Wynton Marsalis wows with his trumpet

Down a Wellington laneway, tucking into a bowl of ramen noodles, Wynton Marsalis could pass for any visiting tourist.

Off stage without his trumpet and suit, and dressed in a casual sweater and jeans, the 53-year-old who is considered the world’s greatest-living trumpeter is like any other jet-lagged person on the road. After lunch, he wants a long black coffee to get through the rest of the day.

“It’s good,” he says, taking a slurp from the noodle bowl.

Marsalis is pleased to be back in Wellington, a city he describes as a “soulful place” that he first connected with back in 1988 when he came here with a quintet. Last here in 2000 with his Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, the legendary band leader who won a Pulitzer Prize for an oratorio is running a week-long jazz residency here. Over the weekend, the orchestra will play three public performances, including one for schoolchildren.

“The Lord blessed me with these musicians,” he says. “The band has always been good, but for some reason, this band is unbelievable. It’s a luxury to have that much talent in one organisation.”

But it’s surprising to learn that Marsalis is one of four trumpeters and he’s not the lead – that’s Ryan Kisor. Even though Marsalis’ name and lineage is used to promote every orchestra gig, on stage he’s tucked in the back row, alongside the other trumpeters. Many of the jazz soloists and ensemble players gathered here have played together for more than two decades – he has performed with two of the trumpeters for 22 years, while as a child, he hung about with saxophonists Victor Goines and Ted Nash in his hometown of New Orleans. “Our parents played music together. We understood, for them, it was a struggle and a labour of love,” he says.

In fact, you get the sense that even though he’s the best known in the group with the most impressive musical CV, Marsalis actually doesn’t like being the centre of attention. He alludes to this several times in our hour together. “I loved the inclusive side of the ceremony today,” he says, referring to the powhiri welcome.

In his 30-plus year musical career, the thing he rates the most is his ability to connect with others through jazz, and, like a messiah on a mission, to spread the message about the power of that music.

Asked about the highlights of a career that has won him nine Grammys, and a sackful of other awards, commendations and honorary doctorates, he mentions the little moments. Like today, when a man told him that he remembers listening to Marsalis at a jazz masterclass in Wellington back in 2000. The man was at a low point. “I shook his hand and I hugged him. He said that was the day that he needed a hug. That feels special to me.

“I saw my father and jazz musicians hug each other. Men didn’t hug each other back then. But the subculture of jazz, that was a different environment. I grew up in virtual segregation in the south, and my father and them, they had that kind of spirituality from the music, so when someone tells me something like that, that’s a highlight for me.”

His dark brown eyes light up when he talks about his role as a music teacher and education advocate. The Jazz at Lincoln Center, of which he is artistic director, runs 22 different programmes which directly reach 50,000 people a year, and four million others through curricula, print music and online resources. With about two-thirds of its programming aimed at music education, the organisation includes free jazz tuition for high school bands around the United States, while infants and toddlers can start the Webop jazz programme from eight months old.

“My father was a teacher and, if we want to see ascendent change in the world, we have to be engaged in teaching young people what things mean.”

Pulling out his phone, he says he wrote down many notes from the powhiri. “About the respect for tradition, commonality of all people. It’s like a lot of what we teach. It’s what our music is about. I think that if we want to see the type of change that we would like to see in the world, it’s very important that we educate our younger people. How are they going to know? Through jazz, it’s easy. The fundamental values of the music are about respect for individuals and the diversity of individuals that exist.”

Jazz, says Marsalis, has three fundamentals that are a metaphor for democracy – improvisation, swing, and blues. “The blues teaches us to be resilient, that life has many curves and twists for us. If we are teaching those three fundamentals, we are doing a great service to our younger people. In many times, music is not taught like that. It’s taught as a commercial or social thing, or whatever it happens to be.”

Despite his success, has the father of four children had his share of twists and curves? The question seems almost too personal. “Of course. Everyone on earth has. No-one is immune. That’s what being human is. Someone at my age for not to have hard times, even if you just stayed home and dealt with yourself, you’d have hard times. As have many people. I’m sure you have.”

“We’re all successful at different things. Many times success at one thing breeds dysfunction in another. There’s no perfect person or standard. It’s a struggle out there.”

Growing up in New Orleans, Marsalis was inspired to become a musician by his father, Ellis, a jazz pianist legend, whose band leader gave the boy his first trumpet at the age of six. Even though they didn’t make a lot and life was a struggle in the south “at a time of virtual segregation”, the young Marsalis quickly developed a strong work ethic. “I had to practise if I wanted my father to respect me.”

While he spent late nights in clubs with his father from a young age, it was his mother, a social worker, who taught him the most about values. “She believes about respecting the generations, she believes in peace, she believes in expanding human potential.”

The second of six boys, three of his brothers – Branford (a saxophonist), Jason (drummer) and Delfeayo (trombonist) – have also followed musical paths.

He entered the Julliard School at 17, and cut his first album at 19. In 1997, he became the first jazz musician to be awarded the Pulitzer Prize in music for an oratario, Blood in The Fields, about the journey from slavery to freedom. Today, he says: “There’s a bloody history that goes with life, and that history is bloody for all people.”

How does he feel about race relations today, a time when the United States has a black president?

Dangling his chopsticks, he says: “I think we have a long way to go, in the United States and the world. Tribalism, and all these isms, it’s part of the world. To change the consciousness of the world takes a long time. It will happen… but it’s not going to happen because of any elected official. That’s not the answer. We all work towards that, but it’s more than in our lifetime. It’s what we aspire to.”

As part of the New Zealand Festival, Wynton Marsalis and the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra are scheduled to play public concerts on Thursday, March 10, Friday, March 11 and Saturday March 12, along with one for schoolchildren. For more information, see

by Sarah Catherall

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