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Wynton Marsalis

Pulitzer Prize for Music

You can't let the anger burn you up. You want to be mad; you don't want to lose it. Because when you lose the anger, you lose your force. But you don't want the anger to supplant the greatest force, which is love, and that's a benevolent force.

Wynton Marsalis was born in New Orleans, where his father, Ellis Marsalis, is a well-respected jazz pianist and teacher. His brothers Branford and Delfeayo are also notable musicians. Wynton received his first trumpet at age six, and played in public at age seven, but did not begin to study seriously until he was 12. At 14, he made his debut with the New Orleans Philharmonic. Throughout high school, he played first trumpet with the New Orleans Civic Orchestra, while playing funk and jazz with other local groups. A straight-A student, he graduated from high school with honors, and at age 17, began his studies at the Juilliard School of Music in New York City.

1978: Wynton Marsalis moves to New York City to attend The Juilliard School. (Patrick Downs)
1978: Jazz maestro Wynton Marsalis moves to New York City to attend The Juilliard School. (Patrick Downs)

Still in his teens, the young trumpeter joined Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, the great finishing school of many jazz musicians. Drummer Blakey was often called the Lion Tamer, because of his dedication to discovering and training the best young instrumentalists. By age 19, Marsalis had signed a recording contract with CBS Records. He made his recording debut as a leader in 1982, with the Wynton Marsalis Quintet, followed almost immediately by a recording of the Haydn, Hummel and Mozart trumpet concertos.

1986: Wynton Marsalis and Herbie Hancock perform at the Nimes Jazz Festival in France. (Claude Vesco)
1986: Wynton Marsalis and Herbie Hancock perform together at the Nimes Jazz Festival in France. (Claude Vesco)

After leaving Blakey, Marsalis struggled for some years to hold his own group together. Many players found it more lucrative to play pop or rock music than to adhere to Marsalis’s uncompromising vision. His criticism of rock and fusion music alienated some critics and listeners, but he persevered, taking time out on the road to visit schools and instruct young people all over America on the traditions of jazz and its place in American life.

1992: Wynton Marsalis and Marcus Roberts wait to go on stage at Jazz Gipfel in Stuttgart, Germany. (Bob Willoughby)
1992: Wynton Marsalis and jazz pianist Marcus Roberts wait to go on stage at Jazz Gipfel in Stuttgart, Germany.

In 1983 he became the first and only artist to win both classical and jazz Grammy Awards in the same year, a feat he immediately repeated. He was the first artist to win Grammy Awards in five consecutive years. To date he has won six Grammy awards for his jazz recordings and two for recordings of classical music. He has received five Musician of the Year awards, and his recordings regularly sell hundreds of thousands of copies; one album stayed on the charts for 39 weeks.

Wynton Marsalis on stage at the Jazz A Juan Festival held in Antibes, France in July 1997, the year he released "Blood on the Fields," the first jazz composition to win the Pulitzer Prize in Music.
July 1997: Trumpeter, composer, and teacher Wynton Marsalis on stage at the Jazz à Juan Festival held in Antibes, France, the year he released “Blood on the Fields” — the first jazz composition to win the Pulitzer Prize for Music.

His recordings include Black Codes (From the Underground), the six-volume series Standard Time, which includes the albums The Resolution of Romance and Intimacy Calling, both of which feature his father on piano, and an epic meditation on the blues entitled Soul Gestures in Southern Blue. The three volumes of Soul Gestures are: Thick in the South, Uptown Ruler and Levee Low Moan. Marsalis’s Sony Classical recordings include concert, chamber and solo music for trumpet from the baroque, classical, romantic and 20th-century repertoires.

2005: Wynton Marsalis Quartet performs for Academy delegates and members at Jazz at Lincoln Center during the International Achievement Summit in New York City. (© Academy of Achievement)
2005: Wynton Marsalis Quartet performs for the Academy delegates and members in The Allen Room at Jazz at Lincoln Center during the International Achievement Summit in New York City. In 1987, Marsalis co-founded a jazz program at Lincoln Center. In July 1996, Jazz at Lincoln Center was installed as a new constituent of Lincoln Center which includes three performance spaces along with recording, broadcast, rehearsal, and educational facilities. He is Artistic Director for Jazz at Lincoln Center and Music Director for Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra.

In 1987 Wynton Marsalis co-founded Jazz at Lincoln Center to sponsor jazz performance and educational programs at New York’s premier performing arts center. Since 1992, Marsalis has served as the organization’s Artistic Director, and as leader of the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra. Marsalis has written numerous concert works for the orchestra, beginning in 1992 with In This House, On This Morning, an extended piece based on the form of a traditional gospel service.

