Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Marsalis, Wynton (Learson)

The entire history of jazz trumpet is present in Wynton Marsalis's sound. His style is rooted in an impeccable, classically nurtured command of the instrument, an advanced sense of rhythm, and an ever-present sense of humor, which he delivers with a beautifully rounded and often-copied tone.

Marsalis can play with the fierceness of Freddie Hubbard, the dark lyrical brooding of Miles Davis, the humor of Bubber Miley and Cootie Williams, and the finesse of Louis Armstrong. But he is no mere copycat: as he has aged, he has grown, and his own distinct voice has emerged out of this amalgamation of trumpet styles.

Wynton Learson Marsalis was born on October 18, 1961 in New Orleans, Louisiana. The second of the six sons of Ellis and Dolores Marsalis, he was named after pianist Wynton Kelly. His father was a pianist and educator, well-known as a mentor to local musicians. At age six, Marsalis was given his first trumpet by New Orleans trumpeter Al Hirt, a good friend and employer of his father’s. He made his performance debut at age seven, playing “The Marine Hymn” at Xavier Junior School of Music.

By age eight, Marsalis had performed traditional New Orleans jazz in the Fairview Baptist Church band with banjoist Danny Barker. After hearing trumpeter Clifford Brown on record, he became seriously dedicated to the trumpet at age twelve. Marsalis showed an early aptitude for not only jazz but classical music as well, and performed Haydn’s E flat trumpet concerto with the New Orleans Philharmonic at age fourteen.

While attending Benjamin Franklin High School, Marsalis played in the New Orleans Symphony Brass Quintet, the New Orleans Community Concert Band, the New Orleans Youth Orchestra, the New Orleans Symphony, as well as a local funk group called the Creators. At seventeen, he was accepted into Tanglewood’s Berkshire Music Center, where he was honored with the Harvey Shapiro Award for outstanding brass player, even though he was the youngest student in the program.

Marsalis kept a 3.98 grade point average in high school, was named a National Merit Scholarship finalist, and was even an Eagle Scout, the highest attainable rank in the Boy Scouts. He received scholarship offers from Yale University and other Ivy League schools, but turned them down to study trumpet at New York City’s prestigious Juilliard School of Music on a full scholarship.

Marsalis moved to New York City in 1979 and immediately started picking up jazz gigs. He quickly established his reputation, and in 1980 he was invited to join the Jazz Messengers, the touring school of hard bop led by drummer Art Blakey.

Marsalis made his first recording with Blakey’s big band in 1980, then with the Jazz Messengers on Straight Ahead in 1981. The 1981 album includes a beautiful take on “How Deep Is the Ocean.” His majestic solo on “A la Mode” from the Messengers'1982 album Keystone 3, shows a remarkable use of dynamics and a Miles Davis-like sense of melodic inventiveness: he often fixates on and repeats musical motives until they feel just right.

Foremost amongst Marsalis's early influences is the brawny, bold and bright tone of Freddie Hubbard. At this stage, Marsalis's solos are precise, virtuosic, and filled with flashy showmanship. His exceptional technique served him well on up-tempo tunes, but his ballad playing lacked the expressiveness it later achieved.

Certainly, his recordings with Blakey demonstrated there was more to Marsalis than hype. His ideas are well-sculpted, his articulation flawless, and he swings incessantly. At the age of nineteen, he had proven himself worthy of the lineage of previous Jazz Messenger trumpeters, which included the hard-bop giants Lee Morgan, Hubbard, and Woody Shaw.

In 1981, while still with Blakey, Marsalis was asked by pianist Herbie Hancock to join him for a tour with his former Miles Davis bandmates Ron Carter and Tony Williams. The young trumpeter sounds not at all intimidated by this superbly dynamic rhythm section on Quartet, their lone studio recording. Highlights from the album include a burning version of Monk’s “Well You Needn’t,” Carter’s openly modal “A Quick Sketch,” and Hancock’s “The Sorcerer.”

