The Essentially Ellington community is bigger than the fifteen bands that travel to New York. Hundreds of bands around the world play music from the Essentially Ellington library, which inspires young jazz musicians to play foundational big band music. Even though it’s a competition, Essentially Ellington creates a community where young musicians inspire and support each other.

Baltin: What do you want people to take from this event?

Stoll: Jazz is immensely fun and isn’t just for old folks. Young people can accomplish amazing things when given the opportunity and not be pandered to by a system of “marketing.” Another takeaway: Duke Ellington is the greatest of all time.

Baltin: What does Duke Ellington mean to you?

Moore: Ellington developed his style by combining the influences of any music that inspired him. He inspires me to broaden my musical influence and bring that to jazz—particularly through Indian and bluegrass music, honoring my family’s roots—so that I play and write jazz that is unique to me.

Stoll: A lot. I’ve spent over 30 years trying to learn his music, and it never fails to surprise, delight, and inspire me. His music contains so much of the human experience, it’s actually amazing. Love, loss, heartbreak, unbridled joy, all of it is in there. Duke’s music allows one to be the absolute most of themselves that one can be-within his framework. For example, Johnny Hodges, Cootie Williams, or Paul Gonsalves could be the best versions of themselves with Duke. Each of those musicians played Duke’s band for decades. Think about that, the greatest amount of freedom and the greatest amount of expression. Also, while sacrificing to play together at the highest level. Man, that’s something. Also, I think a lot about what Duke means to me on a cultural level. He was a Black man, born at the turn of the twentieth century. What he faced in terms of racism and hatred just for his mere existence. What it took for him to tour in the South. And then to write “Deep South Suite” in 1946, 15 years before civil rights got rolling. He made a statement about what things were like and how we should all come together. Damn! Duke was something we may never see again.

Baltin: It feels like jazz is enjoying a resurgence in the mainstream. Have you noticed additional interest in this year’s event?

Stoll: That’s an interesting question, I don’t see that. I have worked in jazz every day for three decades, and people have always been interested in it. Kids love to play it, dance to it, and enjoy it. The so-called “mainstream” is a marketing term, so I don’t really think like that. Young people are looking for things of meaning, things that will help them understand the chaos of their modern existence, something that is profound. And jazz can be and is that thing.

Moore: My generation has unbelievable access to music. We’re able to stream hundreds of millions of songs for free. Like other student musicians I know, I take advantage of my access to music and streaming services’ algorithms to find music that I never could have found otherwise. It is important for young musicians and music educators to take advantage of all the music that’s available to include more variety in music education. That’s particularly true for jazz, which teaches ear training and improvisation. The benefits of jazz education, like collaboration and creativity, are about more than musicianship—they transfer into every aspect of life.

Baltin: What is your involvement with this year’s event?

Moore: My composition, “Fallin,” is about resilience, and picking yourself up when you fall. The song alternates between falling down some and getting up some, until it reaches a triumphant ending. It’s an amazing experience to hear the best jazz musicians in the world play something I wrote, and it’s something I’ll remember forever.

by Steve Baltin
Source: Forbes

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