The second Marsalis son speaks his mind about music, family, or society

It is never easy to be a second child. I have read in psychology books various times how it is the firstborn who manages to be more like the parent, to fulfil their (conscious or subconscious) wishes. The second born is subversive, therefore also more innovative. Sometimes they go in a totally new direction and seem to be more critical, more courageously outspoken, because there would not be any big thing in replicating the same that the firstborn has already done…

Of course, every family is different, and there are just as many counter-examples as examples. However, the way I see Wynton Marsalis playing music, the way I read his life story and interview statements, the way I watch him in video talks, I feel he is a true prototype of being a “musical second born” – both in terms of subversion and innovation.

The Marsalis family is now a legend. Ellis Marsalis Jr. was born in 1934 in Louisiana, and he grew to be famous as a jazz pianist, jazz teacher, and from the ‘80s also as a paterfamilias. Unfortunately he cannot play for us anymore: he was one of the many million victims of the covid-19 pandemic. However, he left an incredible legacy, his impact on jazz is enormous. He helped many talents to evolve or influenced them implicitly, and (what is most important for us now) four of his six sons became jazz musicians, too. Apart from Wynton there is his older brother Branford, and younger brothers Delfeayo and Jason.

My father was an example to me, because of the type of integrity he had when he would play. I also liked the musicians that my father played with. (…) Playing the music was a stab against segregation. It was a matter of their identity, of their high-minded nature and of them as men. In their own way, it was a sign of protest against the environment they grew up in. Not just in terms of segregation of whites, because black people were also apathetic toward what they were playing. Some people considered it to be devil’s music, and others just considered it to be a waste of time. So they had certain defiance in their personality that I always could gravitate toward in life. My mama stayed on us about practicing. She took her time to take us to music classes and see that we received an education.”

(Wynton Marsalis)

Little Wynton received his first trumpet from an acquaintance, musician Al Hirt, for his sixth birthday, and ever since he tried it, he always wanted to play jazz. But soon he found out that if he wants to give concerts, he needs some compromise, so with twelve he joined a band playing popular stuff like funk. He worked with them every weekend and sometimes even on weekdays until he was sixteen. Then he gradually found his way back to jazz, also influenced by role models and inspiration. Apart from his parents there was also Thelonius Monk, Charlie Parker, Duke Ellington, and even Miles Davis, although they are connected through one of the biggest scandals of Wynton Marsalis’ career.

He was, namely, never too compliant if it was about what is good music and how to play it. As a beginner who has just only started to tour with his new band, he already stood up for his opinion that Miles Davis, a popular star, is doing wrong for jazz when bringing it into a fusion and electronic way. Davis responded that he, meanwhile, does not like Marsalis’ obsession with classical music (and true, his Haydn, Hummel, Mozart album won a Grammy in 1983) and his lack of improvisation. This became so bitter that at one point, when the organisers of Vancouver Jazz Festival tried to bring various jazz generations on one stage in 1986, Davis shouted at Marsalis: “Get the fuck off the stage!”, and did not want to play with him at all.

That was a symbolic moment, showing that for Wynton Marsalis, being true to his artistic considerations is more important than respecting an older musician and unreflectively going with an existing flow. He still lives and plays with the same attitude. For instance, some years ago he stirred up a scandal when he called rap, in terms of race relations and society,

“more damaging than a statue of Robert E. Lee”.

Still, when he realised how many people could have been possibly hurt by this half-sentence, he wrote a lengthy Facebook-post to explain, even if not completely revoke, his opinion.

We need to listen to Wynton Marsalis if he says something about society, as he not only gained influence as a musician but as a public figure – maybe because music is a political, social and human manifesto for him the way he saw it from his father (at least according to the quote above). He was the first jazz musician to win a Pulitzer Prize in music. Before 1997, the jury only rewarded classical musicians, but there came Wynton Marsalis and his huge oratory Blood on the Fields. He won the prize and while thanking for it, he mentioned Duke Ellington as an inevitable influence over and over again. Soon afterwards, the jury realised how narrow-minded the prize had been, and they gave posthumous awards to Duke Ellington and many other jazz musicians.

Marsalis was also first in another thing: there has never been any musician before him to win Grammys in jazz and classical music in the very same year. (Namely, in 1983, not only his Haydn-Hummel-Mozart album but a jazz one, Think of One, was also awarded.) In 2001, Kofi Annan chose him to be a UN Peace Ambassador. Even though it was a three-year responsibility, Marsalis is still invited for talks and interviews. And he keeps talking about social issues like the anomalies of the US political system, the corruption, the greed, and mostly of the mental impact and self-sabotage of Black people as the nasty legacy of past slavery and ongoing discrimination. That is also his problem with the worldview of rap, and that explains why he finds it so important to firmly stand up for his principles, be it a speech or a breathtakingly powerful trumpet solo.

As a recipient of Catholic education and UN Peace Ambassador have been reflecting on the often quoted and debated line from the Bible: “Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword.” (Matthew 10:34). And it is true that in case of some injustice in society, it is not enough to be as sweet as a little lamb and look away just to maintain “peace”. So Wynton Marsalis speaks his mind if needed, and he is steady as a rock in the important questions. But he is also a great example for how many things that sword can figuratively be. It can be words. And it can be sounds coming from a trumpet, too.

Wynton Marsalis plays in the Müpa Budapest on 5 July with his band Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. You can buy tickets here!