Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music



(b 18 October 1961, New Orleans LA) Trumpet, bandleader; already a superstar when barely out of his teens. Father is Ellis Marsalis, brother is Branford; all three played on Fathers And Sons '82 on Columbia, with James Black on drums, Charles Fambrough on bass, the other side by another father and son, Chico and Von Freeman. (The much-loved Philadelphia musician Fambrough b 25 August 1950; d 1 January 2011.)

Wynton was given his first trumpet at age six by Al Hirt, began studying both classical and jazz at twelve, played through teens in local marching bands, etc, first trumpet in a local civic orchestra; he went to high school with Terence Blanchard and Donald Harrison. He attended Juilliard in NYC and played in the pit band for Sondheim's Sweeney Todd, and joined Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers at 18, playing on Blakey LPs Live At Montreux And Northsea on Timeless '80, and Recorded Live At Bubba's, The All American Hero and Wynton Marsalis' First Recordings (with Ellis on one track) all made at Bubba's Jazz Restaurant in Fort Lauderdale '80, on Who's Who, Toledo and Kingdom Jazz Gate labels; also Album Of The Year on Timeless and Straight Ahead on Concord Jazz '81; Keystone 3 '82 was the only Blakey LP with both Wynton and Branford. Wynton also played on one track of Blakey's Aurex Jazz Festival '83 made in Tokyo. He toured with Herbie Hancock '81, including two-disc Herbie Hancock Quartet on Columbia, made in Japan with Tony Williams and Ron Carter. He made The Young Lions '82 on Elektra at the Kool Jazz Festival with James Newton's flute on one track, Chico Freeman on the other.

Meanwhile he'd signed with Columbia as leader of a band including Branford: their debut Father Time '81 included tracks from the Hancock tour with Branford added, and was nominated for a Grammy; Think Of One '83 won a Grammy, with Kenny Kirkland on piano, Jeff Watts on drums, Ray Drummond and Phil Bowler on basses. Hot House Flowers '84 had standards (strings arranged by Robert Freedman, because he grew up listening to Clifford Brown With Strings; Bowler thought it was better than the Grammy-winner and wished he'd played on it). Black Codes (From The Underground) '85 included Kirkland, Watts, Charnett Moffett on bass (Carter on one track), followed by J Mood '86, Marsalis Standard Time '87 with two originals and eight standards including Marcus Roberts's piano solo 'Memories Of You', Watts on drums, Bob Hurst on bass. Live At Blues Alley '88 was a two-CD quartet set.

He was first to win Grammys as both best jazz and classical soloist '84; he made a speech accepting the jazz award on behalf of Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk and others 'who gave an art form to the American people that cannot be limited by enforced trends or bad taste'. He won again in both categories '85. His classical albums included one of concerti by Mozart, Haydn and Hummel with the National Philharmonic, another with two mid-20th-century pieces by Tomasi and Jolivet with the Philharmonia, scraping the bottom of the trumpet-concerto barrel, and Carnaval with the Eastman Wind Ensemble (fastest-ever 'Flight Of The Bumblebee'). Then he said he would quit playing classical music, having decided that he can't do everything; Kurt Masur, the tough new conductor of the NY Philharmonic, said '96 that 'At first [Wynton] didn't want to write anything for the Philharmonic, but now he has agreed. He's gone away to learn how to write a symphony.' Influeced by Miles Davis as well as others, he derided Davis's work in the '80s; when he walked on stage during a Davis gig as if to play, Davis stopped the music.

Marsalis's technique is secure; huge success at such an early age brought barbs from some critics, and he has a big mouth: in a TV interview with Billy Taylor he gave Herb Alpert as an example of a white jazz musician; this must have been news to Alpert. He can be startlingly honest; he said in down beat (Nov. '87, interview with Stanley Crouch) that when he was with Blakey 'I was just playing scales in whatever key my tune was in ... that was enough to be considered musical in my era.' He and his mentor, drummer-turned-academic Crouch, run the jazz scene at NYC's Lincoln Center, where white musicians rarely play; Marsalis once grievously insulted Phil Woods with his Crow Jimism and subsequently felt compelled to apologize. NYC critic Francis Davis thought that Standard Time showed the advantages of being able to keep a working band together, and also that Marsalis was beginning to transcend his influences; UK critic Richard Cook hoped Marsalis was breaking through his hype and reliance on skill with The Majesty Of The Blues '89: the 35-minute 'The New Orleans Function' included the venerable New Orleans native Danny Barker, but unfortunately also a 15-minute sermon by Crouch. (The UPI reported Jan. '90 that Marsalis was impressed because Barker didn't wear headphones in the studio; perhaps he didn't know that the best records of the past 70 years had the headphones on the engineers.) Intimacy Calling (Standard Time Vol. 2), The Resolution Of Romance (Standard Time Vol. 3) and three volumes of Soul Gestures In Southern Blue (Thick In The South, Uptown Ruler, Levee Low Moan) were all released '90-91; Citi Movement (Griot New York) '92 was a two-CD set written for a ballet choreographed by Gart Fagan. In This House, On This Morning '94 was a two-CD set of heartfelt original music played very well by an octet, the sidemen all talented young Marsalis discoveries. Live In Swing Town '94 on Jazz Door was short measure but caught the current septet live.

A coffee-table book Sweet Swing Blues On The Road '94 had black-and-white photos by Frank Stewart and was well written but included too much trivia. Four valuable lectures broadcast on PBS '95 were beautifully designed (produced by Peter Gelb), made at Tanglewood with an audience of children: 'Why Toes Tap' explored rhythm, 'Listening For Clues' was about form, 'Sousa To Satchmo' about where the jazz band came from, and 'Tackling The Monster' included cellist Yo-Yo Ma on the dreaded subject of the discipline needed to study music. Blood On The Fields '97 was an oratorio about slavery, performed with Cassandra Wilson, Jon Hendricks and the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra: at three hours long it needed editing and curiously lacked passion on such an emotive subject; there was little original about it but it won a Pulitzer Prize. (The Pulitzer committee had refused the advice of its music jury to give a prize to Duke Ellington 32 years earlier, but now they are politically correct.) His ballet scores Jump Start And Jazz '97 were written for a larger ensemble and showed a lighter spirit than usual.

It remains to be seen whether Wynton can liberate himself from what seems to be an innate conservatism in his composing; nevertheless he is a good communicator, and the playing of his Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra is never less than beautiful. In any case we will never hear the end of the family: Delfeayo Marsalis (b c.1965) plays trombone (also produced Branford's '86 LP, Courtney Pine's second album etc and brings his own eccentricity to album notes); Jason (b c.1977) plays drums. Delfeayo's albums as leader include Pontius Pilate's Decision on Novus and the much more accomplished Musashi '96 on Evidence, with Ellis on one track, Branford on two.