I can’t believe that in over three years of blogging I’ve written barely a word about one of the most prominent, significant jazzmen of his generation. Time to correct that. Bio below is based on info from Marsalis’ website and Wikipedia.
“Music is music, and politics is politics. The two have nothing to do with one another.” – Ismael Vinas, a 16-year-old trumpet player who saw Marsalis’ band in Cuba.
Wynton Marsalis, the second of six sons, was born in New Orleans, Louisiana, on October 18, 1961, to Ellis, a pianist and music teacher, and Dolores Marsalis. He was named for jazz pianist Wynton Kelly. Branford Marsalis is his older brother and Jason Marsalis and Delfeayo Marsalis, all jazz musicians, are younger.
While sitting at a table with trumpeters Al Hirt, Miles Davis, and Clark Terry, his father jokingly suggested that he might as well get Wynton a trumpet, too. Hirt volunteered to give him one, so at the age of six Marsalis received his first trumpet.
At age eight Wynton performed traditional New Orleans music in the Fairview Baptist Church band led by legendary banjoist Danny Barker, and at 14 he performed with the New Orleans Philharmonic. During high school, Wynton performed with various groups including the New Orleans Symphony Brass Quintet, New Orleans Community Concert Band, New Orleans Symphony, various jazz bands and with the popular local funk band, the Creators.
He studied classical music at school and jazz at home with his father. He performed on trumpet publicly as the only black musician in the New Orleans Civic Orchestra. After winning a music contest at fourteen, he performed a trumpet concerto by Joseph Haydn with the New Orleans Philharmonic.
Two years later he performed “Brandenburg Concerto No. 2 in F Major” by Bach. (Hell, I use that to warm up on guitar.) At seventeen, he was the youngest musician admitted to Tanglewood Music Center. (Tanglewood is in the Berkshires in Western Massachusetts and is where the Boston Symphony Orchestra rehearses and plays in the summer.)
In 1979, Wynton moved to New York City to attend Juilliard in. In 1980 he joined the Jazz Messengers to study under bandleader/drummer Art Blakey. He had by now become one of the hot jazzers in New York and was coming on the scene just as Miles Davis was making his last comeback.
Columbia records signed Wynton to a contract and in 1982 he released his eponymous debut album produced by none other than Herbie Hancock. In addition to Wynton, the personnel included his brother Branford on saxophones, Hancock and Kenny Kirkland on piano, three different bass players including Ron Carter, and Jeff Watts and the inimitable Tony Williams on drums.
From Wynton Marsalis, this is a Ron Carter tune called “RJ” and it swings like mad:
As mentioned up front, jazz is by no means Marsalis’ only forte. He is equally passionate and adept at classical music, a genre which I am woefully inept to speak of other than to say I know what I like.
In 1994 he released an album called The London Concert. It was recorded at St. Giles’ Church, Cripplegate, London with the English Chamber Orchestra whose website proudly says they are “the most recorded chamber orchestra in the world.”
From Haydn, here’s a toe-tapper, “Concerto for Trumpet and Orchestra in E-flat Major.”
The Jazz at Lincoln Center department came into existence in the late ’80s as a result of Marsalis’ efforts. He is its artistic director and he also leads the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra.
Per Wikipedia, “The Center distributes jazz curriculums to high schools through its Essentially Ellington program. Professional musicians visit schools through the Let Freedom Swing program. The Center runs a Middle School Jazz Academy, a High School Jazz Academy, and a Summer Academy, all in New York City, all of them with free tuition.
Every year the Orchestra tours and visits schools throughout the U.S. The Essentially Ellington High School Jazz Band Competition and Festival has supported high school jazz bands nationwide.”
In 2010, Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra traveled to Cuba and played a week-long residency at Havana’s Teatro Mella club.
“We are playing a role right now,” Marsalis said.”We are coming here, we are being embraced, and we are embracing,”
“Did the spirituals have a role in the Afro-American (slaves) becoming free? Yeah, they did, but people, when they were singing them, did they say, ‘Let us sing spirituals so we can be free?’ No! … Art’s function is to lift the consciousness and the hearts and minds of people.” (Coincidental or otherwise, Barack Obama initiated a thaw in US-Cuban relations starting in 2014.)
It was this steamin’ hot song from Live in Cuba – “Things to Come” – that inspired me to write this post in the first place:
Marsalis, no fan of hip-hop or jazz fusion, is somewhat of a purist. But not so much that he doesn’t cross genres when the mood strikes him. He’s recorded albums with both country legend Willie Nelson and bluesman Eric Clapton.
This number, “Careless Love,” is from Clapton and Marsalis’ 2011 collaboration Play the Blues: Live from Jazz at Lincoln Center (They even did a version of “Layla” solely at the request of one of the musicians.)
If you like what you heard and you want to hear more, no worries. If Marsalis quit tomorrow, not only would his reputation be intact but the astounding amount of recorded work (50 albums? 60?) would still be there. I won’t recite all the awards he’s won but feel free to consult Wikipedia on that one.
He is, however, the only musician to win a Grammy Award in jazz and classical during the same year.
Here’s a nice selection for that rainy day:
Sources: Wikipedia, Wynton Marsalis website, Seattle Times interview.