The Hancock-led group was significant for not only brightening Marsalis’s already rising star, but also in heralding a revival of interest in acoustic jazz, and for establishing the sound of Davis’s late-1960s ensembles as the touchstone for a new generation of jazz musicians in the 1980s. Marsalis quickly became a symbol of this group of mostly black, neo-traditionalist "young lions," who kept their roots firmly planted in hard bop.

When Marsalis got a recording contract in 1981 from Columbia Records, this opened doors for a number of like-minded peers. However, these young musicians soon found themselves at the center of a critical firestorm in which Marsalis, as their unanointed leader, bore the brunt of the criticism.

Some in the jazz community derided these "young lions" for playing music which did not reflect their own experience, but was rather a reproduction of what they heard on records or had been taught in conservatory. Davis himself, and other musicians of his generation, argued younger players were being acclaimed when their elders, who had spent decades spilling their blood and sweat to create jazz, had never received the recognition they deserved.

For others, however, the revival of straight-ahead, acoustic jazz in the 1980s was a welcome return from the wilderness of electrified fusion and pop-jazz in the 1970s. Not all older musicians disparaged the young lions: Hancock, for one, produced Marsalis’s debut on Columbia, which was simply titled Wynton Marsalis. Marsalis and his older brother Branford, a tenor saxophonist, were backed by Hancock, Carter, and Williams on four of the album's seven tracks. The other three featured fellow young lions Kenny Kirkland on piano, Jeff Watts on drums, and bassists Clarence Seay and Charles Fambrough.

The distinctive and elastic combination of Hancock, Carter, and Williams on this album adds to its retro Davis aura, as the ensemble flows freely between rhythmic determinedness and metric ambiguity. Marsalis is lyrical yet aggressive and snappy on Williams’ melodic Latin-flavored “Sister Cheryl.” On “Who Can I Turn To,” Marsalis is more subdued in stating the melody, though seemingly with a hint of forced restraint.

On Wynton's sophomore album as a leader, Think of One, he can be heard stepping out of Hubbard's shadow. More Miles can be heard in his sound: he creates abstract, chromatically slithering, and less blues-centric lines. His growling and half-valve squeezes during his solo on the title track hint at the personal style he was starting to develop.

But to some, Marsalis sounded too much like Davis, and once again he was chastised for following Miles's example too closely. Upon serious listening and reflection, this argument proves to be exaggerated. His tone had warmed since his stint in the Jazz Messengers and his solos lacked the overwhelming brash self-importance of his younger days. Though there is an audible Davis influence, mixed in with the Hubbard and Clifford Brown influences of his earlier years, Marsalis still played with too many pyrotechnics to be considered a mere Davis clone.

In his liner notes to the 1983 album, longtime Marsalis booster Stanley Crouch acclaimed him as the “prince of trumpet” and a “genius” who “learns at a superior velocity.” While some found this presumptuous, Crouch was not alone in his opinion, and the album won a Grammy Award for Best Jazz Instrumental Performance, Soloist.

Marsalis was concurrently recording classical albums for Columbia. In 1983, he recorded Haydn, Hummel, and Mozart trumpet concertos with the National Philharmonic Orchestra and won a Grammy Award for Best Classical Performance, Instrumental Soloist with Orchestra, making him the first artist to not only be nominated, but also to win jazz and classical Grammys in the same year.

He repeated the same feat in 1984, winning the Best Jazz Instrumental Performance, Soloist Grammy Award for his Hot House Flowers album and the Best Classical Performance, Instrumental Soloist with Orchestra award for his album of Baroque music with soprano Edita Gruberova.

Wynton's 1985 album Black Codes from the Underground earned him two more Grammys. Backed by his working group at the time - brother Branford, Kirkland, Watts, and Charnett Moffett on bass - Marsalis can be heard breaking free of his previous influences and revealing an individuated voice on his compositions “Delfeayo’s Dilemma” and “Chambers of Tain.”

Watts was the only holdover on Marsalis’s next Grammy-winning album, J Mood, as pianist Marcus Roberts and bassist Bob Hurst replaced Kirkland and Moffett, respectively. Marsalis is challenged as the lone soloist in the frontline, as Branford had left the group to tour with Sting. Wynton excels admirably as evidenced on the bluesy title track, his tone warmer and more intimate and phrasing more adventurous than on previous recordings.