2007: Wynton Marsalis performs with his quintet and Willie Nelson at Jazz at Lincoln Center, a concert that was recorded live and later released as "Two Men with the Blues" on Blue Note Records.
2007: Wynton Marsalis performs with his jazz quintet with the legendary singer and songwriter Willie Nelson at Jazz at Lincoln Center, a concert recorded live and later released as Two Men with the Blues on Blue Note Records.

Beginning in 1993, Marsalis has composed music for ballet and modern dance, creating works for the New York City Ballet and Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, in collaboration with choreographers such as Peter Martins, Judith Jamison, Garth Fagan and Twyla Tharp. In 1994, he published his first book, Sweet Swing Blues on the Road.

In 1997, Wynton Marsalis received the Pulitzer Prize for Music for his oratorio Blood in the Fields. Marsalis was the first jazz musician ever to be so honored. The year 2000 saw the release of the eight-volume CD series Swinging Into the 21st. The series includes a seven-disc boxed set of live performances from the Village Vanguard, and seven other volumes including works by Jelly Roll Morton, Thelonious Monk and Igor Stravinsky, and new works by Marsalis himself, including At the Octoroon Balls: String Quartet No. 1, A Fiddler’s Tale, Reel Time and Sweet Release and Ghost Story: Two More Ballets by Wynton Marsalis.

2012: Wynton Marsalis performing at juke joint Red Wolf Lounge with electric blues singer and harmonica player Blues Boy Willie. (Roger Stephenson)
2012: Marsalis performing at Red Wolf Lounge with electric blues singer and harmonica player Blues Boy Willie.

In addition to his busy schedule of composing and performing, Marsalis has produced music education programs for public radio and television. His four-part, Peabody Award-winning TV series, Marsalis on Music, introduced young viewers to the adventure of making music. The Peabody citation for Marsalis on Musical recognized his 26-part National Public Radio series, Making the Music, which was based on the Jazz for Young People concerts he leads at Lincoln Center. Marsalis served as a principal consultant and on-camera commentator for the 20-hour documentary series, Jazz, produced by Ken Burns, which first aired on public television in January 2001.

2012: Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, led by trumpeter Wynton Marsalis. (Frank Stewart)
2012: Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, led by trumpeter and artistic director Wynton Marsalis. (Frank Stewart)

In 2004, Marsalis presided over the long-awaited opening of Jazz at Lincoln Center’s new home: Frederick P. Rose Hall, the world’s first performing arts facility designed specifically for jazz education, performance and broadcast. Part of the enormous Time Warner Center on Manhattan’s Columbus Circle, the facilities of Frederick P. Rose Hall include classrooms, studios, a theater, a nightclub and the architecturally ingenious Allen Room, a flexible performance space with a breathtaking view of Central Park. Under the leadership of Wynton Marsalis, Jazz at Lincoln Center produces a year-round schedule of education, performance and broadcast events with the Jazz Orchestra, the Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra and a comprehensive array of guest artists. It is the world’s largest not-for-profit arts organization dedicated to jazz.

When Hurricane Katrina devastated his native city in 2005, Marsalis swung into action, organizing benefit concerts in both New York and New Orleans to raise money for relief and reconstruction efforts. In the year following the catastrophe, he continued to write and speak out, in an effort to keep the country’s attention focused on the many unfinished tasks of restoration and resettlement. For the first anniversary of the disaster, he prepared a massive three-day tribute to his hometown, including a national television broadcast of a live concert to benefit New Orleans charities. Beyond his achievements as an artist, Wynton Marsalis has matured into a public figure of courage and conviction.

2013: Wynton Marsalis returns to Harvard to continue his two-year lecture series, "Hidden in Plain View: Meanings in American Music" The Wynton Marsalis lecture, fourth in the series, is titled "At the Speed of Instinct: Choosing Together to Play and Stay Together." The lecture includes musical illustrations by acclaimed musicians, including Walter Blanding (tenor sax), Ali Jackson (drums), Carlos Henriquez (bass), and Marcus Roberts (piano) inside Sanders Theatre at Harvard University. (Kris Snibbe)
2013: Wynton Marsalis returns to Harvard to continue his two-year lecture series, “Hidden in Plain View: Meanings in American Music” The Wynton Marsalis lecture, fourth in the series, is titled “At the Speed of Instinct: Choosing Together to Play and Stay Together.” The lecture series includes musical illustrations by acclaimed musicians, including Walter Blanding (tenor sax), Ali Jackson (drums), Carlos Henriquez (bass), and Marcus Roberts (piano).

