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If you like Wynton Marsalis's story, you might also like:
Johnny Cash,
Vince Gill,
Lauryn Hill,
B.B. King,
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Johnny Mathis,
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recommended reading: The Sound and the Fury

Wynton Marsalis also appears in the video:
The Democratic Process

Teachers can find prepared lesson plans featuring Wynton Marsalis in the Achievement Curriculum section:
A Passion For Music
Pursuing a Career in Music

Related Links:
Wynton Marsalis Music On Jango
Wynton Marsalis

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Wynton Marsalis
Wynton Marsalis
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Wynton Marsalis Interview (page: 2 / 8)

Pulitzer Prize for Music

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  Wynton Marsalis

To say you were smart is an understatement. You could have gone to Yale, you could have gone to any number of schools. You had scholarship offers. You were a National Merit Scholar. Why did you turn that down?

Wynton Marsalis Interview Photo
Wynton Marsalis: Well, to me, the highest endeavor was art. But I didn't know that at that time, because I didn't think aesthetically. I just wanted to be a musician. And there were a lot of times too, I had a certain type of bitterness. Not real bitterness, but a certain type. It was like the whole minority scholarship thing. To me that always was something to lessen your achievement. Now don't get me wrong, I would take the scholarship, because I needed the scholarship. But for me, the whole achievement, academically, was more just the joy of the intellectual pursuit. It wasn't the chance to say I had made the A list, because that didn't really mean anything. Even to go to an Ivy League school, Yale or Harvard, that really was not important to me, when I could go to Juilliard and play music. I really wanted to be a musician by the time I was a senior in high school. More than anything I wanted to play music.

What was that like, coming from Louisiana, and you show up in New York City at Juilliard for an audition?

Wynton Marsalis: Man you're a good interviewer! I do thousands of interviews. It was a trip, because I was still country. Like in New Orleans, everybody talks to each other, or you look at people on the street. You never walk past a person that you don't say "Good evening" or "How you doing?" We called it "the Big Easy," because it's really laid back. And I used to go to my great aunt and my great uncle's house, and we'd sit down and eat, go to different friends' houses and it was just a communal atmosphere. And Manhattan is everything going on, all those big buildings. I remember looking out West End Avenue, when I first came, at just a big row of buildings straight down, and I said, "Man, what is this?" And all these people! I would go to Park Avenue or Fifth Avenue during rush hour, and it would just be millions of people out in the street like ants.

At that time I was staying uptown, in Harlem. That was kind of depressing to me in one way, because I had never seen the type of attitude that was up there. I had been around people without money, the black people generally didn't have a lot of money. My grandmother lived in the same projects all the time we were growing up, but our attitude would be different. In New York the attitude is colder and quicker. But New York also had a certain beauty to it. The pace of it. In fact, you could meet all types of different people. And there is a lot of warmth there too, but you have to find it. It's more behind closed doors. But...

Going to Juilliard, I didn't have a lot of friends. It seemed to me, everybody was rich. And, I spoke differently from everybody. I still had an Afro. And, I wasn't clean. People would be coming to school, they'd have on all these killing clothes. And coming from New Orleans, I'd still be wearing green jeans and earth shoes and stuff. I was just looking funny. So, I would feel kind of un-confident. I had lost some of my self-confidence.

I would be playing in the orchestra and stuff, but that's not really what I wanted to do. I wanted to play jazz. So I would play, and I enjoyed playing, but I didn't like the whole competitive aspect of it. People were always talking about each other, "This one can't play," and everybody, 500 people auditioning for one job, and in the orchestra, most people you know are not going to get in. So for me it was a hell of a transition to make.

Then, I didn't know how to cook. I had never been on my own. I was used to dealing with my mama and daddy. So that was an interesting year for me, that first year that I left home when I was 17. I learned a lot during that time. And I grew to love New York City in a certain way. The feeling of it, the subway, Rockefeller Center and Lincoln Center. There was so much stuff. The Museum of Modern Art. But I didn't go to any of those, I would just look at them from the outside. Don't get me wrong, I wasn't involved in the cultural life of the city. I would just say, "Yeah, Lincoln Center."

Can you remember the day that you had to play for the Juilliard committee?

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 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.

Then I left. I was staying with a guy named Charlie Miller. He was a trumpet player who also studied with George Jansen. He was from New Orleans, and he was living on 51st Street and Eighth Avenue. So, when I came into New York, I got a cab, and it left me off in the wrong place. So I had all my bags and stuff, and I was like, "Oh no!" But I found his apartment and I went back and was talking with Charlie about it.

Every night he would leave and go to his gig, and I would be in his apartment by myself. And, I was kind of scared because I was in New York. I thought everybody was just killing everybody! I didn't know what was happening. But after a while I got used to it.

But 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.

Well, from what I read, you knocked them dead with the Brandenburg.

Wynton Marsalis: But see, when I played I didn't know what their response was.

Were you nervous?

Wynton Marsalis: Oh, yeah I was nervous. I really was nervous.

What do you do when you are nervous? How do you overcome that?

Wynton Marsalis: I can't really, I just stand there and be nervous.

I think I enjoy being nervous sometimes. It's good. It's like whenever you are getting ready to get into a fight, you get nervous. You say, "Oh, well, looks like we're gonna have to fight." You'll be going up with somebody that'll try or just take your money or just tell you something you didn't want to hear. You really didn't want to fight because deep down you have the feeling that you are going to get beat up, but it makes you just pull something out of yourself. I'm gonna get beat up, but that's all right. I'm gonna put something out here. I get nervous sometimes when I play. Students ask me all the time, "I get nervous, what should I do?" I just tell them, just figure that the people that are there to hear you, they want to hear something sound good, and there is nothing you would rather be doing in front of all them people than playing because that's what you spend most of your time doing. Auditions are the worst. You get more nervous I think for that than playing for people. Because with people, you get a certain warmth. For an audition, everybody is doing a job. "Oh, well, let's see if he can play." And you know the people who are listening to you are really on the highest level of hearing, and they can really discern every mistake. When I get nervous, my palms start to sweat, my mouth gets dry, but I think, you know, "Wynton, you gotta play!" Hope it comes out; sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn't.

[ Key to Success ] Courage

So you are just like the rest of us. You were a kid like every other kid, you wanted to play ball or other things, but when did you know you wanted to play the trumpet?

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

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.

[ Key to Success ] Perseverance

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.

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

Wynton Marsalis: Well, 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 start 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.

[ Key to Success ] Passion

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 out 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.

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