The Jazz Messenger

By Samantha Stainburn — September 18, 2002 20 min read
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Wynton Marsalis' 10-year education crusade culminates in a new curriculum.

Wynton Marsalis is easily the most famous trumpet player in the world. He’s won nine Grammy awards for his jazz and classical recordings and a Pulitzer Prize in music for his composition “Blood on the Fields.” At 40, he’s the artistic director of Jazz at Lincoln Center, the largest jazz organization in the world. And even if you didn’t know he is famous, he exudes power and authority when he materializes quietly on the side of the stage, trumpet dangling from his right hand.

Apparently, all this doesn’t much impress the 1,300 New York City elementary school children who have been ushered into the Apollo Theater in Harlem on a sunshiny morning in May. These 2nd through 6th graders are here for a “Jazz for Young People” educational concert highlighting the work of the late saxophonist John Coltrane.

As Marsalis and six musicians from the JALC orchestra serve up a lush helping of “A Night in Tunisia,” an elegant composition with thrillingly high trumpet flourishes, students chat with one another. Others fidget, twisting around in their seats. In twos and threes, some dart to the bathroom.

Teaching kids is an unglamorous gig, which is why most world-class artists don’t do it. Others can’t do it, unable to explain their craft to mere mortals. But Marsalis has a rare ability to describe complicated music and unfamiliar ideas, and he’s particularly skilled at communicating with young people.

Before launching into another number, he makes clear that he expects more from his listeners. “See how y’all treat me?” he says, appealing to their sense of fairness. “I had to get up early and press my suit to be here with you guys. I’m not gonna talk over everybody. If you all keep quiet, I’m gonna tell you some interesting stuff about Coltrane.”

Intrigued by his tone, the crowd quiets down, and in his raspy New Orleans accent, Marsalis discusses Coltrane’s bad habits. It’s PG13 material for this G crowd, but he doesn’t gloss over details. In fact, he identifies a character lesson in them: “Coltrane had a sensitive personality. He loved to eat sweets. Sometimes, to numb the pain from the toothaches of all the sweets, he would drink a little alcohol. Then he began to take heroin, which is a drug that you should avoid at all costs. What that teaches us is, imitate what you like about your heroes, and what you don’t like, just leave that behind.”

An accessible message. But how can he describe the technical underpinnings of jazz to children? Again, Marsalis lets Coltrane’s life lead the way. He explains that the musician’s drug use cost him jobs, so Coltrane began playing any kind of music to earn money. He even tried what’s called “walking the bar,” a crowd- pleasing style of rhythm and blues. “Coltrane was a very quiet, serious man, so walking the bar with his horn and honking and squealing made him terribly embarrassed,” Marsalis says. “He felt that this style of playing was undignified. Still, walking the bar taught him how to play with a certain intensity, which would become a lifelong trademark.”

With this, Marsalis cues the band to demonstrate.

The children listen, though by the end of the piece the youngest grow restless again. Perhaps Coltrane was over their heads? Backstage after the show, Marsalis dismisses the notion: “If we expected them to do it, they would do it. Kids are unbelievable. Can a kid have a 20minute attention span? Yeah, definitely, if they’re expected to have that. If they’re not, no, they won’t.”

As Marsalis sees it, America has stopped expecting a lot from its children, partly because adults no longer care enough to show them the way. “We need to wonder that we consistently give them trash to learn as a culture,” he insists. “What does that say about us? It says that we suffer from a severe lack of leadership. And we don’t understand what it takes to maintain a civilization.”

But Marsalis thinks jazz can help fix all that.

The genre’s unique musical characteristics—collective improvisation, call and response, solos, and unexpected rhythms—demand respect and patience as musicians listen to one another and collaborate, he explains. These traits teach people that those who communicate and cooperate well will get turns to express their individuality. “Jazz is an adult music,” he notes. “It’s something that makes children aspire to adulthood, which is what your culture should try to do, because an adult is the most productive human in your society, not a child. A child does not know. You have to teach them.”

As Marsalis sees it, America has stopped expecting a lot from its children, partly because adults no longer care enough to show them the way.

