35 Who Made a Difference: Wynton Marsalis

In Katrina’s aftermath, the trumpeter has rallied support for his native New Orleans

Wynton Marsalis
Wikimedia Commons

"We're blues people. And blues never lets tragedy have the last word." This is an utterly characteristic statement by Wynton Marsalis, the trumpeter, composer and jazz impresario. He spoke those words in a television interview shortly after Hurricane Katrina devastated his hometown of New Orleans. Within days he was playing in gigs to raise money for Katrina victims, including a huge benefit concert, "Higher Ground," produced by Jazz At Lincoln Center, of which he is the artistic director. It has raised more than $2 million. Bob Dylan once remarked that a hero was "someone who understands the degree of responsibility that comes with his freedom." By that measure, Marsalis is a hero bona fide.

From the time he first came to wide public attention at age 18 with Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers, in 1979, Marsalis has thought deeply about what it means to be a jazz musician. Although his brothers Branford, Delfeayo and Jason are musicians, and his father, Ellis Marsalis, is a prominent jazz pianist, Wynton had to come to jazz on his own terms. "When I was growing up," he once told me, "jazz music was just something that my daddy played that nobody really wanted to listen to. I didn't listen to it because it was 'something old.' A little later, once I started to want to check jazz out, I was really the only one I knew who wanted to play it."

After leaving Blakey's group, Marsalis spent a decade and a half touring with his small ensemble and, later, the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, playing concerts, lecturing, visiting schools. His tours were part old-fashioned traveling lyceum, part portable revival meeting, and he planted the seeds of a new generation of musicians. They've had their careers, and often their lives, cultivated by Marsalis, who called them from the road, urged them to practice, suggested recordings for study and in time offered them gigs.

Marsalis has made some 60 recordings and written five books, and he has won nine Grammy Awards for his classical trumpet recordings as well as his jazz efforts. He was the first jazz composer to win the Pulitzer Prize for Composition, for his oratorio "Blood On The Fields," in 1997. He has attracted more attention from the mainstream arts establishment than any jazz musician since Duke Ellington, and Marsalis has used the vast resources at his disposal to establish the premier jazz educational and performance venue in the world, Jazz At Lincoln Center, in New York City.

Of course, anyone in such a position attracts criticism the way a statue attracts pigeons. Unlike some who see jazz solely as a music for iconoclasts, Marsalis has advocated an approach based on a solid grasp of the music's history and traditions. Reviewers and musicians who disagree with him have sometimes been bruised by his bluntness. Yet the jazz world has gotten more used to Marsalis' large presence. While there are still some people who would carp if Marsalis gave eyesight to the blind, even his critics have conceded the value of the enormous public visibility and credibility he has brought to jazz music.

In his cosmology, Marsalis has always located not just the roots but the heart of jazz in New Orleans. He has been involved with summer programs for young musicians in the Crescent City and has privately helped individual musicians financially and professionally. The devastation brought to New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina clearly has pained him deeply. He's involved in what promises to be extended wrangling over New Orleans' future, participating in planning meetings with political, business and civic leaders, all of whom have different visions of what a reconstructed city might become. Marsalis insists on including in that vision the city's poorest residents, so often the bearers of its musical, culinary and spiritual culture at the deepest level.

"We're not going to just fade away because of a crisis," Marsalis said in a September TV interview. "That's not in our nature." It’s certainly not in his. He has used his talents, and his understanding of the responsibility that goes with them, to become deeper, more human, more valuable.

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