His philanthropic activities have continued, supporting shelters for battered women and homeless children, food banks for the elderly and disadvantaged, arts programs for the disabled, as well as the Newark Boys Chorus School, the Children’s Defense Fund, Amnesty International and the Sloan Kettering Cancer Institute.

He has extended his educational mission through a variety of venues and media, as a cultural correspondent for CBS News from 2012 to 2014, through a series of lectures at Harvard —  “Hidden In Plain View: Meanings in American Music” —  and as a visiting A.D. White Professor at Cornell University.

2014: Wynton Marsalis performs during a memorial service for actress Ruby Dee at The Riverside Church in New York City. (AP Photo/Jason DeCrow, File)
2014: Marsalis performs during a memorial service for actress Ruby Dee at The Riverside Church in New York City.

His books include: Jazz in the Bittersweet Blues of Life; Moving to Higher Ground: How Jazz Can Change Your Life; To a Young Musician; Jazz ABZ (poems about great jazz musicians), and a children’s book, Squeak, Rumble, Whomp! Whomp! Whomp!

Since signing with Columbia Records in 1982, he has released more than 80 recordings — including three Gold Records — which have sold more than seven million copies worldwide. He continues to grow and develop artistically. His large-scale concert works include: Congo Square, scored for jazz band and Ghanaian percussion; Abyssinia 200, celebrating the bicentennial of the Abyssinian Baptist Church, scored for jazz band and the church’s 100-voice choir; and his Swing Symphony, which had its world premiere with the Berlin Philharmonic in 2012.

2016: Wynton Marsalis
2016: Wynton Marsalis currently serves as the director of the Juilliard Jazz Studies Program in New York City.

The year 2016 saw the completion of his Concerto in D for Violin and Orchestra, written for violin virtuoso and 2005 Academy of Achievement student delegate Nicola Benedetti, and his Symphony No. 4, “The Jungle,” premiered by the New York Philharmonic.

Inducted Badge
Inducted in 1988

“You have the conception of New Orleans jazz: group improvisation, cooperative ensemble playing, which functions exactly like a democracy. Which means each person has the right to play what they want to play, but the responsibility to play something that makes everybody else sound good. So the way the horns relate to the rhythm section is like a musical example of how a democracy works.”

The arrival of Wynton Marsalis on the music scene in 1982 could not have been more unexpected. Barely out of his teens, this trumpet prodigy recorded jazz and classical music with seemingly equal facility. Even more startling was his dedication to a self-defined mission to restore jazz music to a central place in American life, and with it, the values he believes jazz embodies: freedom and discipline, romance and responsibility, pride and respect for both the African and the European components of our musical heritage.

It is highly appropriate that Wynton Marsalis is a son of New Orleans, the city where jazz was born. His father Ellis and brothers Branford and Delfeayo are also musicians, but Wynton is the first to point out that his command of jazz has been hard-won, that the public was not always receptive to his brand of jazz orthodoxy. Outspoken, sometimes abrasive, Wynton Marsalis almost single-handedly initiated a revival of interest in mainstream jazz tradition among young musicians. In 1997 he became the first jazz musician to win the Pulitzer Prize in music, for his epic oratorio on the subject of slavery, Blood on the Fields. Marsalis continues to compose, to tour, and to bring his message to a new generation as Artistic Director of Jazz at Lincoln Center and leader of the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra.

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You had never been to New York before when you came up from New Orleans to audition for the Juilliard School. Can you tell us about that audition?

Wynton Marsalis: Oh, man, I’ll never forget that. I was a senior in high school, and I had flown up to New York to audition. First, I sent a tape, and my teacher was a guy named George Jansen, and he had studied with a teacher at Juilliard, whose name is William Vacchiano. Vacchiano is still alive, but my teacher George Jansen is not, he’s dead and he was telling me about Vacchiano. And, coming to New York I had all my little orchestral excerpts, The Pines of Rome, Pictures at an Exhibition, the Brandenburg Concerto No. 2, and the Hummel trumpet concerto, the Haydn, all the difficult trumpet repertoire. I came in the room, and Vacchiano was there, and Trotto and Gerald Schwartz. I had Gerald Schwartz’s albums of cornet solos. I really liked the way he played. I walked in the room and they were standing there, and I was nervous. I was in New York! That alone had me! Like, man! And I pulled my horn out. They had heard the tape of me playing, so they said, “Play whatever you are going to play. ” So, I think I started off playing an excerpt from Pictures at an Exhibition. So they listened, and I thought I must not be sounding good! I started getting paranoid. They said, “Play the Hummel trumpet concerto.” I knew my music from memory. So they say, “Yeah, play some of the Second Brandenburg.” So I played a little bit of the Second Brandenburg. When I finished, they said “Okay, bye.” But before I left, Vacchiano said, “Tell George Jansen that he was right.” I didn’t know what he was talking about, so I just said, “Okay.” I was real nervous.

