Wynton's woes

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Wynton Marsalis is the first jazz musician to win the Pulitzer Prize in music. He's got a basketful of Grammys. And he's become the music director of the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, which lands in Chicago for two gigs this weekend.

So is there anything he can't do? You bet. He can't get his kids to stay awake during a symphony concert.

From a hotel room in Pennsylvania, the New Orleans-born trumpeter waxes philosophic on Coltrane, Homer and the state of popular music.

Think younger audiences are into jazz?
Everything is just a matter of education; not just jazz, but the arts in general. It's always easier to give kids a video game, let them sit inside and do that. It's incumbent upon us; by "us," I mean parents. Sometimes I have to remember how old I am. I have kids who are 17 and 15.

Are they into the arts?
I have one who's into it; the other one, not so much. Today we're going to the Modern Museum of Art and a symphony performance, whether they want to or not. It's what we're going to do, because I determine what we're going to do. At a certain point, we just have to be parents. We don't like it, you know, taking them to concerts that they fall asleep at. I tease my kids and tell them taking them to a concert is like taking them to bed.

Have they turned you on to any of their music?
Nothing of any quality. I listen to their music, and it's sad. When you're in a field where most popular people are non-professionals, your field has been devalued to such a degree that it's almost impossible to have an opinion.

If the NBA was filled with non-professional basketball players, and professionals were constantly asked what did they think of the non-professionals, they'd have a hard time because your only choice is to lie or appear to be stuck-up. For me, a musician who's studied his entire life, to follow my 15-year-old? Whoa! I'd be in a world of trouble, man. He'd learn a lot more following me then I'd learn following him.

The Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra has been called the "New York Yankees of Jazz." But the Chicago White Sox won the World Series this year. And we've got our own jazz orchestra, Chicago Jazz Ensemble, which is in the midst of a renaissance. Sense any competition?
You know, not really. There are so few jazz orchestras around, we all really work together. We would like to see a situation where there are a lot of jazz orchestras, and we could compete with each other. [Chicago Jazz Ensemble artistic director] Jon Faddis really looked out for me when I first got to New York, so I always look up to him and respect him. He helped me out in all kind of ways: helped me find work, gave me support, invited me over to his house. His wife would cook meals for me.

You're performing John Coltrane's "A Love Supreme" Friday. Why does that extremely complex work appeal to larger audiences?
The improvisation is complex, but the actual theme [hums theme] is something you can remember. It's also chant-like; there's a lot of repetition in it. The substance of the themes are basic; you hear them in all kinds of Eastern music. It's like [Coltrane] found the core of something that's in music. And the form of it--a four-part form--with a prayer at the end ... we all can relate to that. One part is a minor blues; that's the fast movement, featuring the fast virtuosity. People respect that in jazz. The movement before that ... that's one of the hardest swinging tracks in the history of jazz.

Tribune jazz critic Howard Reich wrote: "The original is simply too imposing to be matched by mere mortals. The value of the exercise would be in beholding the struggle." Think that's true?
The recording is a classic. It's the standard. But it's kind of like all the Greek playwrights who interpreted Homer; they're not trying to match Homer. They're saying Homer's material is so rich in thematic substance that we can all live in it. Sometimes some of the people rise to a higher lever. Like Coltrane, he's interpreting the blues [in "A Love Supreme"]. So in that way, it's a piece that deserves to live in the memory of generations through types of reenactment. And the best way to reenact something in jazz is to do it your own way, because you won't equal the original.

Matt McGuire is the metromix music producer.Originally published Jan. 25, 2006.

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