Wynton Marsalis: The Private Man Behind the Music

By Norment, Lynn | Ebony, August 1999 | Go to article overview

Wynton Marsalis: The Private Man Behind the Music


Norment, Lynn, Ebony


AT TIMES it seems that Wynton Marsalis is ubiquitous. Go into any music store and you can find a number of his 40 recordings. Turn on the television, and you may catch one of his specials on PBS or watch an interview on a news or entertainment program. On radio, you can enjoy his music on your local jazz station, or perhaps catch his special on National Public Radio. Computer savvy individuals can sign on to a Net interview with the popular music man. In numerous and varied publications across the country, there are photographs of him lecturing, performing, talking to kids.

While his public persona appears to be everywhere, the 37-year-old bachelor makes an effort to keep his personal life out of the limelight.

"I never really talk about my personal life," says Marsalis, leaning back in a green upholstered chair in the library of his New York condo. "I know it's interesting to read about peoples' personal lives because I wonder about that myself when I read about people. When your personal life is simple, it's easy to talk about it. When it's complicated, it's better to be quiet.

"Yes, my life is complicated. It's better for me to be quiet, to be silent. Largely, I am silent." He smiles.

Perhaps contributing to his "complicated life" is the fact he is an in-demand bachelor but also a proud father of three sons. Marsalis' two older sons live in the New York area and show an interest in music. Jasper, his 3-year-old son by actress Victoria Rowell, likely will follow.

In his private environment, this music maestro exudes gentility and charm that harks back to his Southern upbringing, but a worldly edge reflects 20 years in New York City and world travel. Subtle sensuality is reflected in his smile, his eyes, his expressions, his body language. No doubt women find him intriguing and appealing. In East Coast creative circles and among the Hollywood set, Marsalis is known to be quite a ladies' man. Yet he seldom is photographed with dates at performances and other glittery events.

The private Wynton Marsalis, like the public musicmaster, is intense, straightforward, never at a loss for words. Many compare his diverse and enormous output to that of the legendary Duke Ellington. He shrugs it off. "I have tremendous respect for him and what he represented," Marsalis says. "Duke wrote 1500 songs and recorded 800 albums ... I mean, I loved him [he pauses], and he loved women. That's one thing you can say about Duke. And women loved him."

When asked if that statement can be made concerning himself, Marsalis says: "I don't know. I love women. I don't know if they love me."

Since he emerged onto the jazz scene in 1982, Marsalis has become a well-loved and vocal force in the music world. He has distinguished himself as one of music's most talented and prolific artists. This year alone he will release nine CDs, in addition to a six-CD box set--an unprecedented creative output. He is the only jazz musician to be awarded the coveted Pulitzer Prize, and he has won eight Grammy Awards. Moreover, he has assumed the mission of taking the art form to the youthful masses and elevating jazz to new levels of awareness and appreciation.

Wynton's large Upper West Side apartment is adjacent to his beloved Lincoln Center, where he is artistic director of the jazz program. In his library, Marsalis seems to be relaxed, yet you are aware that many thoughts are crisscrossing his fertile mind. As always, he is tastefully dressed, this day in an earthy tan sweater and matching slacks. He is warm and friendly, yet you feel that at least part of him is elsewhere, perhaps on that melody he awoke with earlier. He says music constantly "comes to me," that he awakens each day energized with music on his mind.

The built-in wooden shelves in the library are crowded with books on diverse subjects. There is a keyboard and other musical elements, as well as plenty of mementos and awards. …

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