Wynton Marsalis, the reigning exponent of buttoned-down bebop, hits town with the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra
Twenty-five years ago, a 17-year-old kid from New Orleans by the name of Wynton Marsalis first popped up on the jazz scene as the new trumpet star with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers. In the quarter century since, the onetime wunderkind has proved to be not only the most accomplished and acclaimed musician of his generation, but also the most motor-mouthed spokesman jazz has ever seen. He’s written three books, hosted several videos and countless interviews, expending millions of words telling the world about jazz’s past, present and future. Yet ask him to talk about what it means to be a jazz musician, circa 2001, and he just might boil it all down to three little words.
“Can you play?” he says, chuckling at the simplicity of it all.
Marsalis will be blowing into Sacramento with the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra this Thursday, September 20, offering locals the opportunity to see the man who is almost certainly the most famous jazz musician alive lead a ferocious 15-piece ensemble playing music from all eras of jazz history. Marsalis’ fame is, in many ways, unprecedented: He is the only musician to win Grammy Awards for both classical and jazz recordings in the same year, and the only jazz musician ever to win the Pulitzer. He is known to millions as the primary voice of the Ken Burns documentary Jazz, and is arguably the man most responsible for reviving interest in classic jazz during the music’s mid-’70s nadir.
Yet for all Marsalis’ accomplishments, his career has been fraught with controversy, most of it stemming not from his music—which is almost universally well regarded—but from his words, which many feel have promoted an overly traditional approach to the music. In Marsalis’ view, such criticism is based on the mistaken notion that art somehow makes “progress” through innovation.
“My personal view is that music doesn’t go anywhere,” he says. In Western cultures, he adds, people tend to place great emphasis on the idea of progress, “but jazz is not a purely Western art form. It has ties to Eastern and African art, which is more communal and ritualistic.
“One of the beautiful things about being alive is that you have access to everything that’s been done and everything that’s being done,” Marsalis continues. “Sometimes the old things are most relevant, and sometimes the new things are most relevant.”
Mixing and matching the old and new is clearly what the LCJO is all about. The band’s book features brand-new compositions by Marsalis and his young cohorts alongside early jazz classics from the likes of Jelly Roll Morton—along with plenty of Charles Mingus, Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane and Duke Ellington.
Even when playing older music, Marsalis says, the group mixes in modernized concepts. “When we play New Orleans music, we don’t try to play like King Oliver. We always figure that if those earlier musicians could have played with the harmonic sense and the rhythmic concepts we play with now, they would have played with them, so we do all of those things when we play that music.”
Needless to say, the LCJO is an extraordinarily versatile ensemble. Featuring outstanding young musicians like Ted Nash, Wess Anderson and Rodney Whitaker, the group is really “an all-star band,” Marsalis says.
“We’ve tried to have a band that could play all of the idiomatic nuances of jazz, that can play different grooves, that can play the music of different eras without sounding corny. We don’t want to sound like we’re reviving a style. We don’t believe in that. We believe in playing.”