Marsalis to lead Lincoln Center Orchestra at Akron Civic

By Malcolm X Abram
Beacon Journal pop music writer

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Wynton Marsalis (right) performs during the International Jazz Day Concert held at the United Nations General Assembly Hall in New York, April 30, 2012. (AP Photo/Charles Sykes)

The Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, performing on Tuesday at the Akron Civic Theatre, is acknowledged as one of the top big bands in the world. Its leader is nine-time Grammy Award and Pulitzer Prize-winning trumpeter/composer Wynton Marsalis, who for much of his 30-plus-year career has been both hailed as the public face of traditional jazz and criticized for what is perceived as a strict, often non-inclusive definition of the genre.

Jazz at Lincoln Center started as three “Classical Jazz” concerts in 1987 and has grown into a $43 million operation that produces more than 100 concerts, offers a free online jazz curriculum for educators that is being used in all 50 states, and stages Jazz for Young People concerts throughout the New York school system. It has held master classes and clinics in more than 100 cities around the globe, and has as many as 1,700 different educational programs designed not just to share jazz with young folks, but to show how music and the arts can help enrich people’s lives.

In 2013, the band’s home base, the nonprofit Jazz at Lincoln Center organization, is celebrating 25 years of upholding and building on the tradition, sharing the music of legendary musicians and composers such as Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus and Wayne Shorter, and commissioning and performing new music by contemporary artists and composers to share with music lovers to uplift the role of jazz in American culture.

Here are a few questions with JALCO’s bandleader and recently named Managing Director Wynton Marsalis.

Q: Jazz at Lincoln Center has been going for a quarter of a century. Have you kicked back and contemplated all of the band’s and organization’s accomplishments?

A: Every year, when we start to program for the next year, we always go through all of our programming so we have an opportunity to look over all the different things we’ve done and talk about it, so we can consolidate our objectives for next year.

Q: So, is it just another year in the grand mission?

A: It’s a blessing to be out here. So it always feels more than special just to have the opportunity to do as much education as we’ve done, to fill our own halls, to put together a coalition of citizens to get behind jazz as an art form, to be invited into the Lincoln Center family, to have the opportunity to develop an orchestra with surviving members of the Duke Ellington Orchestra … to be able to travel around the country and around the world doing master classes and teaching and to have our students come up and also become teachers, to have a national jazz festival and competition that touches and changes people’s kids’ and parents’ lives. It goes on and on and it’s all been a blessing.

Q: This all started with three “Classical Jazz” concerts in 1987. Did you have any idea or dream that it could grow into JALCO?

A: In those times, I was doing close to 200 concerts a year, so I didn’t really think that much about three concerts. So no, I had no idea that citizens that weren’t even musicians would get behind the music, would form a board and raise money for the organization, or that we would end up doing what we ended up doing.

Q: When did you begin to realize that Jazz at Lincoln Center could become more than just a great band playing in a great room?

A: Yeah, I figured that out early in the process when I saw how people got around it. Because being a jazz musicians who grew up in jazz, I’d never seen anybody really give anything to the music. Some club owners open up in New Orleans, but it’s kind of a contradiction of having a city that’s kind of named and known for jazz, but my father’s a jazz musician and he could barely survive.

So, I thought it could be a kind of movement around the art, something deeper than what you are playing. But all of the music: what Duke Ellington played, or what Benny Goodman played, or what Dave Brubeck was trying to do or what Louis Armstrong wanted. We could incorporate the aspirations of all the musicians into an institution and make sure that it takes a lasting form, and it also realizes many of the larger objectives they had that a lifetime was not enough to achieve.

I feel we’re like that. There’s things we want to do, and there’s no way we can achieve all of them in our lifetime, but now we have an institution. If we build it sturdy enough, then the work of the institution is able to go on and on and on, like universities and orchestras and other things that have been institutionalized.

Q: Pop music tends to be ephemeral — songs, artists, trends and styles come and go — but in your mind, jazz the art form must continue?

A: It’s the blues ethos. Because music is also a popular art form. There’s no achievement if you’re playing music that nobody wants to hear.

The question is to consolidate the audience enough, so there’s a commonality so that they can understand what you’re playing, and that’s always been what we strive for. That’s why people still love the music of Duke Ellington. We played some Ellington concerts last week, and people loved it. There were a lot of pieces that nobody heard of, “oh, we didn’t know Duke wrote this music,” and that’s what we strive to do when we write our original music, is to find a kind of common ground where the audience can enjoy the music but also be enriched by it.

Q: So the longstanding anti-jazz trope that the musicians play to impress each other isn’t true?

