A Conversation with…Wynton Marsalis

March 8, 2007

Wynton Marsalis Wynton Marsalis occupies a singular position in popular culture.The most famous member of “The First Family of Jazz” (son of Ellis Marsalis, brother of Branford, Delfeayo, and Jason) and, arguably, the most well known jazz musician alive, Wynton is also an occasional lightning rod for debate. While universally revered for his considerable talents and considered by many to be the principle steward of the genre, Marsalis can nonetheless cause a stir among those who don’t share his strict notions of what constitutes jazz music.

Any incidental controversy aside, Wynton is not only one of the most accomplished musicians on the planet, he’s also among the most stalwart supporters of jazz education. As artistic director of Jazz at Lincoln Center (www.jalc.org) he’s been directly involved with programs and initiatives that have positively impacted the lives of numerous students and aspiring performers. The newly expanded Essentially Ellington High School Jazz Band Program, for example, works hand in glove with students and educators to enhance and support school jazz curriculums.

Moreover, through master classes, one-on-one lessons, and his acclaimed recordings and performances, Marsalis has touched countless developing artists. Just as Wynton’s journey was influenced by the greats who came before him – Freddie Hubbard, Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Louis Armstrong, Woody Shaw, and others – his own accomplishments and philosophies now inform the musical evolution of Roy Hargrove, Jeremy Davenport, and Kenny Kirkland, to name only a few.

Recently JAZZed was honored to have the opportunity to sit down with Mr. Marsalis who proved (as expected) to be an insightful, passionate, intelligent conversationalist, willing to candidly discuss his own progress as a student of jazz, his dedication to perpetuating the form, and thoughts on his contributions to music and music education.

JAZZed: Growing up in such a musically accomplished family has certain benefits – I understand your first trumpet was a gift from Al Hirt.
Wynton Marsalis: That’s true. I did get my first trumpet from Al Hirt. My father was playing in his band at the time and had mentioned that he wanted to get me started on an instrument.

JAZZed: Did you take to the horn immediately?
WM: No, not at all, in fact. I was only five or six and just wasn’t really interested in playing music. I was more interested in what every other kid was doing – playing ball and all that. I didn’t want to get that ring around my lips [from practicing trumpet] because I thought the girls wouldn’t like that, so I never practiced.

JAZZed: Makes sense. So when did you start to seriously pursue music?
WM: I’d been playing music for a while, but I guess I really got serious and started actually practicing for real when I was around 12 years old. Although, before that I had played in Danny Barker’s Band – The Fairview Baptist Church Band – when I was around eight years old.

JAZZed: Aside from your father, who else was an early teacher who had a big influence on your development as a musician?
WM: John Longo was a man in his 20s who had gone to Southern University in New Orleans. He was a great trumpet player and he taught me with a lot of love and feeling. John gave me all the good fundamental exercises. He had a real big sound – I remember he would play on a King Silver Flair. Nobody had money, man, back then. I think my lessons were five dollars, but I couldn’t pay even that. But he’d teach me for two or three hours at a time.

JAZZed: That’s so great to hook up with someone who cares that deeply about the music and the student.
WM: It was real nice – he treated me more like I was one of his own kids. John lived on St. Peter’s Street with those double-shotgun houses and his house always smelled good – like red beans and rice.

Everybody knew each other and looked out for one another. Of course John and all them knew my father because he was, like, the older generation of musicians. Bill Fielder, who now teaches at Rutgers, also would come and give me lessons sometimes. He taught me about playing piccolo trumpet and all the high trumpets – he even gave me a piccolo trumpet.

JAZZed: Sounds like you had a lot of strong support from the get-go.
WM: All the older musicians always treated me with love and respect; they’d look out for me. I had a chance to meet a lot of musicians like Dizzy and Art Blakey – I was always hanging with these amazing guys. They would come through New Orleans and, because they knew my daddy, I’d end up around all of them. When I was eight and nine years old I was always around these amazing older people.

JAZZed: You mentioned that you had already been playing with groups and ensembles. This, of course, continued into your teens?
WM: I played with a lot of ensembles. The main thing for me when I was 13 or so was a funk band, The Creators. We played a lot of proms, dances, clubs, wedding receptions, and the like. We worked constantly. Around then, I was also in the [New Orleans Symphony] Brass Quintet, the [New Orleans] Youth Orchestra, [New Orleans Community] Concert Band, the Youth Orchestra, the [New Orleans] Symphony – I played with a lot of groups.

JAZZed: A pretty ambitious schedule for a teenager, but it clearly paid off. In addition to those independent ensembles, did you participate in your school music programs?
WM: Oh yeah. I always played in the school band. I played in the elementary band, high school#133; We played marching band music, John Philip Sousa and also concert band music: Gustav Holtz and all that.

JAZZed: Tell me a little bit about your school music educators.
WM: George Marks was my high school band director in 8th and 9th grade. He was also a trumpet player and I remember he wanted to borrow some Clifford Brown records from me. At the time, I was listening to Clifford Brown with Strings, Brown Roach Incorporated, Clifford Brown Max Roach, At Basin Street – all those great albums. This was in 1970-something and those records are from the mid-’50s. George Marks said, “Can I borrow those records? I want to copy them.” So he was hip – he was trying to swing, too.

