For Marsalis, jazz is about elevating life
Wynton Marsalis has lofty ambitions for jazz music.Not just for his own music (although he has set those sights dizzyingly high). Marsalis believes that jazz is capable of raising the bar of life itself.To that end, the trumpeter and composer co-founded in 1987 Jazz at Lincoln Center, an arm of New York’s Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, and its resident Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, far and away the most accomplished and well-traveled big band of its era.”Our ultimate goal is to impart American culture, to help raise the level of that culture,” said Marsalis, who has taken up the mantle not only of musician, but tireless educator and spokesman as well. “And the object is not just about jazz – it’s to elevate the spirit and the dialogue of the entire country.”In recent months, Marsalis has seen the elevation of the spirit in a wholly new context. Jazz at Lincoln Center is in the process of having its own home, Frederick P. Rose Hall, constructed.As is common with things associated with Marsalis, it is a grand undertaking: the 100,000-square-foot facility is located at Columbus Circle, a sort of crossroads for Manhattan. Rose Hall, comprising three venues, an education center, a Jazz Hall of Fame and a recording studio, is being billed in promotional materials as “the new center of the jazz universe.” Marsalis and his Jazz at Lincoln Center associates are obviously thrilled about the project, set to open on Oct. 18 – Marsalis’ 43rd birthday. But Marsalis is most jazzed about the spirit he witnesses at the construction site not 10 blocks north of 52nd Street, whose dingy clubs were the original center of the jazz universe a half-decade ago. Even concrete pourers, apparently, can share in Marsalis’ contagious enthusiasm for jazz.Marsalis tells the story of Sam Berkow, an acoustician working on Rose Hall. Berkow took a three-week vacation, on his own dime, touring with the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra through Indonesia to get a better feel for the sound and its physical requirements. That sort of dedication, said Marsalis, marks the entire project.”If Rose Hall has the feeling of all the people who worked on it, down to the construction workers, it can’t be anything but a success,” said Marsalis. “They’re always gracious, always helpful. Everyone has the sense that they’re working on something special. It’s an unbelievable amount of love and feeling.”It transcends the normal thing of raising money and building something.”Marsalis aims to have the feel of Rose Hall live up to the construction process. A philosophy driving the project is to foster interaction between the audience and the artist, keeping intact the atmosphere in which jazz was first performed. The venue’s opening season is titled “Welcome.””The down-home feeling, and the elegance and sophistication of the music. Make it close, make it warmer,” said Marsalis, ticking off his definition of success for Rose Hall. “If all the musicians and everyone knows that there’s a place to come to play music with integrity and listen to music with integrity.”Seventeen years ago, when Marsalis was merely an outstanding and versatile trumpeter, and a member of the famed musical Marsalis family of New Orleans, it never occurred to him that jazz could occupy such a high perch. He gives the credit for envisioning an institution devoted to the music to people like George Weissman and Nat Leventhal, the former chairman and president, respectively, of Lincoln Center, and Gordon Davis, the founding chairman of Jazz at Lincoln Center.”I didn’t know about that type of thing,” he said. “Everyone at Lincoln Center knew it was possible to develop a jazz constituency. I’m more like the younger person who came in and received guidance.”Before the inauguration of Rose Hall – with music that includes the premieres of Marsalis’ “Suite for Human Nature,” written for the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra and the Harlem Boys Choir, and his ballet score written for Savion Glover – Marsalis has been giving guidance to a small group of younger persons.Marsalis’ latest project, in contrast to Rose Hall, is a relatively intimate one. For the last year or so, Marsalis has spent time recording and touring with a small combo whose core is comprised of younger players: pianist Eric Lewis and bassist Carlos Henriquez, both members of the Jazz Orchestra, and drummer Ali Jackson.The quintet, rounded out by Jazz Orchestra tenor saxophonist Walter Blanding Jr., opens Jazz Aspen’s June Festival with a performance today at 8:30 p.m. in Rio Grande Park. (The quintet, with Wess “Warmdaddy” Anderson on saxophone, also performed in October at the Wheeler Opera House.) Earlier this year, the quartet released “The Magic Hour,” Marsalis’ first small-combo album in five years.”I’ve known all these guys since they were in high school,” said Marsalis. “They couldn’t be my kids, but they could be my little brothers. I wanted to get guys I’ve been playing with for 10, 12, 18 years and get their sound out there. When you’re playing the language of jazz with people you don’t play with a lot, you don’t know what you’re going to get. So it’s fun to just play with people who you know what they can do.”The focus on the quintet hasn’t meant a lack of attention for the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra. The big band has kept up its usual touring schedule and has recorded four albums – of the music of Charles Mingus, John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme,” Marsalis’ shorter works and an Afro-Latin album still to be released.Even with all the positive energy being poured into the new center of the jazz universe, Marsalis doesn’t give assurances that Rose Hall will transform the jazz world.”You never know when things will change for the better or worse,” he said. “I asked my father if he could have imagined the end of segregation. He said he had no idea. He said he could see things going either way, seeing the world from 1958 or 1968.”We just do what we can with our energy to inspire other people in a positive direction. We’re just trying to have fun.”Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is email@example.com– see Marsalis on page A– continued from page A1
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