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Wynton Marsalis talks "Democracy!," justice and jazz, 5 Things to Know

By Gary Graff
ggraff@medianewsgroup.com, @GraffonMusic on Twitte

Posted: Thursday, March 4, 2021

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There's never a shortage of creative projects, or variety of creative projects, for Wynton Marsalis.

With a career that dates back to his pre-teen years in New Orleans -- with a musical father (Ellis Marsalis) and brothers (Branford, Jason and Delfeayo) -- Marsalis ranks as a bona fide icon with Grammy awards in the jazz and classical fields (the only person to win each in the same year, in fact). He also boasts a Pulitzer Prize, a National Medal of the Arts, a National Humanities medal and an NEA Jazz Master designation.

A onetime DSO jazz program chairman, Marsalis these days is the artistic director for Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York, where he leads the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra and curates other programs and curricula. Most recently, meanwhile, he's been immersed in social commentary with the satire "The Ever Fonky Lowdown," which was released last August, and the more poignant "The Democracy! Suite," which was performed last November in Ann Arbor before its January release. There were a slew of other releases during 2020 and, not surprisingly, Marsalis says there's more to come from his seemingly never-ending musical agenda...

Marsalis, 59, says from his home in New York that "The Democracy! Suite" was inspired to be a performing piece, at the suggestion of members of his touring team to counter the pandemic shutdown. "Everyone's trying to figure out how we can serve the audience we have. We've dealt with the limitations as best we can and tried to sound as good as we can...but people need to hear music. We felt like if we could get a new piece together and get our New York members together and record it at our hall and have something new for (concert) presenters as soon as we can go out and it's safe."

Marsalis finds jazz in particular to be a strong medium for exploring topics of political, social and societal relevance. "It's an art form that has always been engaged with freedom and American democracy. Artists of all races -- from Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, Dave Brubeck, Dizzy Gillespie, Charles Mingus, Max Roach, early Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman...I read an interview once with Gene Krupa, talking about race relations in the 1930s. We have this history of engagement with our culture. It became a little less after the Civil Rights movement, but we still had some hangers-on. Charlie Haden was always good for speaking about it. Christian McBride wrote a piece. But in a strange way jazz became much less socially active in a way, and you wouldn't say it's a prevalent spirit of the music in this time."

The great challenge, of course, comes in conveying those messages through instruments rather than voices and lyrics. "Music is a symbolic language. It's like a voice -- just based on how you sound in your voice makes (the listener) have a certain response. If you really listen to a lot of music it can help you to hear and understand the underlying meaning of the language, because music is the art of thoughts and emotions and memories and the world of the invisible. And with jazz we place a premium on quick and complete thinking. So when you deal with a piece like 'The Democracy! Suite,' the things in our music are used to illuminate democratic ideas -- sometimes mirthful or humorous, sometimes deeper or more somber. And that's what gets the point across."

The abstract nature of that communication leaves the pieces open to interpretation, which is something Marsalis enjoys as well. "That is the beauty of it, yes. Jazz has so many nuances and it's improvised, so you've got to be flexible with the music. There's a lot of latitude. It's relaxed. It's like, 'OK, I'm not forcing you to fit into anything,' and it finds its way."

What's ahead for Marsalis? With his Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra playing live for the first time since February 2020, he's currently working on a tuba concerto as well as a band-oriented piece about 19th century social activist Frederick Douglas. "I'm always trying to find a meaning that exists outside of the paradigm we live in, because these are timeless issues -- agency, freedom, prejudice, tribalism, working towards a goal, a spiritual belief system. As far as I can tell, these are issues people have been grappling with since there human beings -- political answers to human problems that are not going to be solved militarily. You try to take that physical option off the table, whatever the subject may be."

Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra perform a virtual concert at 8 p.m. Friday, March 5, at Orchestra Hall and headline the Classical Roots Concert, with members of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, at 7:30 p.m. Tickets for each are $12 and available at dso.org.

Web Site: www.dso.org

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