UpClose: Wynton Marsalis

Mike Lawson • Features • December 1, 2002

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When Wynton Marsalis walks into the room, music begins to play. Actually, it’s spilling right out of his mouth, filling in the silent spaces, but not intruding into conversations. It’s just the music in him, searching for a way out.

After a long day of press interviews promoting a new interactive jazz curriculum, the trumpet virtuoso is still buzzing with musical energy. He’ll soon be heading off to take a private lesson. Yes, even the world-renowned Marsalis – who has 40 jazz and classical recordings, nine Grammy Awards and a Pulitzer Prize to his credit – continues to take private lessons whenever his schedule allows. The artistic director of the Jazz at Lincoln Center educational program and the music director of the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra hasn’t finished learning all he can about music. Like the thousands of children and teens he’s coached during the past two decades through Jazz at Lincoln Center’s numerous educational outreach initiatives, Marsalis still considers himself very much a student.

“I still feel like one of them,” he says of the music students he meets every year. “I’m still trying to learn. There’s so much to learn.”

Marsalis’ formal musical education began at age 13 under the tutelage of his father, Ellis, who taught band at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts in Louisiana, a pre-professional conservatory for young artists. At the age of 17, Marsalis entered the Juilliard School of Music in New York City. Soon after, he joined Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, where he polished his craft and made his recording debut in 1982.

“I didn’t graduate from college. I only went for like a year and a half. I went to an arts high school. My father was the jazz teacher and I had a classical instructor. I had a good education. I always had good teachers. I don’t have a complete education,” Marsalis notes.

Over the past three decades, as he’s evolved from a student to a professional performer, composer and educator, Marsalis’ relationship with music has changed dramatically.

“When I was a kid, music was just on the radio,” he recalls. “Then as I got involved in it, it was more what I liked to do. I liked to play it. And as I got even older, it was like a big puzzle, a way to get an understanding of my own adulthood and maturity, and – through interfacing with the minds of the great musicians and emotions and everything that their music would bring forward – it would function as a guide almost. It would guide me through a lot of problems that I had. My own playing helped me to understand my strengths and weaknesses as a person. It’s also like a big playground. There are so many things to learn and to study. It’s a never-ending field of study.”

In 1983, Marsalis became the first artist to win both classical and jazz Grammy Awards in one year. The following year, he matched his historic achievement, taking home awards in both genres for the second time.

The year 1997 brought more prestige to Marsalis’ career. In April that year, he became the first jazz artist to be awarded the Pulitzer Prize in music. He received this honor for his three-hour oratorio, “Blood on the Fields.” The piece, commissioned by Jazz at Lincoln Center, follows the lives of two Africans who are sold into slavery in the United States and struggle toward freedom.

Now, Marsalis, 41, stands at the forefront of jazz education in America. Through Jazz at Lincoln Center, Marsalis has worked directly with children and teens in the Jazz for Young People concerts and the Essentially Ellington annual jazz competition.

“Over the last 20 years, I’ve had the opportunity to develop a relationship with different band directors and students,” he remarks. “I love doing it. I always have kids calling me from all over the world. I don’t have as much time now as I used to have, so a lot of times I have to tell them, ‘I can’t talk now.’ I put them off for a long time. It’s not because I don’t want to talk to them. I just have too much to do.”

Having interacted with band directors his entire life, Marsalis has developed an appreciation and admiration for music educators. He counts his father, a high school and college band director since 1974, as one of the important influences in his life and career.

“I love that vibration between a band director and their students. A lot of band directors are in a position where their students are apathetic, and that’s a tough position. But the band director can have an indelible impact on the lives of kids. It’s important to prize that, no matter how hard it gets – to constantly affirm. Affirm playing music. Affirm practicing. Affirm learning the history of the art, learning about the arts. Affirm having a good time. Affirm participating in a group activity. Affirm the classics of our culture. However apathetic the students become, that’s how enthusiastic band directors have to be.”

As an educator, Marsalis would like to see jazz students learn to express their own personalities through the music – rather than trying only to emulate the greats.

