His passion for his music is physical. His commitment to it is total. And that’s why jazz’s biggest star is also its hardest-working teacher.

City after city, night after night, it’s the same. The concert ends, the houselights come up. Slowly, as if heeding some selectively intelligible signal, come the kids – how do they always know to come? – one or two to a half dozen, lugging instrument cases.
They make their way backstage, eddies in the exiting tide, advancing on their goal: a shortish 31year-old, resplendent in a jacket-and-slacks number. An exaggeratedly animated group – hangerson, hustlers, friends of the band – already surround him, and the pilgrims stand at a bashful remove. But sooner or later, trumpet in hand, their idol strolls their way. He regards them with a mock formality. “Y’all got some things you want to work on?” And for the next hour, sometimes longer, the finest musician in jazz belongs to the kids.

MEYERHOFF SYMPHONY HALL, Baltimore. Ninety minutes after the Wynton Marsalis Septet has left the stage, its leader is still working. Sharod Molock, 14, steps up, sluggish with fear. Marsalis gives him a sidelong, amused look.
“Man, where’s your horn?” The boy shrugs. “He brought his mouthpiece,” Sharod’s mother volunteers. Someone makes the loan of a trumpet.
“What do you normally play?” Another shrug.
“0.K, play me a G.” Sharod plays a weak, straggly note.
“No, that’s a C,” Marsalis says gently. “Can you play your C-major scale” The boy raises the horn and rips through the scale. Marsalis’s head snaps back in surprise.
“Let me hear your C-sharp-major scale.” Sharod freezes, stumped. Wynton has a feel for the boy’s level now. He can go to work.
“Your F-major scale?” A second smoothly played sequence.
“Man, you got a sound on you, man!” Sharod smiles, though mostly for the benefit of the floor. “But here is what you need to do. If I hear a thousand trumpeters, nine hundred ninety-nine do the same thing. They never take a breath. Now give me that F-major scale. You got a nice tone, but your throat’s closed up.” And Marsalis is off on a brisk 20-minute dissection of Sharod’s fledgling style.

THE MORE WYNTON MARSALIS accomplishes, the greater seems his potential. Since releasing his first record album in 1982, he has fired off 25 more, composing in hotel rooms, recording during the few breaks that a 160-per-year concert schedule permits. Although he says he was born to play jazz, he is a formidable classical trumpeter who turned down a Yale scholarship to attend Juilliard. (He left after a year to join Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers.) Today be makes infrequent forays into classical music, but of his eight Grammy Awards, two are for classical performances. He was the first artist to win classical and jazz Grammys in the same year, in 1984 – a feat he repeated in ’85.

In an era of hype, Marsalis has actually justified his, turning himself from a talented musician into a great one. His trumpet sound has gotten gorgeously fat – sensuous, not martial. He has molded perhaps the best jazz band in the world, of which he is fiercely proud. As a composer, he is plunging into ambitious, extended works – jazz palaces, sunlit and breeze-filled. Once overly cerebral, his music has grown warm and soulful.

Born in New Orleans, birthplace of the music itself, he is the son of Ellis Marsalis Jr., a fine pianist who heads the University of New Orleans jazz program. Four of Dolores and Ellis Marsalis’s six children arc musicians: saxophonist Branford, 32, musical director of The Tonight Show and an eager participant in the pop culture Wynton disparages; Delfeayo, 28, a talented record producer and trombonist; 16-year-old drummer Jason; and Wynton. For Ellis, playing jazz and teaching it were always inseparable parts of one pursuit – nurturing a fragile tradition. Taking the precept to heart, Wynton at 17 was already visiting schools with his horn. Today he spends more time than ever with kids – the future of jazz, if it is to have one.

The great, sweet, thorny tradition of jazz, the 100-year-old music of Armstrong, Ellington and Coltrane, is in rough shape, buffeted bv the latest pop music styles. Last year jazz albums made up only 4 percent of America’s record sales. To lose jazz, saw Marsalis, would be to lose the noblest art America has produced, a mirror of the nation’s soul. Not only docs jazz interpret our lives, he says, it can guide and instruct, too. For Marsalis, to learn the craft of jazz is to become a better person.

“What a kid learns from playing jazz is how to express his individuality without stepping on somebody else’s. The first thing I tell kids is, ‘Play anything you want, but make it sound like you. The next step is learning to control that self-expression. Don’t just blurt something out; adapt it to what the other guy is doing. Being a good neighbour, that’s what jazz is about. Jazz is democracy in action.”

America’s kids, he says, are culturally malnourished, narcotised by the flicker of TV and rap music’s thud. By exposing them to jazz, he hopes to pique their hunger for more nourishing fare. He’s also offering himself us a role model, au example of how work pays off. “Kids always ask, how were you discovered?’ and I say, ‘Man, when I discovered the practice room.’ You won’t get nowhere without sweat.”

Slowly, Marsalis is shifting his one-man pedagogical offensive into overdrive. Since December of 1992 he has given four Jazz for Young People shows at Lincoln Center. Inspired by Leonard Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts of the ’50s and ’60s, Marsalis’s series is a milestone in the demystification of jazz for kids (and their parents). In four children’s concerts to be taped at the Tanglewood Music Center in 1994, he will explore topics like “How to Practice” and “What Is a Jazz Band?” The concerts will be telecast and released on video. In the autumn of 1994 National Public Radio will introduce Making the Music with Wynton Marsalis, a 26-part series on jazz’s place in American culture, which he is hosting and cowriting. Other projects are under way: establishing a canon of essential jazz compositions for student orchestras; a college-level jazz textbook; a TV series with a house band made up entirely of kids; a CD-ROM kit.

