As Wynton Marsalis walks into the press office at the Marciac Jazz Festival, there's no swagger, no arrogance - just a quiet grace and elegance. Cool, hip, immaculate. At that moment all around me, I can hear my colleagues from the fourth estate draw breath together. There are about 20 of us and there's a long pause when he sits down before anyone dares ask a question. When the interrogation does begin, we're just hanging on every word. Stupid perhaps, but that's just how it is.
Marciac is special for Marsalis and this small French village in Gascony, clasped him to its egalitarian bosom when he made his first visit to the festival nearly 10 years ago. They even erected a life- size bronze statue to him in 1997 and for years he's been coming back to play and teach the class of children that he sponsors. So, why is this place and festival so special for him? "I think it speaks to the international power of jazz music and really to the spirit of the people. They're just down-home people, very soulful, like the music itself."
This year, the trumpeter releases a massive eight records, classical as well as jazz, and one of those is a suite of pieces dedicated to Marciac and its people called, obviously, The Marciac Suite. He takes us through the pieces, each dedicated to some person or aspect of the region. There's "Jean-Louis is Everywhere" for its excellent mayor, festival director and college principal. There are tracks dedicated to Pierre Boussaguet, the wonderful French bass player who will accompany Friday night's "Trumpet Summit" at the festival, and another to the late French tenor player, Guy Lafitte. There are pieces named after two of the local specialities, Armagnac and foie gras, as well as one for the kids at the local school. The music is as warm and sunny and generous as these people deserve.
For someone with Marsalis's bruising schedule, he's relaxed and appears totally at ease with whoever he's speaking to - whether it's another musician, mayor Jean-Louis Guillhaumon or the small French boy backstage at the gig who asks Marsalis how he became "so beautiful". The trumpeter laughs and ruffles the boy's hair. "What does he mean? Tell him he's a hundred times cuter than me!" It all comes over as totally genuine, just as when a young Afro-French boy gets a sound from the trumpeter's horn. "I want that boy's address. You tell him I'm going to send him a trumpet and next year I'm going to give him some lessons at the festival." I just didn't expect the man to be... well, frankly, so impulsive.
Marsalis is still only 37 and he's won every major award - he's the only musician ever to win Grammy's for jazz and classical recordings in the same year, as well as winning a Pulitzer for 1997's Blood on the Fields. So, I ask him how he keeps finding fresh challenges. "Man, I'm just starting." But he said that 10 years ago. "Yeah, I was just starting then. I've been working my whole life. I like to get up and play and write. I've been blessed with the opportunity to do it and I'm not going to mess it up. I'm having a great time out here."
His career started with the drummer and band leader Art Blakey, when he left behind a Juilliard scholarship to join the last great Jazz Messengers line-up. Gigs with Herbie Hancock's Quartet followed before he formed his own group in 1981. Since then he's been leading his own bands with a dedication and commitment to his art that appears from the outside to be monk-like (or should that be Monk- like?). The best guess is - and his comments bear it out - that this is the only gig in town for him. He just wouldn't be doing anything else and he's having a whole lot of fun doing it.
We start talking about Jelly Roll Morton, a passion for Wynton perhaps second only to Duke Ellington. One of this year's eight releases is dedicated to Morton's compositions, the sixth volume in the trumpeter's "Standard Time" series. …