These days when you think of jazz in the tradition of Duke Ellington, and the finest trumpet playing you have ever heard, both in the jazz and the classical arena, there is only one musician to think of; Wynton Marsalis. As his bio describes him, "his life is a portrait of discipline, dedication, sacrifice, and creative accomplishment … " In short, the American ideal.
Marsalis was born in New Orleans, Louisiana on October 18, 1961 to Ellis and Dolores Marsalis. He was the second of six sons. His family was a musical one and his brother Branford was a serious musician as well who would grow up to have a very healthy career of his own. At age 8 he performed traditional New Orleans music in the Fairview Baptist Church band led by legendary banjoist, Danny Barker. Among many other bands and ensembles, during high school Marsalis was a member of the New Orleans Symphony Brass Quintet and on weekends he performed in a jazz band as well as in the popular local funk band, the Creators. At age 17 Marsalis became the youngest musician ever to be admitted to Tanglewood's Berkshire Music Center.
A turning point came for Marsalis when he moved to New York City to attend Juilliard in 1979 and began to pick up gigs around town. The following year (1980 ) he was rewarded with the opportunity to join the Jazz Messengers to study with drummer and bandleader, Art Blakey. Under Blakey's tutelage, Marsalis learned the connection between Jazz and Democracy-it was a constant in Blakey's teaching-"No America, no jazz!" In the years to follow Wynton was invited to perform with Sarah Vaughan, Dizzy Gillespie, Sweets Edison, Clark Terry, Sonny Rollins, and countless other jazz legends.
Marsalis also expressed his vision in composition as well. Dance companies found his work to be simpatico with their style. Modern dance companies like Garth Fagan Dance, Peter Martins at the New York City Ballet, Twyla Tharp for the American Ballet Theatre, and Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre. Marsalis collaborated with the Lincoln Center Chamber Music Society in 1995 to compose the string quartet, "At the Octoroon Balls", and again in 1998 to create a response to Stravinsky's A Soldier's Tale with his composition, "A Fiddler's Tale".
Marsalis presented his most ambitious work to date, "All Rise", an epic composition for big band, gospel choir, and symphony orchestra which was performed by the New York Philharmonic under the baton of Kurt Masur along with the Morgan State University Choir and the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra in December of 1999.
But, the classics still called him and the music of Bach, Beethoven, Mozart and others drove him to pursue a career in classical music as well. He recorded the Haydn, Hummel and Leopold Mozart trumpet concertos at the age of twenty. His recording of this CD afforded him a Grammy Award for "Best Classical Soloist with an Orchestra."
The leading orchestras that called for his services at this time were orchestras including the New York Philharmonic, Los Angeles Philharmonic, Boston Pops, Cleveland Orchestra, St. Louis Symphony, English Chamber Orchestra, Toronto Symphony Orchestra and London's Royal Philharmonic, working with a distinguished group of conductors like: Leppard, Dutoit, Maazel, Slatkin, Esa-Pekka Salonen, and Tilson-Thomas.
In 1987 Wynton Marsalis co-founded a jazz program at Lincoln Center. The first season consisted of three concerts. Under Wynton's leadership the program has developed an international agenda with up to 400 events annually in 15 countries. The programming is rich and diverse and includes performances, debates, film forums, dances, television and radio broadcasts, and educational activities. Educational activities include an annual High School Jazz Band Competition & Festival that reaches over 2,000 bands in 50 states and Canada, a Band Director's Academy, and a very important concert series for kids called "Jazz for Young People."
In the fall of 1995 Marsalis launched two major broadcast events. In October, PBS premiered a series of educational television shows on jazz and classical music. The series was written and hosted by Marsalis and was enjoyed by millions of parents and children. Writers distinguished Marsalis' television series by comparing his work to that of the late Leonard Bernstein in his celebrated Young People's Concerts of the 50s & 60s. That same month National Public Radio began broadcasting the first of Marsalis' 26-week series entitled "Making the Music." These entertaining and insightful radio shows were the first full exposition of jazz music in American broadcast history. Wynton's radio and television series were awarded the most prestigious distinction in broadcast journalism, the George Foster Peabody Award (1995). While this body of work is enough to fill two lifetimes, Wynton Marsalis continues to work as hard as ever to earn the privilege to contribute even more to our world's cultural landscape.
Wynton Marsalis has won nine of the coveted Grammy Awards. In 1983 he earned the distinction of being the only artist ever to win Grammy Awards for both jazz and classical records - (an accomplishment he astonishingly repeated in 1984) and he is the only artist ever to have won Grammy Awards in five consecutive years (1983-1987). Marsalis was awarded the Grand Prix Du Disque of France, the Louis Armstrong Memorial Medal, the Netherlands' Edison Award and the Algur H. Meadows Award for Excellence in the Arts in 1997. He received countless plaques and was given the Key to over 50 cities. He was inducted into the American Academy of Achievement and was dubbed an Honorary Dreamer by the "I Have a Dream Foundation." Marsalis received a citation from the United States House of Representatives for his outstanding contributions to the Arts. Time Magazine selected Marsalis as one of America's most promising leaders under age 40 in 1995, and in 1996 Time Magazine celebrated Marsalis as one of America's 25 Most Influential People. In the spring of 2001 United Nations Secretary General, Kofi Annan proclaimed Wynton Marsalis an international ambassador of goodwill by appointing him a U N Messenger of Peace. In November 2005, Wynton Marsalis was awarded The National Medal of Arts, the highest award given to artists and arts patrons by the United States Government. If you speak with Marsalis, however, he will tell you that his greatest reward is the love and support that he receives from people all over the world from his twenty plus years of uninterrupted touring.
Honorary degrees have been conferred upon Marsalis by twenty-nine of our nation's leading academic institutions including Columbia, Brown, Princeton and Yale University. Elsewhere, the New York Urban League awarded Marsalis with the Frederick Douglass Medallion for distinguished leadership, the American Arts Council presented him with the Arts Education Award and Britain's senior conservatoire, the Royal Academy of Music, granted Mr. Marsalis Honorary Membership, the Academy's highest decoration for a non-British citizen (1996). The French Ministry of Culture appointed Marsalis the most prestigious decoration awarded by the French Republic - the rank of Knight in the Order of Arts and Literature. In 1997 Wynton Marsalis became the first jazz musician ever to win the Pulitzer Prize for Music for his epic oratorio Blood on the Fields. During the five decades prior, the Pulitzer Prize jury refused to recognize jazz musicians and their improvisational music, reserving this distinction for classical composers.
Immediately following Hurricane Katrina, Wynton Marsalis organized the Higher Ground Hurricane Relief concert (produced by Jazz at Lincoln Center) which raised and distributed over $3M to musicians and cultural organizations impacted by the hurricane. At the same time, he assumed a leadership role on the Bring Back New Orleans Cultural Commission where he was instrumental in helping to shape a master plan that would revitalize the city's cultural base. Marsalis has since been a tireless advocate for Hurricane Katrina survivors and for marshalling the will and resources necessary to rebuild New Orleans culturally, socially and economically. It is Marsalis' commitment to the improvement of life for all people as well as his outstanding contributions to the Arts that portray the best of his character and humanity.
Wynton Marsalis will be featured on The Black Arts on Wednesday, November 25th at 10.00 p.m.
The Black Arts-National City Artist of the Month is presented with the sponsorship of National City, now a part of PNC, dedicated to supporting the communities they serve.