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Pauline Lerner

Do the Best You Can Do: Wynton Marsalis

November 28, 2005 at 9:57 AM

I’m reading a very good book about Wynton Marsalis, jazz and classical trumpeter, outstanding teacher, and founder and director of the program Jazz at Lincoln Center. The book, Wynton Marsalis: Skain’s Domain: A Biography, by Leslie Gourse
reads as if it were written by and for musicians because it includes extensive remarks by other musicians about Marsalis.

Wynton Marsalis was born into a musical family in New Orleans in 1961. His father was a jazz musician and teacher, and his brother Branton became a musician, too. Wynton adopted a lot of his parents’ values. His father, Ellis, used to say that talent is a big lie. “When hard work meets opportunity, that’s when you get some degree of success…There are people walking around who don’t even know they have musical talent. Talent is mistaken for the thing that it takes for people to achieve exterior success.” I agree. For people who want to be professional musicians, talent is just the start. Aspiring musicians must have the right teachers, play and win the right competitions, win the favor of established musicians to serve as mentors, and have some very good luck. It’s not surprising that Ellis didn’t judge people by their “exterior success.” He didn’t treated people who were rich and successful any differently from other people. Wynton’s mother and father had an interesting view of success and failure. They didn’t think their kids were failures if they didn’t make the honor roll at school. They told their kids that they would be failures only if they didn’t do the best they could do. “It didn’t matter if you got a C as long as that was the best you could do,” said Wynton’s brother Branford, who got an F in high school biology even though he studied biology for two hours every day. His mother told him not to worry about it. She said that he could take the course again in summer school and get it over with. If he had gotten an F in music, she told him, she would kick his ***.

In his student years, Wynton focused on classical music, and he became very accomplished at a young age. When he was seventeen, he auditioned for admission and a scholarship to the Tanglewood Music Festival. One of his audition pieces was Bach’s Brandenburg Concert No. 2, a killer for trumpeters. Trumpeters have been known to pass out while playing this piece because of the extreme demands it puts on their breathing. Nobody had ever dared use this as an audition piece for Tanglewood, but Wynton did. He played it flawlessly and was admitted to Tanglewood with a scholarship. He subsequently auditioned at Julliard, and he was admitted and awarded a four year scholarship there. He didn’t finish schoolat Julliard, though. When he was just 20, he was signed on by Columbia Records, who paid for recordings and publicity for him and his own five member band.

Today Wynton Marsalis is a star trumpeter in both jazz and classical music, and he draws criticism from both groups. Some classical musicians say that his technique is sloppy because he plays jazz, and some jazz musicians say that his playing is cold and intellectual because he plays classical music. Wynton has a strong sense of history and respect for jazz musicians who preceded him and paved the way. He has not followed trends, such as electronic music, in his playing and composing, and he has been criticized by some jazz musicians for being too conservative and derivative in his music.

Like Hilary Hahn, Wynton Marsalis is very dedicated to teaching kids. When on tour, he often goes into music classes in school to help educate the kids about music, sometimes without giving the teachers prior notice. Years ago, I saw a PBS TV special about him, and I was tremendously impressed with a sequence of him teaching some kids in a classroom in Washington DC. He had great rapport with the kids. He listened to a boy playing something on the piano. The boy’s playing was technically very good but lacking in emotional expression. When Wynton spoke to the boy, he said nothing about technical matters such as tempo and dynamics. Instead, he told the boy to imagine a beautiful, strong, spirited horse prancing and pawing the ground. Wynton painted such a vivid description verbally that I was reminded of a similar speech in the beginning of Shakespeare’s Henry V. The boy’s face lit up with a smile as he listened. Wynton told him to play the piece again, this time imagining the horse. The boy played the piece totally differently this time. He made music and it was exciting. I was very impressed with the power of this approach, and I use it on my own students. This TV show inspired me to do some reading and try to learn about jazz. Even though jazz is largely improvisational, it has a very complex structure. I still can’t understand it very well. After all, I was trained as a classical musician. Wynton has made a series of TV shows in which he teaches kids of all ages about jazz, just as Leonard Bernstein did with classical music decades ago. I’d love to see these shows, and I may well do that with the assistance of Amazon.com.

I believe in the seamless garment theory of music. In its many genres, music speaks to what is true and universal within people. I am indebted to many great musicians and teachers of music, including Wynton Marsalis.

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