Acclaimed musician Wynton Marsalis hits all the right notes as the leader of the impeccably dressed jazz at Lincoln center orchestra. Here, he sits down with writer Darrell Hartman to talk about jazz as a uniquely American art form and share his own style improvisations.
The 54-year-old jazz legend seeks harmony in his style, too, and dresses to the nines whenever he performs. His reasoning is simple: “It’s to show respect for the art.”
Colors in conversation, a crisp suit and tie—what Marsalis calls his “clean” look is just one of his many expressions of that respect. He’s received countless awards, both for his trumpet wizardry and original compositions, and more recently for broader contributions as well. As managing and artistic director of Jazz at Lincoln Center, a not-for-profit organization Marsalis initiated three decades ago, the decorated bandleader and educator (and friend of Brooks Brothers) is more or less the face of an art form—jazz, arguably the most American music genre of all. We spoke to Marsalis about personal style, the essential interplay of rules and improvising, and more.
Brooks Brothers: How did you arrive at your sense of style?
Wynton Marsalis: The greatest style lesson I’ve had is from noticing how we dressed in the seventies and early eighties. We thought we looked really nice. But later, those photos looked like I was trying out for the Sunday paper’s cartoon section! The suits looked like they needed electric cords. I changed my concept in the mid-eighties. Now I like a more classic style, one that will transcend the vicissitudes of time. That’s what Brooks Brothers is about: clean lines, elegance, not-too-crazy color combinations.
BB: For you, what’s the creative side of getting dressed?
Wynton: I make little changes, like for the lapels or cuffs to be a certain way. I get creative with mixing and matching patterns. Wearing a white handkerchief in my pocket—I’ve been doing that for a while. I like my lines to be clean and my color combinations to be like jazz: the freedom to express myself, but not for that expression of myself to be the statement. Not like, ‘Look, Ma, no hands!’
BB: I know you’ve talked before about maintaining the standards set by that older generation of dapper jazz musicians. Which performers in particular stand out?
Wynton: I mean, take your pick. There’s Miles Davis, whose dress was always modest. Frank Sinatra was in the ‘all-clean club.’ And Duke Ellington, he was always right. He had the artist’s eye. Powder-blue shirt, deep purple tie—he knew how to put his colors together.
“I like my lines to be clean and my color combinations to be like jazz: the freedom to express myself, but not for that expression of myself to be the statement.”
BB: Let’s talk about the music. What sets jazz apart as an art form?
Wynton: First, there’s a grid that underlies it. Like Manhattan. Like faucets, fire hydrants and the pipes underneath the streets. Like anything that has been standardized, it provides a form. Then what do you do? Improvise, and improvisation on that form tells us whether you can play or not. It’s like a basketball player making 35-foot shots: not easy.
BB: And what’s the jazz equivalent of those 35-footers?
Wynton: First, play on the harmonic progression. Second, play with feeling—the feeling and wisdom of the blues. Third is to play with other people. It seems simple, but it’s not.
BB: Which of those skills took you the longest to get good at?
Wynton: Playing with “the blues” was probably the most difficult for me. I grew up in New Orleans, in funk, which is not the same expression.
BB: And which came most naturally?
Wynton: Playing with other people. My brother could play, and I was used to playing with him.
BB: You seem to respect rules, or at least admit their importance, more than some other musicians do.
Wynton: Rules are what make you free. The more you understand that grid, the freer you are. And the more skills you have, too—a basketball player who can really dribble is going to be freer on the court than one who can’t. Of course, every now and then, you change the rules.
BB: Your role at JALC has made you a global ambassador of sorts for American jazz. What’s that role like?
Wynton: We travel a lot; it’s part of our mission. You’ve got to be in front of people, to feel them and let them feel you and your intentions. It’s a tradition of our music to go and spread the best of American culture. Jazz is international music. Duke Ellington went to the Middle East in 1963; Benny Goodman went to Russia. We don’t go with any arrogance, but just to be a part of what’s going on. You receive a lot also. We’re always embraced when we travel.
BB: Why do you think that is?
Wynton: Musicians respect jazz musicians because they know how difficult our music is. They want to know how we play together. And we’ve done a lot of collaborations with musicians from other cultures—learned their music and participated in what they do.
BB: What are some of the common threads you’ve found?
Wynton: Habanera rhythm is in music all over the world, for some reason. And the pentatonic sound of the blues. You hear those five notes in Eastern music, African music, South American music…
BB: How important is it for a musician to develop his or her own playing style?
Wynton: That is the single most important thing in jazz: have our own sound. Some people always have it, and some have to achieve it.
BB: What was that process like for you?
Wynton: I had influences, but I feel like I always had my own style. I wasn’t playing that good at 18 or 19— but you can tell it was me.
BB: JALC is celebrating a century of recorded music this fall. You clearly love playing live. But why are recordings worth celebrating?
Wynton: It’s like the value of a score or a library. If you didn’t have recordings of Louis Armstrong, you wouldn’t know how he played. Look at Shakespeare, the Greeks. The human condition is not changing, so anything that is soul nourishing needs to be preserved. We also create new things all the time—but these two things don’t fight each other. Our souls are ancient and young at the same time.
BB: But you’re a father and an educator. I imagine you’re very familiar with how aggressively the new and trendy stuff can be, crowding its way in. Does that pressure make it a challenge to get students interested in music that’s been around awhile?
Wynton: It’s always hard to engage young people in anything serious, whether you’re an English teacher or a basketball coach. That’s part of what being an adult is. I don’t think anything is an obstacle for young people, except education. Did I know anything about Beethoven? No—I just heard it and knew it was great.
“I grew up around people who didn’t have anything, and if they put on a suit, no matter where it came from, that meant something.”
BB: So you’re not worried that a ‘classic’ will seem irrelevant or uncool to a young person?
Wynton: If you’re 15 years old, you don’t know what a classic is. Maybe you’re interested; maybe you’re not. I try not to teach generational prejudices. That’s part of how kids are marketed to, and I come to teach, not to market. I just try to get people to hear things and discover them for themselves.
BB: You’re also an arranger of music. What exactly does that mean? I understand you recently devised a colorful way of illustrating this onstage for a group of students.
Wynton: That was the ‘clothing show.’ We put on wild stuff in haphazard fashion, mismatched ties and so on, to show how an arranger figures out how to get everyone coordinated. An arranger takes those elements of rhythm, harmony, melody and texture, and puts them in a certain type of balance.
BB: Normally, though, it sounds like finding that harmony is a big part of getting dressed for a show. Why make the effort?
Wynton: For me, it’s to show respect for the art. You came to see me play; I want to be clean. Yes, I could play with a T-shirt on and play the same way, but I’m going to put a suit on—the way you do when you go to church or to a meeting. I grew up around people who didn’t have anything, and if they put on a suit, no matter where it came from, that meant something. I never lost that, even if I would go to school in gym pants when I was younger. But now I’m different. My shoes are shined. I ‘put my knot on.’ I’m ironed. I’m ready.