Wynton Marsalis: Driving the Jazz at Lincoln Center Engine

R.J. DeLuke By

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About to reach his 54th birthday, Marsalis, despite having his hands full with JALC and other projects, does not tire of or give ground on the importance of high art in the U.S.

"I don't think (jazz is) in as good a shape as it should be in, given the quality of it," he says. "I think we're one of the only cultures in the Americas that don't have a national dance where older people and younger people dance together. That's also connected to the identity of jazz... Because something sells, does not mean that it's quality. With music, once we started to connect music with light pornography, and started selling that to kids, you can't compete with that."

Very young people have no control over the music that's presented on television and other outlets. Some adults find it offensive. Other adults turn their backs.

"You're hitting them with stuff that's not appropriate for them," he said. "I'm not coming to it from a prudish standpoint. I'm coming from a very practical standpoint. Why would you give that to an 11-year old? It doesn't make sense, man. My thing is: Why? What's the advantage of giving that to them? Then the parents say, 'My parents didn't like my music, so this is what the young people are doing.' There's a psychology behind it. It's a cycle of exploitation that is unfortunate."

At JALC, "We don't separate the work of the masters. That's the foundation of what we do. But we also do a lot of new music. We have 10 arrangers in our orchestra. We're coming up with new music all the time," says Marsalis. "This is what Blue Engine is going to demonstrate—how much creativity and how many new things we come up with. But we don't feel like coming up with new things should disrespect those things that have been achieved already."

He still believes art will eventually triumph in America, even if it appears bleak now.

"It'll pass. We'll go to a higher level. But in this period of time, it's a struggle. But jazz is an art form, so it survives these things. It's not a topical issue. 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.' Five years from now, will jazz be important? Jazz's pertinence and jazz's value is not based on public acceptance of it. It's based on the quality of music and what it represents to our country and to the character of the country and also the quality of life in the country."

JALC is one of the things that encourages him about the future.

"I'm proud of all the quality people I've had the opportunity to work with, from our board to all of our staff. It's very much a labor of love. It's very personal. We know each other. We've worked with each other for many years. We very much worked to make Jazz at Lincoln Center happen. There was no 'they.' The people who worked on it are still a very close-knit group from the board of director down. Everybody is vested in it. That's a blessing."

Photo credit: Frank Stewart for Jazz at Lincoln Center
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