Wynton Marsalis: The Once and Future King of Jazz at Lincoln Center

OH Lord,” Wynton Marsalis cried from the stage of the Apollo Theater. “Oh Lord,” he repeated, in an unsteady but soulful voice. “What have I done?”

Hollering the blues, backed by a tambourine and twangy acoustic guitar, Mr. Marsalis was a study in contradictions. He was invoking rustic folk traditions while attired in a Brooks Brothers tuxedo and white tie. And he was sounding a note of abject despair while basking in the glow of 1,400 admirers, some of whom had paid as much as $2,500, as part of the fifth annual spring gala of Jazz at Lincoln Center.

Mr. Marsalis is the only living jazz musician who can reliably generate this kind of hoopla. In the 25 years since his dramatic leap into the spotlight, he has achieved the cultural celebrity of Duke Ellington. Or, perhaps more accurately, Leonard Bernstein, since Mr. Marsalis, too, is a lovingly adopted New Yorker who serves as global emissary for the music he loves and the institution he leads.

His official title with Jazz at Lincoln Center is artistic director, but that significantly understates his role in its origins and day-to-day operations. He was the driving force behind its inception, and he has a hand in everything from corporate relations to the curriculum for WeBop, a jazz program for preschoolers. “There’s nothing he doesn’t touch,” says Lisa Schiff, chairwoman of Jazz at Lincoln Center’s board of directors. “There’s not a part of our organization he’s not involved in.”

As a result Jazz at Lincoln Center can sometimes look like a solo performance rather than an ensemble effort. Which raises a question that no one, including the effortlessly charming Mr. Marsalis, seems eager to engage: Could the institution function without him?

The question came into sharper focus this year, when a rumor spread through jazz circles that he had sustained a lip injury serious enough to end his career as a trumpeter. That’s an unthinkable prospect for Jazz at Lincoln Center, partly because of the psychological effect it could have on Mr. Marsalis, a former prodigy, and partly because of the credibility that the institution has always derived, in large part, from his musical prowess. For a moment it was possible to imagine that the entire edifice of Jazz at Lincoln Center, including its new $128 million home on Columbus Circle, was balanced, figuratively speaking, on that lip. The spring gala marked Mr. Marsalis’s public return to playing after a forced hiatus. But his most important exertion that evening had nothing to do with his horn.

At a postconcert banquet, he worked his way through a cavernous dinner tent, gliding comfortably among the 75 tables to stamp the fund-raising effort with a personal touch. Spike Lee got a collegial hug; Glenn Close, a few minutes of conversation. Many others got a walk-by shoulder squeeze. Photographers would capture Mr. Marsalis in a panoply of scenes: on a red carpet with Joe Cocker, Natalie Merchant and John Mayer. Striking a rakish pose with Bruce Lundvall, the chief executive of his label, Blue Note. Clasping hands, earnestly, with Kenneth I. Chenault, the chief executive of American Express.

IN May of 1986 Lincoln Center’s Committee for the Future issued a report that concluded in part: “No compelling case can be made for adding a new constituent in an area like jazz.” (In other words, jazz could be a visitor at Lincoln Center but not sit at the table.) The following summer Mr. Marsalis, who had already played Haydn with the Philharmonic, was tapped to organize a concert series devoted to jazz: not a permanent addition to Lincoln Center’s portfolio, but an experiment nonetheless. Its success prompted the formation of another committee, headed by the lawyer Gordon J. Davis, a board member, and including Mr. Marsalis, the scholar Albert Murray and the writer Stanley Crouch. This committee came to a rather different conclusion: Lincoln Center should establish a permanent jazz program.

“There were people on the board of Lincoln Center who thought this was nuts,” Mr. Davis recently said. “The odds were 90 to 1 that we had any chance at all. Do you have any idea how hard it was to raise money for jazz in the late 80’s?”

It was hard, but the committee had a killer app: Mr. Marsalis, with his bright charisma and unimpeachable credentials. “His being a very highly respected concert musician had a lot to do with his being taken seriously,” Mr. Crouch said.

Of Mr. Marsalis and his organization, Kurt Masur, the former musical director of the New York Philharmonic, recently said: “You cannot divide them. Wynton alone can make his career as a trumpet player, but I think everybody knows the historical point of having Jazz at Lincoln Center.”

