Ten Minutes with Wynton Marsalis
A jazz master who takes his legacy to task
Photo by Joe Martinez
Wynton Marsalis got his break as a teen on his trumpet at Tanglewood. The Grammy Award–winning artist returns to the area with his “Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra” for the Mahaiwe’s July 30 fundraising gala. Marsalis, who describes jazz as a “metaphor for democracy,” makes it his mission to create a collaborative environment for musicians, much like in the Berkshires from 1950-1979, when artists like Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie, Count Basie, Miles Davis, and Thelonious Monk played at the Music Inn.
How do you view the Berkshires?
It’s like coming home. It has had such an impact on me and my growth as a musician at such a crucial time.
Tell me about first coming here at age 17, as part of the Berkshire Music Center.
It changed my life, to be associated with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, one of the finest organizations in the world. I had never been out of the South, and the students I met, I still see them, and I still have a relationship with them. When I come here, I’m cognizant of being part of that tradition and reminded of what it has meant to me. It’s a sort of magic. It’s like your grandma’s house, somewhere that you’d like to be. No matter your age, it still resonates.
How did Gunther Schuller, who ran the Berkshire Music Center from 1970 to 1984 at Tanglewood, impact you?
Schuller wrote the definitive book on jazz. I was very close and respectful of him, and he was a great force. I spent a lot of time around and exposed to him, and he encouraged me. He was a profound musical figure.
You didn’t begin your training in jazz?
At that time, jazz or classical, it was the same band training. That’s changed for jazz students, and it’s to their detriment. The technical foundation of music is not a style of music. We need to make our technical foundation stronger.
Is jazz alive and well?
It’s a struggle because our country is struggling. Integrity is a very delicate thing. It’s a familiar concept, but that struggle is very real—in political practices, financial, cultural. It’s extremely clear, but, like water, it’s easy to turn it red or green or blue. Somewhere, there’s a need for a celebration of integrity.
On “CBS This Morning,” you said Trump’s proposed cuts to arts education is preparing the public to be “more ignorant.” What do you mean?
We need to find a center road that we all can ride on. If the ship is listing, if you jump on one side of it, that’s the stupidest thing to do. We need mature leadership and wisdom. I will do what I’ve been doing all along, and embody our art form. Go to schools, play jazz, play others’ music. The foundation of what I believe hasn’t changed much, and I have no problem saying it. I’m not holding to any constituency. I’m an artist. I’m a musician, unflinching in my views that I project.
What should we do?
We cannot settle for period victory. We need to take the center road. Each side believes freedom of speech gives you the right to be insulting. We’ve been listing, left to right, since the 1960s. We need to try to find a way to come together. We need to pull out the best of what our people have achieved and use that as a gold standard in achieving whatever we need now—whether it’s Abraham Lincoln, or Duke Ellington in music, Walt Whitman in literature.
How does jazz speak to our younger musicians and transcend class?
It’s ageless. Its fundamental thoughts don’t require you to be anything.
What music artists today impress you?
There are so many. [Jazz singer] Cécile McLorin Salvant, Joey Alexander, a lot of my students at Juilliard. At our club [Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola] the other night, there were so many great musicians in one place. I couldn’t believe it. Forty musicians who could really play, from 18 years old to 65, all up there playing. People were dancing.
How are you connecting our youth with jazz music?
Making it available to them, and creating possibilities. At the Music Inn, there were jazz sessions, Aaron Copeland visited. Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie, Duke Ellington played; people in their 30s and 20s and some older. It was a spirit of collaboration. We have to figure out our default position to be together without so many people sacrifices.
What’s your greatest pleasure in music?
It’s all pleasurable. I like to practice, I like to play at elementary schools and at jam sessions, I like to listen to people play.
Is it a lot of pressure, the legacy you hold and need to pass down?
As I get older, I’ve increased my intensity and become even more productive. There’s a certain wisdom that develops as you interface with people across time. You refine your perspective and become less ignorant. I grew up with my father struggling alone, living with hate and prejudice in New Orleans. I don’t take it lightly. Schuller let me audition with the Berkshire Music Center, even when I was too young. He urged me and gave me confidence and had me become part of that tradition. Leonard Bernstein let me look at all his scripts for young concerts as I was wanting to write my own. He treated me like a real person. We’re all connected. I do not feel pressure. I’m recording, our band is trying to represent the swing. We are applying the pressure.