Live at Blues Alley from 1986 captivatingly documents Marsalis’s quartet in the energetic atmosphere of a small jazz club. The trumpeter’s extended solos display an astounding ability to create continually surprising and astonishingly intricate improvisations in a multitude of styles, from the delicate romanticism of “Just Friends,” the funky hard-bop swing of “Juan,” to the scorching modal burn of “Knozz-Moe-King.”

1987 was another banner year for Marsalis, as he won yet another Grammy for Marsalis Standard Time, Volume 1. This was his first salute to the Great American Songbook, which included oft-interpreted standards such as “Cherokee,” “Autumn Leaves,” and “A Foggy Day.”

1987 also marks the year Marsalis co-founded Jazz at Lincoln Center (JALC), the jazz performance and education wing of New York City’s premier performing arts center, which also includes the Metropolitan Opera, the New York Philharmonic and the New York City Ballet. Over the two decades Marsalis has been JALC's artistic and musical director, the organization has grown into tne world's leading jazz repertory organization, which sponsored three thousand international events in its 2008-09 season alone, and continuously programs live jazz at three custom-built concert halls on the Lincoln Center campus in New York City.

While JALC's growth has been exponential under Marsalis's leadership, his tenure has not been free from controversy. He has been criticized for the size of his annual salary following a 2006 article published in Reader’s Digest about overspending by non-profit organizations, and the organization's hiring practices and programming choices have also been criticized as narrow, but in recent years this has started to change. JALC's 2009-10 season, for instance, includes fusion guitarist John McLaughlin, avant-garde saxophonist Ornette Coleman, as well as collaborations with with reggae, Afro-Cuban, tap, rap, and tango artists, in addition to performances of classic jazz repertoire.

In 1988 Marsalis began to distance himself from Davis's influence with the album Standard Time, Volume 2: Intimacy Calling. He nods to the traditional music of his hometown New Orleans with the inclusion of Louis Armstrong’s theme, “When It’s Sleepy Time Down South” and the rousing second-line march “Bourbon Street Parade.” The three-volume series Soul Gestures in Southern Blue followed.

With 1989’s The Majesty of the Blues, Marsalis fully embraced his throwback phase as he conjured the early raucousness of Joe 'King' Oliver and Bubber Miley. The deepening influence of Duke Ellington, too, is also audible in his extended compositions, such as “The Majesty of the Blues (The Puheeman Strut).”

By 1991, when Marsalis recorded Blue Interlude, his steady group had grown to seven members. They were Wes Anderson on alto, Todd Williams on tenor, trombonist Wycliffe Gordon, Roberts on piano, who was soon replaced by Eric Reed, bassist Reginald Veal, and drummer Herlin Riley. While the thirty-seven minute “Blue Interlude” has interesting moments, Marsalis struggles with his own compositional effusiveness, trying to fit too much in, which he tops off with a nearly six-minute introductory monologue.

Marsalis’s admiration and study of Duke Ellington are obvious, and to some of his critics, their compositional and arranging styles are so closely linked that he has been called a copyist. Controversy aside, it is remarkable that Marsalis had the arranging ability to make his septet sound like a much larger ensemble.

In 1992, Marsalis’s next extended work for his septet, Citi Movement, was written for Garth Fagan’s modern ballet Griot New York. Other commissioned dance works followed for Twyla Tharp and the American Ballet Theatre, which was recorded in 1996 as Jump Start and Jazz, Peter Martins at the New York City Ballet, and the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.

Marsalis's first commissioned piece for JALC, 1993’s In This House, On This Morning, is the first full realization of his compositional potential. His writing and arranging styles are still in the Ellington mold, but the multi-sectional, two hour opus has the trumpeter’s distinct fingerprints all over it: rapidly shifting tempos, meters, and grooves, high pitched dissonance in the reeds, reoccurring themes, plus his own unmistakable, beautiful wide vibrato tone on the trumpet which dictates the rubato sections.