“Learning how to focus their own personality would help boost the kids’ confidence,” he explains. “With jazz, whatever you can do is what defines your personality. You might have just one rhythm you can play – play that. It helps you to find what you can do and to be proud of that, and present that as, ‘Okay, this is me. This is what I have.’ You don’t have to be like somebody else to be heard. Then it teaches you how to have respect for other people who have that right. That’s the hardest part. That’s the swing part. It teaches you to force yourself to coordinate with other people. Don’t play too loud. Stay in your register. Don’t solo too long. Things like that.”

While Marsalis considers jazz history an important aspect of a musician’s lifelong education, learning the musical side must take precedence.

“[History] comes later. If they want to know that, that’s good. What it will do for you to know a date or the name of someone is much less practical than to have their achievement help you,” he observes.

To help students learn from the achievements of jazz musicians past and present, Marsalis encourages music departments to make jazz bands available in every school.

“I think all schools should have jazz bands,” he contends. “It’s our art form. It teaches us how to be American in the best sense. Why not have it? It’s not going to hurt us. It’s our mythology. Certainly the race situation should have evolved enough to this point for that to not really continue to stand in the way of us doing what will help us.”

Even schools that do not receive much funding for music education can include jazz in their offerings, according to Marsalis.

“A lot of things with jazz don’t cost a lot of money,” he points out. “It’s mainly to have a desire and the consciousness to know that the music will help you. You don’t even need scores a lot of the time – you can teach them from ear. My teacher didn’t have a score, and he was teaching us. It’s just a matter of being aware of the music and what it is, and its place in the American mythology.”

The Jazz for Young People Curriculum

This fall, Jazz at Lincoln Center released the first-ever all-inclusive jazz curriculum of its kind – the Jazz for Young People Curriculum, written and narrated by Marsalis. Four years in the making, the curriculum is based on the popular interactive youth concerts that Jazz at Lincoln Center has been presenting to the public for 10 years.

To adapt the program for the classroom environment, the initial Jazz for Young People Curriculum was piloted in six schools across the country and then adjusted and perfected according to suggestions from the teachers in the pilot schools.

Those suggestions included simplifying the language for the younger audience and reducing the length of the songs to accommodate a child’s shorter attention span. For Marsalis, that meant re-writing all of the narrative scripts and re-recording more than 100 songs with the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra.

“It was really a labor of love,” Marsalis says of developing the curriculum. “We worked a lot of hours on it to make it as effective a tool as we could make it. We really tried to adhere to the advice of the teachers and of the students.”

Marsalis narrates the curriculum on a set of 10 CDs designed for teachers to share with their students in grades four through nine. The CD lessons complement a set of 30 student guides that include listening charts, activities, historical summaries, biographies and photographs.

The first lesson, for example, introduces students to the birthplace of jazz, New Orleans, around the turn of the 20th century. The curriculum describes the city of New Orleans, at that time, as a melting pot of people from various places who had little in common but music.

“The music gave them an opportunity to creep closer to each other and get to know each other on more familiar terms,” Marsalis explains in the lesson.

Accompanied by musicians from the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, Marsalis demonstrates the basic relationship and “conversation” among the various instruments in a jazz ensemble. The clarinet trills and glissandos. The trombone slides and growls. The piano, bass, drums and banjo – the rhythm section – provide a “comfortable foundation” for the ensemble.

In the second half of the lesson, Marsalis explains how New Orleans jazz “forces people to communicate with each other.” To illustrate this point, the jazz orchestra invites students to participate in a game of “call and response” during a traditional song called “My Bucket’s Got a Hole in It.” This exercise is followed by an introduction to musical terms such as groove, riff, solo, break, blues and dirge.

The other lessons of the curriculum cover various artists and jazz-related topics: Jelly Roll Morton, Louis Armstrong, the Blues, Improvisation, Swing, Big Band Express, Composer, Arranger, Duke Ellington, Hot, Bebop, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonius Monk, Cool, Jazz Singer, Latin and Afro-Cuban Jazz. The curriculum series also features more than 100 recordings by the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, including a 48-minute video of the orchestra in the recording studio.