I had a new director at my next high school – an Armenian guy named Peter Dombourian. He was just a different kind of director, but it was always cool with me. I liked it all. I was practicing, so I didn’t have a lot of problems with my band directors.

JAZZed: Somehow that comes as no surprise.
WM: (laughs) Well, I was serious about learning how to play. I’d always been around grown men, starting with my Daddy and all them – they were always serious about playing. I had fun, too, though. With my funk band there were, you know, a lot of girls who’d show up at gigs and that was fun. But when it came down to playing, I was always serious.

JAZZed: You turned down scholarship offers from Ivy League schools in order to study classical at Juilliard. What led you to choose the school?
WM: Among other things, I had another teacher later in high school, George Jansen. He had taught John Longo and had studied at Juilliard. I knew it was a great conservatory, and I wanted to go to New York. When I went to Juilliard it was actually the first time I had gotten on a plane.

JAZZed: Did the school and city live up to your expectations?
WM: It was everything I thought it’d be. I was like a country boy, man. I mean, in New Orleans we have one skyscraper, so just to come into Manhattan was mind-boggling. I was in awe of it. I was wearing a suit I had gotten from JC Penny – I was truly country.

JAZZed: Of your professors at Julliard, who stands out in your memory?
WM: Mary Anthony Cox was my ear-training teacher and I liked her a lot. She just was a veteran, a real pro. She knew what she was doing, she loved the students, and she was very straightforward.

JAZZed: Your sudden prominence in the early ’80s is now considered a watershed moment in the evolution of jazz. The emergence of this younger, extremely talented musician playing “traditional” acoustic jazz and not fusion or RB or anything else – that started the whole “Young Lions” deal. Were you conscious of the impact you were having?
WM: You know, I really wasn’t aware of any of that stuff, to be honest. I know I had an impact mainly because the older musicians treated me a certain way, with a certain kind of respect, and they would teach me. I didn’t get that much public support, to tell you the truth, but in private I got a lot of support.

JAZZed: The respect that your fellow musicians have for you has led to a number of notable creative pairings in your career. Can you talk about the importance of collaborations?
WM: Well, that’s really life in general – collaborations. You live and die with those choices. You make bad choices about people to be around, people to hook up with, and it can have a profoundly negative impact on your life. Or it can be unbelievably good if you select relationships that are challenging.

JAZZed: Mind sharing how you entered into one of those important relationships – that with Art Blakey?
WM: Not at all. At the time, Art was playing at a club called Mikell’s on 97th and Columbus. I was roommates with a guy I had met at Tanglewood named Akira Tana, who was playing with the Heath Brothers. Akira knew James Williams who was playing piano with Art Blakey and he said, “If you’re going to learn how to play, you need to get a job with Art Blakey.” There really were only two bands hiring young cats at the time: Art Blakey or Horace Silver – and Horace only worked, like, six months out of the year. So Akira encouraged me to get this job with Art Blakey: “Somebody else has the job, but go down and let him hear you play. I’m gonna talk to James and he’ll see if Art will let you play and maybe you’ll have a chance to get in the band. If you don’t get in that band, I don’t see how you’re going to learn how to really play.”

JAZZed: No pressure or anything…
WM: (laughs) So I went down to the club and talked to James and Art ended up letting me play. I played on “Along Came Betty” and James was changing keys every measure or something – I don’t know – but I didn’t play nothing right. Art was like, “Man, you sad. (laughs) But that’s all right. I like your attitude. We’re playing in Boston next week if you want to come up.” So I went to Boston. I just wanted the opportunity to play. I sat in and he still wasn’t that impressed, but he said he’d call me soon and I just started to go to wherever they were playing. He put a big band together in the summer and we played – me and Branford and Kevin and Robin Eubanks – and I started to work more with Art after that. I was very, very fortunate to have the opportunity to play with him. He taught me so much about being a professional musician, about being serious, and he gave me that opportunity to really learn how to play.

JAZZed: We’ve heard about some of your own teachers and mentors – how do you approach teaching?
WM: I really just try to have my own work ethic and my own thing intact. I learned from Art Blakey by just watching him – he was very serious about playing, all the time.

In terms of actual teaching, I’ll teach students and give them a lesson, but if they don’t do the work that I give them, I won’t really “teach” them any further. I will still like them and we can have a good time, but why waste our time? Music is too serious for me to do that. In that case, I would rather just play some basketball with them or chess or, you know, talk about reading. We don’t have to talk about music.

JAZZed: So you gauge your methods based upon their interest levels.
WM: Yeah, their level of seriousness. If a person’s not serious, there’s nothing for us to talk about because the next lesson is going to be about the first lesson. I don’t believe in making students do things, especially if they’re grown. You have to kind of prod 12-, 13-, 14-year-olds sometimes, but by the time someone’s 19, 20#133; if someone that age has made up their mind that they are, or aren’t, serious about music, there’s nothing you can do about it.

