Wynton Marsalis

Successful jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis (born 1961) is America’s top modern purist of the genre. Influenced by the jazz artists from the early 1900s through the 1960s and annoyed with the music labeled “jazz” in the 1970s, Marsalis took on the mission of not only creating “true” jazz, but teaching its definition as well.

Asuccessful jazz and classical musician and composer, Marsalis had won more than eight Grammy awards and released over 30 albums in both genres by the late 1990s. In 1997, he received the first Pulitzer Prize ever awarded for nonclassical music. He also co-founded and directed the ground-breaking jazz program at New York’s Lincoln Center, and became an influential jazz educator for America’s youth.

Marsalis was born into a family of musicians on October 18, 1961, in New Orleans. His father, Ellis Marsalis, played piano and worked as a jazz improvisation instructor at the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts. Before dedicating her life to raising her six sons, Dolores Marsalis sang in jazz bands. The second eldest child, Wynton’s older brother Branford set the stage as the family’s first musical prodigy. Branford Marsalis played both clarinet and piano by the time he entered the second grade, and eventually became a professional saxophonist.

Wynton Marsalis on trumpet, brother Branford on sax, with Ellis Marsalis on piano

Wynton Marsalis didn’t follow his brother’s lead quite as diligently, however. When he was six years old, his father played with Al Hirt, who gave the young Marsalis one of his old trumpets. Wynton Marsalis made his performing debut at the tender age of seven when he played “The Marine Hymn” at the Xavier Junior School of Music. As a child, Marsalis didn’t take practicing the trumpet very seriously. He spent more time with his school work, playing basketball, and participating in Boy Scout activities.

When Marsalis was 12, his family moved from Kenner, Louisiana, to New Orleans. When he listened to a recording by jazz trumpeter Clifford Brown, he was moved to take his trumpet seriously. “I didn’t know someone could play the trumpet like that,” Marsalis later told Mitchell Seidel in Down Beat. “It was unbelievable.” Soon after, a college student gave Marsalis an album by classical trumpet player Maurice Andre, which also sparked his interest in classical music.

Marsalis began taking lessons from John Longo in New Orleans, who had an interest in both genres, as well. “I hardly ever even paid him,” Marsalis recalled to Howard Mandell in Down Beat, “and he used to give me two-and three-hour lessons, never looking at the clock.”

Marsalis attended Benjamin Franklin High School in New Orleans, where he graduated with a 3.98-grade point average on a 4.0 scale. He became a National Merit Scholarship finalist and received scholarship offers from Yale University, among other prestigious schools. He also attended the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts. At the age of 14, he won a Louisiana youth competition. This award granted him the opportunity to perform with the New Orleans Philharmonic Orchestra as a featured soloist.

During his high school years, he played a variety of music with a number of groups, including the first trumpet with the New Orleans Civic Orchestra, the New Orleans Brass Quintet, and a teenage funk group called the Creators, along with his brother Branford. In 1977, Marsalis won the “Most Outstanding Musician Award” at the Eastern Music Festival in North Carolina.

Wynton Marsalis and Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra at Symphony Center.

He went on to study music at the Berkshire Music Center at Tanglewood in Massachusetts, where he received their Harvey Shapiro Award for outstanding brass player. He turned down the scholarship offers from Ivy League schools to attend New York’s Juilliard School of Music on full scholarship. While in school, he played with the Brooklyn Philharmonia and the Mexico City Symphony. He supported himself with a position in the pit band for Sweeney Todd on Broadway.

In 1980, Art Blakey asked Marsalis to spend the summer touring with his Jazz Messengers. His performances began to attract national attention, and he eventually became the band’s musical director. While on the road with Blakey, Marsalis decided to change his image and began wearing suits to his performances. “For us, it was a statement of seriousness,” Marsalis told Howard Reich in Down Beat. “We come out here, we try to entertain our audience and play, and we want to look good so they can feel good.”

The following year, Marsalis decided to leave Juilliard to continue his education on the road. He played with Blakey and received an offer to tour with Herbie Hancock’s V.S.O.P. quartet. Marsalis jumped at the chance, as the V.S.O.P. included bassist Ron Carter and drummer Tony Williams, who had both played with Miles Davis. “I knew he was only 19, just on the scene-it’s a lot to put on somebody,” Hancock told Steve Bloom in Rolling Stone. “But then I realized if we don’t hand down some of this stuff that happened with Miles, it’ll just die when we die.”

Marsalis performed throughout the United States and Japan with the V.S.O.P. and played on the double album Quartet. The increased attention led to an unprecedented recording contract with Columbia Records for both jazz and classical music. He released his self-titled debut album as a leader in 1981. Later that year, he formed his own jazz band with his brother Branford, Kenny Kirkland, Jeff Watts, and bassists Phil Bowler and Ray Drummond. His success didn’t go unnoticed in his hometown, either. New Orleans Mayor Ernest Morial proclaimed a Wynton Marsalis Day in February of 1982.

