The Herald of Our Swinging Heritage
But he doesn't relax too much. Marsalis relishes a challenge, hitting it head-on. Goines remembers a gig at the Village Vanguard in 2004. Marsalis had a terrible cold. For the first song, he played the jazz standard "Cherokee" as fast as he could. "We were all amazed," Goines says. "Wynton told the audience, 'Whoosh, I was trying to shake that cold off.'" The cold didn't stand a chance.
Swing back. Perhaps Marsalis's greatest challenge is to expand the audience for jazz. His Peabody Award-winning PBS series Marsalis on Music is one effort.
As an educator, Marsalis has strong opinions about the origins of jazz. "The blood of jazz, the substance of jazz, is the blues," he says. The other key ingredient is swing, which is a little harder to explain. It's an irresistible bounce, a lively step, a joyful celebration. But it's more than that. "You and I come from two different places," Marsalis says. "Through listening, we can find out where each other is coming from. We can have misunderstandings, but we can get past them. Swing means we are trying to find each other."
In the tragedy of Katrina, Marsalis saw a moment of transcendent swing. Marsalis, who was instrumental in raising millions of dollars for relief, was surprised and moved by the outpouring of affection for New Orleans and other suffering cities. "I saw unbelievable things we can build on," he says. "It was one of the great moments in the history of our country. To me, that's the American story."
If anyone can build upon those feelings, it is Wynton Marsalis, who is intimately familiar with the blues yet is also a true believer in the power of swing. He walks ahead, wearing a cool vine and carrying the legacy of jazz in a blue American Tourister suitcase.