Wynton Marsalis Comes Down to Earth

Wynton Marsalis is a one-man American Institution, a legally incorporated entity of vast reach, unflagging energy, and the rarest talents.

He is Managing and Artistic Director of Jazz at Lincoln Center and Director of Jazz Studies at the Juilliard School, where he was admitted several decades ago at the age of just seventeen, though soon left to join that elite finishing school of improvised music, Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers. In 1983, not long after graduating from the Messengers, Marsalis became the only person ever to win Grammy awards in classical and jazz categories; Grammys followed in five years running, a streak never equaled.

The recognition of Marsalis’s contributions quickly spread beyond the music industry. In the United States he has received the National Medal of Arts (from George W. Bush) and the National Medal of Humanities (from Barack Obama). He is an honorary member of Britain’s Royal Academy of Music, the highest distinction for a someone not a citizen of the United Kingdom.  Kofi Annan appointed him a United Nations Messenger of Peace in 2001, six months before 9/11. The year before that Marsalis had been seen and heard often across the ten episodes of the blockbuster documentary, Jazz, put out by another American institution—Ken Burns. The millennium began with Marsalis the jazz master, then not yet forty, preaching on PBS of American musical exceptionalism—jazz as metaphor for, and engine of, democracy; the music’s constantly re-written constitution making possible the structured and consensual freedom of expression and self-fulfillment that are its hallmarks—life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Two decades on the means for getting the Marsalis message out have gotten considerably more potent and pervasive. For his sixtieth birthday, marked three weeks ago with celebratory concerts at Lincoln Center, his website tells us that “Wynton Marsalis Enterprises, Inc. (WMEI) is partnering with Google and Google Arts & Culture to launch Zero to Sixty: A Visual Exhibition Celebrating Excellence … a sophisticated and hands-on learning tool that explores the many branches of Wynton’s life and career.”  Education is the mission, Marsalis is the brand, its logo featuring the trumpet he has blown to heights of wealth and celebrity.

It’s not just that many of the leading musical and political powers in the world have anointed him a prince of art. Global capitalism has lofted him, Orpheus-like, into the ether.  But before this musical corporation’s final apotheosis (or the apocalypse, whichever comes first), Marsalis continues his uplifting artistic outreach in the terrestrial realm.

A consummate master of the fiery and fearsome variant of jazz sometimes known as bebop, Marsalis’s magisterial skills extend across the long history of this distinctly American music going back to it is origins. He often reminds his audiences that he hails from New Orleans, birthplace of jazz and of Louis Armstrong, his predecessor in trumpet playing as life force and clarion call to international Good Will.  Marsalis is also President of the Louis Armstrong Educational Foundation.

Institutions of higher learning have come calling. Marsalis holds some twenty-five honorary doctorates from American colleges and universities.  In 2016 Cornell appointed him an Andrew Dickson White Professor-at-Large, the post named after this Upstate New York university’s first president. Marsalis’s six-year term concluded last Saturday night at the campus’s rotunda of a concert hall before a thrilled capacity audience numbering more than a thousand.

Given Marsalis’s myriad initiatives, it is understandable that certain divisions within the WMEI corporate structure can occasionally escape scrutiny of the CEO, as for example the impressive biography in Saturday’s concert program that concluded, “With his evolved humanity and through his selfless work, Marsalis has elevated the quality of human engagement for individuals, social networks and cultural institutions throughout the world. When you hear Marsalis play, you’re hearing life being played out through music.”  When, towards the end of Saturday’s event, the trumpeter blasted off into a supersonic, stratospheric flight through the bop burner Cherokee [more on jazz, exoticism and appropriation in a moment], one hardly required further proof that an Übermensch strode the stage of the Cornell Pantheon. But sometimes words speak louder than actions: claims to be high up (and therefore higher than most) on the Darwinian ladder can be even scarier when they come from a refined and intelligent jazz musician than when they are aped by an idiotic orange-haired autocrat.  Indeed, I’m feeling rather atavistic right now for sending my own message to the copywriters at Marsalis, Inc.: tone down the survival-of-the-hippest rhetoric!

Given his ambassadorial brief and comprehensive catalog of accomplishments, Marsalis can nonetheless be forgiven for tending to the pretentious generalization and the self-aggrandizing remark masquerading as modest aside.

It is a relief then, when the larger-than-life sets foot on earth clad in his Brooks Brothers suit and carrying his golden horn.

The first half of Saturday’s concert was devoted to three works by Marsalis framed by contextualizing American contributions from Leonard Bernstein (an early supporter of Marsalis’s career), the New Orleans Romantic Louis Gottschalk, and a more recent musical ride on the New York subways called On-Again, Off-Again from the young Australian, Jack Ferer, while a student at Juilliard.

Gottshalk’s Pasquinade—originally a piano showpiece that adds successive layers of brilliant gossamer filigree to its languid reserve—provided the nineteenth-century prelude to the late twentieth-century “Ragtime” and “Jubilo” from Marsalis’s Jazz: 6 ½ Syncopated Movements. These effervescent New Orleans creations were deftly transcribed by Cornell Wind Symphony Director James Spinazzola, whose 75-person ensemble (made up largely of STEM majors) delivered the music’s delightful surprises with an assiduously rehearsed precision that did not extinguish the spark of spontaneity.