In addition to his personal assets, Mr. Marsalis was armed with a big idea: that jazz is a model of democratic action, and a prism through which American culture can be understood. This notion, first articulated to him by Mr. Murray and Mr. Crouch, has since been advanced by Jazz at Lincoln Center with the fervor of religious dogma and the adaptability of a political agenda. It served as a central conceit of “Jazz,” the 2001 Ken Burns PBS mini-series that spotlighted Mr. Marsalis not only as a commentator but also as a savior of the tradition. To a certain extent this has become the official story of jazz in the public sphere.

Certainly it has been propagated through Jazz at Lincoln Center’s educational wing, which, working with the National Endowment for the Arts, recently developed a Web-based curriculum that places jazz at the center of a discussion of American history. (It is accessible, free of charge, at

A similar though less pedagogical message is routinely disseminated through “Jazz at Lincoln Center Radio,” a program carried weekly by more than 240 public radio affiliates with the CBS News correspondent Ed Bradley, a longtime member of the Jazz at Lincoln Center board, as host. Mr. Marsalis tapes a separate satellite radio show, “In the Swing Set,” at an XM studio in Rose Hall.

“We are preaching the gospel of jazz,” Mr. Bradley said recently, though he stopped short of comparing Mr. Marsalis to a spiritual leader. “Wynton is the face of Jazz at Lincoln Center,” he said. “But he’s also involved in the nuts and bolts of being an artistic director, presenting a year’s worth of material at a time. And I’ve always been impressed with his willingness to go almost anywhere and do almost anything if he thinks he can raise a dollar for Jazz at Lincoln Center.”

In religion (and politics), but rarely in jazz, raising money and spreading a message are often part of the same outreach, especially when a force of personality is involved. It became clear which model Jazz at Lincoln Center has adopted during a lunch interview in Midtown with Katherine E. Brown, the organization’s executive director, and Ms. Schiff, the chairwoman of the board.

Ms. Schiff recalled the conversation with Mr. Marsalis that sparked her involvement with Jazz at Lincoln Center. “Wynton spoke to me specifically about the difference this music can make in our society,” she said. “He has a way of getting under your skin.”

Ms. Brown agreed: “He feels a responsibility to bring its message to the world.” She described Mr. Marsalis as “very, very active” in fund-raising for the organization.

Jazz at Lincoln Center has 105 full-time staff members, at least a dozen interns and more than 400 part-time employees, not to mention the roughly three-dozen members of its powerhouse board. These are often the people who first reach out to potential donors and corporate sponsors, which include Altria, Bank of America, Cadillac, Coca-Cola and Brooks Brothers.

“Once you’ve made that decision that the Jazz at Lincoln Center brand really can work well with your brand, Wynton’s power as the spokesperson — the front man, if you will — for Jazz at Lincoln Center really kind of takes on a life,” said Michael Valerio, Cadillac’s liaison with the organization. “He has a genuine interest in what you want to try to accomplish and how the relationship works.” As for the breadth of his company’s current involvement, “It’s 95 percent a function of my feeling and respect for Wynton,” who has shot hoops with Mr. Valerio and his youngest son backstage at Rose Hall.

“It’s a dog and pony show,” said Ms. Schiff, who often brings Mr. Marsalis on fund-raising calls. “Nobody sells it better.”

ON the last day of June, Mr. Marsalis left his Columbus Circle office and walked a few blocks to his apartment on West 66th Street. He took a familiar route, skirting the southern border of Damrosch Park and then the western edge of the Lincoln Center campus. Every security guard and garage attendant he passed was ready with a salutation, which he returned. “All right now,” he called out, more than once.

Mr. Marsalis’s apartment is impressive without feeling opulent, a perch with comfortable furnishings and a view of the Hudson River. He took some tea in the living room, sitting at first on a couch under a framed illustration of Ellington. But within 10 minutes he was at the piano in a corner of the room, sifting through notebooks to locate a preparatory sketch from a recent evening-length composition, “Congo Square.”

Eventually he found it, focusing on an intricate cluster of ensemble figures, cross-voiced between different sections of the orchestra. “I always write out a form, and express it from a human standpoint,” he said. “And this ties in actually to what you have to do to deal with the running of an organization.” On the page opposite the outline, there was a list of timely questions for the Jazz at Lincoln Center board.

