Wynton Marsalis finds a model for life in his father, Ellis

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LENOX — For Wynton Marsalis, integrity is at jazz music's core — and his father Ellis'.

"He was always the least-prejudiced person I had ever met," 56-year-old Wynton told The Eagle during a telephone interview Monday.

As a child in New Orleans, Wynton would often attend Ellis' piano performances around the city. An educator who didn't receive much recognition until later in life, Ellis toiled at sparsely attended venues.

"He could play so many gigs with very few people there when I was growing up," Wynton said.

The 83-year-old Ellis won't have that problem on Saturday, Sept. 1, when his quintet opens for his son's own five-piece group at Tanglewood's Koussevitzy Music Shed, a venue Wynton knows well from his time as a Tanglewood Music Center student and concerts since. A world-renowned trumpeter and composer, Wynton has attracted rapt crowds for decades, though often while touring with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. The New York City institution's artistic director cherishes opportunities to perform with a smaller ensemble.

"There's more open space to play. In a big band, we improvise, but it's not as much space. For the rhythm section, it's more open and freer. Everybody's always happy to play in that context," Marsalis said. "It's like if you have a family of 13, and you're obviously eating at a big table, and then all of a sudden there's four or five people sitting there. There's a lot more food."

The Marsalis clan has cooked up an outsized portion of contemporary jazz fare. In addition to Ellis and Wynton, who in 1997 became the first jazz musician to win the Pulitzer Prize in Music, brothers Branford, Delfeayo and Jason have all made contributions to the genre, particularly Branford, the pop-oriented counterpart to the younger and more traditional Wynton.

"All of us were able to go and get some recognition," Wynton said.

Consequently, they raised their father's profile, but Wynton can still easily conjure the days when Ellis played to empty rooms. Take, for example, one gig at Lu and Charlie's on New Orleans' Rampart Street when Wynton was about 11. Ellis was scheduled to play until 2:30 a.m., but at 2, the only spectators left were young Wynton and a drunk.

"I walked up to the piano and said, 'No one is here. Let's go home,'" Wynton recalled.

A 25-minute drive to their house awaited. But Ellis didn't budge.

"He said, 'Man, this gig ends at 2:30.' I said, 'Man, nobody's in here but me and this dude, and look at him.' I pointed to the guy. It was like a funny scene in a movie. And my father says, 'Man, sit your a-- down and listen to this music for the last 30 minutes.' And that's what I did," Wynton said.

Ellis' devotion to the gig has guided the way Wynton carries himself musically.

"What would make somebody play like that at 2:15 in the morning? I want to be like that," Wynton recalled thinking. "So, that's when I made up my mind that I wanted to represented that aspect of what he was about."

Wynton doesn't just view integrity in behavioral terms, of the uprightness in persistent jazz musicians such as his father and legends such as Duke Ellington. He views it as an artistic concept, too. Marsalis has long opposed the genre deviating from its blues and swing elements that gained prominence in the early 20th century. In 1988, he penned a New York Times piece called "What Jazz Is — and Isn't" that cited early jazz writers' refusal to reckon with the genre's mechanics and studied practices. Instead, these scribes attributed jazz success to innate talent rather than education, allowing for a movement away from jazz's fundamentals, according to Marsalis.

"The noble-savage cliche has prevailed over the objective fact of the art — and this is manifest in my generation's inability to produce more than a few musicians dedicated to learning and mastering the elements like blues and swing that gave Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk and Charlie Parker such unarguable artistic power," Marsalis wrote.

In a 2017 interview with The New York Times on the eve of Jazz at Lincoln Center's 30th season, Marsalis hadn't backed off rejecting the genre-defying trend of 21st-century music.

"We are a music that is constantly asked to abandon its own identity to become another thing. Why? What's wrong with our identity? We're not going to do that at Jazz at Lincoln Center as long as I'm here," he said.

On Monday, Marsalis reiterated that jazz cannot fall victim to chasing popular reception. It must remain true to its principles.

"Are you going to give up on the Constitution because it seems like it's not working?" he asked.

He's not opposed to creatively thinking about jazz's underpinnings, but ignoring them is unacceptable.

"The principles are flexible because they are an approach and a way up, but there are also things that lie outside of that way up. When you believe in things, you're not checking the temperature of, 'What do people think today? Am I relevant right now?'" he said.

Marsalis remains culturally prominent today through his ceaseless artistic and educational work that binds music to American history, particularly its racial issues. He also garners attention for his provocative public statements, such as those censuring hip-hop this spring.

More recently, he has had an opportunity to reflect on a couple musical greats' legacies. The late Leonard Bernstein, whose birth centenary was celebrated Saturday at Tanglewood, taught Marsalis at the Lenox institution.

"I loved him. I knew him. I talked with him. We discussed things about teaching music. ... I liked the inclusiveness of his vision, the fact that he was trying to bring all the strains of our music together," Marsalis said.

Marsalis also wrote an essay about Aretha Franklin after her death in August. The two often exchanged emails.

"I wasn't actually going to write it, but I thought, hey, I had such a history with her and talked with her so many times that some people wouldn't know how much she actually knew about jazz [if I didn't write it]," he said.

As for his own legacy, Marsalis hopes that people will one day mine his 1,000-plus compositions, but he's not optimistic.

"There's always kind of a fascination with me philosophically and why I'm not a populist. That's how it is; I'm not complaining because I've been so much more fortunate and successful than I ever thought I would be, to maintain the level of seriousness that I've maintained, so I don't want it to come off like a complaint," he said. " ... Maybe there will be some discussion of [my] music, but I'm still waiting for that to happen with Duke Ellington's music. So, I don't know that I'm that hopeful for my own."

Benjamin Cassidy can be reached at bcassidy@berkshireeagle.com, at @bybencassidy on Twitter and 413-496-6251.


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