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Renowned Jazz Musician Wynton Marsalis Takes on New, Challenging Role - 2004-02-13

To internationally renowned trumpeter and composer Wynton Marsalis, jazz is the language of romance and spirituality. For the past 20 years, the impresario has spread his passion for the art form through his prolific recordings, performances, and teaching.

Wynton Marsalis helped revive jazz beginning in the 1980's, at a time when younger American audiences were more interested in rock-oriented music.

He cultivated a new generation of jazz fans and artists, earning the unofficial moniker "Ambassador of Jazz". He also became the first jazz artist to be awarded the prestigious Pulitzer Prize in music in 1997, and will release his 34th jazz recording, Magic Hour, this year.

Mr. Marsalis, the artistic director of New York's Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, has been named cultural ambassador of jazz for the State Department's Culture Connect program. It was set up to improve cross-cultural understanding around the world. It is a role he relishes.

"Well, jazz is related to the American way of life in many ways," he explains. "One, if you take the Constitution and the fact that it can be amended. Just the conception of a basic document that governs what you are going to do that is not immutable, that is how a jazz musician views every song. If we play a Duke Ellington song, I am going to play it any of a series of ways. I'm going to improvise on it, or somebody's going to put a different tag or a coda on it. As a matter of fact, improvisation means to improve in a certain sense."

No doubt Mr. Marsalis bettered American jazz as a whole, says Lee Mergner, publisher of the influential publication, Jazz Times.

"If you had to pick one musician who could be seen as jazz's ambassador, it would be Wynton. He has been uniquely positioned to speak publicly and prominently about the music and he has never shied away from that role. And he was thrust into that role at a very early age," he says. "He has taken jazz into so many forms that no other musician has. It has all been good for jazz."

During an upcoming trip to Mexico March 17-20 for the Culture-Connect program, Mr. Marsalis and his Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra will give four performances and a free jazz concert for Mexican youth. They also plan to teach a series of classes for students, educators and cultural leaders.

Jazz Times' Lee Mergner says that level of activity is quintessential Wynton Marsalis.

"This is a guy who every time he does a show in some city, he is going to do not only an outreach thing during the day in an elementary school or junior high, he is probably going to reach out and encourage some musician, give him advice. He has does that all the time," he says. " Wynton has got whole generations who look up to him and whom he has encouraged. And that has gone so far in developing the music and the people who play it."

Mr. Marsalis believes his trumpet, his music, and his teaching, make it easy for him to immerse himself in cultures around the world. He also gets the chance to play a little basketball.

"Now, I know that there is a tradition of Mexican music, and I have on my piano the works of five composers, whose names I do not know," Marsalis says. "But by the time I get to Mexico, I will have a thorough grounding in a lot of Mexican music and Mexican popular music, and what we try to do when we go to other cultures is find a good popular song to arrange, something that people in the culture know, so we show them how material that they are familiar with is related to jazz. We might even get to beat some of the local people in basketball. That happens a lot of times. " Trumpet player Clyde Kerr taught Wynton Marsalis when he was a secondary student in his native New Orleans. He says that even then, Wynton was hungry to learn.

"He was trying to gather as much knowledge as he could," Kerr recalls. "I remember him wanting to know everything he could and learn. Every time we would play something, it was 'What was that?' "

Mr. Marsalis comes from a musical family. His father, Ellis, is a respected pianist and educator. Older brother, Branford, is a celebrated tenor saxophonist, Delfeayo is a trombonist, and the youngest, Jason, is a percussionist.

Mr. Marsalis says that though he has played with some of jazz's greatest artists, it is his father whose opinion still matters most.

"I grew up hearing him play, and he is my father. And it is amazing, as you grow older you realize that you will never get out from underneath being somebody's son," he says. "So my father, he can just kind of look over at me when I am playing like. 'Am I not playing something good?' So there is a difference. I still try to impress him, you know. I still want him to say, 'Yeah, man.' "

Mr. Marsalis has traveled the world playing in massive concert halls and tiny backstreet jazz clubs. He says wherever he is, audiences are very much the same.

"An audience is comprised of so many different people and people are so much the same around the world," he explains. "Like it is comprised of people who did not get enough sleep the night before, people on their first date, people who do not know if they will like it, people who like it, people who just got into an argument with their husband, those are the type we play for, so I do not really feel that much of a difference if I am playing in China, or if I am playing in Chile, some are moved, some go to sleep."

Television and radio broadcasts of Mr. Marsalis and the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra have aired around the world, from the Czech Republic to the Philippines, Norway to Brazil. To date, nine recordings featuring Wynton Marsalis and the orchestra have been released and internationally distributed.