Mr. Marsalis is serious when he likens jazz to management. Next month he will appear at the third annual World Business Forum at Radio City Music Hall, alongside Bill Clinton and Jack Welch, to present a lecture titled “Innovation and Jazz: Going Beyond Fundamentals to Create Value.” It hardly seems coincidental that the coming season of Jazz at Lincoln Center carries the theme “Innovations in Jazz,” a mandate some critics have accused him of slighting in the past. (One of his talking points at the forum is “Improvisation has its rules.”)

Eager to prove that his role in Jazz at Lincoln Center is not excessively large, Mr. Marsalis retrieved an internal document enumerating most of the staff’s responsibilities. Each task had a sequence of initials beside it, indicating all the people involved in its execution. At the top of the first page, he read off the artistic director’s obligations: “Select music. Program artists. Rehearse orchestra. Play concerts. Conduct education events. Write arrangements. Publicity obligations. Development. Oversee recordings. Write Young People’s Concerts. Interact with various departments on strategic issues. Create new ideas that invigorate our organization.” The big stuff.

Then Mr. Marsalis flipped through page after page of subsidiary obligations, the stuff that does not, presumably, require his personal involvement. But there, too, the initials W. M. appeared seemingly hundreds of times. “They have me in there more than I thought,” he mumbled, scanning the list. “I don’t remember myself being in there that much.”

He recovered quickly. “I want you to notice how many other people are on this. I’m in there, yes. But let’s say we go down those things.” He began to tick off dozens of tasks for which he has oversight but little practical involvement. “ ‘Concert marketing,’ maybe they have a meeting with me and I tell them what the concerts are. ‘Venue signage’? No. ‘Web site’? I haven’t even seen the Web site yet. One of the things I’m proud of is that I don’t know how to turn a computer on. All of this stuff goes on without me.”

Nonetheless when the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra traveled to Vitoria-Gasteiz, in the Basque country of Spain last month to perform “The Vitoria Suite,” it was Mr. Marsalis, the suite’s composer, who was honored with a life-size bronze statute of his likeness.

After the concert Mr. Marsalis joined a late-night jam session in the crowded lobby of his hotel. The following morning there were video clips of this scene on, and they confirmed some good news: Mr. Marsalis’s lip is nearly back in shape. He’s wearing his glasses and a black T-shirt bearing the slogan “ReNew Orleans,” a reminder of one cause that hit close to home.

A couple of weeks later he was back in New York, and in a suit (yes, Brooks Brothers) for a staff meeting. “We are reinvigorating ourselves,” he reported afterward. “We see what we have to do, and we are rededicating ourselves to our vision and our mission. We are streamlining everything that we do, we are becoming supremely efficient, we are working overtime.”

Since the construction, against enormous odds, of Rose Hall, the group had made some financial strides. The biggest success story is Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola, Rose Hall’s smallest space, which was projected to operate at a deficit but began to sustain itself financially after a year. “It’s paying its own internal rental, paying the artists, paying the cost of advertising, staffing costs, the sound man,” said Todd Barkan, the club’s artistic manager. “And in the context of the institution, that’s an enormous achievement.”

But there is a sense of urgency within Jazz at Lincoln Center as it heads into its third season in its new home. “We raised $131 million for the building,” Ms. Brown said. “That was a real stretch for our organization, and it’s a testament to the strength and energy of the board, and Wynton’s effort. Now we need to shift our focus to the issue of maintaining it.” She cited the budget for this next season, $36 million. “The challenges of keeping the operation going are much, much greater than before.”

“At every board meeting it’s like a wake-up call, what you have to do,” Mr. Bradley of CBS News confirmed. This season’s effort involves the second season of the Middle School Jazz Academy; the addition of Hipsters, a jazz course for infants as young as eight months; and a season dense with concerts, including a commission by Derek Bermel for the American Composers Orchestra with its jazz counterpart.

Of course Mr. Marsalis, who for the next few days is presiding over a cultural celebration in New Orleans, will crop up often in the new season. From the looks of it he’ll be playing a lot of trumpet. But he’ll be working even harder behind the scenes: raising funds, rallying troops and perhaps even setting the changes, so to speak, for an eventual successor.

“Institutions keep going,” said Mr. Marsalis, on his living room couch, when asked what Jazz at Lincoln Center would do without him. “I’ve been a part of this one since the beginning. It’s been guided more or less on my vision. So naturally they say: ‘What are we going to do?’ ” He flashed a mischievous smile. “We’ll do something. We always do.”

by Nate Chinen

Source: The New York Times

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