To do that, Marsalis has focused a significant portion of Jazz at Lincoln Center’s resources on education. The organization’s efforts—including lectures, films, in-school master classes, a band director academy, and a high school band competition—reach more than 110,000 people annually.

This past spring, in an effort to touch thousands more students across the country, JALC released the Jazz for Young People Curriculum. A program for 4th through 9th graders, it replicates the content and flavor of the concert series from which it takes its name. The package includes CDs, student guides, and a videotape.

Dozens of New York City schools will make use of the curriculum this fall, but Marsalis would like nothing less than for every American student to learn about jazz. “Most of the young people we reach will not end up playing an instrument or becoming a professional musician, but they will foster an appreciation for jazz throughout their life,” he predicts. “We like to say that jazz has never lost a fan. All we need to do is expose young people to it.”

Since African-American musicians in New Orleans created jazz at the dawn of the 20th century, the music has evolved significantly. But it has maintained some distinguishing traits: a “swinging” sound, an unpredictable quality, and a connection to the blues, which, as Marsalis says, “teaches us that no matter how bad things are, we will survive with style.”

Initially, a segregated America dismissed jazz as a loose form of music suited only for bars and brothels. In the 1930s and ‘40s, though, mainstream culture embraced jazz, dubbed “swing” and played by big bands, as the generation’s dance music.

During World War II, innovators such as the trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie downsized the orchestra to a small group that could perform in clubs. But in the ‘70s and ‘80s, the traditional qualities of jazz were obscured as avant- garde musicians experimented with the form, and it developed a reputation for inaccessibility. Marsalis has nothing but disdain for that period, arguing that musicians altered the form so much that they weren’t playing jazz at all. (His is a puristic and, in some circles, controversial view.) These days, jazz is generally seen as the province of self-styled intellectuals and accounts for a scant 2 percent of U.S. music sales.

Marsalis didn’t like jazz at first, either. At 13, the New Orleans native played basketball and tooted a horn in a funk band with his brother Branford. But he grew bored with shooting hoops. And the funk band? “It was great to meet the women, but you just didn’t play nothing, really,” Marsalis recalls. “It wasn’t about playing. It was so loud all the time.”

Yet, unlike most kids growing up in the ‘60s and ‘70s, Marsalis was familiar with traditional jazz. His father, Ellis, a high school and college music teacher, played piano with a few jazz bands, and Wynton tagged along to gigs. Ellis introduced his son to all the famous jazz musicians who passed through New Orleans: Coltrane, for example, visited the Marsalis house when Wynton was a toddler.

During that period, when the cultural landscape included the civil rights movement, James Brown, and Vietnam War protests, an interest in old-time New Orleans music seemed anachronistic.

Eventually, though, Wynton picked up Coltrane’s “Giant Steps” and some Clifford Brown records and started listening. Once he decided he wanted to sound like them, he practiced more than most teenagers, four to six hours a day. He also studied classical trumpet, winning a concerto competition at 15, then performing regularly with professional symphony orchestras.

Propelled by this drive and a natural ability, his career took off at warp speed: At 17, he won a scholarship to the Juilliard School of Music in New York City. At 19, he dropped out to tour with the Jazz Messengers, a group fronted by veteran drummer Art Blakey that played in a style of the ‘40s and ‘50s. And when Marsalis was 20 and Columbia Records signed him, he formed his first jazz band, a quintet.

Typically, trumpet players don’t become household names, even if they’re releasing records at an average of two a year, Marsalis’ output over the past two decades. But Marsalis caught the eye of the general public in 1983, when he became the first musician ever to win Grammy awards for classical and jazz recordings in the same year; he repeated the feat in 1984. His involvement in broadcast projects about jazz, including co-writing the Peabody Award-winning National Public Radio series “Making the Music,” kept him visible.

In 1991, Jazz at Lincoln Center was created, and Marsalis was tapped to be its artistic director and orchestra leader. For the then-29-year-old, the job offered plenty of perks, including a pulpit from which to disseminate his ideas.

On a Saturday afternoon in May, Marsalis kicks off the seventh annual Essentially Ellington High School Jazz Band Competition and Festival, one of the organization’s biggest education efforts. Three hundred students and their band directors and chaperones await an open rehearsal of the JALC orchestra at B.B. King’s Blues Club and Grill, just off Times Square, where the beer taps look like miniature saxophones.

