Wynton Marsalis

By Norment, Lynn | Ebony, July 1994 | Go to article overview
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Wynton Marsalis

Norment, Lynn, Ebony

It is a rainy spring morning in New York City, the kind of drizzle that reminds you of a movie setting or lyrics in a bluesy song. Wynton Marsalis, the acclaimed trumpeter and jazz czar of Lincoln Center, breezes into his apartment on the Upper West Side, having already run a number of errands. This is one of only 40 to 50 days he is home this year, so he has to make good use of his time. Marsalis spends the other 300 or so days on the road with his band, taking his jazz music and message across the country and around the world to people of all ethnicities and ages.

Today, he is not hurried, not harried, not impatient, but warm and personable as he positions himself comfortably at a black baby grand piano. Dressed casually in plaid flannel shirt, blue pants and a green felt cap, he graciously offers tea to visitors. Could this be the Grammy Award-winning musician who often is portrayed in the media as a snobbish, arrogant, single-minded jazz fanatic with no tolerance for differing views?

Yes, he is one and the same, but the portrayal is biased, to say the least.

Since his brilliant debut on the jazz scene in 1982, Marsalis has generated the kind of love-hate response that is characteristic of stormy love affairs. He has attacked White critics for presuming to define a Black art form and Blacks for not supporting the same. And though controversy seems to continually swirl about him, the fact that the 32-year-old jazzman is dedicated to his art is never lost. "I love being a jazz musician," he says. "My whole life I wanted to be a jazzman... because it just seems like jazz music is the real soul of the Afro-American."

As a child growing up in New Orleans, Marsalis, like his brothers, experienced jazz intimately under the tutelage of his father, noted pianist Ellis Marsalis. His brother, saxophonist Branford Marsalis, 33, is musical director for The Tonight Show With jay Leno, and a younger brother, trombonist Delfeayo Marsalis, has produced and recorded jazz.

From the beginning of his career, Wynton has been dedicated to preserving the "great heritage" of jazz music. "No. I have to be honest with you," he says when asked if Black Americans are more supportive of jazz today than a decade ago. "I mean I love my people; it's not a matter of being against my people. The whole source of our power comes from the Afro-American experience. But we [African-Americans] don't support jazz any more now than we did 10 years ago....But we are not going to stay lost."

Such hopeful optimism is the catalyst that drives Marsalis to work so hard. If he's not composing, performing practicing, he's visiting schools and talking to kids about music, respect, education and the importance of pride in their heritage. "And I'm not just hopeful," he says, "I'm always ready to put my own neck on the line for change. No school is too bad for me to go to.... I'll try to teach anybody. We are all striving for the same thing, to make our community stronger and richer. That's what the jazz musician has always been about."

As artistic director for jazz at Lincoln Center for three years, Marsalis continues that quest, and he has found enormous success with the program's concerts, film presentations, lectures, young people's concerts, and with its national tours. It is a prestigious $2.5 million program that is important to jazz in New York and the nation, and it requires Marsalis to compose a new work each year. His first commission is presented on the current recording, In This House, On This Morning, which was inspired by the music of the African-American church.

Ironically, Marsalis' role at Lincoln Center is the source of unrelenting controversy. Despite the fact that the performances have attracted sold-out crowds and good reviews, and that officials at the Center have been unwavering in their support, White critics have called Marsalis' vision "elitist," "neoconservative" and "divisive.

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