Wynton Marsalis still pushing the boundaries

Wynton Marsalis hates to fly. Actually, he just prefers it when he can get away with crossing land by car or train.

“Oh, I’ll fly if I have to,” says the famous trumpeter, on his cellphone from the back seat of an automobile heading west from Winnipeg toward an engagement in Calgary. “But if I have the option, I won’t. This way, you get to meet all kinds of people, see different kinds of countryside. Where we are right now, I was just thinkin’ that if you came here in the late 1800s, you had to be pretty serious about survival.”

Marsalis reveals that travel is just one more thing that keeps him coming up with new—and old—ideas.

“There’s so much inspiration out here, in terms of people and experiences, and certainly in terms of the musicians that I play with,” he explains. “There are three or four sources of basic creativity for everyone. One is the sound of our own particular era, that we all share because we grew up in a certain time. Another is the things that came before us, in all categories of art. But the funny thing is that your own imagination is probably the most fertile of all these. First, of course, you have to want to use it.”

Imagination needs to be nurtured, and the Manhattan-based 46-year-old has always been involved in music outreach, both in the public school system, and certainly through his Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, which is constantly spreading the word of Duke Ellington and those that have followed him.

“We’re still in the process of building our institutions,” Marsalis says. “We’re trying to redefine aspects of our culture and utilize this music to lift the spirits of people and do what music is designed to do. So we’re always learning new music, always travelling and performing, always teaching kids, and coming up with new ways to use technology to spread the word of jazz and to inspire and build audiences for the music.”

In recent years, the Pulitzer Prize winner has lent his talents to larger projects, like the 2006 composition Congo Square, a collaboration with Ghanaian drum master Yacub Addy. He has also scored soundtracks for a couple of documentaries on his beloved hometown, New Orleans, in the wake of Katrina. And he’s listed as an executive producer for the upcoming Bolden!, a feature based on the life of influential pre-Satchmo cornetist Buddy Bolden. The trumpeter hasn’t made any straight-ahead Hollywood scores, however.

“I don’t think I’m all that accomplished at that type of thing,” Marsalis notes. “I’m better at writing longer-form pieces or arrangements of songs. I work on a lot of things that never get recorded. I just wrote a mass for the Abyssinian Baptist Church, for their 200th anniversary. I have a symphony I’m working on now for the Boston and Atlanta orchestras, and a piece for Michigan State [University] that combines the orchestra with a jazz band.”

At the other end of the spectrum, Marsalis has a new album and DVD out in July of duets with Willie Nelson. Yes, you read that right: Two Men With the Blues finds the Red Headed Stranger playing his beat-up old Martin guitar behind the dapper trumpet man in a program of beloved jazz standards and Nelson-penned classics.

In + out

Wynton Marsalis sounds off on the things that enquiring minds want to know.

On what to read while crossing Saskatchewan: “I’m reading The Shape of Time, by George Kubler. It’s actually the history of things. It’s based on the perceptions of astronomers and scientists and artists about the difference between tools that have practical applications and works of art, which don’t appear useful but clearly are.”

On Willie Nelson’s rapport with his fans: “He likes travelling the countryside the way I do. People really love him. They recognize his integrity as a musician, and he gets a certain kind of public that’s uncommon. He’s very laid-back—not a lot of words, but profound ones. And, yeah, his tour bus is really nice.”

On the Bush administration’s abandonment of New Orleans: “With Katrina, these guys really showed what they were about. It’s not a government—it’s a kleptocracy.”

“I had a lot of fun playin’ with him. We originally did a benefit together and just really enjoyed that, so we started looking for a way to do a concert together. That cat can really play, man. He’s unique.”

The trumpet star also respects Nelson’s reputation as a leading exponent of crossover music, 1950s-style.

“At the very inception of rock ’n’ roll, there was a coming-together of gospel, blues, and country music,” Marsalis contends. “Ray Charles would be like the physical embodiment of that. And Willie was right there with all of that. He was very close friends with Ray Charles. A few years back, I did a concert with Willie, Ray, B. B. King, Eric Clapton—a lot of blues musicians on one show.”

So, does this mean that the former jazz purist is reconsidering what’s worth playing?

“I think the boundaries have always been looser than even we musicians may realize, at times,” Marsalis says. “Of course, the actuality of music is quite different from the categories dreamed up by marketing people. The history of the music is tweaked to fit whatever narrative fits with selling records, or whatever. But the essence of music is still performing it live.

“When I was a kid in New Orleans, the older musicians always used to say, ”˜Stay with the people,’ ” he recalls. “We do so many different kinds of things, and we try to take the fans with us.

“Of course,” he adds with a laugh, “living in New York, people aren’t shy about coming right up and saying, ”˜You know that one you did last night? That didn’t work.’ But I like that. Music is a conversation, and I always appreciate honesty.”

Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra play the Orpheum Theatre on Friday (June 27), as part of the Vancouver International Jazz Festival.

by Ken Eisner

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