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Wynton Marsalis Pays Homage to Jazz’s Past by Investing in Its Future

June 1, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
This year's Essentially Ellington Jazz Competition -- part-contest and part-celebration -- drew entries from 110 high school bands, but just 15 were selected as finalists. Jeffrey Brown sits down with the man behind the competition: jazz great Wynton Marsalis.
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JIM LEHRER: Finally tonight, a jazz master and his big band of the future.

Jeffrey Brown talks with Wynton Marsalis.

JEFFREY BROWN: It was part-competition, part-celebration, part workshop, as hundreds of students from around the nation descended on Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York recently for the finals of the 16th annual Essentially Ellington Festival — 110 high school bands had entered this year’s competition, submitting recorded performances for the judges. Just 15 were chosen.

WYNTON MARSALIS, Musician: I want as much as possible to try to communicate to you all the holistic nature of this experience.

JEFFREY BROWN: It began with an extended meditation from the man behind it all, the renowned trumpet player, band leader and head of jazz at Lincoln Center, Wynton Marsalis, who answered a barrage of questions.

MAN: How do you say what you want to say when you want to say it? You know what I mean?  

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MAN: I was wondering, what, in your mind, is music in its purest form?

WOMAN: What would be your one greatest piece of advice when trying to learn how to improvise?

JEFFREY BROWN: Mostly, though, Marsalis spoke to the students about what he calls the values in and gained through jazz.

WYNTON MARSALIS: You all are required to make another type of statement because of the position of your generation. You’re forced to make an, “I am” statement, where you have to say, hey, this is an important part of being in our country in this time, of being in the world, this music and what it brought out.

We teach them the basic values of our music, which are, one, the significance of your own creativity and your own ideas, your personhood. That’s through improvisation, and through swing, that other people have that, and you have to figure out how to choose to work together, and that ours is a music of ethics more than laws. Like, there’s not a right and a wrong.

JEFFREY BROWN: Ethics — say that again, ethics more than laws?

WYNTON MARSALIS: Ethics are more important than laws.

JEFFREY BROWN: Which means what?

WYNTON MARSALIS: Which means that the exact note is less important than the feeling of the note.

JEFFREY BROWN: Marsalis, who turns 50 in October, has been in the public eye and a man on a mission for decades.

He was born into a musical New Orleans family. From early on, he played with older brother Branford, and they and their siblings learned from their father, Ellis, a pianist and educator. Young Wynton played in a church band and performed funk for fun and money. And he studied and excelled at classical music, which he’s continued throughout his career.

But it’s jazz and the preservation of its musical tradition that’s been his passion. He started his own band in 1981, and later became founding artistic director of Jazz at Lincoln Center.

Marsalis calls it the house of swing, and swing is what he wants to teach today’s students.

WYNTON MARSALIS: Swing is extreme coordination. It’s a maintaining balance, equilibrium. It’s about executing very difficult rhythms with a panache and a feeling in the context of very strict time. So, everything about the swing is about some guideline and some grid and the elegant way that you negotiate your way through that grid.

JEFFREY BROWN: Among the bands competing this year, East Saint Louis High, making a first-ever appearance after a 23-hour drive to New York.

And that gave alto sax player Carlos Brown Jr. a chance to work with professional musicians from the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, and to show his chops in a jam session, while Delano Redmond, director of the East Saint Louis band, looked on proudly.

Afterwards, I asked the pair how jazz fits in at their school.

CARLOS BROWN JR., East Saint Louis High School: Sports is very popular in our school, so it’s like you have to go about it like sports, like you — like this is your thing. You want to do it. And…

JEFFREY BROWN: The music.

CARLOS BROWN JR.: Right.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes.

CARLOS BROWN JR.: And if you go about it, you know, like saying, this is my thing, I really want to do this, I put my blood, sweat and tears in this, then people, they will — they will respect it.  

DELANO REDMOND, East Saint Louis High School Band Director: As the band director, when I get a new student, I have to transform that student into a person who’s willing to appreciate music as a whole, so, by the time that person graduates high school, they appreciate Bach, Beethoven. They also appreciate Basie, Duke Ellington, Miles, Coltrane. It’s not about just jazz; it’s about music as a whole.

JEFFREY BROWN: And that is exactly what Wynton Marsalis is after, and more, because for all the uplift and sheer exuberance of this festival, it stems from a deeply felt-concern for American culture. Marsalis’ recent book, “Moving to Higher Ground,” was a mix of music lesson, self-help, and a lament about the loss of knowledge of the arts, in the nation and the black community in particular.

In it, he wrote, “Nowadays, the average black person has no idea, no understanding of the rich legacy of the Afro-American arts and doesn’t know that there is even something to know.”

WYNTON MARSALIS: If you are serious about American culture and you are serious about Afro-American culture, you are in a lot of pain. You are not — you are not smiling about it.

(LAUGHTER)

WYNTON MARSALIS: I mean, I’m laughing, but it’s that kind of laugh where it’s like, OK.

JEFFREY BROWN: You’re laughing, but you’re in pain about it.

WYNTON MARSALIS: It’s painful. Take the Afro-American out of it. The Afro-American is a culture inside of a culture — so a lack of interest in culture in our — in our culture, period, in our nation.

We would be so much better if we knew our own culture. It’s here for us. It’s been left by — you can take your pick. Start with Walt Whitman. We are not better because we don’t know who he — what he had to tell us. We are not better for not knowing Duke Ellington’s music.

JEFFREY BROWN: After his question-and-answer session with the young student musicians, he took us to his backstage dressing room, where he relaxes playing blues piano.

One of the most moving questions out there was that young man who said, I listen to myself after my solo, and that’s not what I’m trying to say.

JEFFREY BROWN: Wasn’t that?

WYNTON MARSALIS: Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: And you said, it’s the same for — it’s the same for you.

WYNTON MARSALIS: Oh, yes. I feel that all the time.

Dizzy Gillespie told me a funny story asked Louis Armstrong. He said, Louis Armstrong, when he played, he always looked up. So, he said that he asked Louis — they called him Pops — he said, “Pops, why are you always looking up when you play?” He said, “What are you looking for?”

And he said, “I don’t know what I’m looking for, but I always find it.”

(LAUGHTER)

JEFFREY BROWN: The key for the nation, Marsalis says, is education, and, for these students, keep looking and keep playing.

And that’s just what the competition’s ultimate winner, Fort Lauderdale’s Dillard Center for the Arts, did.