New Orleans born Wynton Marsalis displayed extraordinary musical talent from a very early age. He was raised in a musical family – his father was a musician and his older brother Branford was also a jazz musician. He received his first trumpet at the age of six and has flourished as a prolific musician ever since. By the age of eight, Marsalis was a mainstay in a local church band and by the age of 14, began playing with the New Orleans Philharmonic. Throughout high school, music continued to play a crucial role in Marsalis’ life and at the age of 17 he became the youngest musician ever to be accepted into Tanglewood’s Berkshire Music Center in Lenox, Massachusetts.
The Tanglewood program was followed by a move to New York City, where Marsalis attended the famous Juilliard School and joined master drummer Art Blakey and his band, the Jazz Messengers. In the years to follow, Marsalis played with numerous Jazz legends and talented contemporaries. In 1981, he assembled his own band with which he performed over 120 concerts each year over 15 consecutive years. In 1982 he released his first studio album under Columbia Records. This self-titled jazz record that was met with rave reviews and Marsalis went on to win multiple Grammy Awards. He is now well known for his work in both the jazz and classical genres.
Marsalis has been embracing and actively promoting the older generation of overlooked jazz musicians for years. He also inspired and attracted a new generation of fine young jazz talents to join the music scene. In 1987, Marsalis founded ‘Jazz at Lincoln Center’, a series developed to broaden people’s exposure to jazz music. His role within the series increased annually, with Marsalis eventually leading the program’s 15-piece big band in their final performance. Marsalis also composes his own music, writing short and extended pieces that reflect his interest in early jazz styles. Marsalis’ passion for Bach, Beethoven, Mozart and others drove him to pursue a career in the classical world. He has recorded numerous classical albums and played with some of the biggest orchestras across the world. In 1995, he composed his first major work: a string quartet entitled At the Octoroon Balls which established him as a classical composer. Later compositions included the large-scale work Blood on the Fields, which won Marsalis the 1997 Pulitzer Prize for Music.
Marsalis has so far produced over 70 records which have sold over seven million copies worldwide, including three Gold Records. In his recordings, Marsalis has incorporated a heavy emphasis on blues and an inclusive approach to all forms of jazz, from New Orleans to modern. He persistently uses swing as the primary rhythm, embracing the American popular song together with individual and collective improvisation. Whilst he makes it look effortless, his virtuosic style calls for an encyclopedic range of trumpet techniques.
One cannot ignore the magnitude of work that Marsalis has put into promoting jazz and American culture around the world. He has devoted his life to uplifting people with the egalitarian spirit of jazz and continues to do so today.
His achievements aside however, it is reputedly his character that leaves the biggest impact on the people he meets. Just by listening to Marsalis playing Happy Birthday during one of his master classes, one can see the extraordinary talent and warmth he projects to his fans. Wynton Marsalis has selflessly donated his time and talent to non-profit organisations throughout America, raising money to meet the many needs within society.
It is Marsalis’ commitment to the improvement of life for all people that portrays the best of his character and humanity. Beyond just his numerous Grammy Awards and his coveted Pulitzer, Marsalis has received numerous additional distinctions for his musicianship and community outreach. He’s the recipient of several honorary degrees and The National Medal of Arts.
Wynton Marsalis has been described as the most outstanding jazz musician and trumpeter of his generation, hailed as one of the world’s top classical trumpeters, as a big band leader in the tradition of Duke Ellington, as a brilliant composer, as a devoted advocate for the arts and as a tireless and inspiring educator.
By Karin De Giorgi