Wynton Marsalis on Preserving the Sanctity of Jazz

Scratch a jazz artist and underneath you’ll find solid musical training coupled with an innate sense of improvisation that combines to create the often explosive expression characterizing America’s authentic musical art form. Dig a little deeper and you’ll uncover the rich musical continuum stemming from the origins of jazz to modern day practitioners that keep the musical culture alive.

At least that’s the case with trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, and woe to those who confuse the integrity of jazz with its perceived decline in popularity. “My father [Ellis Marsalis] was a jazz musician, and I learned that things with great value are not always popular,” says Marsalis, recipient of 10 Grammy Awards and the only Pulitzer Prize for Music awarded to a jazz artist. “Things come around in cycles, and you should never discard those things because they decline in popularity.”

These days, Marsalis makes his jazz mark playing and serving as managing and artistic director of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra—a 15-player ensemble now in its 30th year that revisits the big band sound central to jazz’s legacy. JLCO makes a stop on its current tour on Wednesday, Oct. 11 at Milwaukee’s Marcus Center for the Performing Arts. “We play the entire history of jazz from all periods until now, with improvisers in every position,” says Marsalis. “When I was debating if I wanted to play with a big band or not, it was Dizzy Gillespie who told me that one should never consider it an achievement to lose one’s orchestral music. That’s what helped me decide.”

JLCO was originally formed with former members of the Duke Ellington Orchestra and Marsalis’ own septet. The orchestra has the largest playable repertoire in jazz today, Marsalis says, performing works by Ellington, Count Basie, Fletcher Henderson, Thelonious Monk and others, as well as commissioning new works from contemporary composers. “It comes down to us to keep the culture alive, and we play so much music that I see it as an evolution of the art form,” Marsalis says. “One of its tendencies says that all jazz is modern, which means what you wrote yesterday is as contemporary as what Jelly Roll Morton wrote.”

As a New Orleans-area native, Wynton Marsalis had access to jazz culture through his pianist father, who played in trumpeter Al Hirt’s orchestra. But the genre didn’t permeate life on the streets as jazz fans often assume, the trumpeter says. “In my neighborhood growing up, people rarely talked about jazz or jazz players, including Louis Armstrong, who was from New Orleans,” Marsalis says. Nevertheless, Marsalis followed the jazz muse, embracing the trumpet largely because he received a hand-me-down horn from Hirt, “and there was a rule that you played the instrument you were given,” he explains.

Over time, Marsalis rose to the top of the pecking order, giving what other performers describe as a “legitimacy” to jazz that helps it stand up to competition from other musical genres. “Jazz is an art form, and we constantly have to contemplate it, learn from it, be more creative and infuse it with sophistication,” Marsalis says. “We don’t want to move away from it every time the breeze blows in a different direction.”

Two of Marsalis’ 10 Grammys were for recordings of classical compositions by Wolfgang Mozart, Joseph Haydn and others. He sees a lot of crossover between the classical and jazz genres—if not in style then in technique and structure. “Western classical music is part of the foundation of jazz,” he explains. “Both have the sophistication and virtuosity of performance. They also both have development sections in which a theme is stated, taken through different keys and variations and then asks the listener to follow along. But as jazz musicians, we have to swing first,” he adds.

Marsalis takes a more conservative stance when it comes to the evolution of jazz and, in particular, those artists who stray from basic structure and style. The music they play isn’t bad, he admits, but some of it just isn’t jazz.

“When something tries to find its next generation by sacrificing all of its values, then it is no longer itself, and that’s a challenge,” Marsalis says. “If I can be a next generation basketball player by not dribbling, then it certainly would be easier. But it wouldn’t be basketball.”

by Michael Muckian
Source: Shepherd Express

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