Wynton Marsalis isn’t afraid of the past, or holiday music

At 57, Wynton Marsalis has a lot of jazz in his bones.

Plenty of virtuosos and historians have spent time and energy learning a form, but the trumpeter grew up in one, with a family that was musical, even compared to musical families. Which may explain why it feels like Marsalis is a lot older than 57.

But he has turned his birthright — a youth spent absorbing music in New Orleans — into a mode of creative expression and preservation. As the head of Jazz of Lincoln Center, he has presented all manner of live music programming that speaks to the form’s vast and storied history and cultural value. He also is a composer, recording artist and interpreter.

Which is all to say, Marsalis at this stage in his life could slide lazily into the role of curator, but rather, he prefers to bring his music to listeners. So he plays three shows this week, one in Houston and two not too far outside, all with a holiday theme. His Houston show is one with specific ties. Marsalis has long admired the jazz that comes out of Houston. He references jazz educator Bob Morgan and drummer Eric Harland as just two examples. But he also is doing the show here thanks to Vincent Gardner, a trombonist and founding artist director of Jazz Houston.

Marsalis talked to us about jazz and musical traditions, including holiday music.

Q: I feel like holiday music has its own tradition. Which is an open door to a broader music question. Preservation of the history has always been an important thing for you. Even at the cost of other music forms that criticized you for not acknowledging progress. Take Jelly Roll Morton. He made some recordings. But that’s not how he got started. So your “Mr. Jelly Lord” album was big for me. It was a recent take on something others had been interpreting for years.

A: Yes, I never had this hatred of the past. I knew, for me, we were playing in the present. I think for some people they see the past as a shackle. I never thought that. But I think that is also a conservative way of thinking: That the past is a shackle. I feel like somebody thinks an idea and everybody agrees and we don’t question it. Jelly Roll played music. And if the essence today is the same, why not continue to try to play it? Kids get older and parents die, and both forget grandparents. These cycles of life and death aren’t changing. So I try to embrace all music. I try to keep learning.

Q: Which sounds a lot like the old songsters, who weren’t blues players. Mance Lipscomb is among the most beloved here. But he’d play very different music on a Saturday night and a Sunday morning. And he’d also play very different songs for white and black audiences. He tried to read a crowd, but he wasn’t a “blues” player. He played songs.

A: Right. We need to be able to identify things, but we shouldn’t get stuck there. The problem is the grandfather is not the same as the father who’s not the same as the son. But that doesn’t mean you don’t believe in the experience of the grandfather. We had an interesting show in the hall the other night, Mary Chapin Carpenter playing with her musicians. And I stopped in the room backstage, and everybody was talking about jazz and folk music. And it all comes from the same thing: folk music and jazz. That’s why we are trying to get students to learn folk music and deal with the roots of American music. Blues is in the soil of all that.

Q: You’re doing these Christmas shows, which pull from a long tradition that has a unifying effect through one lens. Do you find the songs to have some relatable quality?

A: Mythology is common. There’s a common mythology. And the holidays are a good time to remind ourselves of that. Christmas reminds us of that. It’s the one time of year where traditional songs and things that used to be are noticed. So it’s like a renewal. Some new songs, but old songs. Classics. And they can live together. … That’s why everybody does it. Gene Autry, Mel Torme, Donny Hathaway.

Q: It’s like the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. I was looking up the members. There are some from predictable hubs like New York, New Orleans and Chicago, but also plenty from the Midwest, England …

A: Yeah, somebody’s from New York, but not everybody is from New York. People tend to come here. New Orleans, people tend to be from New Orleans. But people come from all over interested in jazz. All around the U.S., the Caribbean. The music has a diverse population.

Q: Do you have a favored holiday album or song? I’m intrigued by the reach of Vince Guaraldi because of “A Charlie Brown Christmas.”

A: Hey, I love Vince in general. And if you’re around my age, “Charlie Brown” was the only time you heard jazz on TV. And now, years later, there’s less. (Laughs.) But we all remember that, because he was doing something you didn’t hear anywhere else on television.

by Andrew Dansby
Source: Houston Chronicle

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