November 16, 1998
Volume 51, No. 12
Marsalis plays a little, talks a lot about jazz at lecture
Comparing jazz to such distinctly American concepts as states' rights, the three branches of government, football and even Bugs Bunny, trumpeter Wynton Marsalis coaxed, entertained and charmed a Glenn Auditorium audience Nov. 5 with "No America, No Jazz," the inaugural lecture in the University Speakers Series. The night after his sold-out performance with the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, Marsalis shyly lumbered across a bare Glenn stage and began to fairly sparkle as he talked about his first love: music.
The title of his lecture, he explained, was a saying of Art Blakey, the bandleader who gave Marsalis his first big professional break. "Jazz is an art of transformation--not only of music but individuals," Marsalis said before playing traditional and jazz versions of the spiritual "Just a Closer Walk with Thee." "The name of a jazz musician represents a sound, just like an instrument does. When you say 'Miles' or 'Dizzy' you think of a certain type of sound."
Marsalis found an element of the American character in just about every aspect of jazz, including the music's improvisational leanings. Improvisation forces musicians to use their intellect and imagination to solve a problem that arises on the spur of the moment, he said. "Every moment of jazz is a musical situation that has never existed and will never exist again."
Greatly influenced by his father, Ellis, Marsalis began playing music in his native New Orleans at age 12, traveling to New York to attend Julliard at 17. After playing with Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, Marsalis made his solo recording debut in 1982 and has since produced a catalogue of more than 30 jazz and classical recordings. "Jazz has taught me how to perceive the world in an unignorant, unprejudiced fashion and allowed me to rise above my upbringing," he told the Glenn audience, referring to his racially diverse--and sometimes divisive--hometown.
In 1983 Marsalis became the first and only artist to win both classical and jazz Grammy Awards in a single year, a feat he repeated in 1984. He won the Pulitzer Prize in 1997 for his composition "Blood on the Fields," becoming the first jazz musician to do so. Currently writing a dance piece with New York City Ballet Artistic Director Peter Martins, Marsalis said the work is about love--first love, lost love, lasting love and sex.
In fact, Marsalis sees the "rituals of courtship, the rituals of love" as the engine that drives all good music, a trait he feels is sorely lacking in today's popular songs. Responding to several audience questions on his thoughts regarding rap, hip-hop, alternative and other current music forms, Marsalis was polite but unimpressed. "The talent is always the same--the question is what uses it's put to," he said. "American pop music is now about a tremendous abuse of talent." He said artists from Elvis to the Beatles to Tupac Shakur "can't really play [music] but have a certain type of charisma or charm to them" that makes their audiences bestow them with genius.
"Once we realize that the world will not be destroyed in 2000," he said to laughter, the "elegance, hipness and style" of such icons as Irving Berlin and Jerome Kern will eventually return. "So many kids that you talk to today don't know that music has a meaning separate from the words," Marsalis added.
Marsalis' performance and lecture surpassed his highest hopes for the inauguration of the University Speakers Series, said University Secretary Gary Hauk, whose office organized the two events. "Wynton Marsalis proved once again, with the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, that he is one of the truly great musicians of our time performing in any genre," Hauk said. "He set a very high standard for the speakers who will follow him."