For the garlanded trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, music is how we learn to be human – and he’s in Australia to share his love for its rich traditions. By Santilla Chingaipe.
Musician Wynton Marsalis
Wynton Marsalis jumps onto our Zoom call and introduces himself before proceeding to play the trumpet. “I was just playing the trumpet call,” he says. “That was just for you.”
Despite being on a packed international tour – he’s in Switzerland when we speak – Marsalis is playful, relaxed and loquacious. And I soon learn he has stories for days. The acclaimed trumpeter, now 61, began touring internationally at the age of 18, and while he is now used to the gruelling schedule, that wasn’t the case on his first tour. He recalls not packing enough socks. “We were in buses for long rides with Art Blakey and The Jazz Messengers – man, we had, like, 12 hours, 13-, 14-hour drives every day,” he tells me. “It was rough – I wasn’t quite prepared.”
Marsalis grew up surrounded by jazz. It’s an overused cliché but in his case it is true – he was destined to be a musician. He was born in New Orleans, Louisiana, during the civil rights movement – the second of six children. His father, Ellis Marsalis Jr, was a jazz pianist, his mother, Dolores, was a music educator, and he grew up surrounded by musicians. When Wynton Marsalis was six, his father’s friend, the trumpeter Al Hirt, gave him his first trumpet. By the age of eight, he had started his musical journey with the Fairview Baptist Church Band, through which he was launched into the world of New Orleans jazz and brass band traditions.
The roll call of mentors and the people he played alongside – including his own father – is a who’s who of the jazz genre. But it wasn’t until the age of 12 that he started to take music seriously. “I started listening to [John] Coltrane and then after listening to him, I listened to Clifford Brown and Miles [Davis] and Freddie Hubbard and different musicians and I wondered if I could play like them,” he says.
A 12-year-old listening to John Coltrane? In the community Marsalis grew up in, many of the jazz greats were friends or played with Marsalis’s father and his friends. “Trane was their idol, so they knew Trane. And McCoy Tyner [who played in the John Coltrane Quartet] was friends with my father,” he says. Marsalis also discovered classical music and at the age of 14 performed with the New Orleans Philharmonic.
His career took off – he went on to become a world-renowned trumpeter, composer and bandleader performing both jazz and classical music. He’s won countless awards, including several Grammys for jazz and classical recordings. He won a Pulitzer Prize for Music in 1997 – the first jazz performer to do so. He’s recorded more than 120 albums and now serves as the artistic director of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra.
There’s a video online of a bespectacled 23-year-old Marsalis performing Haydn’s Trumpet Concerto with the Boston Pops Orchestra. Standing centrestage at the Boston Symphony Hall and dressed in a black tuxedo, he plays effortlessly alongside the majority white orchestra. It’s assured playing from the young Marsalis, a combination of natural talent and years of training and practice. In another video, he’s 21 years old and performing alongside Art Blakey and The Jazz Messengers. He’s swapped the tuxedo for a grey three-piece suit, with a burgundy tie and matching pocket square. I’m in awe at the ease with which he plays the trumpet in these two seemingly different genres.
He later tells me his success surprised him. “I feel guilty ... just because I’ve got so much publicity and notoriety and stuff, and the musicians who could play better than me were struggling. But they set me up to be successful. I wasn’t surprised about the music. I was surprised about my participation – the music is great. That’s some of the greatest music ever played.”
Marsalis is bringing the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra to Australia this month for a series of concerts on the east coast – some in collaboration with the Melbourne and Sydney symphony orchestras. One of the works being performed is All Rise – composed by Marsalis and first performed with the New York Philharmonic in 1999. The German conductor Kurt Masur commissioned the work, after meeting the 28-year-old Marsalis.
“He said, ‘I was a Nazi soldier’,” says Marsalis. “If you were in Germany at that time and you were a young person, that’s what you were, or you were in jail or dead. And he then became instrumental in the reconciliation with East Germany and West Germany.” After emigrating to New York, Masur was struck by the racism in America and asked Marsalis to write a piece “that deals with the universality of people and their humanity, because I’m not seeing a lot of that”.
Marsalis tells me he was reluctant to write the piece. “I had no training writing for symphonies,” he says. “I had never written … for a big band, a jazz orchestra. And I thought, Man, I’m not gonna write for the New York Philharmonic.”
Soon afterwards, Marsalis – who was always listening to Duke Ellington’s jazz band compositions – began to write for jazz orchestra, which includes a horn and rhythm section. He then learnt how to write for woodwind and string instruments. “I had grown up playing a lot of orchestral music, but I understood that it was not something you [were] going to pick up,” he says. Masur continued to jokingly tease Marsalis about his refusal to write for the New York Philharmonic, and finally he gave in.
