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Wynton Marsalis: Driving the Jazz at Lincoln Center Engine

R.J. DeLuke By

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Our institution, Jazz at Lincoln Center, will go on long after I'm gone. It's not topical. It's not, 'This is what young people are doing right now.' —Wynton Marsalis
Jazz became America's popular music during the big band era, where people with ears for music and feet for dancing heard national bands, regional bands, and local bands. Musicians that became jazz stars attained that status through their individual solo statements in small windows in songs, especially when they were lucky enough to get them on recordings. Those bands never completely disappeared, but in the 1940s the tide turned and jazz musicians relished the freedom accorded them in small groups.

There became more room for experimentation and lengthy solos. The best small groups had arrangements that were elastic. The music could change quickly and often. Young musicians relished it. Each decade had their stars in in the 1980s came the player who has since become the most recognized figure in jazz. Wynton Marsalis started in with Art Blakey cohorts Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Ron Carter and Tony Williams. He roared into the public eye leading his own fiery bands filled with young players, including his saxophonist brother Branford.

But Marsalis these days says he is happiest playing with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis. It's more than the playing. He has always preached the gospel of jazz (controversially at times), and he is proud that JALC is a leader in education about the art form.

"I still play in small groups now and again and I like it, but I really prefer playing in a large group," he says. It's something he has always worked toward. Now he's at the top of one of the premier large jazz ensembles. He is musical and managing director and the work is arduous. But the trumpeter/composer is in his element.

The group started out playing a small series of concerts. In 1996, it blossomed into a full-fledged institutional part of Lincoln Center in New York City, with a staff and board of directors. It gets regular funding, enabling it to commission compositions, perform with regularity and sponsor many education programs. From performance grew a wide-ranging educational aspect.

"We have education programs for people of all ages," Marsalis says. "We provide all kinds of services to schools. We play in homes for the elderly and hospitals. We try to bring the music into different places and let the music be a part of people's everyday experience. We have classes that are not just for musicians. We have listening classes. All kinds of classes, to get more people involved with knowing the music."

In August, JALC began a foray into recording through Blue Engine Records.

"We're very excited about that," Marsalis says. "We have a tag line. We say: With Blue Engine, the destination is quality. It allows us to release our archives and allows our fans and the people that love our music all over the world to support us by purchasing the music and being a part of the movement of what Jazz at Lincoln Center is... Blue Engine allows us to open up our archive, which has been curated from the very beginning, and put out high-quality recordings."

The label will release new studio and live recordings as well as archival recordings from Jazz at Lincoln Center's performance history, which date back to 1987. The first was Live in Cuba, from a 2010 tour the group did in that nation. It's been followed up with The Bronx Pyramid, a small group recording led by JALC bassist Carlos Enrique.

Other initiatives include JALC webcasts, where free audio and live webcasts can be seen on Livestream and jazz.org; and a new radio product, "Jazz Night In America" (co-produced with NPR Music and WBGO); an expanding slate of video web series on JALC's YouTube channel, an a growing library of over 600 performance videos available for free through JALC's education portal, academy.jazz.org. Additional initiatives are under development.

At Blue Engine, Marsalis is happy to be working with some of the same people he worked with at SONY records when he was starting out in the 1980s.

"We worked together in our early 20s. Now they're respected and known as the best in their field. The legendary Mark Wilder masters everything. To work with Todd Whitelock and them, it's an unbelievable experience for me. We knew each other younger, and now we're going to get a chance to work on this archive and create an indelible art. This work, for them, is a labor of love. Gabrielle Armand, the head of the label at Jazz at Lincoln Center, is also a SONY person from the 90s. So there are people who've been dedicated to the music all their lives. Everybody is working to make it the best."

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