William Vacchiano, trumpeter and trumpet teacher, taught at the Juilliard School for 67 years. (1935-2002)
William Vacchiano, trumpeter and trumpet teacher, taught at the Juilliard School for 67 years. (1935-2002)

After the Juilliard audition, I didn’t know whether I had made it or not. When I went back home I asked Jansen, “What did you tell Vacchiano?” and he wouldn’t tell, but I did get in.

How did you begin playing music? When did you get your first trumpet?

Wynton Marsalis: I got my first trumpet when I was six years old, from Al Hirt. My father was playing in Al Hirt’s band at that time, and he got me a trumpet because my older brother Branford was playing the clarinet and the piano, so he didn’t want me to feel left out. But, I wasn’t going to feel left out, because I didn’t feel like practicing. So when they got me a trumpet, then I had to practice, and I was like, “Oh, man!” I didn’t actually start practicing until I was 12. But the first time I ever played the trumpet in public, I played a piece called the Marine Hymn. You know the Marine Hymn. I can’t even remember it right now, but everybody knows it. So, I played that at this junior recital the kids went to, and I sounded terrible. But my mother, she thought I sounded good. She said, “Oh, my baby sounds so good!” My first serious debut was just playing like little pop gigs around New Orleans, just playing horn parts.

Ellis Marsalis is regarded by many as the premier modern jazz pianist in New Orleans. He married Dolores Ferdinand, also from New Orleans, and they had six sons: Branford, Wynton, Ellis III, Delfeayo, Miboya and Jason.
Ellis Marsalis is regarded by his peers as the premier modern jazz pianist in New Orleans. He married Dolores Ferdinand, also from New Orleans, and they had six sons: Branford, Wynton, Ellis III, Delfeayo, Miboya and Jason.

But you didn’t consider your debut with the Marine Hymn as an auspicious one. You wouldn’t have foreseen what was to follow?

Wynton Marsalis: No, no.

I didn’t want to get that ring around my lips from practicing the trumpet, because I thought the girls wouldn’t like me. So I never practiced. You would have just thought, “Well, here we go!” As a matter of fact, when I was going into high school, when I was 12 — in this particular high school they had eighth grade classes attached to the high school — so the band director was all excited because my father was a well-known musician in New Orleans. “Ellis Marsalis’s sons are coming here!” Except he heard me play, and he said, “Are you sure you’re one of Ellis’s sons?” I was sad, man. I really couldn’t play.

2016: A special concert to honor and feature Ellis Marsalis with a lifetime achievement award. Pictured, the Marsalis brothers during a number. Eric Revis (bass), Branford Marsalis (sax), Wynton Marsalis (trumpet), Delfeayo Marsalis (trombone), and Jason Marsalis (drums). (Bill O'Leary/Washington Post/Getty Images)
2016: A special concert to honor their father Ellis Marsalis with a lifetime achievement award. Pictured, the Marsalis brothers perform a jazz composition. Eric Revis (bass), Branford Marsalis (sax), Wynton Marsalis (trumpet), Delfeayo Marsalis (trombone), and Jason Marsalis (drums). (Bill O’Leary/Washington Post/Getty)

You weren’t, and you aren’t, the only musician in your family. How did that influence you? How did that affect you?

Wynton Marsalis: Well, it didn’t have that much effect on me because…

I became serious about music when I was 12 or 13, and then I decided I would practice and study and try to get better. My older brother and myself, we always played together in bands. But, we never knew that we would be professional musicians because we looked up to our father. He still is much greater than us. He knew all these songs, he could really improvise and play jazz and the generation we grew up in, nobody could improvise or play. We had stopped playing blues, so really there was no way for us to figure we could learn how to play. He knew all the songs by George Gershwin, and Cole Porter, Duke Ellington, the whole tradition of American popular music — my father knew that. When we were growing up, we didn’t listen to any of that kind of music. We had jazz recordings, but you listen to a recording of Miles Davis or Clifford Brown, Dizzy Gillespie, you’re so far away from what that is, it just seems like another world. We didn’t think we would be musicians. So, when we were actually living in our household, we just really looked up to our father. He wasn’t working that much, so we thought, “If dad is not working, as much piano as he can play, then our chances of making it playing music must be zero, because we can’t play.”

