For legendary jazz musician, Wynton Marsalis, upholding democracy is a lot like playing music in a group. The key ingredient to both, he says, is the act of listening. Music is a unique art form in that it can allow any number of people to participate—another voice for the harmony, another violin for the string section—and it is available to people of all ages, backgrounds and skill levels, too. Of course, music is often called the universal language, but it is also a form of communication that requires attention and practice to keep it alive. Like democracy, Marsalis says, the preservation of music is a precarious act. It can feel fragile or even futile at times. But with vigilance and persistence, progress is made and made again. The shape that progress takes as it unfolds, however, is sometimes hard to predict in a given moment. Today, though, for Marsalis, it’s taken the form of his latest release, The Democracy Suite. The album, which is available now to stream free or purchase, is further evidence of Marsalis’ long career and fight for equitable dialogue.
Speaking to American Songwriter during the inauguration of President Joe Biden and Vice-President Kamala Harris, Marsalis, who is the current Managing and Artistic Director of Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York City, spoke with hope and caution in his voice when talking about the future.
“Let’s see,” Marsalis says. “I feel glad that the whole travail of lawlessness and the frontward assault on our democratic principles have been stymied for the moment. But democracy is a lot like playing. Let’s see, moment to moment. Democracy is a form that requires constant adjustment. The variables are always changing. We have to be ever vigilant. The question for me then becomes: are we up for it?”
Marsalis says he remains a “believer,” meaning that he keeps faith when it comes to the idea of a positive, uplifting future. But after nearly 60 years living as a Black man in America, he reserves the right to wait and see what the future holds in terms of fresh socio-political change. One reason that causes him to withhold judgment after the historic inauguration, is that the American system, Marsalis says, doesn’t do a good enough job of prioritizing art, music and culture in regards to its people or the way it’s perceived in the world.
“Culture has never really been on the front burner of our country,” Marsalis says. “It’s always been on the back burner. It’s never discussed in debates; it’s not part of our national identity. Our culture is purely commercial, purely entertainment. It’s not a quality culture. Our culture is about what makes money. That’s part of the improvements that we need to make.”
For four-plus decades, Marsalis, who was born and raised in New Orleans and grew up in a musical household, has been pursing his lips in a tight embouchure and blowing his horn to both offer a creative spiritual light and continue a conversation about the importance of collaborative human expression. For some, this act of pushing against creative suppression or just simple ignorance might be exhausting. But for Marsalis, who stands tall amidst a long historic lineage of New Orleans trumpet players and who has enjoyed a lengthy, lucrative and prestigious career, the work has been vitalizing.
“It’s invigorating,” he says. “It’s like energy. I get energy from it. The honor of participating in people’s lives and being part of the dialogue that’s around your way of life, participating in an art form, being a trumpet player in that lineage, it is an honor.”
Marsalis, who was playing on his middle school basketball team when he first began to pay attention to music, says he formally fell in love with jazz at twelve years old. Perhaps it was because music can be a lifelong endeavor whereas professional athletics can’t. Perhaps it was because his father was a professional musician and Marsalis (and his famed saxophonist brother, Branford) grew up around a swath of talented players who would tell stories at all hours of the night. Or perhaps it was because music is as prevalent as oxygen and water in New Orleans—so much so that the people seem to speak in melodies. Whatever the reason, Marsalis took to music deeply, so much so that he devoted his life to it. Soon after, he started playing gig after gig.
“In New Orleans,” he says, “you can always work.”
Marsalis has been working ever since. The trumpeter’s latest effort does what you might expect: the music swings, inquires, shouts, propels and inspires beyond words. Piano chords belt while single notes twinkle. Snares and cymbals rattle and shake while Marsalis offers his clear, clean belted bell. It’s yet another example of years of musical knowledge and training mixed with years of collaborative comportment. For Marsalis, a former student at Juilliard, who is now the Director of Jazz Studies at the school, music remains a way to hone the necessary skills required to engage in honest, human conversation.
“I think music informs our listening,” Marsalis says. “It helps us develop how we hear and understand the underlying meanings in language. That’s an important skill.”