Ask Wynton Marsalis to name his favorite holiday song and he might tell you, “The Christmas Song” by Mel Torme. Then he’ll likely explain it’s personal. When Marsalis first moved to New York, he played in a show with Torme. He was 18 years-old.
“The contractor thought I was only a classical trumpet player,” Marsalis recalled. “He said this boy can’t play. I don’t know why he’s playing this gig, and Mel heard me play and said, this boy can play. Leave him alone.”
Marsalis chuckles as he tells the story by phone from New York. He’s promoting his upcoming Big Band Holidays tour with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. Every year, for nearly a decade, the group has performed holiday classics with a jazz twist, coming up new and soulful compilations. This year, they will unveil new versions of “Caroling, Caroling” and “Sleigh Ride”.
“We’re also going to have a new version of, ‘It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year’, that I’m going to do,” said Marsalis. “I still haven’t done mine yet, so it’s really going to be new."
Marsalis is personable and funny, as he explains how playing songs everyone knows is the perfect opportunity to share the art of jazz. The 57 year-old trumpet virtuoso, Grammy award winning musician, and Pulitzer Prize honored composer has long tapped into jazz to teach and inspire, especially children. He co-founded Jazz at Lincoln Center, which offers educational programs.
He also likes to compare the fundamentals of jazz to life lessons, using musical components as metaphors. For example, improvisation in jazz reminds us, he says, of our unique identity and what we have to share as individuals with the world. Swinging requires musicians to work together, as we must do in families and communities. The blues, he says are a part of life. But in jazz, there’s optimism.
“I think that also ties in with the holiday season,” he said. “The holidays allow people to get together and no matter how dysfunctional your family life may be, you get everybody together and have an opportunity to communicate.”
Born in New Orleans, Marsalis was the second of six sons. His father played piano and taught music. His mother was a singer. Three of his brothers grew up to become jazz musicians as well. There was plenty of food and football around the holidays. But what Marsalis remembers most are the sounds of his childhood home.
“We’d get together on Christmas and play, and my mamma would sing, and we would always tease her about how bad her singing was because my daddy’s playing was so good,” said Marsalis. “She could sing too. We were just messing with her.”
Marsalis's Big Band Holidays tour brings him to Charleston Saturday, December 8th at the Gaillard Center. You can find all of the tour dates here: http://wyntonmarsalis.org/tour/upcoming
As for furture projects, Marsalis leaves us with this little gift.
"I’m getting ready to release 100 albums in five years. Jazz at Lincoln Center is going to show the breadth, depth and diversity of what we’ve achieved in our organization."