The Herald of Our Swinging Heritage
It sounds like a scene from the sitcom Everybody Hates Chris. The teenage Wynton Marsalis is walking home from school in New Orleans, carrying his books and papers in a blue American Tourister suitcase. Neighborhood kids hoot, because, really-a teenager carrying his books in a suitcase?
Wynton himself isn't crazy about schlepping the luggage. But he's in 11th grade, has a lot of books, and needs something big enough to hold them all. The Tourister happened to be in his home, so he took it. And the jeers from kids at the corner do not discourage him. "My attitude was, f--- this," he says. "They are not going to make me feel bad about trying to pursue an education."
It was exactly the sort of move-rebellion by way of respect for tradition-that would come to define Marsalis's remarkable career. Arguably the most famous jazz musician in the world, he has sold over 5 million records and won nine Grammy awards. He has even won a Pulitzer Prize-the first for a jazz musician-for Blood on the Fields, a three-hour jazz oratorio about the life of an African couple sold into slavery.
More notably, Marsalis has used his success to advance the jazz community. In a September speech to the World Business Forum, he spoke of one of his heroes: "Louis Armstrong didn't invent jazz, but he brought it to the people." He could have been talking about himself as well. In 1987, Marsalis cofounded (and is currently artistic director of) Jazz at Lincoln Center, dedicated to both performing the music and teaching its heritage. The program offers 400 jazz events a year in 15 countries, educational outreach programs, and support for high school bands.
Few artists have had such a sweeping impact. "He is a very important critic and a very important fundraiser and institutionalizer of his art form," says Gerald Early, professor of English and African-American studies at Washington University. "He covers a range of roles few people occupy."
Marsalis's boyhood buddy, Victor Goines, artistic director for jazz studies at Juilliard and a reed player in the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, puts it this way: Marsalis "has done everything within his power to make jazz something that takes place in the home on a day-to-day basis."
Not that he hasn't had his share of hecklers. A 2003 article in the Atlantic Monthly argued that Marsalis musically is narrowly neo-traditionalist, reviving the past rather than embracing the future. In a 1998 New York Times story, the composer and pianist George Russell said of Marsalis and his allies, "They've put a damper on the main ingredient of jazz, which is innovation." Others have characterized Marsalis as an old-school soldier in a battle within the jazz world.
Marsalis, in turn, is bemused. Is there really a jazz war going on? No one told him. "I don't want to play jazz that sounds like the European avant-garde-not because I'm against it, but because it does not make sense for me to do." He then reels off a long list of the kinds of music he plays, from Armstrong to John Coltrane, from flamenco to classical. "Narrow with relation to what?" he wants to know.
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."
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.
This story appears in the October 30, 2006 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.