In 1995, Marsalis wrote and hosted a PBS series entitled “Marsalis on Music,” which taught music fundamentals, theory, and history geared towards children, and frequently visits schools on his trips around the country. He has also personally funded scholarships for students of the Tanglewood Music Center.

In 1997 Marsalis released an ambitious and challenging oratorio, Blood on the Fields, a massive twenty seven-part, three-hour suite for fifteen instrumentalists and three singers. Chronicling the lives of two captured Africans sold as slaves, played on the recording by singers Cassandra Wilson and Miles Griffith Blood on the Fields made Marsalis the first jazz musician to receive a Pulitzer Prize.

Some argued Blood on the Fields was too close in concept to Ellington's suites, Black, Brown & Beige and A Drum is a Woman, to merit the Pulitzer honor. History will judge the ultimate merit of Marsalis's work, as it has Ellington's, whose greatness has only become more apparent with the passing years.

In 1999, Marsalis released an unprecedented eight-CD series called Swinging Into the 21st Century, highlighted by interpretations of Thelonious Monk (Standard Time Volume 4: Marsalis Plays Monk), an extended work for the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra (Big Train), Bartok-inspired string quartets (At the Octoroon Balls: String Quartet No. 1), a jazz translation of Stravinsky’s “Histoire du Soldat” (A Fiddler’s Tale), and an album of ballets (Sweet Release and Ghost Story).

Marsalis capped the series with the seven-disc set Live at the Village Vanguard, which featured his septet on live takes of original compositions plus standards such as “Stardust” and “Cherokee,” the latter featuring a virtuosic workout by the leader.

Marsalis played a key role in Jazz, a ten-part documentary film series by Ken Burns which debuted on PBS in 2001. Marsalis served in dual roles, as the film's artistic director and co-producer. Some found the project too focused the accomplishments of the narrow canon of those favored by Marsalis, such as Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington, to the exclusion of active artists, with the exception of a few, including himself. He was rightly criticized for this dual role, and for using it to promote an exclusionary view of jazz, as well as his own career.

Always outspoken, Marsalis has gone so far as to assert in the 1980s, not long after he became the artistic director of JALC, that jazz after 1965 was outside of his definition of the music. While his definition of jazz has broadened with age, his public persona has largely been defined by his espousal of this neo-traditionalist view.

All Rise, originally written for Kurt Masur and the New York Philharmonic, was recorded in September 2001, immediately following the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, D.C.. A twelve-movement concert piece written for symphonic orchestra, jazz big band, and full gospel chorus, All Rise is Marsalis’s most ambitious and ostentatious work to date, worthy of comparison to Berlioz. Although composed before September 11, this work became emblematic of the nation's response to the devastating events of that day.

The Magic Hour followed in 2004. Marsalis’s less than triumphant debut on Blue Note was also a mostly forgettable return to small group jazz with pianist Eric Lewis, bassist Carlos Henriquez, and drummer Ali Jackson. On his soundtrack to Ken Burns’ documentary Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson, which was released on CD later in 2004, Marsalis revisits pre-bop style jazz and blues of the 1920s and 1930s.

In contrast, 2005's Live at the House of Tribes is vigorous and spirited. His gently lyrical playing is tenderly emotive on “Just Friends” and hauntingly beautiful on “You Don’t Know What Love Is.” On “Green Chimneys” and the frantically up-tempo “Donna Lee,” the trumpeter proves that even after all these years, he still has new things to say on his horn, including a bottomless bag of licks and tricks that his contemporaries couldn’t even dream of executing.

In 2008, Marsalis tried his hand at social commentary From the Plantation to the Penitentiary, which prominently featured vocalist Jennifer Sanon. It also includes an outspoken, ranting tirade by Marsalis himself on the album’s closer, “Where Y’all At,” in which he delivers stinging criticism of the failings of American society, but the delivery is contrived.