JAZZed: That sort of “serious, but ‘fun’ and low-pressure” approach also pervades the programs at Jazz at Lincoln Center.
WM: Our educational goals are to offer to students of all ages, from two to 200, the opportunity to learn the music and the culture. The aim really is to teach in the natural method: natural, basic communication of information; not an overbearing approach, not “you have to do things this way” – very relaxed.

We also aim for very high quality materials. We try to make sure the examples and the scores are of the highest quality.

The philosophy is always welcoming. You’re not trying to beat people over the head, you’re trying to bring them into the feeling of the music. I feel like the most successful teachers bring their students into the feeling of the thing that they’re teaching.

JAZZed: Talk a little bit about Essentially Ellington?
WM: The cool thing is that we’re getting Ellington’s scores all around – and that’s a very important thing. Making sure that everyone has the chance to hear and play and learn about Duke’s music is important. Each year the bands are getting better, the kids are improving. Essentially Ellington is definitely having a positive impact.

JAZZed: One other component of JILC that might be of particular interest to our readers is the Band Director Academy.
WM: The idea behind the Academy is to provide a resource that helps band directors understand how to teach improvisation and understand the process of how to approach teaching jazz. I always have band directors coming up to me, saying, “Help my kids” – the Academy is designed to help these teachers hone the tools that they need in order to help their kids learn the language of jazz.

JAZZed: How many students do you currently teach? Do you have regular students?
WM: I don’t have many regular students, but I have people come to me with their kids all the time – I can’t estimate how often that happens. There’s no real schedule or anything, but I taught three lessons last week, for example.

JAZZed: What advice would you give to school music directors hoping to add a jazz program to their curriculum?
WM: I think that it’s important for jazz be a part of any American musical education – why wouldn’t it be? It’s our art form and our mythology and jazz teaches us about being American in the best sense of the word. Most importantly, directors should pick the scores that they want to use wisely. You need good scores, classic scores that will teach the students the meaning of the music.

JAZZed: The idea of “the meaning of jazz” touches upon a tricky topic – and one that has been a source of some controversy in your own career. Some prefer a more amorphous understanding of “jazz” which allows fusion, world-influenced music, and other forms to be included, but you tend to have a more strict definition.
WM: Anything that cannot be defined cannot be taught. That’s just a fact. If you don’t know what something is, then you can’t teach it. So the question a band director has to ask himself is, “What will my students get the most out of?” – not “What will my students like?” What will be most beneficial – to learn the history of our people, to learn our culture, to become virtuosic on their instruments or play their instruments in a more individualistic style, to teach them how to play more together and in balance? You have to ask yourself certain key ensemble questions. What music will be most beneficial to my students and their development? Each band director should ask that question and also do the research, themselves, in order to figure out what’s available for their students.

JAZZed: You’ve achieved a great amount and already can lay claim to a legacy unrivalled by most in your field. Which of your accomplishments gives you the greatest satisfaction?
WM: For me, the greatest feeling is running into all the people I’ve taught all through the years. When I travel around the country, I literally see thousands of people, in all kinds of ensembles, who say, “Man, you came to my school when I was in fourth grade.” Some of these same guys have grey beards! I say, “What!? Don’t be lying – I’m not old enough to have been in your school when you were in fourth grade.”

But I see these kinds of people everywhere. Just recently two guys picked me up down on Wall Street and they gave me a ride Uptown. They said they went to a clinic I gave at the University of Kentucky in 1985 or something. It happens all the time and to me that’s the most gratifying thing – that people can remember those kinds of encounters and experiences. You know – people cook food for me or take me out; I get treated a certain way just because I’ve had that type of impact. They can remember when I was in their school, or they remember I gave them a lesson.

JAZZed: That is pretty cool.
WM: I always ask them, “Was I mean to you, or was I nice?” Sometimes they say, “mean!” (laughs).

JAZZed: This has been a real privilege. Thanks for taking the time to chat with me.
WM: Yeah, that was good. All right, little brother – take care.


  • Awards Accolades: Pulitzer Prize for Music (1997, Blood on the Fields); Nine Grammy Awards (jazz and classical); Harvey Shapiro Award – Tanglewood’s Berkshire Music Center; National Medal of Arts (2005); Edison Award (Netherlands).
  • Honorary Doctoral Degrees (Partial listing): Boston University; Manhattan School of Music; Southern University at New Orleans; Yale University; Columbia University; Princeton University; UMass Amherst; Academy of Southern Arts and Letters; Haverford College; Rutgers University; Connecticut College; University of Pennsylvania, Howard University.
  • Select Discography: Wynton; Think of One; Hot House Flowers; Black Codes (From the Underground); J Mood; The Majesty of the Blues; Quiet City; Blue Interlude; Citi Movement; Standard Time, Vol. 6: Mr. Jelly Lord; The Marciac Suite (Columbia); Baroque Music; Baroque Music for Trumpets (CBS); All Rise (Sony Classical); The Magic Hour; Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson; Live at the House of Tribes (Blue Note).

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