So far, Jazz at Lincoln Center has received positive feedback about the Jazz for Young People curriculum. Marsalis, who helped write the curriculum, is confident that it will be a useful tool for teachers and their students.

“It was difficult to know how to make it instructive, but I wasn’t worried about the material because we had done it already [in the Jazz for Young People Concerts],” he recalls. “And I’d been teaching in schools for so many years, I wasn’t worried about whether it would successfully communicate to them. We took the best of what we had already presented. The question for me was: how can we put it in a format that the teachers will be able to use and the students will be able to use, and will it be technically useful? We hired Scholastic, and they gave us invaluable guidance on how to present the content in such a way that would make it usable.”

The Essentially Ellington Festival

Another hands-on educational initiative offered by Jazz at Lincoln Center is the Essentially Ellington High School Jazz Band Competition and Festival. Now in its eighth year, Essentially Ellington offers high school jazz ensembles the opportunity to play historic Ellington scores and share the stage with Marsalis.

Each year, Jazz at Lincoln Center releases new Ellington scores for jazz ensembles, which are distributed to interested band directors. (For the first few years, the scores were distributed free of charge; last year, organizers instituted a $50 registration fee to offset operating costs. Each Ellington score has a retail value of $50; the educators’ package includes six scores for that price.) Since the festival’s inception, more than 50 Ellington scores have been reintroduced to the educational arena.

“We’re getting the scores of Duke Ellington all around. That’s very important. Everybody gets a chance to hear and to play Duke Ellington’s music,” Marsalis says. “And the bands are getting better every year. The kids are getting better. So I think it’s having a good impact.”

To be considered for the competition, high school jazz bands submit tapes of their performances of three of the tunes. From the tapes, 15 finalist bands are selected. The finalists travel to New York City for a long weekend of interactive jazz education.

The three-day festival features workshops and other educational experiences. Students participate in an open rehearsal of the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra and a jam session at a New York City jazz club. Throughout the festival, members of the orchestra serve as mentors for the finalist school ensembles.

Essentially Ellington culminates in the competition, which whittles down the finalists to three bands. These three bands are featured in an all-Ellington performance at Avery Fisher Hall, accompanied by Marsalis and the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra.

This year, the festival organizers launched an Australian counterpart – Essentially Ellington Down Under. For its inaugural year, the festival received requests for the music from 30 schools in Western Australia and generated six finalists. Ronald Carter, professor of music and director of jazz studies at Northern Illinois University, and Terell Stafford, jazz trumpetist and faculty member at Temple University and the Juilliard Institute for Jazz Studies, headed the workshops in Australia in August.

The Band Director Academy

As part of its commitment to jazz education, Jazz at Lincoln Center holds an Essentially Ellington Band Director Academy each summer in Snowmass Village, Colo. The five-day academy features jazz-oriented coursework taught by top jazz educators for today’s high school jazz band directors.

Courses have included Big Band Rehearsal and Conducting Techniques; Leading Sectional Rehearsals; Improvisation; Repertoire; and History. Other highlights include a film program on Duke Ellington, a faculty concert featuring original compositions and arrangements, round-table discussions, and an evening concert by a professional jazz ensemble.

According to Marsalis, the academy was introduced to help educate band directors who wanted a better grasp on jazz education techniques so that they could confidently teach their students.

“The main reason for having the academy is that the band directors would always ask. In all the 20 years I’ve been doing this, all the different philosophies and all the contentiousness there is surrounding jazz, I’ve never encountered a band director who didn’t say, ‘Help my kids.’ I’ve universally found band directors are always saying, ‘Help my kids.’ “

For more information about Jazz at Lincoln Center’s educational programs, including the Jazz for Young People Curriculum, the Essentially Ellington festival and the Band Director Academy, visit www.jazzatlincolncenter.org.

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