Later in 2008, he collaborated with country singer Willie Nelson, and released Two Men with the Blues, recorded live in the Allen Room at JALC, on Blue Note. Marsalis and his quintet back Nelson’s country croon in a multitude of styles, from the jump blues of “Caldonia,” the country swing of “Bright Lights Big City,” to the New Orleans second line funk of “My Bucket’s Got a Hole In It,” and straight ahead jazz ballading on “Georgia On My Mind.”

Wynton Marsalis's career has been one of many firsts. To some, he is the savior of jazz. To others, he wants to make it a museum. He has inspired overly generous praise and unfairly harsh criticism in equal measures.

But this controversy is itself testament to the scope of his abilities. To whom much is given, much is expected. Early in his career, Marsalis could so easily imitate the styles of his musical heroes, that this became a major part of his musical identity. To expect such a young artist to have had a sound totally clear of influences would have been too much to ask, even of one with almost unlimited potential, as Marsalis showed.

The best testament to Marsalis's talent is that he has continued to mature as a performer, composer, and as an advocate for his evolving concept of jazz. He has achieved a musical voice which, while embodying tradition, is distinctly his own. To jazz fans, it is good news that Marsalis has found this voice when much of his career still awaits him, and us.

SELECT DISCOGRAPHY

AS A LEADER:

Wynton Marsalis (1981)

Think of One (1983)

Black Codes (From the Underground) (1985)

J Mood (1985)

Marsalis Standard Time, Vol. 1 (1986)

Live At Blue Alley (1986)

Standard Time, Vol. 2: Intimacy Calling (1987)

The Majesty of the Blues (1988)

Standard Time, Vol. 3: The Resolution of Romance (1990)

The Marciac Suite (1999)

Standard Time, Vol. 6: Mr. Jelly Lord, The Magic Hour (2004)

Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson (2004)

Live at the House of Tribes (2005)

From the Plantation to the Penitentiary (2007)

Two Men With the Blues (with Willie Nelson, 2008)

WITH THE WYNTON MARSALIS SEPTET:

Original Soundtrack from “Tune in Tomorrow” (1989)

Blue Interlude (1991)

In This House, On This Morning (1992)

Citi Movement (1992)

Joe Cool’s Blues (1994)

Standard Time, Vol. 4: Marsalis Plays Monk (1999)

Live at the Village Vanguard (2000)

WITH THE LINCOLN CENTER JAZZ ORCHESTRA:

Jump Start and Jazz (1996)

Blood on the Fields (1997)

Live In Swing City (1999)

Big Train (1999)

All Rise (2002)

CLASSICAL:

Trumpet Concertos (1983)

Baroque Music: Wynton Marsalis, Edita Gruberova, Raymond Leppard & the English Chamber (1985)

Tomasi/Jolivet: Trumpet Concertos (1986)

Carnaval (1987)

Baroque Music For Trumpets (1988)

Haydn, Hummel, Mozart: Trumpet Concertos (1990)

On the Twentieth Century (with Judith Lynn Stillman, 1993)

In Gabriel’s Garden (1996)

At the Octoroon Balls: String Quartet No. 1 (1999)

Fiddler’s Tale (1999)

AS A SIDEMAN:

Album of the Year (Art Blakey, 1981)

Straight Ahead (Art Blakey, 1981)

Art Blakey In Sweden (Art Blakey, 1981)

Destiny’s Dance (Chico Freeman, 1981)

Quartet (Herbie Hancock, 1981)

Keystone 3 (Art Blakey, 1982)

The Truth Is Spoken Here (Marcus Roberts, 1988)

Mood Indigo (Frank Morgan, 1989)

Epitaph (Charles Mingus, 1990)

Proper Angle (Charles Fambrough, 1991)

Lush Life: The Music of Billy Strayhorn (Joe Henderson, 1991)

To Diz With Love (Dizzy Gillespie, 1992)

Tangence (J.J. Johnson, 1994)

Citizen Tain (Jeff “Tain” Watts, 1999)

Signature (Ann Hampton Callaway, 2002)

Marsalis Family: A Jazz Celebration (2003)

Contributor: Matt Leskovic