Secrets of greatness: How I work

Fortune magazine choosed 12 highly successful people to share thoughts and advice on how they work and what makes them successful. Wynton Marsalis is amongst them:

Executive summary: Challenge each other — but don’t hold grudges.

You don’t want trumpet players and musicians being your primary business decision-makers. It’s not possible for me to do that and write music, program the season, and conduct the band. I really do let people do their jobs, so when we come together, we know what each is supposed to do. But I weigh in on everything.

Wynton Marsalis interviewed by Fortune Magazine I’ve never sent an e-mail. I have a computer but haven’t plugged it in. I do have a cell phone. I just learned how to text on it. I do everything longhand or talk it out with my staff, and then they type it.

I have to do a lot of other work besides playing and composing — like speeches and fundraising — but everything is for jazz. Even if I’m talking about American culture or American people, it’s really about jazz. So it all goes to what my skill set is. I’m really not an organized person. For me, my philosophy is “Just do it all, all the time.”

I rely on my team. Right now we’re writing a script about Count Basie’s music for a young people’s concert. Phil Schaap, the curator, is responsible for the history element. I explain the music — riffs, breaks, calls and responses, orchestration, short chords — those things I’ve taught many times. We all talk it together, get an outline, and then revise from that.

In terms of managing the Lincoln Center orchestra, we’re part of that continuum of jazz. Our thing is to create the sort of relaxed environment that’s part of our music. Most of us came from jazz people, so we have that in us naturally. There are always tensions that come up. Part of working is dealing with tensions. If there’s no tension, then you’re not serious about what you’re doing.

But there’s a certain warmth in there too, and a familiarity. We challenge each other, we fight, but we don’t have a lot of grudges. The music is about improvising and being able to create new things at the spur of the moment with other people. There’s not a long line of people who can do that in the context of a groove. To find a groove means practice, practice, and more practice. I’m very serious about this.

We rehearse a lot, and everybody comes to rehearsal. And I will send you home if you’re not playing right. Now, I do lose my temper. If the young band members aren’t practicing, aren’t playing right, I will cuss them out. But I’m not volatile. We have the same system of understanding, the music, and a love between each other. It’s a flow.

by Ellen McGirt
Source: Fortune Magazine

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  1. Yes, some of us still maintain our old ways of communicating despite inforamtion technology. I, too, still write letters and even have personalized stationery and even “proper” calling cards (not business card size but the types ladies would sometimes carry). In any case, Wynton seems to be such an old soul. It’s so nice to see that in men these days. And yes, jazz infuses everything; it is always already related to everything bc jazz is no less than life itself…our lived and imagined experiences captured in sound. And you dear Sonalli with a fluttering heart? You make me smile…I remember the days when my heart fluttered and I did not think the motion worthy of a visit to my practitioner.


    Jurzy Girl on Mar 10th, 2006 at 3:27pm

  2. I’ve embraced the computer age, but the art of letter writing will always stay with me. Most artistic types I know feel this way and apparently Wynton is no exception. I like how he acknowledges it takes more than just talent to achieve your success and how individual contributions are key to that goal. It is also interesting how jazz plays such an important role in his everyday dealings. His steadfast passion of jazz is encouraging to anyone pursuing any artistic endeavors. It seems to touch every facet of his life. It would be interesting to sit in on a rehearsal and see that driving force at work.

    Sonalii on Mar 10th, 2006 at 12:46pm