A: Yeah, we don’t want to do that, that’s not an achievement and that’s not the spirit of the best of our music.

Q: In a similar vein, pianist/composer Robert Glasper recently won a Grammy for Best R&B album for his jazz-inflected album “Black Radio,” and he’s said in the press that jazz needs a kick in the ass. I’m guessing you don’t subscribe to that theory.

A: I taught him in my class when he was a kid. I don’t really deal with the musicians individually, especially after a certain year; with the younger musicians, I don’t really comment on them. But I don’t think the art form is going to receive anything by being R&B. That’s already been done. The art form has so much great music in it, with jazz and education, we never give up the battle to present the best of it to the public.

A lot of it is like the type of cheap populism we find in politics a lot of times. Then you start to lose faith in people’s ability to choose what is best for them. Then you don’t put it in front of them because you think, well, people don’t want this. There’s a cynicism in it and the best of our music has never had that. It’s always been optimistic in the belief that with a little bit of education, something that is of a high level of quality can be embraced, and I think Jazz at Lincoln Center has proven that.

So, no matter what an individual person says in the afterglow of awards they’ve won, whether it’s Robert or whoever, the objectives of an institution are always much greater than that. And if your institution has fleeting objectives, it can allow itself to get dragged down into the kind of stuff that’s good in a barbershop, and it’s fun, but it’s not really institutional thinking. It’s like a team that starts taunting another team. You’re already playing, you’re wasting your time with all of that. Just execute your offense, don’t stand on the field talking.

Q: In some other countries and cultures the arts are still held in high esteem as an important part of growth as a person. Not so much in the States. Do you find that to be a difficult mindset to combat?

A: It’s an uphill struggle in our country because we tend to be so commercial minded. Since Sputnik, you know, we’ve believed that math and science are the best way to compete with other cultures, and we’ve never been centered in our own culture because a lot of our culture came from slaves … we could never reconcile it and it’s unfortunate, because the rest of the world has embraced a lot of American culture and we’ve never felt it was something we should teach to our kids with the type of intensity we have taught other things, or not taught anything.

And one day, we’ll have the conscience to embrace a total vision of the American arts because there are some great artists in America that come from everywhere in the culture … There are great poets, artists and many great achievements that have not been allowed to have the type of positive impact it would have on our way of life if we were to know what they were.

But the one thing about the arts is, they are still there. Walt Whitman’s stuff is available … I could go on and on. All these things are still available and there will come a time when the national conscience will turn itself to that kind of nourishment and they will be there.

Q: So if you listen to the media and recent studies and even casual observation, our attention spans are shortening and our ability to concentrate is floundering. Is that something you feel you must combat?

A: There’s always something to combat. You and I are old enough to know that there’s something to combat. Before that it was something else. I don’t think of it in those terms.

We have a great art form. We want to be part of the ascendancy of people and there are people who do have an attention span, people who want their kids to be more educated and are trying to educate themselves. It’s like the whole bad news syndrome. Somebody commits a crime, everybody talks about it, but what about all the people who didn’t commit a crime? [chuckles] … I see a lot of people who are dedicated, I see a lot of people with their kids, I see a lot of directors and young people who are looking for other things.

The question for us is how to be more effective in letting them know how jazz can lift their lives. That’s our job and I feel fortunate to have the opportunity to have that job. I would look at an NFL offense walking on the field and looking at the defense and saying, “man, look how big they are.” Well, they’re the defense, that’s what they’re there to do. Just execute your offense and you’ll be OK.

Q: Speaking of which, your New Orleans Saints had a rough season last year …

A: Yeah, we did, but we didn’t have as rough a time as those Browns [laughs]. Yeah we struggled, we lost our coach and offense, but you watch this year. We still got Drew Brees and we’re coming back. We shored up on the defense. What are y’all gonna be talking about? Tell me, what are those Browns gonna be doing this year? [laughs heartily]

Q: Touché, moving on. You’ve played Northeast Ohio many times over the years and you’ve had several sons of Ohio in the band. Any recollections, memories of the area?

A: I used to play E.J. Thomas Hall. This was years ago. I love the whole Midwest vibe. There’s a lot of great trumpet players and musicians in the region. The great trumpet player [former JALCO band member] Sean Jones is from there too, I met him in Ohio.

So there’s some good jam sessions there. Good late-night jam sessions. I just need to know where cats are playing. I always ask where they’re playing, and some of the cats in the band will go out.

Malcolm X Abram can be reached at mabram@thebeaconjournal.com or 330-996-3758. Read his blog, Sound Check Online, at www.ohio.com/blogs/sound-check, or follow him on Twitter @malcolmxabram.


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