- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 9, 2004

Is Wynton Marsalis, that brilliant young man with the horn, becoming the elder statesman of jazz? Perhaps. Fortunately, he seems to relish the role — even at the relatively young age of 43. Nearly four years ago, he was the talking head (along with columnist and cultural critic Stanley Crouch) for “Jazz,” Ken Burns’ epic PBS series that chronicled the rise of America’s music. Two months ago, Jazz at Lincoln Center (JALC) — the world’s largest nonprofit arts organization dedicated to jazz, where Mr. Marsalis serves as artistic director and bandleader — opened its new home, the $128 million, 100,000-square-foot Frederick P. Rose Hall, on his birthday.

This fall, CBS’ venerable “Sunday Morning” tapped him to re-record “Abblasen,” its familiar trumpet fanfare by 17th-century composer Gottfried Reiche. And last month Random House published his fifth book, “To a Young Jazz Musician: Notes From the Road,” a how-to book, of sorts, for aspiring musicians co-written with Selwyn Seyfu Hinds.

Tonight, Mr. Marsalis adds another feather to his jazzman-as-educator cap with the premiere of “Suite for Human Nature,” his 90-minute opus for the younger set, at the District’s historic Lincoln Theatre. (The program will also be broadcast at noon on Christmas Day and at 2 p.m. Dec. 26 for subscribers of XM Satellite Radio’s Real Jazz Channel 70.)

“All of the pieces of the composition are about two to three minutes in length,” Mr. Marsalis said last week during a phone conversation from his New York office. “There’s no really long piece. You don’t want to bore kids. It’s for children, but it’s still jazz. …I don’t try to play down to them.”

During our talk, the acclaimed trumpeter banged out a few chords from “March of the Brats,” his favorite melody within the work. The jaunty composition pays homage to his New Orleans roots — instantly conjuring images of Mardi Gras merriment and the redemptive gaiety of a Big Easy funeral procession.

“It’s like a little children’s march that comes toward the finale,” says Mr. Marsalis, the father of three. “There are lots of trumpets and trombones — New Orleans style.”

Based on a libretto by lyricist Diane Charlotte Lampert (whose compositions include “Break It to Me Gently,” singer Brenda Lee’s 1961 megahit), “Suite” tells the story of the four geographical winds coming to the rescue when Mother Nature and Father Time wreak havoc on mankind.

“I liked the range of fundamentals in the story,” says Mr. Marsalis, while offering his broader — and somewhat esoteric — take on the tale.

“You have Mother Nature and Father Time, and they have five kids — fear, envy, greed, hate and fickleness,” he explains. “After the fifth kid (fickleness), they begin to bicker. Each kid is left with one of the four winds, but the fifth one is left out.”

Each of the winds, Mr. Marsalis continues, mirrors many of the human characteristics often associated with each geographical region. “The North wind is cool,” he says. “The South wind is polite and genteel, while the West wind is big and robust, and the East wind is polished and sophisticated. The winds offer input and create twins that are called love. Then, that love changes everything.”

So expansive a notion stirs visions of grandeur. With the 15-piece Lincoln Jazz Center Orchestra (which Mr. Marsalis conducts) and the famed Boys Choir of Harlem (under the direction of Walter J. Turnbull), Mr. Marsalis just may have the musicians to realize them. Actress, playwright and CBS’ “Sunday Morning” commentator Nancy Giles will serve as narrator for the performance.

“Suite” is the first jazz work to be commissioned by the Washington Performing Arts Society, who will host tonight’s world premiere along with performances scheduled for tomorrow and Sunday. Mr. Marsalis has enjoyed a two-decade relationship with the arts organization. The piece is dedicated to retired WPAS President Doug Wheeler, who retired nearly three years ago after serving 20 years in the post.

“I’ve been a longtime admirer of Doug and what WPAS was doing to bring the arts to the entire community,” says Mr. Marsalis, an eight-time Grammy-winner (for both jazz and classical music) who presented his “Blood on the Fields” at the Warner Theatre in 1999 (WPAS also hosted that event). “Fields,” a moving oratorio about slavery, became the first jazz composition to ever win a Pulitzer Prize.

Mr. Wheeler returns the admiration.

“I’ve known Wynton since 1984 when I was doing the programming for WPAS and immediately spotted him as an upcoming young genius,” said Mr. Wheeler, who recalled a past visit to the District when Mr. Marsalis spent more than an hour talking to students from the city’s often-troubled Ballou High School before a concert. (Proceeds from tonight’s gala, Mr. Wheeler said, will benefit WPAS’ ongoing education programs and the Black Student Fund.)

“He’s one of a handful of artists dedicated to working with young people, wherever he goes, on the appreciation of jazz, musical skills and the work ethic of young musicians,” Mr. Wheeler says. “He wants to enlighten his audience and bring in new students. We do, too, so it’s a good fit.”

Although “Suite” has been on the horizon for a while, Mr. Marsalis says he “worked on it off and on” and only began “working on it in earnest” for the past three months. “That’s a long time for me,” says the musician and former Julliard student who went on the road with the legendary Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers at the tender age of 19.

The time squeeze Mr. Marsalis faced in composing “Suite” is understandable, given his hectic schedule. In addition to his JALC duties, he’d been working on the soundtrack for “Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson,” a project that reteamed him with Mr. Burns. Mr. Marsalis wrote 16 of the 23 tracks for the upcoming documentary on America’s first black heavyweight champion, whose 1908 victory over Canadian boxer Tommy Burns sparked race riots nationwide and ignited a search for the “great white hope” to reclaim the title. It will air next month on PBS. Last week, Blue Note released the companion CD, which also features early recordings by W.C. Handy and Jelly Roll Morton.

Another new CD, featuring Mr. Marsalis and the LCJO performing the works of the late John Coltrane, arrives in stores Jan. 11.

Performing is a certainty, Mr. Marsalis says, but instilling an appreciation for jazz in younger generations is a far more pressing — and collective — matter, he reckons.

“It’s up to the adults to determine what the kids learn,” he says. “It’s up to us to say what’s important.”

WHO: Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis

WHAT: The world premiere of “Suite for Human Nature,” by Mr. Marsalis

WHERE: Lincoln Theatre, 1215 U St. NW

WHEN: Tonight and tomorrow at 7:30 p.m., and Sunday at 3 p.m.

TICKETS: $40 to $75

INFORMATION: Call 202/785-WPAS (9727), or visit on line at www.wpas.org.

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

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