Marsalis Reflects On Collaboration, Future Of Arts
Time Well Spent
It’s something of which Wynton Marsalis has long known the value.
One has to look no further than the nine Grammy Awards, seven books, Pulitzer Prize for Music and laundry list of medals and commendations that fill his resume to understand his level of productivity in just 59 short years.
But, if the crisis surrounding the COVID-19 has taught the master trumpet player and artistic director of Jazz at Lincoln Center anything about time, it’s that moving forward there will not be much of it to waste.
“This is not a time to relax,” he told The Post-Journal in a phone conversation this week. “I suspect the next two years really — there’s not going to be too much time for resting. This is a time that all of us have to work and maintain our organizations and our artform and do whatever it is we can do to help it to survive.”
Marsalis and his Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra septet will complete a 10-day residency at Chautauqua Institution today, Oct. 24, as part of an autumn tour appropriately named “The Sound of Democracy.”
It marks Marsalis’s third collaboration with the institution in the last half-decade. It’s his first since a week-long residency in August of 2019, during which he was accompanied by his father, jazz pianist and renowned educator Ellis, 85, who passed away in April from complications related to COVID-19 — time, in hindsight, that proved to be invaluable.
“We didn’t really want him to come up,” he admitted. “He drove all the way up here and he had a lot of underlying issues and it was the last time he and I really had a chance to spend that much time with each other. We were staying in the same room. I saw him all the time.”
The elder Marsalis spent the week living among institution residents, attending that week’s lectures and sitting front-row for his son’s evening performances at the institution’s famed Amphitheater.
“He was hanging out,” he said of his father, his role model in music and in life. “He taught me everything I know or deal with. He had a lot of struggles. But he didn’t complain. He just showed me that something that’s ordinary is not necessarily ordinary and to make things be what you want them to be. The life I saw him in was certainly a life of struggle. It wasn’t a life of people loving him and lavishing him. He was just a guy in New Orleans working a lot of gigs, working for not a lot of money and teaching kids the music he loved that people didn’t necessarily like. He did it with a lot of grace. I learned a lot from him.”
Their time together culminated during a final evening performance that Friday when Marsalis invited his father onto the stage to join the orchestra on piano during a concert dedicated to the music of Duke Ellington.
Marsalis had instructed him to play a blues number. He improvised Ellington’s famed “Take The ‘A’ Train” instead.
The crowd roared.
“The whole thing was special,” Marsalis said. “Now that I look back on it, yeah. It was so special. The environment of Chautauqua and the whole kind of educational, spiritual mission of it was right in alignment with his values. I’m grateful for that time and that he chose to do it, even though I didn’t think he should do it.”
Now back at Chautauqua, Marsalis believes his and the institution’s shared aspiration toward being individual beacons of consciousness has never had a greater meaning as the coronavirus continues to ravage daily life and as a presidential election looms.
“With Chautauqua, we’ve always done meaningful things,” he said. “We have to be in space during this time, to be out in front of people and audiences fulfilling our mission. It’s just part of our civic responsibility and it’s also what our music is about. We’re part of the history and lifeblood of this nation. And this is the time that our services are needed. Chautauqua and the meaning and the history and tradition of it … it’s important for us to come together because our collective mission is important.”
And idle time has been few and far between — throughout the week, when not performing a simulcasted concert to patrons at the Athenaeum Hotel or filming conversations with Episcopalian Bishop Michael Curry and bandleader Jon Batiste of The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, Marsalis has been editing and mixing an upcoming album.
“I’m working around the clock,” he said. “Everything from making sure my interviews that they come out good to rehearsing, to playing three concerts to getting my COVID test. … I have a lot to do.”
That hustle will only continue in the months ahead. In a recent study, The Brookings Institute estimated that the fine and performing arts industries will lose 1.4 million jobs and over $42 billion in sales as a result of the pandemic. Meanwhile, Broadway’s theaters will remain dark until 2021.
But, history shows that the arts will come roaring back, Marsalis said.
“The arts will come back because that’s what we always do,” he said. “With the thought that however bad it gets and that people won’t come back — just take a look at any of the cities that were destroyed during World War II. Get a picture then and get a picture of the way they look now. We come back — that’s what people do. So we will come back.
“But this is a struggle,” he added, “And this is a very tough time for everybody. I’ve never not performed as long as I did this time since I was 12 years old. Once again, this is a pandemic. This is life. My father used to always say, ‘It’s not Disney World. This is what life is like.'”
Asked how would qualify the current health of the country and this era in American history, Marsalis likened it to one’s own individual health.
“You might get a warning and that warning is, ‘You’re going to have a heart attack if you keep doing this,'” he said. “Then you go home after you get your test results and then it’s up to you to make a decision what you’re going to do. You could pull the cigarettes and cigar out, get your scotch, start eating pies — that’s up to you. Or you could get on that treadmill, eat vegetables, start broiling stuff and don’t eat meat.”
He added, “It’s just like that kind of moment for us and our culture. Sometimes you’re so committed to your losing position that you can’t get a victory out of it. And that remains to be seen about us. It’s not just based on how the election pans out.”
Luckily for him, the trip to Chautauqua has proved to be just what the doctor ordered.
“I’m enjoying my stay because of how I am being treated by my friends here and they are being so unbelievably kind to me and welcoming me into their homes,” he added, praising institution president Michael Hill and vice president for performing and visual arts Deborah Sunya Moore for their hospitality.
“I just want people to know how grateful we are to be here and to be playing,” he said. “I value the people here and we are so happy for this partnership and being able to come together and play in the spirit we always try to come with that’s part of a larger whole to become much better. I just want to thank everybody.”