Leadership: Pitch-Perfect Leadership; Jazz Legend Wynton Marsalis on Playing-And Leading-With Heart

By Considine, Austin | Success, July-August 2007 | Go to article overview

Leadership: Pitch-Perfect Leadership; Jazz Legend Wynton Marsalis on Playing-And Leading-With Heart


Considine, Austin, Success


AT 45, TRUMPETER WYNTON MARSALIS HAS racked up enough accomplishments to make anyone sit down and listen. He's been awarded nine Grammies, won a Pulitzer Prize, and earned numerous honors abroad. He's even been named a Messenger of Peace for the United Nations. Those who have heard him play have sometimes commented on his ability to speak truth through his music. Wrote fellow New Orleans native Aaron Neville in a 2006 Time Magazine article: "Wynton is a special brother, whose music and persona flow forth freely with truth, talent, and tenacity."

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Those same traits are golden in the world of business, and Marsalis has long been using his talents to give jazz a legitimate home. Twenty years ago, he cofounded Jazz at Lincoln Center (JALC), which back then was a concert series held on the same hallowed ground as the New York Philharmonic and the Metropolitan Opera. In 2004, JALC was finally given a proper room of its own: a vast performing arts and learning space at the Time Warner Center, one of the most expensive and prestigious addresses in the city.

What's become of JALC has exceeded Marsalis's wildest expectations. "I didn't even dream of anything like this when I came to New York when I was 17," he admits. "I never considered it. It was outside of the realm of possibility in our field, in jazz. Nothing like this has ever existed." The $131 million facility is home to three performing arts spaces, an intimate and upscale jazz club, an XM satellite radio broadcasting booth, numerous rehearsal and education spaces, and a full recording studio big enough to accommodate an entire symphony orchestra.

But it hasn't been easy. "As I grew up, I wanted to be a musician," he says, "So I couldn't conceive of an institution like this--how a board of directors works, how to raise money to put on concerts, how to establish a library, how to get a lot of departments to work together for a single goal." Marsalis has pushed through the challenges one by one, drawing from his experiences working with other musicians. "In business, sometimes you have to make very tough decisions, and many times they are ugly, so it's best to be very direct. In jazz, the musicians are very direct in our way of communicating with each other. Because there's an implied love in the music that's underneath everything, the musicians feel free to talk to you in any way."

Marsalis' leadership style is a product of his personal philosophy in other ways, too. Another subject he consistently comes back to is the importance of getting square with one's internal life, of recognizing what he calls "the do's." There is, he says, "what you can do, what you want to do, and what you should do." Getting those do's in alignment is necessary for deciding where you want to go in your career and your life, whether you're at the top or still climbing. "You maybe very unsuccessful externally, but be very successful internally and you will be happy," he says.

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Through it all, Marsalis conducts himself with the cool and unflappable confidence of a man who has not only achieved much in his life but has learned to face challenges with great unpretentiousness and preparation. "I feel that humility inspires people, but organization inspires a staff," he relates. "A staff of people needs ... to be directed and have dynamic leadership. People at all rungs of the organization need to feel that they are empowered to make some kind of change and that their jobs have meaning. That's always a challenge. That's what needs to happen."

Part of that means never taking a my-way-or-the-highway attitude with his staff. "If they work for you, you are relying on them to give themselves to you," he says. "When your staff respects the job you are doing, and you reciprocate by giving them the freedom to do the best that they can, that's when a team is at its most productive. …

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