Wynton Marsalis: self-appointed curator of classic jazz. (Courtesy photo)
Wynton Marsalis outlasts critics with his dogged devotion to traditional jazz

The career of jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis reads like a novel. Fortunately for jazz fans, its plot complications have fostered one of the most impressive bodies of work since the early '60s.

Marsalis' versatility, instinctive sense of phrasing, and purity of tone have earned him Grammy Awards and Pulitzer Prizes and the respect (albeit, sometimes begrudgingly) of critics and fans. Meanwhile, because of his outspokenness about the ongoing state of jazz, Marsalis has become one of the genre's most complex and controversial figures.

Yet, when Marsalis and the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra take the Laurie Auditorium stage Saturday night, controversy will fade into the background, as the trumpeter takes the audience through a journey of swing, bop, Dixieland, and virtuoso ensemble and solo performances.

Marsalis grew up in Kettner, Louisiana, and moved to New York in 1979 to attend the Julliard School of Music. By the summer of 1980, not yet 19 years old, the young trumpeter had joined Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers, and before the year was over, Marsalis signed to Columbia Records.

From the beginning, Marsalis straddled two dispate musical worlds. In addition to his jazz mastery, he is also an acclaimed classical trumpeter, and his 1998 collection, Classic Wynton, provides selections from his non-jazz recordings, including such taxing pieces as Rimsky-Korsakov's Flight of the Bumblebee, Joseph Haydn's Trumpet Concerto in E-Flat Major, and J.B. Arban's Variations on "Le Carnaval de Venise."

But his love of American roots music (jazz, New Orleans R&B, and blues) dominates the bulk of his work, from 1985's Black Codes From the Underground, which marks the height of what is referred to as his Miles Davis period, 1986's Live From Blues Alley, and 1992's Citi Movement, a collection of swing, bop, and New Orleans jazz songs he wrote for a modern ballet.

Marsalis' undiluted negativity toward barren '60s post-avant-garde and his disgust with '70s fusion (he believed it wasn't merely bad jazz music, but it was bad for jazz) launched a battle of taste and sensibility that in some circles, still rages.

Saturday, October 4
207-2234 (Carver Box Office)
224-9600 or
Laurie Auditorium
Trinity University
1 Trinity Pl.
As retribution for his candor, in the '80s, many critics pointed out that Marsalis was still an inexperienced player unworthy of the degree of praise he had received. They argued that for all his technical skill, he had not yet developed his own musical voice - the distinctive signature that brands all jazz greats. The flaw in this argument was its statute of limitations: Since Marsalis debuted as a recording artist in 1982, he has built a collection of close to 70 recordings ranging from jazz, blues, classical, and movie soundtracks.

In fact, one of Marsalis' most important recordings is the 1990 soundtrack from the little-seen film, Tune in Tomorrow, recognized as the work where Marsalis finally cut loose from his early Miles influences, and defined his own style.

Marsalis has played a bold game in his attempt to influence the course of jazz. Instead of changing his standards to hawk a sellable product, Marsalis chose to create his music out of the heart of traditional jazz, rather than water it down with rock or fusion. Behind this move is the belief that art is about excellence, and its purpose is to elevate the audience's level of sophistication. In doing so, he's invited claims of pretentiousness. But as a result, his turbulent, yet amazing career represents the highest standards in American jazz and has carried on a tradition that was in fragile condition when his career began. •

Scroll to read more Music Stories & Interviews articles
Join the San Antonio Current Press Club

Local journalism is information. Information is power. And we believe everyone deserves access to accurate independent coverage of their community and state.
Help us keep this coverage going with a one-time donation or an ongoing membership pledge.


Join SA Current Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.