AKRON, Ohio — He is the most famous jazz artist alive.
At 49, trumpeter/composer/bandleader Wynton Marsalis (he’ll turn 50 in October), is generally considered past the age of obsolescence in the pop realm but still in his prime in the jazz world.
Nevertheless, his status as one of the most hailed jazz artists, position as leader of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra and gatekeeper of the jazz “tradition” has placed him as jazz’s elder statesmen for many and its most well-known emissary to the world.
Marsalis, a nine-time Grammy winner, takes his job, his music and the music he loves very seriously.
Since his recorded debut in 1980, Marsalis has become a beacon of the continued importance of jazz as art and as an integral part of America’s cultural history. He’s also long been a lightning rod for detractors in and outside of the jazz world.
The basic argument is that he has too much control from his vaunted pedestal as the jazz authority (Marsalis’ was the loudest and most often heard voice in the documentary “Jazz: A Film” by Ken Burns) and the leader of the JLCO. Add to that the argument that his dedication to the tradition of acoustic jazz and the hard and post-bop sound of the mid-1960s along with his dismissal of much of what came after that era is inhibiting the entire genre’s growth and continued relevance in an electric and electronic world.
But the always busy Marsalis said he’s not too worried about making jazz hip, more accessible or marketable for young listeners. When he’s onstage he doesn’t check out the audience hoping to see young faces.
“I never look into an audience and presume to know who’s there. I could see somebody with a Lady Gaga T-shirt on and they might not even like Lady Gaga,” Marsalis said during a recent telephone interview from his New York base.
“I think there are many types of people who have a lot of different types of taste. … I’ve been touring this country for 30-something years and I never look into the eyes of people and presume to know anything.
“An audience is made up of many different types of people like you and I,” he continued. “I try to play the music to the best of my ability and our band tries to do the same thing and we don’t play down to people — we’ve been doing it for quite some time and we remain invigorated and serious about doing it and grateful for the opportunity to do it.”
Marsalis was at the ground floor of the JLCO as a co-founder of the jazz program at the Lincoln Center for Performing Arts in 1987. In 1996, the jazz program became a constituent at Lincoln Center, equal in stature to the New York Philharmonic, The Metropolitan Opera and the New York Ballet. In 2004, Marsalis opened Lincoln Center’s Frederick P. Rose Hall, the world’s first institution specifically for jazz. It features a concert hall dedicated to jazz along with two other performance spaces and recording, broadcast, rehearsal and educational facilities.
Marsalis, who officially holds down the orchestra’s fourth trumpet chair, says the level of veteran and young talent and professionalism within the orchestra allows him to run it as a semi-democracy, taking in band members’ opinions and suggestions on everything from the set list to who is worthy of joining the band.
“I talk with the cats in the band about what they want to play. We have so much music and we’ve been playing together a long time so we have a lot of latitude,” he said, explaining that the book they take on the road has more than 200 compositions. “You could pick anything from any historic period from King Oliver and Jelly Roll Morton up to Gerry Mulligan and the original compositions we’ve played. But we’ve dealt with a lot of the history of (jazz) and we like to play all periods of it.
“We have so many fantastic musicians, I don’t know that any band has ever had that many who could arrange for a big band,” he said.
Duke Ellington, one of Marsalis’ heroes, was known for writing music to highlight specific band members, and Marsalis follows suit, using the JLCO’s high level of improvisatory and group acumen to shine spotlights on what they do best.
Among those “fantastic musicians” have been a few Ohioans, including former first trumpeter and Warren native Sean Jones, who left the orchestra in 2010 and has taken over the artistic director duties of the Cleveland Jazz Orchestra. Jones recently released his acclaimed sixth album, “No Need for Words,” and was on tour with Herbie Hancock and Marcus Miller.
“That’s my man, I love him” Masalis said of Jones. “He’s a great human being and a great trumpet player.”
The JLCO’s current Northeast Ohioan is saxophonist/clarinetist Walter Blanding Jr., a Cleveland native.
“We love Walter, man … his sound is so deep and soulful, Walter is deep and he’s a great teacher too,” he said.