The Herald of Our Swinging Heritage
Even his wardrobe isn't off limits when it comes to critics. When Marsalis plays, he is decked out in a well-tailored, handsome suit. In jazz lingo, he's wearing a nice vine. But folks wonder: Why does he dress so formally? "Something about these suits irked people," Marsalis says. "I think part of it is an element of racism-How dare you wear a suit?" But he's never considered changing the way he dresses when he performs. A suit fits his seriousness of purpose and links him sartorially to past jazz masters (and dandies) like Duke Ellington and Armstrong. "I do stuff," he says, "because it makes sense to me."
But, he says, when a critique is fair, he listens. And I can tell you, that's no lie.
Earlier this year, I edited an essay that Marsalis wrote for U.S. News on his feelings about New Orleans, before and after Katrina struck. The first draft of the essay was full of raw indignation, but it needed more of Marsalis's voice and more of the voices he heard in his youth. I put a bunch of questions in the manuscript, then nervously E-mailed off my edits. I figured Marsalis would look at my questions and say, "So what?"
Instead, he replied to each question. The second draft was a marvelous riff on New Orleans spirit. The musicians he has known, he wrote, "taught me how to roll with the unpredictable, crazy ways of life." He quoted his great-uncle Alphonse Lambert, a stonecutter who'd say, "You let people know who you are by how you do your job." And he recalled how his father used to say, "If you don't do a thing, it won't get done."
When Marsalis was growing up, his father served as his first great example. A well-regarded jazz pianist, Ellis Marsalis also taught in the New Orleans schools, at Xavier University, and in his home. "If you sounded sad," Wynton Marsalis says, "he'd say, 'Go home and practice. If you practice, you'll sound good. If you don't, you'll sound sad.'"
Young Wynton's strong personality was evident in his youth. Younger brother Ellis says one of Wynton's nicknames was "the almighty Nebuchadnezzar." "He was definitely bossy," says Ellis.
"Soft music." When Marsalis began his career in the early 1980s, he wasn't afraid to boss his record company around, choosing to play pure jazz instead of the rock fusion it wanted. As the years went by, he polished his talent, with guidance from friends. The jazz pianist Marcus Roberts advised him, "Every phrase has more power than you think." In other words, avoid overkill. Nor is loudness the key to conquering an audience. "Marcus would be like, 'Too loud-soft music has impact,'" recalls Marsalis.
Soft words can have an impact, too, but they don't come easily to Marsalis. In jazz circles, musicians often speak harshly to each other. That style didn't work so well when he began working outside of the concert hall-at the offices of National Public Radio, for instance, where he cowrote a 26-part series, Making the Music. Marsalis took another lesson from Roberts. "If they are wrong, they are wrong," is how Marsalis sums up Roberts's advice. "Relax and let it just be what it is."