Earlier, Marsalis explained his decision to focus on the late composer Duke Ellington: “His music is not only fun to play, but playing it makes you a better player.”

‘Once you discover jazz, you want everything in your life to be jazz.’

The festival, a three-day event, takes many months of planning to pull off. Each summer, Marsalis and some of his staff choose six previously unpublished Ellington-arranged pieces, which are then transcribed. In the fall, JALC provides the sheet music and a package of other materials for a small fee to the more than 1,000 schools that request it.

Next, each band that wants to enter the competition sends in a taped performance of three songs. (Bands may also submit recordings for comments only, to which JALC musicians respond with detailed critiques.)

Finally, 15 finalists are selected, based on such criteria as soulfulness and technique.

With the help of funding from more than 10 foundations, Essentially Ellington finalists get treated royally. For starters, a professional musician is flown to each school for a jazz clinic the month before the competition.

Then, after the students arrive in New York City, their bands enjoy private rehearsals with these “mentors” plus Lincoln Center musicians. And in addition to cash prizes, players in the three top- placing bands win a chance to hang out with Marsalis in a unique way: Each winning band performs one piece with him during a public concert at Lincoln Center.

All this can be pretty daunting, so Marsalis tries to make everyone feel comfortable. Before the orchestra launches into “Harlem Airshaft,” he encourages the young musicians to introduce themselves to one another and, when the time comes, to cheer good playing—even by a competitor.

This emphasis on camaraderie helps remind the students that, despite the pressures of competition, jazz is supposed to be fun. According to Bruce Hering, the band director for Eau Claire Memorial High School in Wisconsin, part of that fun comes from its flexibility. “You don’t just stick with [the music] in its original form,” explains Hering, who’s been to the festival twice before. “It’s OK to mess with it—change the tempo, the soloists; make it faster, higher. As we change as a band, we can change the music. A trombone player might just be learning in the fall. If he’s ready to do more in the spring, we can add a solo, then make up a background that’ll fit in. The music keeps growing.”

Hering’s students are definitely enjoying themselves. Tim Sullivan, the band’s cheerful saxophonist, just traded email addresses with a local student from LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts. A curly-haired senior, Sullivan has wide musical tastes—he DJs for Eau Claire dances, which means he spins a lot of funk—but he loves jazz.

“There’s so much soul and emotion and power put into the music—it’s such a real thing,” he says. “Once you discover jazz, you want everything in your life to be jazz.”

Of course, the Eau Claire band isn’t here just to socialize. So the next day, in a studio the size of a small gym, the 20 students face the music with Ron Carter, a Northern Illinois University professor who’s their mentor for the festival.

They’re working on “Things Ain’t What They Used to Be,” and Carter’s not satisfied. “You’re holding back,” he says, and asks them to start over.

Once again, Josh Gallagher, a senior last spring who now attends the Berklee College of Music in Boston, drops his hands onto the piano keys for the syncopated opening of the piece.

But just as the song is taking off, Carter halts the process.

“I’m still feeling competition and not working together,” he says of the different sections. “Get your head out of the music and find that beat.” Carter addresses the drummer energetically: “Shu-POP! Shu-POP! That ‘pop’ gotta be there.”

He cues them to start once more. They don’t get far, though. The sound is still too formal for Carter’s liking, and he waves them silent. “You gotta deal with that ‘up’ thing,” he says. “That’s what makes you want to dance—that up thing. You gotta understand: This was the pop music of that time. Those guys that played this, they lived and breathed this music from birth, so they didn’t have to think about it.”

He motions the band to start again: “One, two, up, up, up.” This time, he likes what he hears. “Yeah! C’mon!” he shouts. Walking around the back of the orchestra, Carter motions “Up, up!” to the drummer. Then he does a squirmy dance around the room, twisting down into a squat, then rising up on his toes as the music dips and elevates. When the song ends, he turns to Hering and nods his head approvingly.

