Marsalis: Playing as Much as Possible


In a powerful indication of how far he has advanced since his first cautious steps as a leader only six years ago, Wynton Marsalis will lead his quintet for two full weeks, starting tonight, at the Westwood Playhouse. There will be no other artists on the bill.

“Sure, it’s a long gig,” he said, “but I need to sit down.”

By now, the saga of the fast-moving, 26-year-old Marsalis--possibly the most publicized new jazzman of the past decade; the possessor of 15 Grammy Awards or nominations in the jazz and classical categories--has become the stuff of music legends.

During the course of a recent interview, Marsalis talked about his stunning career, answering uncomfortable questions with candor. For example: In retrospect, wasn’t it the fact of his being a young black musician, playing uncompromising jazz rather than funk or R&B;, that set off that vast initial surge of media hype? Wasn’t he, in fact, praised excessively?


“Yes, it’s true: I was overtouted,” Marsalis replied. “I got all that credit at the beginning because of what I played as much as how I played, in relation to the era in which I came up. I was fortunate in that respect--but the critics have made up for it.” (Lately the press has backed off a little from its ecstatic stance, finding that even this hip Achilles does have a heel.)

“I don’t use reviewers as a barometer,” he continued. “I can listen to myself very objectively, and I listen to the opinions of guys I went to school with in New Orleans, or musicians in my own band; they’ll tell me what the score is.”

Recently there have been rumors that Marsalis plans to give up classical music entirely in order to concentrate on jazz. He offers a qualified denial: “I have a few more classical projects I want to do--maybe some new concertos. However, I don’t want to get by on some fake image of eclecticism.

“I knew as I grew older that it would be hard to deal with both disciplines. On my last classical concert tour I wasn’t pleased with the way I sounded; then I came back to jazz and my performance was sad too. If I can’t play both on the right level, I have to concentrate on being serious about jazz.

“My foundation in classical music is stronger than my foundation in jazz, which is a much more difficult form to play, because you have to have a personal vision, you have to improvise, you have to learn the blues idiom and all the other aspects.”

His recent CBS album of standard pop sounds (“Marsalis Standard Time”) was partly due, he says, to a need to learn “how to solo on these forms . . . those songs came from an era when America was more romantic. In an age when all you have to do is use some four-letter words or make some oblique adolescent reference to a sexual act, you become a risk taker just by dealing with sexuality and sensuality in an adult way. Romance is at the heart of music. That’s what ‘J Mood,’ my previous album, was all about, too.”


Asked whether he had ever made any records he was not satisfied with, he said: “I’m not really satisfied with any of them. There’s things I can hear in them now that could have been improved upon. The things I’m most proud of are the conceptions underlying the records, and I’m particularly proud of the musicians I’ve played with.”

At the Westwood his group will include a new addition, 20-year-old Todd Williams from St. Louis on saxophone. The original saxophonist in the group was, of course, Branford Marsalis, now on tour with his own combo. A rift that began when Branford left Wynton’s band to join Sting is a thing of the past; the brothers are friends and Branford recently sat in with Wynton’s group.

As for the paterfamilias, Ellis Marsalis, a pianist and teacher who brought up his family in New Orleans, has switched to a new teaching assignment at Virginia Commonwealth University. “My father recently played a concert at Town Hall in New York,” Wynton said, “with two of my brothers--Delfeayo on trombone and Jason, who’s just 10, on drums. Ellis Jr. is now in his last year at New York University.”

Wynton himself devotes part of his time to teaching, at college clinics. “The level of comprehension is improving, but you have to be dogmatic and get used to saying the same things over and over.

“Sometimes you get the feeling that these people don’t really care--but that’s not really true. They do care. My fans care, too, and I’m grateful. That’s why, when we go out on concerts, I try to play as much music as possible and keep everything else at a minimum: no playing around, no clowning.

“I can remember when I used to pay money myself to go hear concerts, and I didn’t want to listen to jokes or stories about the musicians’ lives. I wanted to hear music, and I figure that’s what people expect of me. I don’t care whether it’s in a club with a dozen people or the Musikverein in Vienna; I’m happy to have the gig, because you know, I could be at home not working. So I never let up.”