Wynton Marsalis

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:

Spotify link

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.”

Spotify link

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:

Spotify link

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.)

Spotify link

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.

22 thoughts on “Wynton Marsalis

  1. Good stuff Doc. Wynton is a big chunk of music. I have a few of his albums. Just listened to ‘Citi Movement’ the other day. He does so much to keep the jazz flame burning. Anytime PBS has something with him I tune in. Weather it’s working with younger musicians or just playing some good solid traditional jazz he is a true ambassador of the music. I have a take coming up where his name sake Wynton Kelly is featured. Listening to ‘Things To Come’ as I type. Love it!

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    1. ‘Things to Come’ smokes doesn’t it? I need to give that whole album a listen. I tend to take Marsalis for granted because he’s always everywhere and he has so much stuff. But I definitely intend to give that playlist a spin. I have a couple of his albums, ‘Black Codes’ and ‘Majesty of the Blues’ from back in the day.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. ‘Black Codes’ and ‘Majesty’ are good ones. I have a few others I dig. I dove into a few of his classical turns. They are more of a acquired taste for me. It’s not accessible just not as instant like his jazz.
        I think because you and I have our fingers in the musical pie somewhat that we are aware of Wynton but I’d be surprised at how well known he is. Jazz artists, especially ones that play old school fly under the commercial music radar. You would know this better than me Doc but I would guess the whole Grammy thing might be misleading in it’s awards. I guess what I’m thinking is people like Wynton balance out some of the other music that is included. Are the Grammy’s a little more in tune compared to the ROF/Oscars etc?

        Liked by 2 people

        1. Good point about how well-known Wynton is or is not to non-jazz lovers or the general public. But if you asked 100 people, they might know his name more than any contemporary jazzer. I believe this in part because he leads the Lincoln Center Orchestra and in part because the Marsalis name is kind of a brand. His brother Branford led the Tonight Show with Jay Leno band some years ago and toured with Sting. And then Wynton did those Willie Nelson and Clapton albums which raised his profile to those groups.

          Don’t even get me started on the Grammys. I don’t even watch that show. This is because they advertise and trot out the “hot” crowd – Gaga, Kanye, Swift, Katy Perry, etc. – half of whom are feuding with each other. I am not interested in that shit. Then eventually they drag out a jazz or classical unit. How many people are digging it and how many are looking at their watches saying Can’t you bring Kanye and Gaga out for a duet?

          All that said, at least the awards for blues and jazz and stuff go to the right people.
          Wayne Shorter, Buddy Guy and Willie Nelson all won so there’s a good thing. But then, so did Weird Al Yankovic!

          Liked by 2 people

        2. My 3 offspring have pretty wide range of music they listen to. Big Earl would be the only one that knew who he was. My Gal really likes him. I think it’s more for the things he does for the communities he works with. I also like Branford. I have a couple albums by him you might know of (or like if you don’t), Buckshot Lefonque.

          That’s what I figured on the awards. I wouln’t know the music of any of those folks. I seen a news feed (by accident) of this past years program. The ex Prez’s wife was on stage with a bunch of folk. She cut an album? I think the only award show I caught lately (last 30 years) was the Austin City Limits awards. You’d dig it, guaranteed.
          (I mean’t to say on my previous comment that the classical Wynton does grows on me. Certainly worth the time).

          Liked by 1 person

  2. Very nice post. I just noticed I also had never written about Wynton (nor any of his brothers yet). I wonder why. Maybe it’s because when he was most active I was still listening to top 40, and then for the next decade I much rather went for hard bop from the 60s. This post has triggered me to rediscover his work! Thanks for it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Weirdly, your post went into spam. I check that every day and so approved it. And yeah, I had visited your site after my post and saw that you didn’t have any Marsalis and wondered why. I thought you would be all over that. But your comment neatly answers that. Definitely go back and listen to him. Look forward to some posts from you on him at some point. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

        1. I hear that. It’s hard to keep up. Not just new stuff but like you, older stuff that I neglected or missed. Not a bad problem to have I suppose.

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        2. It is still a big (even if clearly first world) problem. How do you choose between the 5,000 or so albums in my own (constantly growing) collection and all the stuff in my streaming subscription.

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  3. He’s phenomenally gifted and a jazz legend, and tireless in promoting appreciation for a wounded American art form. I’m confused why you included the quote at the top by Mr. Ismail. I don’t agree at all. Music and politics have much to do with each other. For starters, there’s government funding or non-funding of NEA and music programs in schools, which directly affects the depth and quality of music, and young people’s being exposed to that art form. There’s also music’s ability to raise awareness of political issues, which can directly affect election turnouts. There’s also race…too complex to even go into. Maybe he means “…SHOULD have nothing to do with each other.” But he’s only 16, so he still has time to confront life’s realities.

    No surprise here, but like you, I pay scant attention to the Crummies (Grammies).

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    1. Well I think what he meant was music is a pure thing unto itself. It transcends and is separate from politics or race or anything else. Now does it get mixed up in all that? Sure, absolutely. But unless someone writes a specifically political tune, music does not equal politics. So that’s why I put it there. Musicians like to jam with each other and they don’t worry too much about their leaders or any other BS.

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        1. If you think of music as being just a collection of notes and chords, no. When a person arranges them a certain way, and adds emotion, feeling, and nuance, and sometimes colors the music with words, it can and does take on political meaning. Do you agree?

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        2. Sure, of course. It would be naive to think otherwise. But I quote the dictionary definition of music: “vocal or instrumental sounds [or both] combined in such a way as to produce beauty of form, harmony, and expression of emotion.” So that’s music which can sometimes be political. Maybe our 16-year-old’s statement was too black and white. But I think I know what he was trying to say.

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        3. Yes, I’ve heard Ismail’s sentiment many times before. He’s only 16, and he’s probably aping what he’s heard from others. I think I know what he’s struggling to say, as well, but his wording is a bit simplistic and Pollyanna-ish. (And I think Wynton, Woody Guthrie, and others might agree with me.)

          Sorry to dwell on one quote from your piece, but I enjoyed the repartee.

          Liked by 1 person

  4. Interesting piece on Wynton Marsalis, I’ve been following his career off and on. Seen him live in London UK, ‘pure’ (I use that word cautiously) jazz in the UK is rather overlooked by the main stream but it is changing, I think.

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    1. Funny you should comment on seeing him. After writing my post I got to wondering if the Lincoln Center Orchestra was touring. Lo and behold they are and I scored two tickets to see them (with Wynton) at Symphony Hall in Boston next month. I seem to think he was at some jazz festival I saw years ago but you think I’d remember that. Anyway, here’s the tour schedule:

      https://wyntonmarsalis.org/tour/upcoming

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