For Wynton Marsalis, jazz music isn’t just something you compose, perform or listen to. It helps provide a path forward during tough times.
Like many Americans, the acclaimed trumpeter, composer and bandleader has had his share of them during the past 12 months.
After the coronavirus pandemic hit, the 15-member big band Marsalis leads, the New York-based Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, had to cancel, postpone or virtually reimagine numerous concerts.
And, most devastatingly, Marsalis’ father, 85-year-old pianist Ellis Marsalis Jr., died from complications of COVID-19 in April.
More: Wynton Marsalis, Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra to make stop at Columbus' Lincoln Theatre
Yet, in reflecting on the past year in a recent interview ahead of a rare concert appearance in central Ohio, Marsalis pointed to the blues as a musical genre — one that fed into jazz — that balances hopefulness with honesty.
“It’s an optimism that’s not naive,” Marsalis told The Dispatch by phone from New York City, where he resides. “The blues tells you something bad is happening, but we can still get this groove and it’s going to be all right.”
'The biggest jazz star' to grace Columbus stage and screen
In one of its first concerts outside of New York since the start of the pandemic, the Marsalis-led Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra will perform at 8 p.m. Monday in the Lincoln Theatre.
Although the theater on East Long Street will be empty of audience members — no in-person attendance is permitted — the concert promises to have considerable reach: The Jazz Arts Group, the parent organization of the Columbus Jazz Orchestra, will livestream the concert free on its digital performance platform, JAG TV.
The significance of the booking is not lost on Jazz Arts Group leaders.
“Wynton Marsalis is, in the world, the biggest jazz star,” said Columbus Jazz Orchestra Artistic Director Byron Stripling.
Watch: Some of Marsalis' greatest performances
Preceding the 8 p.m. concert will be a prerecorded conversation featuring the students of Fort Hayes Metropolitan Education Center, with which the Jazz Arts Group is a frequent educational partner. The conversation between Marsalis, Fort Hayes Principal and Director Milton Ruffin (also a musician and Jazz Arts Group board member) and the students will be available to view starting at 7 p.m. on JAG TV.
“(Marsalis) knows how to point people’s ears as to where to listen,” Stripling said. “That’s a big part of jazz because so many people fear it. He’s sort of taken the fear out of it: ‘Listen to what the trumpet is doing there, and listen to the sax’ — and he’ll tell you what emotions they are trying to play.”
How the performance came together
The concert, which was not previously announced as part of the organization’s 2020-21 season offerings, took shape earlier this year when local leaders learned that the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra would be participating in a residency in Detroit during the first week in March.
“And was there a chance for us to get them to stop in Columbus during that time?” said Jazz Arts Group Executive Director Press Southworth III, whose organization is presenting the concert in conjunction with the PNC Foundation (which awarded a PNC Arts Alive grant), Denison University and an anonymous donor. “It’s been three weeks now that we finally came to a total agreement.”
In supporting the Jazz Arts Group in bringing Marsalis and his orchestra to town, PNC regional president for Columbus Mary Auch stressed the importance of supporting the area arts scene during the pandemic.
“We hope the Jazz Arts Group’s virtual concerts will introduce music to new audiences and future talent during these challenging times,” Auch said in a statement.
For Marsalis, a 59-year-old native of New Orleans who studied at the Juilliard School in New York, the decision to accept the invitation was an easy one.
“We love being in Ohio,” said Marsalis, whose orchestra, over the past decade, has performed in Akron, Cincinnati, Cleveland and Huber Heights, but not Columbus. A 2016 Christmas concert took place on the Denison campus in Granville.
Yet the group has strong ties to central Ohio.
“Our vice president of education is from Ohio,” Marsalis said, referring to former Columbus Youth Jazz Orchestra director — and current Jazz at Lincoln Center official — Todd Stoll.
Marsalis also goes back — way, way back — with Stripling, who, having already befriended his brother, saxophonist Branford Marsalis, first met the musician in New York in the early 1980s.
“Branford said to me, ‘Hey, you should come to the apartment. My brother is a good trumpet player,’” said Stripling, who later performed gigs with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. “Finally I go to their apartment on Bleecker Street — a very small room. I meet Wynton, and he talked the whole night about music. I ended up sleeping on their floor.”
The next morning, the brothers left to work on their album “Fathers and Sons” — among the first albums recorded in a career that would ultimately net Wynton Marsalis some nine Grammy Awards, including three for best jazz instrumental performance, soloist. Marsalis also won the 1997 Pulitzer Prize for Music for composing “Blood on the Fields,” an oratorio concerning slavery in the United States.
Said Marsalis: “Byron is my man.”
Concerts represent a step toward normalcy
For the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, the concerts in Detroit and Columbus represent a tentative return to normalcy: The performances are the first the full orchestra has given on the road since the pandemic, although the lack of audience members in both cities might make the shows resemble a recording session more than a concert.
“But we also play for each other, so there are people there — it’s just us!” Marsalis said.
At the Lincoln Theatre on Monday, the orchestra will play what Marsalis describes as an uplifting but “nourishing” set.
“Some of Duke Ellington’s music,” he said. “Sonny Rollins’ ‘Freedom Suite.’ Horace Silver’s music. (Count) Basie.”
He also promises original compositions by two current orchestra members, trombonist Chris Crenshaw and saxophonist Ted Nash.
“Different things,” Marsalis said. “They’re going to all be enjoyable.”
How music connects to the 'glorious struggle' of the pandemic
Jazz, Marsalis believes, can serve as a kind of musical metaphor for our moment. He compares the instrumental virtuosity of the form with the “scientific virtuosity” that was needed to create a coronavirus vaccine. And there are other parallels, he said.
“It’s a music that teaches you to share space,” Marsalis said. “It forces you to listen to people make meaningful statements in a volume that you can hear, and this is a time that requires us to listen to others and to nurture the common grounds.”
Last year, Marsalis channeled his feelings about the pandemic — as well as the ongoing Black Lives Matter movement — into a new work, “The Democracy! Suite.” The piece, which will not be included in Monday’s concert, has been performed by Marsalis’ septet.
Such acts of creativity are one of the reasons why Marsalis calls last year “a glorious struggle.”
Some might wonder: Why “glorious”?
“You get the chance to change, to have to adapt, to have to test the skills that you have, the depth of your humanity,” said Marsalis, whose organization has presented more than 600 digital programs, from concerts to conversations, during the pandemic.
“We’re being tested, and we’re forced to work in different contexts in a different configuration and connect with different people, and that makes it glorious. Now the struggle part — we see what that is.”
Yet, no matter what, jazz retains its unique power.
“This is a time of great struggle for people, a lot of mental-health issues, a lot of solitude, there’s a lot of loss and pain,” Marsalis said. “Jazz and music — it brings you further inward. It allows you to go out with the swing, but with improvisation, it makes you identify those things about yourself that are most valuable to you.”
At a glance
The Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis will perform at 8 p.m. Monday in the Lincoln Theatre. The free, 90-minute concert will be livestreamed on the website of the Jazz Arts Group, jag.tv. A prerecorded conversation between Marsalis and Fort Hayes Metropolitan Education Center Principal and Director Milton Ruffin will be shown at 7 p.m.
| Special to The Columbus Dispatch