Carter’s charm and enthusiasm sweeten the severity of his critiques, comments that Hering considers “dead on.” But by the end of the rehearsal, Hering can see that the pressure is getting to some of his students. So he asks Carter and the band’s chaperones to step outside and give him a moment alone with his band members.

Choking up, Hering tells them that he’s proud of them. They deserve to have a good performance and enjoy what they’ve accomplished. But, he adds, they’re on the verge of cheating themselves out of the experience.

“Hey,” he says. “It’s the last thing we’ll perform together as a band. Regardless of what happens, let’s play our hearts out.”

Hering believes that playing jazz can be a life-changing experience for students. “To me, it’s really important that you set high standards, aim for difficult goals, and achieve,” he says during a break. “It goes so far beyond just playing in a jazz band. It teaches you that you can accomplish whatever you want to.”

‘Jazz is a prism through which we gain a better understanding of life as Americans.’

He’s not alone in maintaining that jazz teaches students social skills. Marsalis has gone even further, describing the homegrown music as a sort of citizenship training. “Jazz is a prism through which we gain a better understanding of life as Americans,” he states in a JALC press release. “Jazz teaches us democratic ideals. Like democracy, jazz requires personal responsibility and the ability to improvise with your available resources to come up with inventive solutions to new problems.”

Although Marsalis doesn’t usually dwell on jazz’s academic benefits, researchers say that studying music helps students excel in other subject areas. For example, the College Board reports that, in 2001, SAT-takers with music experience scored 57 points higher on the verbal portion of the test and 41 points higher on the math portion than students with no arts experience.

Jazz has also begun to win recognition as a valuable part of American culture. In 1996, the U.S. Department of Education included jazz techniques in its national music standards, a set of guidelines for schools that offer music programs.

Yet jazz is by no means a standard offering in most American schools. For one thing, it’s not covered in many university music education programs, in part because it lacks a comprehensive pedagogy. Music teachers who bring jazz into their classrooms, therefore, typically do so out of a personal interest. And they often face obstacles from parents and administrators who prefer such crowd pleasers as marching bands.

It was with this situation in mind that, four years ago, Marsalis stepped into a studio with the JALC orchestra and guest artists to re-create a decade’s worth of Jazz for Young People Concerts for a new curriculum.

Listen to selections from the “Jazz for Young People’s Curriculum.”

Marsalis on:

(Requires the Real Player.)

Clips courtesy of Jazz at Lincoln Center.

These recordings—120 musical selections punctuated with characteristically wry narration from Marsalis—are divided into 30 lessons that cover the musical components, instruments, key artists, and history of jazz. The $300 curriculum package was designed with help from Scholastic Inc. and is aligned with the national standards for music education. The lessons are featured on nine CDs, a CD-ROM with a transcribed text of the narration, a video that takes students behind the scenes at the recording sessions, and guides for teachers and students.

The curriculum, says Laura Johnson, JALC’s director of education, “is extremely user-friendly. It was written with the nonmusician in mind, making it perfect for any educator who wants an entertaining, structured way to introduce his or her students to jazz.”

It’s flexible enough so that teachers can use it for an entire semester or in shorter units, she adds, and it’s as suited to social studies classes as it is to music instruction.

Starting this year, JALC staff members intend to track teachers’ reactions to the curriculum in New York City, where the board of education purchased copies for 41 district arts coordinators, and wherever else it’s sold.

But Marsalis is less interested in gathering facts and figures than he is in the big picture: He wants, in the long run, to shift cultural attitudes. “If people went from listening to JayZ to John Coltrane tomorrow—after one year of them listening to John Coltrane, you’d be in a whole different culture,” he muses. “First, just the level of profanity would go down to almost zero. Then the level of actual engagement with other people would go up.”

Measuring these kinds of responses is next to impossible, of course, but Marsalis is comfortable with uncertainty. “You never know what will happen when you put some education out,” he says, adding that he still recalls the first band in which he played, at age8, led by a teacher named Danny Barker at a local church. “He was trying to teach us how to play New Orleans music. Kids in 1969 didn’t want to learn New Orleans music. But he was out there with us, talking about ‘Little Liza Jane.’ We didn’t want to learn it, but we learned it. I can remember all of those songs even now.”

