In 1987, Grammy Award-winning trumpeter Wynton Marsalis directed a summer concert series entitled "Classical Jazz at Lincoln Center" in New York City. That modest series has grown into the impressive, multi-venue performance venue known as Jazz at Lincoln Center: the world’s largest not-for-profit arts organization dedicated to jazz in the world, with year-round concerts, educational events, band competitions, film programs and multimedia broadcasts and webcasts.
As JALC prepares to celebrate its twenty-fifth anniversary with its season premiere later this month, EBONY talked with Marsalis, who serves as JALC’s Managing and Artistic Director, about the venue’s evolution, his uncompromising devotion to the music and his continuing mission to spread the gospel of jazz…by any digital means necessary.
EBONY: At what point in the beginning did you think that the concept of Jazz at Lincoln Center was going to be a success?
Wynton Marsalis: I think after the concerts we did in 1988, our board was coming into place. We were a department. We were getting critical acclaim. We had an audience base. We had an aesthetic; so very soon, we realized we could do something. When we hired [Founding Executive Director/Producer] Rob Gibson, I thought it would be a success. He brought a lot of energy, enthusiasm and insight with him.
EBONY: Regarding aesthetics, talk about the contributions of writer/authors Albert Murray and Stanley Crouch, the principle intellectuals involved with the formation of JALC.
WM: The conception of quality and performance was something that Crouch had [in mind]; bringing the different generations of musicians together. And Albert Murray laid out the four components of the organization: curatorial, producing concerts, lectures and events; archival, having a record of all the things we do; Educational, teaching about what we do; and ceremonial, giving awards, and doing things like jam sessions, battles of the bands, things that are a part of the ceremonies of the music.
EBONY: JALC weathered charges of cronyism and racism by musicians and the media. What did you learn from that stormy period?
WM: For me, it wasn’t that much of a storm. I was always around controversies since I first came out here. When you create change with your point of view, you have to be ready for what comes with that. And while they were [criticizing], there were also many people supporting and defending us, and putting money into what we were doing, and we were doing our thing: We put on thousands of concerts, hired thousands of musicians, sent out 80,000 Duke Ellington scores. We had 1700 educational events.
EBONY: What have your experiences as an educator taught you about the value of teaching jazz; not only as musical art, but as a twenty-first century, global liberal art that facilitates cooperation and cultural diversity?
WM: Well, you know, you covered it: the music can teach you how to be a better citizen in the world; to be better to yourself, and how to expand your world view, in a world that is expanding all the time…The more expanded your world view is, the more confident you are in your cultural achievements, and in yourself. And the more you know how to approach other people and respect them, the more successful you’ll be living in the modern world. Through improvisation, jazz teaches you about yourself. And through swing, it teaches you that other people are individuals too. It teaches you how to coordinate with them.
The lessons of jazz are even more pertinent today, because when it was invented, the art form was so modern: It was talking about a world that would come. And now that we are on the cusp of that world, the music is very timely.
EBONY: Some people are surprised to hear you perform with people like Paul Simon, Willie Nelson, and Eric Clapton. Do your collaborations with them signal an aesthetic change in your views about jazz as a high art? Because people have typecasted you as a rigid, conservative musician, who thinks jazz has nothing to do with pop music…
WM: I don’t mind them typecasting me like that, because I lived in the time of the absolute sellout of jazz to pop music. So I counter stated that consistent lack of integrity in our music. Many of our greatest musicians abandoned all of their aesthetic objectives, to try to become pertinent. And, at the end of the day, they never became pop stars. I counter stated that very strongly, and I continue to do that.
That said, there’s a common ground that we musicians share: Paul Simon uses of different types of grooves, and shares a common ground with jazz musicians. The record we did with Eric Clapton [Wynton Marsalis & Eric Clapton Play the Blues: Live From Jazz at Lincoln Center], that’s more of a jazz record. We’re playing blues. We’re improvising. We’re playing on the same forms that we always played on. Willie Nelson, he’s from Texas…[We’re saying] what if we bring musicians from another art form into the feeling of our art, instead of always us always going into their art?
EBONY: That said, will we ever see you play with young musicians like Robert Glasper?
WM: Oh yeah. Robert Glasper can play! We just played with him at Martha’s Vineyard. I taught a lot of those musicians when they were in high school…And Robert Glasper is not that young [laughs]. He was in high school more than fifteen years ago. Not to make a comment that can be misconstrued as negative about him, because I never talk bad about the musicians that are younger than me. They make the choices that they make to deal with the environment the way they see fit – they're in a rough environment.
We have personal relationships and we play. It doesn’t mean that I’m going to embrace hip-hop. I will never do that, ever! But does that actually make a difference? They’re not going to stop playing that music because [I don’t play it]. That’s the beauty of democracy [laughs]. They’re going to do their thing, regardless of what anybody else thinks about it – and they should.
EBONY: What are some of the highlights of the upcoming JALC season?
WM: John Lewis, Gerry Mulligan and the Birth of the Cool; a Blue Note Festival, Bird and Diz’s music; a Duke Ellington Festival, John Coltrane, and [Marsalis’ Pulitzer Prize winning Oratorio] Blood on the Fields. We’re opening our season with Bobby McFerrin.
EBONY: When JALC was formed the Internet didn’t exist. How are you going use social media to expose people to jazz?
WM: We’re going to make our content more available. We’re working on those things now. For us, the next five to ten years is dedicated to projecting our mission: in getting on as many screens as we can get on…we can only put out the highest quality we can. That’s what we’re going to do.