Q&A: Wynton Marsalis talks jazz and democracy ahead of return to central Ohio

It’s been close to two years since jazz icon Wynton Marsalis last performed in Greater Columbus.

Much has changed in the interim.

In March 2021, the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, led by trumpeter Marsalis, gave a pandemic-era performance in the Lincoln Theatre. The show, which took place without a live audience, was streamed on JAG TV, the digital performance platform of the Jazz Arts Group.

These days, live crowds again fill area theaters — and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra is back in central Ohio to greet them.

As part of its current national tour, the acclaimed ensemble will give a concert at 8 p.m. Feb. 7 in the Midland Theatre in Newark.

In a recent phone interview with the Dispatch, Marsalis, a 61-year-old native of New Orleans, discussed the upcoming concert, how he first came to play the trumpet and the connection between democracy and jazz.

Do you remember the concert two years ago at the Lincoln Theatre, without a live audience?

We were playing throughout COVID. It’s always important to keep things going, no matter the circumstance, so I was proud and happy to be there to be a part of the community.

It must be nourishing to have live feedback from audiences again.

It’s nourishing. It was nourishing then, too. It was nourishing playing online. It’s communicating with people in either case.

When you put a program together, is there a certain amount of picking and choosing of what you’ll play on a given night?

Exactly, and what we think we’ll play well. We go with what will sound the best. And sometimes we have themes. (In this concert), we have a lot of original music from the “Rock Chalk Suite” to give you a diversity of music. Stuff from different eras, contemporary music that we’re writing, stuff that was written not that long ago — a few weeks ago.

What is the “Rock Chalk Suite”?

It was commissioned by the Lied Center at the University of Kansas. We did a suite of pieces for the legends of Kansas basketball. We played it live. We even had the (basketball) announcer come announce the band at the gig. And then we recorded it in our hall, and some of the basketball players who were part of the commission came to the recording. (Basketball player and University of Kansas alum) Lynette Woodard came. I love her. She was the first female professional basketball player (to play with) the Harlem Globetrotters. How we knew in New Orleans about somebody playing in Kansas, don’t ask me. She was known. Her game was on such a high level.

Talking about your youth in New Orleans, I’ve always wondered how you ended up playing the trumpet.

My father (jazz pianist Ellis Marsalis Jr.) played with Al Hirt, who was a great New Orleans trumpet player. He had some national hits; he actually played on the first Super Bowl. Al gave me a trumpet for my sixth birthday, and because I was able to get a free instrument, I played trumpet.

But it was some years later until you devoted yourself to the instrument, right?

I didn’t want to play trumpet because I didn’t want to get a scar on my lips. All of those New Orleans trumpet players had ugly lips, man. A girl would definitely not like me if I’m looking like that.

You lost your father in April 2020. Has that affected your playing?

I’m 61. I’m grandfather age. I don’t know — probably. I loved my father. My father didn’t make a big deal out of stuff. He was very cycle-oriented, just the cycle of life. He accepted stuff. You know, you’re playing and your life changes. I think the pandemic changed all of us, so I’m sure all of our play changed.

When (the orchestra) sits down together as a band, we’re all trying to play, and we try to impress each other. We work with each other, and we have a very close bond. It’s very unusual. We’ve been together that long, and now we have some younger members who are slowly going to come in.

How do you keep jazz relevant to younger audiences?

It’s like, how do you keep democracy relevant? If you’re a democracy and you can’t figure out how to make your form of government relevant to your younger people, shame on you. I always think of Abraham Lincoln deciding to hold an election in the middle of the Civil War, even though everybody told him he would lose that election. I think, “Damn, you had to believe in this idea.” A national art form (jazz) is not a thing that has to be constantly assessed every decade. Sometimes you get decades where people are not educated in what their national identity is. What do you do then to make your art relevant? You become more connected to what makes it actually relevant.

In other words, like democracy, jazz has an intrinsic value.

When things have intrinsic value, you accept that they have value.

When you’re not performing, do you only listen to jazz? And if not, what else do you listen to?

I like all kinds of music. For me, the only thing is electronic music is challenging for me, only because when I hear electronics playing, there’s not really a consciousness in the sound that I can relate to. I put on a thing of all bebop the other day. I was just listening to bebop language. There’s so much music to listen to. I was listening last night to old versions of “John Henry,” the folk song. One of them is by Aaron Copland.

After this tour, what’s coming up for you and the orchestra?

We’ll have an album called “The Jungle,” which is a piece that was commissioned by the New York Philharmonic. It’s going to come out with us and the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra — a great job they did over in Australia. We also have a series of portraits of America. We each wrote music for Crystal Bridges (Museum of American Art). We each chose artwork that related to us, and we wrote a joint piece.

At a glance

The Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis will perform at 8 p.m. Feb. 7 in the Midland Theatre, 36 N. Park Place, Newark. Tickets start at $35. For more information, visit

by Peter Tonguette
Source: The Columbus Dispatch

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