2006: Wynton Marsalis records Congo Square with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, Yacub Addy and Odadaa!.
2006: Wynton Marsalis records Congo Square with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, Yacub Addy and Odadaa!.

So when did you decide you really wanted to play the trumpet seriously?

Wynton Marsalis: I think when I was 13 or 14. After I had practiced for one or two years…

Keys to success — Perseverance

I would practice every day for four or five hours a day, or three hours, just to continue. If you practice for four or five months, you reach the point where you don’t feel like practicing anymore. You might say, “I practiced for four months, and I’m not really that much better.” And, you want to quit. But, I would just keep practicing, even on the days I didn’t want to play. I would listen to trumpet players all the time, and I just fell in love with playing, from the time I was a freshman or sophomore in high school. I didn’t know whether I would be able make it professionally playing music because I was checking my daddy out, and he wasn’t really making a good living playing, but a certain level of achievement I knew I would be on. Just as a freshman I would make the All-State Orchestra, or play in the Civic Orchestra, the Youth Symphony. I would win certain auditions. I really understood that I needed to practice. So at one point I just made up my mind that I really would practice and just develop.

Plus, I love music. Mainly listening to it, even more than playing. Because when I played jazz, I never sounded good to myself, so that was real depressing. In classical music I would always sound better, because I always knew what I was trying to do. Whereas in jazz, I never really knew what to do. We couldn’t play blues, so I never sounded like the people who could play. But I didn’t know it was because I couldn’t play blues. We were playing funk. There was nobody to play with. We had to recruit people to play.

2005: Wynton Marsalis accompanies Kathleen Battle at Jazz at Lincoln Center during the International Achievement Summit in New York City. (© Academy of Achievement)
2005: Wynton Marsalis accompanies American lyric soprano Kathleen Battle at the Jazz at Lincoln Center during a performance at the International Achievement Summit in New York City. (© American Academy of Achievement)

There is that old joke about how do you get to Carnegie Hall. There are a lot of kids out there with trumpets. How did you do it? How did you get to where you are?

Keys to success — Perseverance

Wynton Marsalis: I practiced everyday. I went about seven years without missing a day of practice. I had a very strict schedule that I would follow, and I would not go to sleep until I had practiced all the stuff I had to practice. If I had a job from like 10:00 to 1:00 or 2:00, I would still practice. I made sure that I would get all the work done, so I wanted to play and be good. You have to really want to be good. More than anything I wanted to be able to play, and that’s what motivated me. I would listen to records; I would buy all these etude books. Any money I would make on little pop gigs I would buy trumpets or books with it. I would get all the etude books, I would go to different teachers, I would call people, and really seek the knowledge out. I would go to music camp in the summer time. Practice, listen to the recordings of Adolph Herseth, or Clifford Brown, trying to learn the records. But, the hardest thing for me has been to play jazz. Because in jazz, I have had to put myself in my own context. Whereas, in classical music, everything is set up for you. You just have to learn how to play. In jazz, it’s been very difficult, because I have had to create a context to learn how to play in, from an intellectual standpoint, from a philosophical standpoint, and from an actual standpoint in terms of recruiting musicians. That’s been the most difficult thing.

Why jazz? Why not, as with most of your contemporaries, why not rock and roll? 

1963: Jazz saxophonist and composer John Coltrane.
1963: Jazz saxophonist and composer John Coltrane. Coltrane was at the forefront of free jazz — which was an attempt to return jazz to its primitive, often religious roots, with an emphasis on collective improvisations — and influenced innumerable musicians, including the young Wynton Marsalis. Coltrane remains one of the most significant saxophonists in music history and received many posthumous awards, including the Pulitzer Prize.
Keys to success — Passion

