Articulate and outspoken, Wynton Marsalis emerged as a leading spokesman for jazz as well as one of the leading jazz musicians of the 1980s and 90s. When the jazz program at New York's Lincoln Center was initiated in 1991, he was appointed artistic director, a post he has held since. Also an active music educator, he wrote, hosted, and performed in a Public Broadcasting series (1995) on the essentials of classical music and jazz. Marsalis won the 1997 Pulitzer Prize for music for his jazz oratorio Blood on the Fields; he was the first jazz musician to receive the award. He has also written a monumental orchestral and choral piece with numerous jazz elements entitled All Rise (2000) and a jazz mass, Abyssinian 200 (2008), which incorporates orchestral music, gospel anthems, prayers, and a sermon.
See biography by L. Gourse (1999).
His older brother, Branford Marsalis, 1960-, b. New Orleans, is a brilliant jazz, rock, pop, and classical saxophonist, a bandleader, and a composer. He attended Boston's Berklee College of Music. Like his brother, he played with the Jazz Messengers and is known for his superb technique and especially for his improvisations. Also noted for his versatility, Branford played with the rock musician Sting during the 1980s and was the music director (1992-94) of television's Tonight Show.
Their younger brother Delfeayo Marsalis, 1965-, b. New Orleans, is a skilled trombonist but has become better known as a producer of jazz recordings. A fourth brother, Jason Marsalis, 1977-, b. New Orleans, is a jazz drummer. Their father, Ellis Marsalis, 1934-, b. New Orleans, is a noted jazz pianist and educator who taught all his sons. Together, the Marsalis family has played a pivotal role in the jazz renaissance of the last two decades of the 20th cent.
Marsalis has made his reputation with a combination of skill in jazz performance and composition, a sophisticated yet earthy and hip personal style, an impressive knowledge of jazz and jazz history, and skill as a virtuoso classical trumpeter. As of 2006, he has made sixteen classical and more than thirty jazz recordings, has been awarded nine Grammys between the genres, and has been awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Music, the first time it has been awarded for a jazz recording.
At an early age, Marsalis exhibited a keen interest and aptitude in music. At age six, Marsalis was given his first trumpet by a friend of his father, the legendary Al Hirt. At age eight he performed traditional New Orleans music in the Fairview Baptist Church band led by legendary banjoist, Danny Barker. At fourteen he was invited to perform with the New Orleans Philharmonic. During his high school years attending Benjamin Franklin High School, Marsalis was a member of the New Orleans Symphony Brass Quintet, New Orleans Community Concert Band, under the direction of Peter Dombourian, New Orleans Youth Orchestra, New Orleans Symphony and on weekends he performed in a jazz band as well as in the popular local funk band, the Creators.
He moved to New York City to attend the Juilliard School of Music in 1978 and quickly garnered a lot of attention.
Two years later in 1980, he joined the Jazz Messengers to study under master drummer and bandleader, Art Blakey. It was from Blakey that Marsalis acquired his concept for bandleading and for bringing intensity to each and every performance. In 1981, Marsalis toured with the Herbie Hancock quartet throughout the USA and Japan, as well as performing at the Newport Jazz Festival with Herbie. In the years to follow, Marsalis was invited to perform with Sarah Vaughan, Dizzy Gillespie, Harry Edison, Clark Terry, Sonny Rollins, and other countless jazz legends.
Marsalis eventually assembled his own band and hit the road, performing over 120 concerts every year for ten consecutive years. His objective was to learn how to play, and to comprehend how best to give to his audience. Through an exhaustive series of performances, lectures, and music workshops, Marsalis rekindled widespread interest in an art form that had been largely abandoned and redefined out of what he saw as its artistic substance. Marsalis invested his creative energy as an advocate for a relatively small era in the history of jazz. He garnered recognition for the older generation of jazz musicians and prompted the re-issuance of jazz catalog by record companies worldwide. A quick glance at the better known jazz musicians today reveals many students of Marsalis's workshops and members of his formations: James Carter, Christian McBride, Roy Hargrove, Harry Connick, Jr., Nicholas Payton, Eric Reed and Eric Lewis.
Not content to focus solely on his musicianship, Marsalis devoted equal time to developing his compositional skills. The dance community quickly embraced his works, and he received commissions to create major compositions for Garth Fagan Dance, Peter Martins at the New York City Ballet, Twyla Tharp for the American Ballet Theatre, and for the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre.
Marsalis collaborated with The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center in 1995 to compose the string quartet, At The Octoroon Balls, and again in 1998 to create a response to the Stravinsky: A Soldier's Tale with his composition, A Fiddler's Tale.
In 2006, Marsalis's US$833,686 annual salary as Artistic Director of Jazz at Lincoln Center drew negative attention in an article published by Reader's Digest magazine regarding overspending by non-profit organizations. Marsalis has never been married but has two sons with Candace Stanley and another son with actress Victoria Rowell.
As a composer and performer, Marsalis is also represented on a quartet of Sony Classical releases, At the Octoroon Balls: String Quartet No. 1, A Fiddler's Tale, Reel Time and Sweet Release and Ghost Story: Two More Ballets by Wynton Marsalis. All are volumes of an eight-CD series, titled Swinging Into The 21st, that is an unprecedented set of albums released in the past year featuring a remarkable scope of original compositions and standards, from jazz to classical to ballet, by composers from Jelly Roll Morton to Igor Stravinsky to Thelonious Monk, in addition to Marsalis.
