Wall Street Journal: Jazzy Wynton Marsalis

ACCORDING TO WYNTON Marsalis, jazz “places a premium on originality and individuality.” Personal style has always has been a key element to the genre, to the music itself and beyond. “When people dress well, they play well,” said Mr. Marsalis, 51, in an interview at the gleaming new offices of Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York (JALC). He added with a laugh, “My thing is if we don’t sound good, at least we look good.” To ensure the latter, he’s got a wardrobe of natty suits, and wore a Brooks Brothers gray pinstripe three-piece to our interview (Brooks is the official clothier of JALC).

But it is all the aspects of jazz—style, history, culture—that the virtuoso trumpeter and composer works ardently to preserve. Mr. Marsalis, who was born and raised in New Orleans, has been the artistic director of JALC since he co-founded the nonprofit institution in 1987, and was recently named managing director.

He has also become jazz’s international ambassador. This past fall, he traveled to Doha, Qatar, to unveil the first Jazz at Lincoln Center venue outside New York. (It’s attached to the city’s St. Regis hotel.) He relished the experience, he said, “to use the music for the reason it was born, to bring people closer together.”

To mark JALC’s 25th anniversary this year, Mr. Marsalis worked on a commemorative book called “In the Spirit of Swing,” which chronicles the institution’s quarter century. In February, he will join the JALC Orchestra to perform “Blood on the Fields,” the epic composition that earned him a Pulitzer Prize 18 years ago; this will be the first time the piece is performed in its entirety since then. Despite his achievements, he insists much of what he does is just paying attention to and taking cues from other musicians. “You’re engaged in listening because the people you’re listening to are making it up as they go,” he said. “And you have to follow.”

At first I didn’t want to play trumpet, because I didn’t want that ugly lip. I told my daddy, “Man, the girls aren’t gonna want to see that.” Then, when I was in high school, I realized girls like musicians.

As soon as I could afford a suit I got one. I had a peach leisure suit that was one of the ugliest things you ever saw in the ’70s. And I remember when I was 16 in New Orleans, a guy was throwing two suits out and he called out to me, “Hey man, you want these suits?” One of them was a cream-colored silk suit that I wore ‘til I came to New York. That suit meant a lot.

Duke Ellington always had a style: original, clean with interesting color combinations. He had an artist’s eye.

The trumpet is a very physical instrument. You’re trying to make metal bend, so when you play a lot, it hurts.

You’ve got to warm up, but as a basketball coach of mine used to say: If you have to bounce the ball three times and flip it and twist your arm before a free-throw, it probably means you can’t shoot ‘em.

Musicians like to converse. There’s always interesting conversation with musicians—with classical musicians, with jazz musicians, musicians in general.

I almost never watch TV, except for “60 Minutes” and pro football. I love Drew Brees, the Manning brothers and the Steelers’ linebackers.

One of the greatest books I’ve read is “Endurance,” about Ernest Shackleton.

The greatest concert I ever saw was Betty Carter, in Vienna. She was a great original: the virtuosity, the fire, the freedom of her style. You could tell the audience understood they were in the presence of something great.

I don’t like to fly, so I spend hours in the car when we’re on tour and see the country. My friend Frank Stewart drives me in an Escalade. I don’t get carsick, so I can write music and read. That kind of mental isolation is actually very productive for me.

A big influence when I was young was a trip to Japan. I was 19. It was the music, the haikus, Noh and Kabuki theater—the kinds of things only older people go to these days.

I stay grounded by being very fundamental in my desires. Rather than making something complicated, simplify it.

Most of the music my 16-year-old son listens to is a commercial product. Socially, I think it is relevant, but it’s not that interesting from a musical standpoint.

I’m from the Bayou. I love the Creole folklore, the architecture and of course the food. My mom made the best red beans and rice, gumbo, pecan pies and ribs. She had her own style. Everyone used to tell me, “Man, your mama is doing something different.”

I don’t collect anything. I can’t really hold onto physical things for some reason. It isn’t my thing.

I cut my mustache because my son told me to when he was 10. He said, “Why are you afraid to do something different?” So I cut it, and I kept it off.

My favorite movies are the first two “Godfathers,” for the costumes, the cinematography, the music, the pageantry, the multigenerational scope, the family dynamics. And I like “The Wizard of Oz.” Judy Garland was a kind of genius.

In the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s, there was a different approach to showmanship. I was looking at videos of Cab Calloway. It’s almost like you had to wear the clothes to play the music. [My band] all has different philosophies about it. Most of the time, we wear a jacket and tie. Some guys like it, some guys don’t.

My life is too unstructured for daily routines. I like things kind of unruly. It’s a beautiful thing to be able to ride the wave. A lot of us don’t have that luxury. But I do try to go to bed by 1:30 and get up by seven.

There are many places I’d love to go, but it’s more about the people. I wish I could go to Japan with [bassist] Kengo Nakamura, or just hang in Russia with my man [saxophonist] Igor Butman.

If you’ve got basic manners, you can go into someone’s home anywhere in the world and have a good time.

I like doing two opposite things at once, like trying to get the biggest sound at the softest volume. My son had a great observation about John Coltrane: “He plays with a lot of intensity, but he’s also relaxed.” It’s the same with LeBron [James]. He’s so skilled, but he loves to pass the ball.

My great uncle cut stone for the cemetery in New Orleans. I have a really small stone from him. He engraved on it, “Don’t be discourage.” He ran out of space, so it doesn’t have the last D. But I think it is better that way. It keeps it in the present tense.


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