Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Young Man With A Horn

By Mark Jordan

NOVEMBER 9, 1998:  When you hear that you’ll be interviewing Wynton Marsalis, your stomach immediately seizes up with a combination of excitement and dread. This is because, if you know anything about him at all, you realize that you will be talking to the premier jazzman of his generation. A player who almost single-handedly revived acoustic jazz in the ’80s. A gifted composer who has brought both vision and artistic ambition back to the genre’s oeuvre. The director of one of the most lauded arts groups in the country. Not to mention an artist whose virtuosity and keen musical intelligence has propelled him to the ranks of the foremost classical soloists of the day. That’s the excitement part.

The dread part kicks in when you realize that, if you know anything about him at all, you’re talking to a man whose passion for music – jazz and classical – has occasionally pushed him to rhetorical extremes. He’s a fervent advocate of his idiom, dismissing pop music altogether and going so far as to publicly berate jazz musicians who don’t adhere to his vision of what the music should be and where it should go. It’s hard today to imagine the furor Wynton Marsalis caused when he hit the scene in the early ’80s. Here was a young horn player, barely in his 20s, fresh off career-making gigs with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers and Herbie Hancock’s V.S.O.P., undeniably gifted but unashamedly arrogant and opinionated, accusing his elders of selling out the music, his music. It was like the rebellious, authority-defying spirit of rock-and-roll had been reborn in the figure of a hip hard-bopper.

But while you carry those equally daunting perceptions of Marsalis to the interview, they start to dissipate once you actually begin talking to the man. Perhaps the years have mellowed him. Gone are the long tirades about the sorry state of jazz. His interviews today are sedate affairs, accommodating but terse. Don’t ask close-ended questions; you will get a close-ended response.

Perhaps it is respectability that has softened Marsalis. No longer the young lion with something to prove, Marsalis has matured into the respected musical statesman. In 1988, he helped found the jazz program at Lincoln Center, which includes the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, and under its auspices has become a leading music educator. He is a multiple-Grammy winner – the only musician ever to win Grammys in both the jazz and classical fields. And last year, he earned the ultimate sign of acceptance, a Pulitzer Prize for his epic composition Blood on the Fields. He is the only jazz artist ever to be so honored.

If Marsalis’ persona has mellowed with maturity, however, his love of music – and more importantly, of making music – burns as hot as ever. He maintains a breakneck work pace. Jazz at Lincoln Center remains his main gig and keeps him occupied most of the year with its various educational programs and relentless concert schedule, which includes playing several arts-benefit concerts each year, such as the one that will bring Marsalis and the LCJO to Memphis this Sunday.

But Marsalis moonlights as well. In April he released the fifth volume in his ongoing Standard Time series, The Midnight Blues. This winter will see the release of a compilation of his best classical recordings. And he has just finished scoring an upcoming HBO documentary on boxer Sugar Ray Robinson.

“We tried to put in music that Sugar Ray would have liked,” says Marsalis of the project, which features a jazz sextet. “There’s a section where Miles [Davis] talks about Sugar Ray at the end, so I’ll be using the mute. … There’s not that much you can do in a documentary; there’s a lot of talking, so you just try and stay out of the way of the dialogue.”

He is also composing a work for the New York City Ballet and has began writing the book for another large-scale theatre piece like Blood on the Fields.

“Like Blood on the Fields, it’s set in a different time,” Marsalis says. “It’s about two families that have the same name. One is a black family who are sharecroppers. The other is the white family whose land they’re on. It’s really a complicated plot.”

All this just as Jazz at Lincoln Center is gearing up for a massive, year-long tribute marking the centennial of Duke Ellington’s birth in 1999.

At the conclusion of a frustrating interview – one in which Marsalis gave precious little insight into his life or art – Marsalis rubs it in. “Thanks, man,” he says quick and cheerfully. “I think it went really well.”

After talking to him and writing a article about him, I don’t think I know any more about Wynton Marsalis – as, I suspect, neither do you, the reader. But perhaps Marsalis defies interpretation. Maybe with him the play is the thing. It’s as he said, when asked if he needed to jump between classical and jazz music to stay interested.

“No, man,” he said. “It’s just what I do.”

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