The Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra is acknowledged as one of the top big bands in the world. Its leader is nine-time Grammy Award and Pulitzer Prize-winning trumpeter/composer Wynton Marsalis, who for much of his 30-plus-year career has been both hailed as the public face of traditional jazz and criticized for what is perceived as a strict, often non-inclusive definition of the genre.
In 2013, the band’s home base, the nonprofit Jazz at Lincoln Center organization, is celebrating 25 years of upholding and building on the tradition, sharing the music of legendary musicians and composers such as Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus and Wayne Shorter, and commissioning and performing new music by contemporary artists and composers to share with music lovers and uplift the role of jazz in American culture.
Here are excerpts of a chat with Marsalis, who recently was named JALCO’s managing director.
1 Jazz at Lincoln Center has been going for a quarter of a century. Have you kicked back and contemplated all of the band’s and organization’s accomplishments?
Every year, when we start to program for the next year, we always go through all of our programming so we have an opportunity to look over all the different things we’ve done and talk about it, so we can consolidate our objectives for next year.
2 Pop music tends to be ephemeral — songs, artists, trends and styles come and go — but in your mind, jazz the art form must continue?
It’s the blues ethos. Because music is also a popular art form. There’s no achievement if you’re playing music that nobody wants to hear. The question is to consolidate the audience enough, so there’s a commonality so that they can understand what you’re playing, and that’s always been what we strive for. That’s why people still love the music of Duke Ellington.
3 So the longstanding anti-jazz trope that the musicians play to impress each other isn’t true?
Yeah, we don’t want to do that — that’s not an achievement and that’s not the spirit of the best of our music.
4 Pianist/composer Robert Glasper recently won a Grammy for best R&B album for his jazz-inflected album Black Radio , and he has said in the press that jazz needs a kick in the (rear). I’m guessing you don’t subscribe to that theory.
I taught him in my class when he was a kid. I don’t really deal with the musicians individually, especially after a certain year; with the younger musicians, I don’t really comment on them. But I don’t think the art form is going to receive anything by being R&B. That’s already been done. The art form has so much great music in it, with jazz and education, we never give up the battle to present the best of it to the public.
5 In some other countries and cultures the arts are still held in high esteem as an important part of growth as a person. Not so much in the States. Do you find that to be a difficult mindset to combat?
It’s an uphill struggle in our country because we tend to be so commercial minded. Since Sputnik, you know, we’ve believed that math and science are the best way to compete with other cultures, and we’ve never been centered in our own culture because a lot of our culture came from slaves . . . we could never reconcile it and it’s unfortunate, because the rest of the world has embraced a lot of American culture and we’ve never felt it was something we should teach to our kids with the type of intensity we have taught other things, or not taught anything.
— Malcolm X. Abram, Akron Beacon-Journal