Why Wynton Marsalis Doesn't Listen to Pop Music

Wynton Marsalis on modern jazz, classic literature, and what's wrong with popular music

| September-October 1999

The artist himself may not agree, but to many Americans at the turn of the 21st century, Wynton Marsalis is jazz. Since the release of his first album in 1982, Marsalis, 37, has made a career of reviving jazz while at the same time paying tribute to its masters before a growing audience. His elegant trumpet sound and frequent performances (he averages more than 120 concerts a year) have made him a household name—a rare feat for a modern jazz musician.

Marsalis first learned to play the trumpet from his father, New Orleans pianist and teacher Ellis Marsalis. With his brothers Branford and Delfeayo, he studied both jazz and classical forms, and at 14 he made his debut with the New Orleans Philharmonic. In the early 1980s, after a year at New York's Juilliard School of Music, Marsalis played with Art Blakey's legendary Jazz Messengers before forming his own group and emerging as a composer.

Today, Marsalis is busy promoting a series of eight new jazz and classical CDs titled Swinging Into the 21st, all of which will be released by year's end. "I'm excited about what the next century has to offer," Marsalis says. "Musical styles are going to come together. We'll see a real integration, and the results will be tremendous." He spoke with associate editor Andy Steiner from his home in New York City.

What musicians have inspired you?
Of course the jazz greats like Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong. I also like a lot of classical musicians, including Beethoven, Stravinsky, and Bartok.

You work hard to promote the musical education of young people. Did anyone do that for you when you were growing up?
My father, of course, and the many teachers who took the time to nurture my talent and the talents of other students in our school. Then there were the older jazz musicians who hung around our house when I was young. I saw how much they practiced, how serious they were about their art. I knew then I had to work just as hard if I wanted to succeed.

Do established musicians have a responsibility to guide and assist young up-and-coming musicians?
Yes. We've done such a poor job with music education because as a society we haven't maintained the ritual of courtship that's paramount to a romantic education, the kind of education that a true artist and musician needs. Young people haven't been able to equate romance and talent with music. For instance, most of the people who make it in the music industry today have to look good. How they sound is secondary. Sarah Vaughan, Bessie Smith, Ella Fitzgerald: Those big, romantic queens of jazz music wouldn't make it in today's music industry, and that's a shame. We need to teach young people about the alternatives.

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