Teenagers troop in and out of his West Side Manhattan apartment, track him down at hotels.
“You’d figure that a person of his stature would be stuck-up,” says the Marsalis Septet’s 21year-old tenor saxophonist, Walter Blanding Jr. “But he takes the time to rap with everybody. He’s really helped me go from boyhood to young manhood.”

More than 40 times a year, Marsalis visits primary schools, high schools, colleges. The occasion might be a lecture for 300 or a master class for four. The heart of his teaching effort, these are working visits, not celebrity appearances. “If there is one thing these kids are gonna know when I’m through with ‘em,” he said before a recent primary-school visit “it’s that the blues has twelve bars.” And if after his 45 minutes of boogie-woogie piano playing, fancy trumpeting, coaxing and mass interrogating! (“How many bars does the blues have, y’all?” “TWELVE”), if after such thunder 300 six-to 11-year-olds in Tuscaloosa, Ala., do not carry the structure of the blues to their graves, it won’t be for their guest’s lack of trying.

“Teaching is a big part of life,” Marsalis says. “It was a big thing my daddy would do, teach me how to play chess. And I love teaching my own kids things.” (He has two boys, Wynton Jr., five, and Simeon, three. Although separated from their mother, Candace Stanton, Marsalis sees them every day he’s off the road.)

“What I am is an accessory to teachers and parents, a catalyst, but that’s all I am. I’m not there long enough to be an everyday worker.” Yet 10 minutes of his attention, as he knows, can have a powerful effect on a teenager. Seneca Black, 15, a trumpeter from Lake Ariel, Pa., showed up at an April workshop at Lafayette College and blew the college kids away. “Man, you came to play,” said Marsalis. “You have a definite disposition toward swing.” Black already knows he wants to play professionally; the boost from Marsalis helps. “It makes you want to try harder, to be the best,” he says.

Not every kid is so responsive. “I’ve gotten all kinds of terrible receptions,” Marsalis says, “because I go to the worst schools as well as the best,” schools where he’s been warned to remove his watch, to avoid wearing rival gangs’ colors. “Those are some hardheaded kids. They don’t listen. They’ll get up and curse you. But inner-city kids are no more ignorant about American culture than kids in the suburbs. I go to white schools, and maybe there’s a better science program, but the music department will be just as sad, the kids just as hard to reach. Every kid you touch can go home and turn the TV or the radio on, and in twenty minutes of that crap, your work is gone.

“But I’m an optimist, man. I know I’m having an effect. It might not be that great an effect. But it’s a whole lot better than nothing, and that’s the truth.”
When he landed in the public eye, lashing out at pop music and jazz-rock fusion, Marsalis was seen as a young fogy – personally stuffy, musically conservative . (Neither judgment was fair, though a cocky 21-year-old’s provocative overstatements helped get him miscast.) He’s an incorrigible flirt, a nonstop boaster about his basketball game, vain about his nice looks, and he’d rather die than admit defeat in an argument. But “stuffy’‘ is not a word that applies.

Nor, he insists, is he a musical conservative. “It’s obvious I’m a radical and always was. If I was a conservative, I would’ve done what everybody was doing in 1981: make a fusion album. What! did was play actual jazz.”
Yet in 1981 Marsalis was only feeling his way. As his knowledge of jazz deepened, his ideas about it slowly acquired the simplicity of all genuine innovation. Until Marsalis, jazz musicians, compulsively seeking novelty, had forged their styles in rebellion against their immediate forebears. But to reject the past automatically, Marsalis says, is to deafen oneself to its riches. “Art isn’t an automobile. It doesn’t get outmoded. It deals with the human soul.”

His audacious goal is to write and play music that embraces the historical sweep of jazz. Nobody (except Duke Ellington, who embodied the sweep of jazz, and, perhaps, Charles Mingus) has attempted this. No one has had the knowledge – until now. If Marsalis succeeds, it will be by virtue of the same hard-earned depth that makes him such a good teacher.
“It’s not true that at bottom I’m a great trumpet player; at bottom I’m someone who understands what jazz is. That’s why I can teach. I know what jazz is, and I can communicate that knowledge. That is my true strength.”

… “SO REMEMBER,” MARsALIS tells young Sharod, “air is your power. The way blood runs through your veins, never stopping, that’s how I want you to conceptualize your airflow. Do you know what ‘conceptualize’ means? I want you to think about how the air leaves your body and flows through that horn, how the notes are just riding on that air.”

Marsalis puts a hand on the boy’s shoulder. “Now is the time to get serious, man. Now, while you’re young. ‘Cause if you don’t, you’re not going to get better, you’re just going to get older.”
It’s midnight. Wynton Marsalis, having pulled into his hotel at two, and rehearsed a new band member, and rushed to the hall, and given a concert, and signed a hundred autographs, and kissed at least that many female cheeks, and listened, hard, to six young trumpeters – at midnight Wynton Marsalis, trumpet in hand, looks around the stage.
“Anyone else?”

By Tony Scherman
Source: LIFE

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