Prolific Jazz Renaissance Man

Prolific Jazz Renaissance Man

Wynton Marsalis with The Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra at the Schuster

By Khalid Moss

Return with me, young readers, to the hippy-dippy ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s when cell phones, I-Pads or Twitter accounts did not exist. In other words, when jazz was king.

In Dayton, back then, you could visit four or five jazz clubs on a weeknight. If you owned a horn, saxophone mystic Bobby Miller would welcome you on stage at the Apollo Club on West Third Street. Across town, clandestine lovers sipped rum and Coke and grooved to the sweet organ sounds at the Golden Eye on North Gettysburg Avenue.

Occasionally a national artist would drop into town. Saxophone ace Stanley Turrentine and organ guru Brother Jack McDuff held court at the Jet Port Lounge on Germantown St: the last stop on the chittlin circuit.

More adventurous listeners flocked to Gilly’s on North Main to check out Herbie Hancock’s new band or to heed Charles Mingus as he glowered over his bass fiddle.

Since those melancholy days, jazz has been dying a slow death. The dedicated jazz radio stations have disappeared and jazz is being eviscerated, made more palatable, by the addition of oozy huffs of a sax and an inflexible backbeat.

But there is a jazz musician who has dedicated his musical and professional life to the education, perpetuation and appreciation of America’s Black Classical music. His name is, and you must have heard of him, Wynton Marsalis.

Wynton Marsalis and the latest iteration of his Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra will perform in Dayton at the Schuster Center, April 25 at 8p.m. The concert is sponsored by Cityfolk as part of its ongoing Jazz Series.

As jazz musicians go, Marsalis has led a charmed life. If you look at his past, you won’t discover periods of poverty, homelessness or drug abuse: the usual occupational hazards for music makers. Son of a famous pianist, teacher and mentor, Ellis Marsalis, Wynton is second oldest in a truly remarkable family that includes older brother Branford who plays saxophone, Delfayo, a trombonist, sister Mboya and drummer Jason.

A graduate of Benjamin Franklin High School in New Orleans, Wynton is a true product of his environment. He was the youngest musician admitted to the prestigious Tanglewood Berkshire Music Center where he won the Harvey Shapire Award for outstanding brass player. After moving to New York City and enrolling at the Julliard School of Music, he received a grant from the National Endowment to study with trumpet legend Woody Shaw who died tragically in a subway incident in 1989.

Marsalis appeared on the jazz scene seemingly fully formed. No late-night uptown gigs for him. In 1980, fresh out of Julliard, he joined the Jazz Messengers led by drummer Art Blakey. The rest is history.

In researching this story, I, of course, wanted to interview Marsalis.

But frequent queries to the Marketing Director of the Lincoln Center Jazz operation were met with the disappointing news that Wynton was too busy preparing for his concert tour. “Wynton is in the midst of rehearsals and preparations for concerts he’s performing in through the weekend,” I was told by the Marketing Director. “I’m afraid it’s going to be a challenge to get him to focus on questions for some time.”

Fine.

But there are other ways to crack the Templar Code. I decided to paint an inside picture of Marsalis and the Orchestra. And who could provide a more vibrant palette than a member of the band?

Saxophonist Ted Nash is one of the most active composers and arrangers in the ensemble. The orchestra has recorded and released music specifically written for the band by him. Nash was born in Los Angeles, California to a musical family. He exploded onto the jazz scene at the tender age of eighteen, moved to New York City and recorded his first album on the Concord Jazz label. He is one of the co-leaders of the Jazz Composers collective. We wondered how he met Marsalis.

“I actually met Wynton a few times in the ‘80s,” recalled Nash. “It was usually in passing at a jazz festival. I always wanted to play with him but he had no idea who I was. In the mid ‘90s I was recording “Portraits in Blue” with (pianist) Marcus Roberts and writer Stanley Crouch brought Wynton to the session. One of the things he heard me play was the clarinet intro to “Rhapsody in Blue.” Marcus asked me to stretch out on this cadenza and put a little blues on it. Wynton turned to Stanley and asked, “man, who is that playing clarinet? He sounds good.” After that he called me to tour and record with his own band for a project. A couple of years later, a chair in the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra opened up and he asked me to join.”

Since 1980, Marsalis has been a busy man. He has performed with Sarah Vaughn, Dizzy Gillespie, Sonny Rollins, Herbie Hancock and countless other jazz legends. In 1995, PBS premiered Marsalis on Music, an educational television series on jazz and classical music hosted and written by Marsalis. That same year, National Public Radio aired the first of Marsalis’ 26-week series titled “Making the Music.” Both series received Peabody Awards.

The Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra was formed in 1987 and in July 1996 was installed as a permanent constituent of Lincoln Center. He currently serves as Artistic Director for Jazz at Lincoln Center and Music Director for the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra. Marsalis is the only jazz musician to be awarded Grammy Awards (nine) and the Pulitzer Prize for Music.

Nash said the orchestra has a singular sound that he tries to replicate in his arrangements.

