Personalities | Wynton Marsalis | Eighties | Jazz & Blues

In the 1980s, trumpeter Wynton Marsalis leapt from jazz-steeped New Orleans to international artistic prominence. In 1979 he was enrolled in New York City’s Juilliard School and was jamming with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, and 10 years later he had seeded what has become an unrivalled international jazz performance centre.

In between, Marsalis established himself as a hot soloist, bandleader, composer and recording artist, as well as an eager educator, media charmer and ad-hoc ambassador of American values.

A Musical Family

Born in New Orleans on 18 October 1961, Marsalis is the second of six sons of jazz pianist and educator Ellis Marsalis. His elder brother Branford is a saxophonist while younger siblings Delfaeyo and Jason play the trombone and drums respectively. At the age of eight Wynton was in the Fairview Baptist Church band, organized by veteran jazz banjoist and guitarist Danny Barker. He also played in marching bands and classical youth orchestras, performing the Haydn Trumpet Concerto with the New Orleans Philharmonic at the age of 14. He left his studies in 1980 for the front line of Blakey’s Messengers with Branford. In July 1981, Wynton toured Japan with Miles Davis’s famed 1960s rhythm section – pianist Herbie Hancock, drummer Tony Williams and bassist Ron Carter. Their recording Quartet (1982) was released as Marsalis’s debut on Columbia Records.

The Neo-Conservative Style

Marsalis’s youth, energy, technical facility, directness of expression, breadth of repertoire and articulation of a neo-conservative aesthetic were in strong contrast with Davis’s flagging health and fading iconoclasm. He was promoted as king of the Young Lions – a fresh crop of skilled, musically educated instrumentalists who abjured free jazz and commercial fusion to stand for the achievements and ambitions of an African-American middle class. Marsalis proclaimed the primacy of blues, swing, bebop, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Blakey, mid-period Davis and Thelonious Monk, but he scorned jazz rock, funk and fusion (music Miles was playing at the time).

After leaving Blakey, Marsalis formed a quintet (with Branford, Kenny Kirkland on piano, and Jeff ‘Tain’ Watts on drums) that expanded on post-bop conventions. Marsalis’s Think Of One (1983) and his first album of classical trumpet fare both won Grammy Awards, an unprecedented feat he repeated with Hot House Flowers and Baroque Music in 1984. His Black Codes (From The Underground) from 1985 is another early peak. Subsequently, Marsalis recorded two three-volume sets of jazz standards and of original, intertwined material entitled Soul Gestures In Southern Blues (1988). As Branford launched his own career (the brothers still appear together, and occasionally en famille), Wynton discovered other collaborators, including pianist Marcus Roberts, drummer Herlin Riley and trombonist Wycliffe Gordon.

Marsalis At Lincoln Center

In summer 1987 Marsalis presented a concert series, Classical Jazz, under the auspices of Lincoln Center, New York’s premier performing-arts institution. So began a unique collaboration between artist and establishment that has developed far-reaching jazz education programmes, jazz collaborations with...

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Source: The Definitive Illustrated Encyclopedia of Jazz & Blues, founding editor Howard Mandel


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