Marsalis ambled into the midst of the group to offer thanks to the students and their conductor, and to the university, for welcoming him so warmly.  This was the first major musical gathering on campus since the beginning of the pandemic, and the outgoing Professor-at-Large stressed the importance of large ensembles in university life and culture more generally: these forms of “community,” he theorized, must supplant the “mythologies of the family,” even if his own (headed by his father, Ellis, and filled out by his three brothers) had received the first and only NEA Jazz Master honor given to a group a decade ago.

Spinazzola then handed his conductor’s baton to his colleague from Ithaca College,  José-Luis Novo, and picked up his clarinet as soloist in Marsalis’ “Blues.” An accomplished jazz saxophonist hymned in these pages back in 2013, Spinazzola found the fantasy and feeling in this carefully choregraphed tableau.

After an intermission that presented the assembly of a drum set by stagehands and professors as surreal 45-minute drama that was three parts Pirandello to one part PDQ Bach, Marsalis returned to the stage. He had brought with him from New York four younger musicians; a Cornell undergraduate, Cosimo Fabrizio (an economics and government major) sat in on guitar and more than held his own alongside slightly older peers from the big city and with degrees from Juilliard and the Manhattan School of Music.

Some three decades his cohort’s senior, Marsalis had admirably cast himself in the role of the beneficent Art Blakely, both fostering and basking in the wellspring of younger talent’s gifts for, and commitment to, the music they love. Admitting—or perhaps bragging—that the quintet (plus Cornellian Fabrizio) didn’t play together too often and “didn’t really do much rehearsing,” the honored guest launched into what amounted to an open workshop in improvisation. It was a collegial confab that bop pioneers Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie—among so many others—would have gleefully participated in and been invigorated by.

The set began with an unannounced tune, an apparently unbaptized blues, sprightly but unrushed; the melody line seems to have been extemporaneously conceived when the group had met that morning. Even in the cavernous Bailey Hall the musicians were unmiked, except for the amplifier that helped project the sound of Philip Norris’s already buoyant and booming bass. If this unfiltered approach works for Classical Music, why not for America’s Classical Music, too? Marsalis took exuberant advantage of this freedom from unnecessary and interfering technology, directing the bell of his trumpet at different angles as if addressing particular phrases and ideas to chosen quadrants of the audience.  Yet the message reached everyone else, too, if somewhat less forcefully. Marsalis draws all into his brilliance and charm.

On the opening no-name blues Marsalis played with space and cool, keeping his virtuosity damped down before unleashing a few choruses of high-RPM dazzle.  Tenor saxophonist Abdias Armenteros picked up on Marsalis’s valedictory phrase, and like the trumpeter cannily resisted putting all of his cards on the table right away, even if he was quick enough to display his fleetness and invention. Dexter Gordon and John Coltrane seemed to nod approvingly from the Bailey Hall wings. Though these inspirations unabashedly infuse his playing, Armenteros is his own tenor man. The visionary pianist Sean Mason, whose magisterial playing spans the generations from Fats Waller and Art Tatum to the likes of Bud Powell and beyond, began his first solo in minimalist repetition mode, his left hand inexorably ratcheting up its activity before the right unleashed two choruses of breathless figures ricocheting up and down the keys.

The Canadian Norris provided irrepressible, booming swing behind the frontmen, and his solos—both on the first blues and the greasy encore that bookended a ballad (Gershwin’s “The Man I Love”) nestled among  Ellington’s Caravan, that searing Cherokee, and Marsalis’s own angularly Monkish “Free To Be”—were agile, insistent, and exciting without losing any of their grandeur, the initial ideas for his improvisations often emerging organically from his walking figures.

Drummer Domo Branch’s incisive commentary and warm-hearted support was given plenty of space to get large in the limelight hustle of Cherokee and in his thrilling pair of groove-shifting solos on Caravan. (Interesting that jazz is allowed these exoticisms, the first from the Brit bandleader Ray Noble’s “Indian Suite,” the second co-authored by the Puerto Rican trombonist Juan Tizol, who was a member of the Ellington band, though credit is usually given, as it was by Marsalis, to the Duke alone.)

During the final slow blues, offered up to calm the wildly enthusiastic crowd, pianist Mason played prayerful octaves, purposefully smudged so as to emulate the bending pitches of a horn—or preacher—before letting his big hands range expansively over the piano’s compass in a mighty expression of joy and sorrow.  Fabrizio’s guitar moaned in octaves too, before Norris’s bass bathed all in healing Mississippi mud.

Even if the concert was a triumph, one still might raise a friendly question about the all-male lineup, as I did when the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra came to Bailey Hall back in 2010. The title of this Saturday’s Gershwin ballad fits snugly this homosocial approach: “You can hear how much I love these musicians,” Marsalis told the audience. There was manly shoulder-slapping and talk of hipness and hugging, and a final group arm-in-arm bow.  Yet one might hope for still better models in this Age of Inclusivity, especially for the purpose of getting more young girls into the game of improvisation.

Alongside Marsalis’s guiding encouragement of dozens of students still beleaguered by the ongoing curse of Covid, one the greatest gifts of his Cornell visit was the introduction to his Ithaca audience of his young jazz colleagues, whatever their gender. Breaking through the barriers of age is another vital form of inclusivity, and a mark of Marsalis’s real and lasting generosity.

Hearing and seeing these extraordinary individuals joined in extraordinary concert reminded the Cornell faithful what “normal” life should look and sound like. Indeed, Marsalis knows better than virtually anyone, including Google, that the only way to keep jazz alive is to keep it real.


DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical NotebooksHe can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com