Wynton Marsalis: I always equated rock with something social like meeting girls and stuff. I never equated it with music. So, I would be on the bandstand, and the music itself was all right, but I had also heard my daddy and them play. So, I knew what was going on our bandstand — playing rock — wasn’t what was going on his bandstand. Also, I had played with orchestras, and I definitely knew what was going on an orchestral bandstand was not what went on on our rock bandstand. There is a lot of debate about how “it’s just music,” and all this stuff that people talk now, if you stand on all those different bandstands on a certain level, you know that it’s not all just music. It’s something very different that goes on in all of those instances. It’s like, if you go in a club to hear Coltrane play, or you go into one of these clubs down on 42nd Street and take in a burlesque show, well it’s a club and you are going out, but it’s very different. But jazz, it’s just the soul of it and also the intellect of it. To listen to John Coltrane when he starts playing. I’d come home and put that Coltrane record on, “Cousin Mary” would be playing, just the sound in that music. I’d be pantomiming like I was a saxophone player, just listening to ‘Trane, that type of cry that he had in his sound. And, I wanted to make somebody feel like how that made me feel listening to it. And, Clifford Brown and Miles Davis, when he was playing jazz, early Miles, I would listen to Clifford, just the way he could play, the style of the music, the feeling of it, the whole lifestyle, the whole jazz. It was all in my mind then. Even though my father was a musician, he was my father. I didn’t look at him like anything but my father. But, on these records then I could hear just a pride, a something, a dignity. They had a nobility to it, a profundity. I just wanted to be part of it, even though it didn’t exist in my era.

1954: Jazz trumpeter Clifford Brown. (Mosaic Records)
1954: Jazz trumpeter Clifford Brown. He died at the age of twenty-five in a car accident, leaving behind only four years’ worth of recordings. Nonetheless, he had considerable influence on later jazz trumpeters. (Mosaic Records)

So, we would go on our bandstand and it would be fun. The women would be out there and we’d be singing and making our little symbols and our dance steps. You’d have like, battles of the bands, and everybody’s bands would be there, but it would be loud! We’d be playing so loud half the time, my ears would be ringing after the gigs. It’s fun. People would be hyped up on the rock gigs and that’s fun. But, you listen to Coltrane and that’s something human, something that’s about elevation. That’s like making love to a woman. It’s about something of value, it’s not just loud. It doesn’t have that violent connotation to it. I wanted to be a jazz musician so bad, but I really couldn’t. There was no way I could figure out to learn how to play. My daddy would teach us and let us come on his bandstand, but we were so sad. You know, you start out playing jazz, and you can’t play. You try to improvise — and it’s so pitiful the way you sound, you can’t swing, you’re just technically playing, and then you listen to the records of people like Clifford Brown and the greatest instrumentalist, Louis Armstrong. And, we came up in a generation where rock and roll is popular, and nobody is even playing trumpet on a lot of that. Just the content of the music is different.

I mean, I like the music of Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye. I love Marvin’s music. But it just was a different world from the jazz music.

2014: Wynton Marsalis performing with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra.
2014: Wynton Marsalis performing with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. Marsalis has toured 30 countries and nearly five million copies of his recordings have been sold worldwide. Wynton Marsalis received the National Humanities Medal, as well as honorary degrees from numerous colleges including Princeton, Harvard, and Yale.

Wynton, you’ve been quoted as saying that jazz is the ultimate 20th century music. What does jazz mean to you? What is the place of jazz in American life and culture?

Wynton Marsalis: The first thing about jazz is that it has so many functions. First, there’s the communal function coming from New Orleans music. It was played to celebrate births, funerals, the celebratory aspects of the music, the parade, which — around the turn of the century — was a real popular thing. They had bands like the John Philip Sousa band, and it’s a heroic sound. And, jazz music is the American version of that appropriation of something European. Then you have the whole dance connotation with jazz music, which I think, it reached its most popular point in the country with the swing era. But still, the elements of jazz are in all of the music. Then you have the element of refinement of folk themes, which you find in all classic music. And, this is what the jazz musicians do with the songs of Cole Porter and George Gershwin, like when you hear Ben Webster play a Cole Porter song. The art of jazz is what he performs on the theme. Hoagy Carmichael, when he first heard Louis Armstrong do Stardust, he said, “Man, I wish I had written that,” or, “It can’t sound any better than that.” Then you have the conception of New Orleans jazz: group improvisation, cooperative ensemble playing, which functions exactly like a democracy. Which is: each person has the right to play what they want to play, but the responsibility to play something that makes everybody else sound good. So, it’s the way that these horns relate to the rhythm section, it’s like a musical example of how a democracy should work.

2016: Wynton Marsalis
2016: Wynton Marsalis has earned nine Grammy Awards. In 1983 and 1984, he became the only artist to win Grammy Awards for both jazz and classical records. He is one of only two artists to win Grammy Awards for five consecutive years. Wynton Marsalis has been designated a cultural ambassador by the U.S. State Department.