Renowned as one of the most outspoken men in modern jazz, New Orleans’ Wynton Marsalis has been making friends and enemies in music since the ’80s, when he burst onto the scene as trumpeter in Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, taking a slot previously filled by the likes of Lee Morgan, Freddie Hubbard and Clifford Brown. Established shortly afterwards as a solo artist with a major-label deal on Columbia, Marsalis became known as a dogmatic conservative, preaching for the restoration of jazz to stricter forms.
In 1987 he established US educational programme the Lincoln Centre, which launched a huge part-venue, part-education resource in New York in 2004. Recently opening a branch of Jazz at Lincoln Centre in Doha with a string of dates last month, we asked the 50-year-old American why he brought jazz to the Middle East.
It was his father, notorious jazz pianist Ellis Marsalis, Jr, who first introduced him to the music. He did a good job: his brothers – trumpeter Branford, trombonist Delfeayo and drummer Jason – are all also notable jazz musicians.
‘My father is one of New Orleans’ great jazz musicians. His dedication to the music is something that always stayed with me. My father used to always say, “It’s just like talking. It’s not hard at all. It only becomes difficult if you want to sound good.”’
Despite his reputation for keeping things pure, Marsalis likes to mix things up.
‘Everyone in our band plays so many different types of music. For our concerts last weekend I arranged the scherzo from Beethoven’s Symphony No 7 and a Sly Stone song!’
He sees nothing odd about bringing jazz to the Middle East.
‘Throughout its history, jazz has connected with different cultures, races, religions and generations. This is an especially important time to communicate the sanctity of our collective human heritage. Jazz is a perfect tool to do this. Our goal is to uplift everyone who hears us.’
But he doesn’t expect everyone to ‘get it’.
‘Sometimes people in the West don’t “get” jazz. That’s why there’s a need for Jazz at Lincoln Centre – because jazz is certainly worth “getting”. You have to follow it to understand it. Many times, people who are intimidated are hearing jazz that is not well played. That intimidates me also.’
So, the notorious educator’s tips for a newbie are…
‘A great start is to check out Duke Ellington’s The Far East Suite, Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue, and John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman. Technology provides us all with greater access to every imaginable type of music; Jazz at Lincoln Centre webcasts live performances from our Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola [in New York]. But, of course, it’s always best to hear the music live.’