All Rise is a massive jazz symphony that crosses a wide musical terrain, ranging from African chant and New Orleans parade music to symphonic modernism. Marsalis tells me the subject matter and the progression of the work – which is written for a choir and a full band – have existed in jazz and in American music since the 19th century. But perhaps what stands out is how, despite this American foundation, it incorporates sounds from cultures from around the world. As the work progresses through its 12 movements, Middle Eastern sounds are interweaved with blues, Afro-Latin, marches, ragtime and African music and rhythms.
“The piece is very complex in terms of the different forms – what I try to do in it is see how they are all the same,” he says. “That’s the challenge.” It took Marsalis six months to write the work in 1999, a year that he describes as the most productive of his life. “I might have put out 15 records in that one year.”
Marsalis says the symphony reflects a progression of life – from birth to young love to falling victim “to the type of myopic arrogance where you think the whole world is about what you think it’s about”, to deep sorrow, before rising up to a higher level and being reborn. It ends with the 12th movement, “I Am (Don’t You Run from Me)”. “That’s the great consciousness where you understand you are part of a much larger thing,” he says. “That’s why a lot of the music sounds like Middle Eastern music, because at that time there was a big anti-Middle Eastern, anti-Muslim [prejudice]. And my thing was to say, we’re all out here. We’re dealing with our thing. There are many ways to express the same thing. It’s the great ‘I am’ and it ends with the New Orleans march.”
I tell Marsalis what I’m drawn to when I listen to All Rise – that, unlike much mainstream contemporary American music, it seems to be in dialogue with the world and resists parochialism by drawing on sounds from many cultures. But he’s quick to school me on the diversity of sound within American culture.
“When you look at people like Duke Ellington, nobody has ever written or played more diverse music than him. Louis Armstrong, the tradition I come from, they cut across many genres,” he says. “And if you take even a figure in classical music like Leonard Bernstein, he was always trying to figure out what other people’s music was about. Teaching people talking about other people’s music.”
He argues that once music is turned solely into a product, it narrows. “Because what are people going to like? If I’m trying to politic for you to like me, there’s a lot I can’t say. But Duke Ellington wasn’t trying to be politic, he was writing music – so I’m more in that tradition, in that line,” says Marsalis. “And when you look at musicians like him, he wrote over 2000 songs and recorded 800 albums, and he has records like the Liberian Suite, The Afro-Eurasian Eclipse, the Latin American Suite, Togo Brava Suite…”
I realise I am receiving a front row education in jazz – a genre he once described as an “important chronicle of American life set to rhythm and tune”. What is it about this quintessentially American art form that transcends borders and cultures?
It comes from everywhere, he says. “You listen to Horace Silver’s music: the pentatonic scale is like Eastern music. Wayne Shorter’s music, pentatonic music.” He proceeds to sound out the notes while tapping his hand on his thigh to the rhythm. “Doo ting-ting ting-ting ti-king-king ki-king-too-king-king… That’s the ride pattern. Call and response – that’s the basic human way of communicating.” As someone who is not sonically inclined, listening to Marsalis communicate music in this way offers a greater sense of appreciation for what jazz music is able to do.
He’s sharing that love of music with young people while on tour in Australia. Together with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, he’ll be running workshops in Canberra and Sydney. Marsalis believes every child deserves a musical education. “Young people have to be taught to understand the integrity of a thing,” he says. “Education of young people and information and sharing that information is a very important, crucial, instrumental part in maintaining your civilisation. And if it’s not going to be your civilisation – humanity.”
He tells me that beyond learning how to play instruments, a musical education teaches young people how to be human. “One thing is to be patient and to sit in community with other people, in silence and contemplation and reflection,” he says. “These are all parts of being a human being. And education is a part of that.”
For Marsalis, jazz is more than just music – it’s a way of moving through the world. His core beliefs are based on jazz fundamentals: freedom and individual creativity (improvisation), collective action and good manners (swing), and acceptance, gratitude and resilience (the blues).
It’s this ability to come together as human beings that, for Marsalis, makes jazz so special.
“The diversity of personalities – and in jazz, you have the loudest instrument forced to play with the softest instrument,” he says. “… You got the space to improvise, but you’re listening most of the time.”
Marsalis says he is excited to share that collective humanity with Australian audiences through the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. “The depth of the love that we have for each other and how much we enjoy playing with other colleagues,” he says. “And just the depth of our music. And that we believe in … a collective humanity.”
I realise I’ve been on the call with Marsalis for close to two hours and it’s nearly three in the morning in Melbourne. I’m charmed by his humility. Despite receiving every accolade imaginable, he remains acutely aware of the responsibility to share music, as others did with him. “Ultimately, it’s not [about] you,” he says. “You’re representing a lot of other people who taught you and people who come after you – you are part of a continuum. I happened to be a part of that continuum and to be around a lot of the great musicians and artists. It was a good fortune.”
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on August 19, 2023 as "A good fortune".
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