Wynton Marsalis: Interdependent Leadership

Wynton Marsalis, since the early 1980s the most acclaimed jazz artist of his generation, apprenticed with Art Blakey & The Jazz Messengers after hitting the music scene as a double threat trumpeter of American jazz and European concert music. Marsalis has been traveling the world leading his own ensembles for nearly forty years, from small groups to the big band of Jazz at Lincoln Center, for which he serves as the Artistic and Managing Director.

Our focus here is primarily his interdependent, collaborative approach as leader of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. But his significance to American culture—not only to jazz—is so important that in a separate post we’ll dive deep into Wynton as an exemplary model of cultural leadership crucial to address our troubling times.

A Thumbnail Sketch of Jazz at Lincoln Center

I’ve witnessed the development of Jazz at Lincoln Center up close, from the late 1980s when it was a summer program at Lincoln Center—arguably the most significant performing arts organization in the United States. In the 1990s, through the efforts of Wynton, Stanley Crouch, and a powerful Board of Directors, jazz became an institutional constituent of Lincoln Center; in the new millennium Jazz at Lincoln Center built its own $100 million space at the Time Warner Center in Columbus Circle, a few hops and skips from Central Park.

For more background on the development of the largest organization in the world devoted to jazz, I invite you to read my essay published in the academic journal Callaloo in 2002, “The Canonization of Jazz and Afro-American Literature.” My perspective is also informed by my work as a consultant at Jazz at Lincoln Center for 15+ years.

Jazz at Lincoln Center: Foundation Principles

Marsalis, deeply influenced by the blues idiom worldview of Ralph Ellison and Albert Murray, has a perspective on jazz as a continuum of development, the sweep of which encompasses American democratic values in sound. The blues idiom also deeply informs the perspective of this blog site and the Jazz Leadership Project.

Jazz at Lincoln Center, now 33 years old, is deeply dedicated to the proposition of jazz as an art of individual excellence and improvisation, of swing as a fundamental basis for communication with others based on mutual respect, and of the blues as representative of optimism in the face of adversity. When it was just an idea given birth by Alina Bloomgarden, Stanley Crouch, et al., Wynton was the face of a renewed emphasis on the grounding principles and practices of jazz, which he strongly believed had been obscured by some of the living legends of jazz venturing into Fusion music. In general, Fusion de-emphasized the blues and swing in favor of funk, rock, and R&B stylings.

But before Wynton decided to take on the challenge of establishing jazz as an institutional presence at Lincoln Center he visited the “spyglass tree,” Murray’s book-lined Lenox Terrace apartment in Harlem. Murray, in his capacity as a Mentor for Wynton’s heroic adventure, gave him counsel and advice but didn’t “tell me what to do. He gave me clear information,” Wynton recalled in 2001. “We talked four or five hours about it. He laid it out for me, what the meaning of an institution is, what you can do, how. He put it in a context.”

Murray laid out the intellectual foundation of Jazz at Lincoln Center. He explained to Wynton that as an institution, a jazz program at Lincoln Center should have four components: curatorial, archival, educational, and ceremonial. This context and conversation led to Wynton saying a Sacred YES the very next day, accepting the heroic Call to Adventure.

Interdependent, Collaborative Leadership

In a post last week, ““Elevating Leadership Through Collaboration”:,” Jewel Kinch-Thomas made a nuanced vertical distinction among coordination, cooperation, and collaboration. A similar developmental perspective derives from Stephen Covey’s classic The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.

The upward growth pattern from Dependence to Independence is well-known to parents, who strive to nurture dependent children into self-reliant, independent young adults. The “coordinating” approach to management is command-and-control grounded in workers complying and following rules like dependents. Independence establishes boundaries and autonomy; the “cooperation” style of management has autonomous groups working together on projects, yet the autonomy can become separate silos of contention. The Independence phase is followed by a higher octave of development, Interdependence, whereby people and groups who have autonomy realize that to achieve anything great and worthwhile, they must independently depend on each other, as do the rhythm, saxophone, trombone and trumpet sections of a big band such as the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra.

As an instrumentalist, Wynton developed trumpet mastery not only through thousands of hours of practice by the time he recorded his first jazz and classical recordings in 1982 and 1983 respectively, but through the guidance of trumpet teachers John Longo, Norman Smith, George Jansen, and Bill Fielder as a teen. As a professional jazz trumpeter, he was supported and challenged by Roy Eldridge, Clark Terry, Harry “Sweets” Edison, and Dizzy Gillespie. Such guidance was crucial, as his mastery of jazz took longer to manifest than his mastery of the European concert tradition. Of course, the foundational example while growing up was his father Ellis Marsalis, a wonderful pianist and teacher who named his son after the pianist Wynton Kelly.

Wynton’s approach to leadership of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra is informed by an interdependent ethos grounded in his own disciplined work ethic and talent plus his appreciation for the reality that as great as a person may be alone, he or she can become even greater by working in harmony with others.

Behind the Scenes at JALC

Behind the scenes, Marsalis enacts the principles of collaborative, interdependent leadership by example. For instance, he shares arranging duties and distributes authority among the JALC Orchestra members. Although deeply influenced by Ellington’s style of leadership, in which Ellington (and his partner Billy Strayhorn) did all of the arranging and orchestrating, Marsalis circulates decision-making widely across the network of talent in the band.

As the fourth trumpet in the brass section, Wynton defers to the lead of the first trumpet chair. This is crucial to interdependent leadership, as leader-follower roles are fluid in the actual field of work and play. As with the murmuration of starling birds or schools of fish, followers and leaders flex and flow in the groove.

Other band members serve as musical directors of JALCs themed concerts, making decisions on the repertoire to be played as well as which colleagues will handle arranging duties. During the crucial days of rehearsal practice before a live concert, the arrangers of each song take the lead in determining tempo, phrasing, and solo order. Any band member can speak up and make suggestions during rehearsal, and often do.

Marsalis has set a tone of shared and distributed leadership and leaves space for the continued development of the already considerable talents of the JALC big band members. As great artists, each develops their own “each one, teach one” approach to leadership and teamwork also. Wynton co-leads the entire organization with executive director Greg Scholl, who runs the day-to-day staff of the largest jazz organization in the world.

The band members also engage in educational workshops on the road and at home, with the Essentially Ellington high school band competition an annual highlight. As Wynton was schooled by trumpet teachers, his father Ellis, Albert Murray, and by jazz legends, the orchestra members, and JALC’s education department provide an incubator of play and healthy competition for secondary school students.

Wynton exemplifies personal mastery of the jazz and classical music idioms—and cultural and social mastery via an Ellington-like rooted cosmopolitanism, and the practice of interdependent leadership.

Here’s a short video that demonstrates another aspect of Wynton’s ability as a leader: cultural leadership.

by Greg Thomas
Source: Tune In To Leadership

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