Wynton Marsalis: My jazzy New York

He may have been born in the Big Easy, but once Wynton Marsalis hit the Big Apple, there was no going back.
Now 53, the nine-time Grammy-winning trumpeter, composer and artistic director of Jazz at Lincoln Center still marvels at his first sight of Manhattan, when he was 17 and auditioning for Juilliard.

“The energy of all those people, everywhere!” recalls Marsalis, now living in Chelsea. “I got off the cab in the wrong place and ended up walking for blocks with my four trumpets, seeing the sun shoot down over West End Avenue.”

He’ll lead his ensemble in “Birth of the American Orchestra” Jan. 9 and 10 at Lincoln Center’s Rose Theater.
This is his Jazzy New York.

CBS Studio Building
49 E. 52nd St., between Park and Madison avenues

“I used to record there. There were a lot of older engineers there, and when we finished, they’d get out these old recordings — Frank Sinatra’s sessions, and Louis Armstrong trying to teach Lotte Lenya to sing ‘Mack the Knife’ in English…Dizzy Gillespie once told me he moved out to Queens to be near Pops [Armstrong]. One year, on Mr. Armstrong’s birthday, Dizzy stopped by the house. Pops greeted him at the door with a huge smile and a shoe box filled with the best marijuana available. Dizzy declined, saying, ‘But it’s your birthday!’ Mr. Armstrong replied, ‘You can’t get respect if you don’t know how to give it.’”

Village Vanguard
178 Seventh Ave. S., at Greenwich Avenue

“It’s like a shrine, [but] when I first went there, I thought, ‘Is this really it?’ The Mel Lewis Orchestra was playing. I was 17 and I sat in on the last song. It was in D-flat minor, and I didn’t sound good. Earl Gardner was the lead trumpet player, and when I finished playing, he said, ‘Well, you played the part good.’ But this was New York — I understood you had to learn how to play.”

Former jazz club Sweet Basil
88 Seventh Ave. S., at Grove Street

“One night, somebody was talking about me with words I didn’t like, so I went down to the old Sweet Basil’s with my horn to address them. It was Lester Bowie [the late trumpeter who once said of Marsalis, “If you retread what’s gone before, even if it sounds like jazz, it could be anathema to the spirit of jazz.”] It was mainly for fun, not like being on the street or nothin’. I believe there’s nothing better than a good bandstand in common to clarify things. Words are cloudy, but notes and rhythms aren’t.”

Avery Fisher Hall
Lincoln Center

“I played a concert there in the mid- ’80s with singer/actress Pearl Bailey and her husband, drummer Louie Bellson. [They] were married in 1952. Both were embraced by the nation as great performers, but they were also a pioneering interracial couple and had to endure all types of insults…As I was clearing out my dressing room, Miss Bailey presented me with a gift, saying, ‘I wanted you to have this so you could know how it used to be when different groups appeared on shows together…Maybe this will inspire you to revive this tradition.’ To this day, I have never given a gift to a musician on a multiple-bill concert. But it’s never too late to start.”

Former home of Elvin Jones
415 Central Park West, at 101st Street

“Elvin Jones was a drummer, and the anchor for the Coltrane quartet in the 1960s. Sometimes he’d call me at one in the morning and say, ‘Keiko [his wife] has two lobsters here that need to be [eaten].’ I’d stop whatever I was doing and bring him a little cognac in a flask and sneak it to him under the table, because he wasn’t supposed to drink. We’d sit and talk about everything. But mainly, we talked about music…He said, ‘Playing is about giving people the feeling you want them to have, and the challenge is to find what you want to give and then to keep giving it.’”

Central Park
59th Street and Fifth Avenue

“There are always musicians playing — you never know where somebody’s gonna set up. A couple of months before school started [at Juilliard], a bunch of us used to play right across from the Plaza Hotel. It was a brass quintet — a lot of Renaissance music, not that much jazz. We got a lot of tips!”

Brooklyn Academy of Music
30 Lafayette Ave., at Ashland Place

“I did a Young People’s Concert there with David Amram. I love David Amram — he’s so soulful. He reminds me of someone from New Orleans…I also played with Lukas Foss and the Brooklyn Philharmonic. I was, like, 18, and we went on tour and were playing Rachmaninoff’s ‘Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini,’ and the older trumpet guys said, ‘Give the kid this part to play.’ It was mostly whole notes, but one of the most exposed, difficult parts to play. The conductor kept saying, ‘Softer, softer!’”

By Barbara Hoffman
(Source: New York Post)

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  1. Wow! What an amazing collection of experiences. Can’t wait to make my own.

    Preston Canavan on Jan 18th, 2015 at 11:22am