At 4p.m. on the festival’s final day, the 15 bands file into the Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall to learn which three have won the chance to play with Marsalis.

The Eau Claire students are happy with their performance at the competition, which took place this morning. They relaxed, and they did, indeed, swing. Hering revealed himself to be a hopeless romantic by dedicating the group’s third tune, “Sophisticated Lady,” to his wife, and when saxophonist Sullivan held his final note for what seemed like forever, students from other bands roared with approval and scrambled to their feet. But everyone agrees that, this year, just about every band’s performance has been phenomenal. When the winners are announced, Eau Claire is not among them.

‘If people went from listening to JayZ to John Coltrane tomorrow—after one year of them listening to John Coltrane, you'd be in a whole different culture.’

The students are surprisingly OK with the outcome. Sullivan is still savoring a wonderful compliment: A musician who’d played with the late jazz virtuoso Charles Mingus approached Hering after Eau Claire’s performance and said Mingus would have loved Sullivan. “It’s like, ‘Let’s just go home now; I’m done!’ ” Sullivan laughs.

The Wisconsin students join their counterparts from 11 other losing bands in fanning out across midtown to engage in another American tradition: dulling any disappointment with pizza and shopping.

Meanwhile, students in the winning bands—Roosevelt High and Garfield High from Seattle and Miami’s New World School of the Arts—rehearse with Marsalis. Each band gets a mere 15 minutes onstage to run through the two tunes they’ll perform—one with Marsalis, the other without.

Before arriving in New York, each band director selected the Ellington tune that school would play with Marsalis if it won the chance, and the choice of New World’s Jim Gasior is “Perdido.” It’s a piece that’s easily opened up to improvisation, including a practice called “trading fours,” in which musicians take turns improvising four measures each. The school has a talented, instinctive trumpet player, a junior named Shareef Clayton, and Gasior decided that, if the band made the top three, Clayton would trade fours with Marsalis.

At 7:30p.m., the mood is celebratory in the nearly sold-out concert hall; released from the pressures of competing, the 12 losing bands, seated in the front rows of Avery Fisher Hall, are ready to enjoy some music.

Still, when Marsalis walks out from the wings and take his place in front of the first band, a palpable sense of longing ripples through the crowd. The teenagers can’t help but wonder what it would be like to be up there.

New World is the last band to perform, and the audience likes the bouncy tempo of “Perdido.” Then the students catch sight of a slim figure, wearing a cummerbund that seems several sizes too large, making his way from the back of the orchestra. With a collective sucking-in of breath, the band members realize what is about to go down. All thoughts of the previous three days of competition disappear as they watch a serious, blinking Clayton face Marsalis.

Marsalis plays four high bars. Tentatively, Clayton plays four higher.

Marsalis offers a tricky measure. Clayton responds with one trickier.

And so it goes, like a tennis match in front of a crowd of people who move their heads from side to side as each player lobs notes at the other. Marsalis’ trumpet seems to say, “C’mon now, you can do better than that,” and he mugs for the audience when Clayton meets each challenge.

Then the unexpected happens.

Clayton suddenly sticks his hand in the bell of his trumpet, producing a wonky sound. Surprised, Marsalis whirls around, sticks a hand in his horn and waggles it, producing an even wonkier sound. But it’s too late; as far as the teenagers in the audience are concerned, Clayton has shown an old dog a new trick, and they’re on their feet, yelling their lungs out.

This isn’t the first time Marsalis has encountered Clayton. Nearly three years ago, the celebrity noticed the shy freshman while stopping by New World during a tour.

As he does with many promising high school musicians, Marsalis gave Clayton his phone number in New York. “A lot of the times, he calls me and I’m busy, you know?” Marsalis says, after the performance. “He’s been having a lot of problems with his lip. He doesn’t know what’s wrong. His mouth swells up; [he] uses different mouthpieces. But he’s one of the nicest human beings, and I’m just so proud of him, seeing him over the last number of years.”

Trading fours is often an opportunity for a musician to teach a rival a lesson about who’s the dominant player. But on this night, the 40 year-old didn’t have anything to teach the high schooler.

Quite simply, Marsalis says, “I was coming at him with love.”

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