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One On 1: Jazz Great Wynton Marsalis

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NY1's Budd Mishkin begins a new feature this week entitled "One On 1" — a weekly look at the New Yorkers who make the city great. This week Mishkin profiles renowned jazz musician Wynton Marsalis.

We know that Wynton Marsalis can play. But did you know that he can play?



Rumor has it, Marsalis has the best jump shot in jazz.

“Best for any jazz player over forty. Have to qualify it," says Marsalis.

But there is no need to qualify Marsalis's influence in jazz and in New York. He's been the artistic director of Jazz at Lincoln Center since 1987.

Marsalis's love for the history of the music is intense, with so many jazz greats watching him from portraits on the walls of the Jazz at Lincoln Center offices. But for the last five years, Marsalis has also been focused on the future, specifically Jazz at Lincoln Center's future home in the Time Warner complex at Columbus Circle.



Marsalis was part of the original group that went to Mayor Giuliani to promote Jazz at Lincoln Center as the cultural component for Columbus Circle. He even gathered architectural ideas by visiting and studying theaters around the world. Now that construction is well underway, Marsalis is the chief tour guide.



The new facility will include one concert theater, one smaller performance space overlooking Central Park, a jazz club, rehearsal studios, classrooms, and a jazz hall of fame.

And the prospect of it opening next fall renders the ordinarily eloquent and charismatic Marsalis almost speechless. Almost.

"There’s no way for me to even express it with words — the intensity of emotion and the outpouring of love and feeling. Just to say that when we open that hall, that’s what’s going to be in there: a celebration of people coming together," says Marsalis.

When Marsalis isn’t performing, he's rehearsing. And when he's not rehearsing, he's leading workshops for kids.



Marsalis is equally at home with kids and mayors, and always promoting Jazz at Lincoln Center. Not just the music, but the business too, which sets him apart from his jazz idols.

"I view everything that I do as part of one thing. Whether it’s raising money, or educating, or writing music or playing. It’s all about jazz, it’s about culture, it’s about the elevation of the human spirit,” Marsalis says.

Marsalis enrolled in Julliard some twenty years ago, essentially following the same path — New Orleans to New York — as jazz's first international superstar, Louis Armstrong. He was also following the dreams of his father, Ellis Marsalis.

"My father had always told me, you had to go to New York. He wanted to go to New York. So that’s what I wanted to do. It was more to realize things that he had wanted to do," he says.



"We were flying over Manhattan — just the buildings and the people. Then when I came down into the city, just the cauldron of human activity — it was just mind boggling. Coming from New Orleans, you can't conceive of that much activity. Then when I left I said I had to get back to New York. I had the New York bug,” Marsalis recalled.

And he's never shaken it.

And so, Marsalis performs at Lincoln Center. He appears at charity functions, such as a recent benefit to raise awareness about colorectal cancer. And always, teaching, so that so many young kids, or maybe even just one, will feel the joy of music.

Marsalis's love for New York is passionate. Two days after Sept. 11, Marsalis performed with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the first such event after the 11th.

"We're from New York and we are deeply touched and saddened. We want to say that our music is about the blues and it's ultimately about swinging and it’s about drawing joy out of tragedy and refusing to be beat down. We cannot be beaten down,” he said at the time.

The same might be said for Wynton Marsalis: jazzman, businessman, teacher, New Yorker.

"New York is a place of such a rich mosaic of personalities. It’s such an international place. There has never been anything like New York City on the face of the earth," he says.

At the Jazz at Lincoln Center offices, Marsalis is surrounded by the faces behind the music. As he offered a tour of their portraits, he gave his impressions of their impact on the development of jazz.

"Monk showed musicians how to be modern without being clichŽd," Marsalis says. "Charlie Parker is the genius of modern style. Billie Holiday, well, she’s just the most soulful thing that ever stood up and sang, influenced a lot by Louis Armstrong."

In his first years in New York, after some initial struggles, Marsalis was considered a bit of a wunderkind, much like Armstrong, another New Orleans native who came to New York some years before.

When asked if his talent was a blessing or a burden, Marsalis doesn't hesitate.

“It was all a blessing for me. I wanted to be a part of the history of music, and also I didn't know enough of the history of the music to know what it was," he says.

He would prove a quick study in the music's history. But Marsalis would be accused of not being open enough to the jazz of the seventies and the early eighties, instead preferring the classics.

"In the 70s, when I was growing up jazz music was mainly pop music. A lot of people thought that was jazz. The real rebellion was to be serious and to play jazz," he says.

In the last twenty years, Wynton, his brother Branford, his other brothers along with father Ellis have helped make the Marsalis family the first family of jazz.

"Family is functional and dysfunctional. They have a lot of love and they have a lot of not love. But they are the basis of our understanding of the world. I was fortunate to grow up in family that I grew up in because I had great examples of all of that. Things that work and things that didn’t work. And we are still here,” he says.

“When we went on this tour, last year when we toured, I looked at Branford like we were playing in high school with our funk band," Marsalis says. "We played some counterpoint or some hip thing, and we looked at each other and went Îuh hmm.’ That was like a little thing that we would do. We’d play a horn part really well or something crazy together and we’d go Îuh hmm.’"

Some current jazz musicians have argued that the promotion of Armstrong and Ellington and other all-time greats makes it more difficult for the newcomers to be heard. But Marsalis disagrees.

"It should be made tougher. To be strong as an artist, you need that. That is our legacy. That’s what we’re responsible for living up to. That’s what makes our music strong and great," he says.



Marsalis works hard to keep the jazz legacy great. In Jazz at Lincoln Center, he has found a way to combine the business of music and his enthusiastic approach to all things jazz.

"It's all about the music, and the skills that you learn as a musician help with that," he says. "To write a score, you have to be organized. You play on tour, you call out a set of music, if you’re teaching kids, you have to be organized to do all these things. You have to deal with people, people of all different personalities. There's never been any art better designed to help you do that than jazz, to deal with so many personalities."



For Wynton Marsalis, it's all part of one process: to reward the music's rich history, and light the spark for generations to come.

"For me it’s always a matter of quality. What is the highest quality. And art does not know time. There are no old days, and there are no new days,” says Marsalis. “There’s just achievement itself and its impact on present time. If Louis Armstrong, if his music still has impact and it get you get deep into the trumpet and the human soul, then it's pertinent right now.”

Duke used to say there are two types of music: good music and the other kind.

But if Wynton Marsalis is playing, you can be sure it’s the good kind.

-Bud Mishkin

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