Wynton Marsalis promises healing at free Columbus concert
For Wynton Marsalis, jazz music is not just something you compose, play or listen to. It helps provide a way forward through difficult times.
Like many Americans, the acclaimed trumpeter, songwriter and conductor has had his fair share over the past 12 months.
In the aftermath of the coronavirus pandemic, the 15-member big band Marsalis, the New York-based Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, had to cancel, postpone or practically reinvent many concerts.
And, most devastatingly, Marsalis’ father, 85-year-old pianist Ellis Marsalis Jr., died of complications from COVID-19 in April.
Following:Wynton Marsalis, Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra will stop at the Lincoln Theater in Columbus
Yet, reflecting on the year that had passed in a recent interview before a rare concert appearance in central Ohio, Marsalis pointed to the blues as a musical genre – one that fueled jazz – that balances hope and honesty.
“It’s an optimism that is not naive,” Marsalis told The Dispatch by phone from New York, where he resides. “The blues is telling you that something bad is going on, but we can still get that groove going and you’ll be fine.”
“The Greatest Jazz Star” on stage and on screen in Columbus
In one of its first concerts outside New York since the start of the pandemic, the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra conducted by Marsalis will perform at 8 p.m. Monday at the Lincoln Theater.
Although the East Long Street Theater is empty of spectators – no in-person presence is allowed – the concert promises to have far-reaching reach: the Jazz Arts Group, the parent organization of the Columbus Jazz Orchestra, will broadcast the concert live for free on its digital performance platform, JAG TV.
The importance of the reservation is not lost on the leaders of the Jazz Arts Group.
“Wynton Marsalis is the world’s greatest jazz star,” said Byron Stripling, artistic director of the Columbus Jazz Orchestra.
To concern:Some of Marsalis’ greatest performances
Leading up to the 8-hour concert, a pre-recorded conversation will feature students from the Fort Hayes Metropolitan Education Center, with which the Jazz Arts Group is a frequent educational partner. The conversation between Marsalis, director of Fort Hayes and director Milton Ruffin (also a musician and member of the board of directors of the Jazz Arts Group) and the students will be available from 7 p.m. on JAG TV.
“(Marsalis) knows how to point people’s ears to know where to listen,” Stripling said. “It’s a big part of jazz because so many people fear it. He kind of took the fear out of it, “Listen what the trumpet is doing over there and listen to the sax” – and he’ll tell you what emotions they’re trying to play.
How the performance came together
The concert, which had not previously been announced as part of the organization’s offerings for the 2020-21 season, took shape earlier this year when local leaders learned that the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra would be participating in a residency in Detroit during the first week of March.
“And was there any chance for us to make them stop in Columbus during that time?” Said the executive director of Jazz Arts Group Press Southworth III, whose organization presents the concert in conjunction with the PNC Foundation (which awarded a PNC Arts Alive grant), Denison University and an anonymous donor. “It’s now been three weeks since we finally reached full agreement. “
In supporting the Jazz Arts Group to bring Marsalis and his orchestra to town, PNC Regional Chairperson for Columbus, Mary Auch, underscored the importance of supporting the region’s arts scene during the pandemic.
“We hope that the Jazz Arts Group virtual concerts introduce music to new audiences and future talent in these difficult times,” Auch said in a statement.
For Marsalis, 59, from New Orleans who studied at the Juilliard School in New York, the decision to accept the invitation was easy.
“We love being in Ohio,” said Marsalis, whose orchestra, for the past decade, has performed in Akron, Cincinnati, Cleveland and Huber Heights, but not Columbus. A 2016 Christmas concert was held on the Denison campus in Granville.
Still, the group has strong ties to central Ohio.
“Our vice president of education is from Ohio,” Marsalis said, referring to former director of the Columbus Youth Jazz Orchestra – and current head of Jazz at Lincoln Center – Todd Stoll.
Marsalis also goes back – very far – with Stripling, who, having already befriended his brother, saxophonist Branford Marsalis, first met the musician in New York in the early 1980s.
“Branford said to me, ‘Hey, you should come over to the apartment. My brother is a good trumpeter, ”said Stripling, who went on to give concerts with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. “Finally, I go to their apartment on Bleecker Street – a very small room. I met Wynton, and he talked about music all night. I ended up sleeping on their floor.
The next morning, the brothers set off to work on their album “Fathers and Sons” – among the first albums recorded in a career that ultimately earned Wynton Marsalis nine Grammy Awards, including three for best jazz instrumental performance, soloist. Marsalis also won the 1997 Pulitzer Prize for Music for composing “Blood on the Fields”, an oratorio on slavery in the United States.
Marsalis said, “Byron is my man.”
Concerts are a step towards normality
For the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, the concerts in Detroit and Columbus represent a temporary return to normal: the performances are the first that the full orchestra has given on the road since the pandemic, although the lack of spectators in both cities could make the shows look more like a recording session than a concert.
“But we also play for each other, so there are people there – it’s just us!” said Marsalis.
At the Lincoln Theater on Monday, the orchestra will perform what Marsalis describes as an uplifting but “nourishing” ensemble.
“Part of Duke Ellington’s music,” he said. “Sonny Rollins Liberty Suite”. The music of Horace Silver. (Earl) Basie.
It also promises original compositions by two current members of the orchestra, trombonist Chris Crenshaw and saxophonist Ted Nash.
“Different things,” Marsalis said. “They’re all going to be nice.”
How music connects to the ‘glorious struggle’ of the pandemic
Jazz, Marsalis believes, can serve as a kind of musical metaphor for our time. He compares the instrumental virtuosity of the form to the “scientific virtuosity” that was required to create a vaccine against the coronavirus. And there are other parallels, he said.
“It’s music that teaches you to share space,” Marsalis said. “It forces you to listen to people making meaningful statements in a volume you can hear, and it’s a moment that forces us to listen to others and cultivate common ground.”
Last year, Marsalis channeled his feelings about the pandemic – as well as the ongoing Black Lives Matter movement – into a new work, “The Democracy! Suite. “The piece, which will not be included in Monday’s concert, was performed by the septet of Marsalis.
Such acts of creativity are one of the reasons Marsalis called the last year a “glorious struggle”.
Some might ask: why “glorious”?
“You have the chance to change, to have to adapt, to have to test the skills that you have, the depth of your humanity,” said Marsalis, whose organization has presented more than 600 digital programs, from concerts to conversations, during the pandemic.
“We are put to the test and we are forced to work in different contexts in a different setup and connect with different people, which makes it glorious. Now the struggle part – we see what it is.
Yet whatever the case, jazz retains its unique power.
“It’s a time of great struggle for people, a lot of mental health issues, a lot of loneliness, there’s a lot of loss and pain,” Marsalis said. “Jazz and music – it takes you deeper inward. It allows you to come out with the swing, but with improvisation it allows you to identify the things about yourself that are most valuable to you.
In one look
The Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis will perform at 8 p.m. Monday at the Lincoln Theater. The 90-minute free concert will be streamed live on the Jazz Arts Group website, jag.tv. A pre-recorded conversation between Marsalis and Fort Hayes Metropolitan Education Center principal and director Milton Ruffin will air at 7 p.m.