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Wynton Marsalis Biography
The most famous jazz musician since 1980, Wynton Marsalis made
a major impact on jazz almost from the start. In the early '80s, it was
major news that a young and very talented black musician would choose
to make a living playing acoustic jazz rather than fusion, funk, or
R&B. Marsalis' arrival on the scene started the Young Lions
movement and resulted in major labels (most of whom had shown no
interest in jazz during the previous decade) suddenly signing and
promoting young players. There had been a major shortage of new
trumpeters since 1970, but Marsalis' sudden prominence inspired an
entire new crop of brass players. The music of the mid-'60s Miles Davis
Quintet had been somewhat overshadowed when it was new, but Marsalis'
quintet focused on extending the group's legacy and soon other Young
Lion units were using Davis' late acoustic work as their starting
During his career, Marsalis has managed to be a controversial figure
despite his obvious abilities. His selective knowledge of jazz history
(considering post-1965 avant-garde playing to be outside of jazz and
1970s fusion to be barren) is unfortunately influenced by the somewhat
eccentric beliefs of Stanley Crouch, and his hiring policies as musical
director of the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra led to exaggerated
charges of ageism and racism from local writers. However, more than
balancing all of this out is Marsalis' inspiring work with youngsters,
many of whom he has introduced to jazz; a few young musicians, such as
Roy Hargrove, have been directly helped by Marsalis.
Marsalis' trumpet playing has been both overcriticized and (at least
early on) overpraised. When he first arrived on the scene with the Jazz
Messengers, his original inspiration was Freddie Hubbard. However, by
the time he began leading his own group, Marsalis often sounded very
close to Miles Davis (particularly when holding a long tone), although
a version of Davis with virtuosic technique. He was so widely praised
by the jazz press at the time (due to their relief that the future of
jazz finally seemed safe) that there was an inevitable backlash.
Marsalis' sometimes inaccurate statements about jazz of the 1970s and
the avant-garde in general made some observers angry, and his rather
derivative tone at the time made it seem as if there was always going
to have to be an asterisk by his name when evaluating his talents. Some
listeners formed permanent impressions of Marsalis as a Miles Davis
imitator, but they failed to take into account that he was still
improving and developing. With the 1990 recording Tune in Tomorrow,
Marsalis at last sounded like himself. He had found his own voice by
exploring earlier styles of jazz (such as Louis Armstrong's playing),
mastering the wah-wah mute, and studying Duke Ellington. From that
point on, even when playing a Miles Davis standard, Marsalis has had
his own sound and has finally taken his place as one of jazz's greats.
The son of pianist Ellis Marsalis, the younger brother of Branford and
the older brother of Delfeayo and Jason (the Marsalis clan as a whole
can be accurately called The First Family of Jazz ), Wynton (who was
named after pianist Wynton Kelly) received his first trumpet at age six
from Ellis' employer, Al Hirt. He studied both classical and jazz and
played in local marching bands, funk groups, and classical orchestras.
Marsalis played first trumpet in the New Orleans Civic Orchestra while
in high school. He went to Juilliard when he was 18 and in 1980 he made
his first recordings with the Art Blakey Big Band and joined the Jazz
By 1981, the young trumpeter was the talk of the jazz world. He toured
with Herbie Hancock (a double LP resulted), continued working with
Blakey, signed with Columbia, and recorded his first album as a leader.
In 1982, Marsalis not only formed his own quintet (featuring brother
Branford and soon Kenny Kirkland, Charnett Moffett, and Jeff Tain
Watts) but recorded his first classical album; he was immediately
ranked as one of the top classical trumpeters of all time. His quintet
with Branford lasted until late 1985, although a rift developed between
the brothers (fortunately temporary) when Branford finally quit the
band to tour with Sting's pop group. By that time Wynton was a
superstar, winning a countless number of awards and polls.
Marsalis' next group featured pianist Marcus Roberts, bassist Robert
Hurst, and drummer Watts. Over time the group grew to become a
four-horn septet with trombonist Wycliffe Gordon, altoist Wes Anderson,
Todd Williams on tenor, bassist Reginald Veal, drummer Herlin Riley,
and (by the early '90s) pianist Eric Reed. Marsalis really developed
his writing during this era (being influenced by Duke Ellington) and
the septet proved to be a perfect outlet for his arranging. Although
Marsalis broke up the band by 1995, many of the musicians still appear
in his special projects or with the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra.
In 1997, Marsalis' marathon Blood on the Fields (which was released as
a three-CD set) became the first jazz-based work to win a Pulitzer
Prize. Standard Time, Vol. 5: The Midnight Blues followed a year later.
With the passing of so many jazz giants, Marsalis' importance (as a
trumpeter, leader, writer, and spokesman for jazz) continued to grow.
Standard Time, Vol. 4: Marsalis Plays Monk followed in 1999 to coincide
with the popular PBS special. Then, as if eight proper recordings in
1999 weren't enough, Columbia and Marsalis released an amazingly
affordable seven-disc set entitled Live at the Village Vanguard.
Mid-2000 saw the release of Marciac Suite and Goin' Down Home. Two
years later, Marsalis celebrated the blues on All Rise. Next up was his
first album for Blue Note, The Magic Hour, an album of original
material released early in 2004. Later that year, the label released
Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson, Marsalis'
soundtrack to a Ken Burns documentary. Marsalis' second studio effort
for Blue Note, the politically and socially aware From the Plantation
to the Penitentiary, followed in 2007. ~ Scott Yanow, All Music Guide
Written by Scott Yanow