Renowned trumpet player, composer and arranger Wynton Marsalis hails from a well known musical family from New Orleans. Among the generation of artists who came of age in the 1980s, Wynton Marsalis is considered the major musical discovery. He wasted little time distinguishing himself in both jazz and classical music.
His clean-cut image-Marsalis is always dressed to the nines-is an extension of his musical philosophy: an unending search for perfection and superior quality, reflecting the highest standards in the business.
Wynton Marsalis was born in New Orleans on October 18, 1961. His father, Ellis, was a well respected musician known for his music teaching methods. As a child, Wynton thus gained valuable experience playing in brass bands, jazz ensembles, funk groups and eventually classical orchestras presenting European repertoires.
At the age of six, Wynton received his first trumpet from Al Hirt, then his father's employer. It wasn't until he began serious classical music studies that the young Marsalis really learned to play the instrument.
"I began studying classical music," he says, "because too many young musicians I knew were terrified of this monster called classical music on the other side of the mountain. I absolutely wanted to know what everyone was so afraid of. When I began to study it, I realized it was only music."
Determined to meet the challenge, Wynton Marsalis was invited to perform Haydn's Concerto for Trumpet with the New Orleans Philharmonic at the tender age of 14.
Famous mentors and bandmates
After studying at the Juilliard School in New York, he accepted an invitation to play with Art Blakey & The Jazz Messengers. Marsalis would later describe Blakey as "a man with a will of steel and a heart of gold" in honour of his legendary intensity on stage and his integrity vis-à-vis the jazz tradition.
In musicians Ron Carter, Tony Williams and Herbie Hancock, his future bandmates, Marsalis found similar qualities. Each was able to project his personality onto every second of playing time, and for Wynton, this was the music's defining quality.
This penchant for quality speaks to the perfectionism that led the trumpet player to studiously avoid playing jazz and classical on the same day-not because the genres were opposed, but because they required different techniques.
Age no measure of value
In 1981, Marsalis had barely turned 20 when he signed with Columbia and recorded his first album, a self-titled effort. His playing style recalled that of Miles Davis in the early 1960s, the comparison reinforced by contributions from former Davis acolytes Carter, Williams and Hancock on a few tracks.
In 1982, the trumpet prodigy marked the first of many visits to the Festival International de Jazz de Montréal with a performance at Théâtre St-Denis.
Before returning to the Festival the following year with V.S.O.P. II, Marsalis distinguished himself at the 1983 Grammy Awards. While all the talk was about Michael Jackson, who swept the awards that year, another CBS artist-Wynton Marsalis-quietly achieved a first in the annals of modern music, capturing the Grammy for best jazz recording AND the Grammy for best classical recording.
When he returned to Montreal, Marsalis was warmly hailed as someone who could play in the cool jazz style of Miles Davis on Kind Of Blue before unleashing a sudden flurry of notes in the manner of Dizzy Gillespie. The famous trumpet player Maurice André said the following about Marsalis: "This young man could well be the greatest trumpet player of all time."
Marsalis again appeared at the Festival in 1987, this time with Marcus Roberts on piano, Robert Hurst on bass, and Jeffrey Watts on drums. Two years later, Wynton was back in the City of Festivals. To mark his fifth visit to the Festival since 1982, a well respected pianist and teacher-Wynton's father Ellis Marsalis-opened the show.
In the early 1990s, Marsalis assembled a septet featuring Roberts on piano. Here, the music was an eloquent testimony to the influence of Duke Ellington. Accompanied by the septet, Marsalis presented his new work, In This House, On This Morning, at the 1994 Festival. The two-hour musical saga was a grand tribute to the history of religious music in the United States.
In 1995, Marsalis hosted a television series on jazz and classical music broadcast on the PBS network. Also during this period, he appeared on National Public Radio, which broadcast a series on jazz.
Marsalis returned to the Festival in 1998 as director of the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra. The Orchestra gave a concert inspired by the works of the greatest jazz musicians of the century. Still at the helm of the LCJO, Marsalis again appeared at the Festival in 2001, brilliantly orchestrating the best of contemporary jazz with a decidedly swing feel.
In 2004, Marsalis presented his new album to Festival fans, his first on the Blue Note label, titled The Magic Hour. The album also features pianist Eric Lewis, bassist Carlos Henríquez and drummer Ali Jackson.
Three years later, Marsalis released Congo Square. Written in collaboration with master Ghanaian drummer Yacub Addy, this composition couples the talents of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with those of the Ghanaian percussion ensemble Odadaa!, which blends jazz with African rhythms.
In 2008, Marsalis collaborated with country music legend Willie Nelson on Two Men With the Blues. The following year, he released the album He & She, mixing spoken word and jazz. In 2011, he put out Here We Go Again: Celebrating the Genius of Ray Charles, a live recording featuring the vocal talent of Willie Nelson and Norah Jones. The same year, the trumpeter contributed music to the soundtrack of Ken Burns’ Prohibition.