At the Octoroon Balls features the world-premiere recording of Marsalis's first string quartet, performed by the Orion Quartet. The work was commissioned by Lincoln Center, and its premiere by the Orion Quartet in 1995 was presented in conjunction with the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. It has subsequently been recorded by the Harlem Quartet. A Fiddler's Tale, also commissioned by the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center for Marsalis/Stravinsky, a joint project of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center and Jazz At Lincoln Center, is work with narration about a musician who sells her soul to a record producer. It was premiered on April 23 1998, at Hill Auditorium in Ann Arbor, Michigan. A version without narration was included on the album At the Octoroon Balls: String Quartet No. 1. Reeltime is Marsalis's score for the acclaimed John Singleton film Rosewood. This original music, featuring vocal performances by best-selling artists Cassandra Wilson and Shirley Caesar, was never used in the film. Marsalis also provided the score for the 1990 film Tune in Tomorrow, in which he also makes a cameo appearance as a New Orleans trumpeter with his band. Sweet Release and Ghost Story offers another world premiere recording of two original ballet scores by Marsalis, written for and premiered by the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and the Zhong Mei Dance Company, both in New York City.
As an exclusive classical artist for Sony Classical, Marsalis has won critical acclaim for the recording In Gabriel's Garden (SK/ST 66244), featuring Baroque music for trumpet and orchestra. It includes performances of the Bach: Brandenburg Concerto no. 2 and Mouret: Rondeau, a video of which has been adopted as the new theme for PBS Masterpiece Theatre. The San Francisco Examiner wrote, "Marsalis continues to define great music making…[the pieces] are all articulated with dazzling clarity and enthusiasm." The album features the English Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Anthony Newman, and was produced by Steven Epstein.
For many, Wynton Marsalis saved pure jazz from a morass of pop fusion and noise. Others contend that the trumpeter instilled a regressive notion of the jazz tradition. This debate, not to mention his instrumental proficiency and compositional ambition, has made him one of the most prominent and controversial jazz musicians of the 1980s and 1990s.
Critic Scott Yanow praises Marsalis's talent, but has questioned his "selective knowledge of jazz history considering post-1965 avant-garde playing to be outside of jazz and 1970s fusion to be barren. Trumpeter Lester Bowie opined of Marsalis's traditionalism, "If you retread what's gone before, even if it sounds like jazz, it could be anathema to the spirit of jazz. In his 1997 book Blue: The Murder of Jazz Eric Nisenson argues that Marsalis's focus on a narrow portion of jazz's past is stifling the music's growth and preventing any further innovation.
Pierre Sprey, president of jazz record company Mapleshade Records, declares that "When Marsalis was nineteen, he was a fine jazz trumpeter ... But he was getting his tail beat off every night in Art Blakey's band. I don't think he could keep up. And finally he retreated to safe waters. He's a good classical trumpeter and thus he sees jazz as being a classical Music. He has no clue what's going on now.
From nearly the beginning of Marsalis' career, he occasionally butted heads with trumpeter Miles Davis, one of the leading names in jazz since the '40s. In his autobiography Davis expressed disapproval of the heavy promotion afforded Marsalis by Columbia Records' George Butler, citing it as a factor in his leaving the record label after four decades. Additionally, Davis described Marsalis as good trumpeter and "a nice young man, only confused" due to what Davis saw as his being over-praised by traditionalist jazz critics:
The documentary also angered many with subjective statements, often from Marsalis, about the comparative complexity, popularity, and general worth of the music of a wide variety of artists.
As artistic director and co-producer of the project, Marsalis bore the brunt of the criticism of the nonetheless highly acclaimed series, which to many embodied the exclusive, classicist view of jazz for which Marsalis is known. Critic David Adler has suggested this production role was a clear conflict of interest with his high onscreen profile: "Wynton's coronation in the film is not merely biased. It is not just aesthetically grating. It is unethical, given his integral role in the making of the very film that is praising him to the heavens.
Marsalis emerged as one of the most notable New Orleans civic leaders in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. In a number of public speeches and television ads, he tried to increase public awareness of the importance of rebuilding New Orleans. Marsalis also urged people to visit Louisiana as soon as possible.
Marsalis organized a large benefit at Jazz at Lincoln Center for musicians and other New Orleaneans affected by Hurricane Katrina. The benefit, called Higher Ground, featured many famous musicians, both traditional and contemporary, such as Cassandra Wilson, Diana Krall, Dianne Reeves, Norah Jones, Victor Goines, Herbie Hancock, and McCoy Tyner and in 2007 R&B star, Fantasia.
In the New Orleans mayoral campaign of 2006, Marsalis endorsed Lieutenant Governor Mitch Landrieu over mayor Ray Nagin. Both candidates were Democratic party members. Nagin was reelected on the second ballot runoff.
Marsalis and his brother Branford are former Life Scouts in the Boy Scouts of America.Marsalis has been awarded the 2005 National Medal of Arts of the United States, the Grand Prix du Disque of the Charles Cros Academy and the Edison Award of the Netherlands, and was elected an honorary member of the Royal Academy of Music in Britain. He has received several honorary doctoral degrees, and a variety of other recognitions from Brandeis University, Brown University, Columbia University, Denison University, Haverford College, Johns Hopkins University, the Manhattan School of Music, New York University, Princeton University, the University of Miami, Southern Methodist University(SMU) and Yale University.
Marsalis has toured 30 countries on every continent except Antarctica, and nearly five million copies of his recordings have been sold worldwide. As of 2006, United Artists is considering releasing a feature film biopic on Marsalis, with Will Smith widely purported to be in consideration for the role.