“A successful arrangement is one that takes into account the strengths of the players in the ensemble,” explained Nash. “We in JLCO, we are very lucky in that we have an opportunity that many bands don’t have to get to know each other very, very well. We spend months out of the year together. For a composer/arranger this is a luxury, a privilege as you gain insight to the musicians’ abilities and personalities that others outside the band couldn’t possibly do.”

Nash continues, “I think that’s one of the reasons we have such great arrangers in the band. Ten of us contribute to the repertoire. I don’t think that’s ever happened before. A while back, Wynton asked me to write a long-form piece for the band. I was very excited with the opportunity and chose to write each of the seven movements for a different iconic painter. The piece “Portrait for Seven Shades” premiered in 2007 and was recorded in 2010. Each movement takes a different approach, depending on the differences in artists’ painting styles and their personal stories. In some cases (as in Monet), I responded directly to the feelings the painting gave me … Having the contrasts in their styles helped for me to find contrasts in my writing approaches.”

In a 1991 interview with Academy of Achievement, a museum of living history into which Marsalis was inducted in 1988, Marsalis let his hair down a bit, explaining how he acquired his first trumpet.

“I got my first trumpet when I was six years old from Al Hirt,” recalled Marsalis. “My father was playing in Hirt’s band at the time and he got me a trumpet because my older brother Branford was playing the clarinet and piano so he didn’t want me to feel left out. But I wasn’t going to feel left out because I didn’t feel like practicing. So when they got me a trumpet then I had to practice, I was like “oh man.” I actually didn’t start practicing until I was twelve.”

Marsalis continues, “But the first time I ever played the trumpet in public, I played a piece called the “Marine Hymn.” You remember the “Marine Hymn.” I can’t remember it right now but everybody knows it. So, I played this at the junior recital and I sounded terrible. But my mother, she thought I sounded good. She said, “Oh! My baby sounds so good.” My first serious debut was playing like little pop gigs around New Orleans just playing horn parts.”

Marsalis admitted that he didn’t start getting serious about music until about the age of thirteen.

“I decided I would practice and study and try to get better,” said Marsalis. “My older brother and me always played together in bands. But we never realized we would become professional musicians because we looked up to our father. He still is much greater than us. He knew all these songs, he could really improvise and play and the generation we grew up in, nobody could improvise or play. We had stopped playing blues, so really there was no way for us to figure we could learn how to play. He [father Ellis] knew all the songs by George Gershwin and Cole Porter, Duke Ellington, the whole tradition of American Pop music […] my father knew that. When we were growing up we didn’t listen to any of that kind of music. We had jazz recordings, but you listen to a recording of Miles Davis or Clifford Brown or Dizzy Gillespie, you’re so far away from what that is, it just seems like another world. We didn’t think we would be musicians. So when we were actually living in our own household, we just really looked up to our father. He wasn’t working that much, so we thought, “If dad’s not working, as much piano as he plays, then our chances of making it playing music must be zero because we can’t play””

But Wynton, and indeed the entire Marsalis clan, has made it in the music business. Bigtime. Brother Branford leads his own highly successful quartet and little brothers Delfayo and Jason regularly pop up at jazz festivals and clinics.

Marsalis is not without his critics. Several have unfavorable views of his musicianship. Critic Scott Yanow viewed Marsalis as talented but criticized his “selective knowledge of jazz history and his regard for post 1965 avant-garde playing to be outside of jazz and 1970s fusion to be barren as the unfortunate result of the somewhat eccentric beliefs of (critic) Stanley Crouch.”

Trumpeter Lester Bowie said of Marsalis, “If you retread what’s gone before, even if it sounds like jazz, it could be an anathema to the spirit of jazz.”

Pianist Keith Jarrett was more blunt in his criticism, saying, “I’ve never heard anything Wynton played sound like it meant anything at all. He has no voice and no presence. His music sounds like a talented high-school trumpet player to me.”

Rough stuff.

Critics aside, Marsalis’ music has stood the test of time. Whether you prefer his brand of musicianship or not, he is jazz’s worldwide ambassador and arguably the most successful — and most likely the richest — jazz musician on the planet. And that’s saying something considering the state of jazz today.

As for Marsalis, he is constantly looking with great interest at how the next generation of musicians will carry the banner of jazz into the future. He has advice for young musicians who have made a commitment to surviving the trials and tribulations they will encounter as they navigate the jazz world.

“The only emotion you want to consume you is love,” he told the Academy of Achievement. “And I don’t mean that lost love where you are depending on someone. I’m talking about constructive love — the love of action that makes you want to assist others’ lives. Not assist them in the way you think they need to be assisted. Not that religious love where you want to recruit someone to be in your religion, but real love where you try to recognize what somebody actually wants in their life or what they need and try to fulfill that.”

(The Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis will perform at the Schuster Center, One Performance Place, Wednesday, April 25 at 8p.m., The concert is co-presented by the Victoria Theatre Association and Cityfolk. Tickets are $55 to $75, available at Ticket Center Stage (937) 228-3630. Tickets are not available at Cityfolk box office. A $5 processing fee will be added to prices above for online and phone orders.)

Contact DCP freelance writer Khalid Moss at KhalidMoss@DaytonCityPaper.com.

[Photo credit: Clay Patrick McBride]

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