Wynton Marsalis recorded one side of an album with his father Ellis and Branford Marsalis, called For Fathers and Sons. The other side was recorded by saxophonist Chico Freeman and his father Von Freeman. In 1983, Marsalis released jazz and classical LPS simultaneously. The jazz record, Think of One, marked the debut of his jazz quintet and sold nearly 200,000 copies, about ten times what was considered a successful jazz album. The recording and Marsalis received many comparisons to Miles Davis and other musicians of the 1960s. “We don’t reclaim music from the 1960s; music is a continuous thing,” Marsalis explained to Mandell in Down Beat. “We’re just trying to play what we hear as the logical extension. … A tree’s got to have roots.”

He recorded his classical debut, Trumpet Concertos, in London with Raymond Leppard and the National Philharmonic Orchestra. In 1984, Marsalis set another precedent by becoming the first artist to be nominated for or win two Grammy awards in two categories during the same year.

He won another Grammy award in 1987 for his album Marsalis Standard Time Vol. 1. During the same year, he co-founded the Jazz at Lincoln Center program in New York City. When the program began, Marsalis became the artistic director for the eleven-month season. As part of his contract, he had to compose one piece of music for each year. Despite his new position, he continued to record and tour in both jazz and classical music.

Portrait of American jazz musician Ellis Marsalis Jr (left) and his son, fellow musician Wynton Marsalis, backstage after a rare performance as a duo at The Blue Note nightclub, New York, New York, June 4, 1990

He released Majesty of the Blues in 1989 and The Resolution of Romance in 1990. He dedicated the latter to his mother, and it included contributions from his father Ellis, and his brother Delfeayo. “If you are really dealing with music, you are trying to elevate consciousness about romance,” Marsalis explained to Dave Helland in Down Beat. “Music is so closely tied up with sex and sensuality that when you are dealing with music, you are trying to enter the world of that experience, trying to address the richness of the interaction between a man and a woman, not its lowest reduction.”

Marsalis’ study of New Orleans styles resulted in a trilogy called Soul Gestures in Southern Blue in 1990. Describing the set, Howard Reich wrote in Down Beat, “the crying blue notes of ‘Levee Low Moan,’ the church harmonies of ‘Psalm 26,’ the sultry ambiance of ‘Thick in the South’ all recalled different settings and epochs in New Orleans music. And yet the tautness of Marsalis’ septet, the economy of the motifs, and the adventurousness of the harmonies proclaimed this as new music, as well.”

Using history to create his present sound became Marsalis’ goal, along with exploring the rich tapestry of the different eras and styles of jazz. His first commission for the jazz program at Lincoln Center, In This House, On This Morning was performed in 1993. In it, he used the music of the African-American church as his primary inspiration.

In the fall of 1994, Marsalis announced that his septet had disbanded. However, he continued composing, recording, and performing. The following year, he produced a four-part video series called Marsalis on Music, which aired on PBS. In May of 1995, his first string quartet, (At the) Octoroon Balls debuted at the Lincoln Center.

He continued to release classical works as well. He re-recorded the Haydn, Hummel, and Leopold Mozart concertos from Trumpet Concertos in 1994. Two years later, he released In Gabriel’s Garden, which he recorded with the English Chamber Orchestra and Anthony Newman on harp-sichord and organ.

“I want to keep developing myself as a complete musician,” Marsalis told Ken Smith in Stereo Review,” so I take on projects either to teach me something new or else to document some development. With this new Baroque album, I felt that I’d never really played that music before with the right authority or rhythmic fire.” Marsalis produced the Olympic Jazz Summit at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, and won the 1996 Peabody Awards for both Marsalis on Music and for his National Public Radio Show “Wynton Marsalis: Making the Music.” At the end of 1996, Time magazine named him one of America’s 25 Most Influential People.

A major part of his influence went out to the country’s youth. When he was not working on his own music, he traveled to schools across the country to talk about music in an effort to continue the tradition of jazz. “I’m always ready to put my own neck on the line for change,” Marsalis told Lynn Norment in Ebony. “No school is too bad for me to go to.… I’ll try to teach anybody. We are all striving for the same thing, to make our community stronger and richer. That’s what the jazz musician has always been about.”

In April of 1994, his biggest piece, Blood on the Fields, had its debut performance at the Lincoln Center. Marsalis composed the oratorio for three singers and a 14-piece orchestra, and it described the story of two Africans, Leona, and Jesse, who found love despite the difficulties of American slavery. “I wanted to orchestrate for the larger ensemble and write for voices-something I’d never done,” Marsalis said to V.R. Peterson in a People magazine interview. “I wanted to make the music combine with the words, yet make the characters seem real.”

With Blood on the Fields, Marsalis won the first non-classical Pulitzer Prize award in history. Because of his piece, the selection board changed the criteria from “for larger forms including chamber, orchestra, song, dance, or other forms of musical theater” to “for distinguished musical composition of significant dimension.” Columbia Records released the oratorio on a three-CD set in June of 1997.

He followed the release with recordings of two other previously performed works on one album. His collaboration with New York City Ballet director, Peter Martins’ Jazz/ Six Syncopated Movements, and Jump Start written for ballet director, Twyla Tharp, were both included on the record. Marsalis’ work in jazz and classical music combined with his often outspoken attitude toward musical integrity surrounded him with controversy throughout his career. Despite the criticism, his talent was never questioned. As Eric Alterman described in The Nation, he’s “a man universally acknowledged to be a master musician and perhaps the most ambitious composer alive.”

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