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The Colossus Marsalis

Stewart Oksenhorn
Aspen Times Staff Writer

At this point, it seems practically impossible for Wynton Marsalis to do anything on a small scale. His history and the reputation that comes with the name make anything associated with Marsalis instantly big.

Marsalis comes from a grand musical family: His father, pianist Ellis Marsalis, is a performer and educator; three of his brothers – Branford, Delfeayo and Jason – are prominent musicians. Marsalis is artistic director of Jazz at Lincoln Center, the biggest jazz institution in the world; he is also music director of the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, by far the most ambitious and well-traveled big band of this era. In 1983, at the age of 22, Marsalis became the first and only artist to earn Grammy Awards in both jazz and classical categories in one year; he repeated the feat the following year.

And on and on.

Next year, Marsalis figures to become even more prominent with the planned opening of a new home for Jazz at Lincoln Center. A 100,000-square-foot facility located at Columbus Circle on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, Frederick P. Rose Hall is tagged in promotional materials as “the new center of the jazz universe.” It is scheduled to open Oct. 18, 2004 – Marsalis’ 43rd birthday.

Marsalis leads his current quintet to a performance at the Wheeler Opera House on Sunday, Oct. 26. Following is a look at Marsalis’ accomplishments in various spheres of the music world.

Building the future of jazz

Not 10 blocks north of 52nd Street, where smoke-filled jazz clubs lined the block a half-century ago, work has begun on an institution bound to give jazz music a different face.

Designed by Rafael Vinoly, Rose Hall will feature three performance spaces: the 1,200-seat Rose Theater, with audience seating that wraps around the stage; the 600-seat Allen Room, with a dramatic view of Central Park behind the stage; and Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola, a small cafe-style space. The facility, which spreads over five floors of a new multiuse high-rise on Columbus Circle, also includes the Ertegun Jazz Hall of Fame, an education center and rehearsal studios.

Much emphasis has been placed on how the $128 million facility is linked thematically with jazz history and dynamics. Rose Hall allows the audience and band to be essentially part of the same space; the Allen Room and Dizzy’s Club are designed to encourage dancing.

Jonathan Rose, head of the building committee and son of the philanthropist whose name is on the facility (and a developer whose projects include Aspen’s Benedict Commons), likens Rose Theater to “a town square. We actually wrap the audience around the musicians on all sides. It builds a community with the musicians at the heart of it. You see the musicians and the musicians see you.”

The Allen Room and Dizzy’s Club, he added, “are all about dancing, audience engagement. A lot of concert halls are very static. We think this will be active and engaging.”

Rose Hall is envisioned as a flexible facility. Plans include having opera and dance performances, arts conferences and entire festivals, as well as all of Lincoln Center’s jazz programs. The performance spaces will be available to outside organizations as well. But serving primarily as the home of Jazz at Lincoln Center, Rose and Marsalis believe Rose Hall will spur the organization to greater artistic heights.

“It gives us what Wynton calls our own sense of swing,” said Rose. “Every time we perform, we’re a guest in someone else’s space. There’s something about having your own home that allows you to create. It’s a base for our creation.”

And Rose sees the facility, the first designed specifically for the sound of jazz, as capable of elevating the music even beyond its walls.

“I am certain that it will,” he said. “Simply having a physical place means there will always be a presence.”

Bringing back the big band

The big-band era is long gone: The music is outdated, and the economics of bringing a jazz orchestra on the road simply don’t work.

The one huge exception is the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, formed in 1988 and directed by Marsalis ever since. And instead of simply attempting to revisit the 1940s big-band heyday, Marsalis has led the 15-piece LCJO to places never dreamed of by the original wave of jazz bandleaders. The LCJO and related Jazz at Lincoln Center ensembles have done 30 tours, playing in more than 265 cities in 35 countries on five continents.

The LCJO has, of course, probed deeply into the big-band repertoire. There has been a particular emphasis on Duke Ellington; four years ago, the LCJO celebrated the centennial of the composer’s birth with an extensive worldwide tour featuring Ellington’s music.

But the LCJO has also embraced music from outside the big-band mainstream. This season’s events includes a concert devoted to the music of free jazz pioneer Ornette Coleman and a collaboration with Russia’s Igor Butman Big Band. The LCJO has commissioned new works by the likes of Christian McBride, Wayne Shorter, Chico O’Farrill and Marsalis himself. The orchestra’s repertoire features big-band staples, but also Charles Mingus, Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk and Dizzy Gillespie. As it has demonstrated in two Jazz Aspen appearances, the LCJO is no nostalgia act.

“Musically it’s the best experience I could ever encounter,” said Carlos Henriquez, a bassist who has toured with the LCJO and is part of Marsalis’ current quintet. “There’s no other place to play the music of Duke Ellington, then a piece by Art Blakey, then Miles Davis, and play it all with the same integrity. No other place to play that huge realm of music. And it seems like we’re still on the surface. There’s still a lot left to do.”

Marsalis has a separate existence as leader of his septet, a virtuosic combo that has made its own mark in music. The septet carries on with members shuffling in and out of the lineup, but the original early-’90s combo – captured on several recordings, including the landmark, seven-CD set “Live at the Village Vanguard” – was a high-water mark for neotraditional jazz.

“He likes to keep that original lineup intact because that lineup was so original and created such a sound, so sacred and special,” said the 24-year-old Henriquez, who has occasionally replaced bassist Reginald Veal in the septet. “The septet is the septet, and there’s no substitute.”

Marsalis’ current combo is uncommonly small for him, a quintet comprising Marsalis, Henriquez, drummer Ali Jackson, pianist Eric Lewis and saxophonist Wes “Warmdaddy” Anderson, who is Marsalis’ steadiest collaborator.

Music on a grand scale

Marsalis’ approach to composing and recording projects mirrors everything else he does: big and getting bigger.

Marsalis’ latest recording is another grand-scale work: “All Rise,” a 12-movement piece premiered in 1999 and recorded as a two-CD set with the LCJO and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, with Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting. Thematically, “All Rise” addresses nothing less than the interconnection between the peoples of the world; musically, it combines elements from the blues, fiddler’s reels, Italian arias, New Orleans brass bands and South American dance rhythms.

“All Rise” is hardly a departure in its scope. Marsalis’ other major works include “Blood on the Fields,” a 1997 work inspired by the American slave experience that earned Marsalis a Pulitzer Prize (the first given to a jazz composer); “At the Octoroon Balls,” a string quartet recorded by the Orion String Quartet; “In This House, On This Morning,” a gospel-influenced work recorded as a two-CD set by his septet; and 1999’s “The Marciac Suite,” inspired by the jazz festival in Marciac, France, and also recorded by the septet. Marsalis has also composed several ballet scores, including pieces for the New York City Ballet and Twyla Tharp, and has composed numerous classical works for both chamber groups and orchestra.

In 1999, Marsalis launched his “Swinging into the 21st” project, a series of eight recordings released over several years. The project culminated with “Live at the Village Vanguard,” a seven-CD package that captured the septet in early-’90s performances at the noted New York jazz club. Other recordings in the series include “Marsalis Plays Monk” and “Mr. Jelly Lord,” tributes to Thelonious Monk and Jelly Roll Morton, and the rail-inspired suite, “Big Train.”

Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is stewart@aspentimes.com


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