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All That Jazz 

by Marty Demarest

This Sunday at 8 pm, legendary jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis brings the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra to the Opera House. Comprised of fifteen world-class musicians, the LCJO has been introducing audiences everywhere to the richness and diversity of contemporary jazz. We caught up with Marsalis by telephone before he left New York City, to find out what he's planning for this tour, and what he's learned about jazz in his critically-praised career.

Inlander: It's a busy spring for you. You're touring, and coming here to Spokane. You have a CD (The Magic Hour) coming out. And Jazz at Lincoln Center just got a new home in the form of three different performance venues right in the middle of Manhattan. That's a big boost for jazz, and I'm assuming you considered the effect those venues would have very carefully. What was your goal with them?

WM: The spaces are designed for the feeling and the spirit of jazz. But all types of music and the arts will be invited into the space.

OK, that's easy for you to say. But for the rest of us, what is that -- "the spirit of jazz?"

I would say it's a combination of the soulful and the sophisticated. It's down home and informal, but it also has a formality to it. It is a feeling of closeness, and you want to embrace the audience and bring them into the spirit of what you're doing, and be as inclusive as possible.

Is it hard to do that on tour - when you come to Spokane, for example?

It's easier to do it on tour, if anything, because the people come out and it's like the jazz event that they're going to go to. They want to have a good time and they've been to concerts before. And it's easy to get a rapport, even though you're in a large venue: spending a little time and talking with people and explaining a little about the song, telling them where the musicians are from, who's soloing, what they're hearing.

It sounds as you like performing in new places.

(Laughs) I've been touring for 20-something years. If I don't like it, I've had a baaaaad time!

So looking out from the stage during those years, how have the audiences changed?

I think after Ken Burns' documentary series [Jazz, which was first broadcast on PBS], I saw more people coming to jazz. But over 20 years, I think the audiences have been pretty consistent. They like you to play a mix of different styles of music. And they like being turned on to something that they haven't heard. They like things that they know and things that they haven't heard. They like soloists. And they like to be excited about people being in balance and playing with a high level of creativity and concern.

But what music do you try to play for audiences that you don't necessarily know? What do people respond to in general?

If the music has a melodic character, and has a vehicle for soloing, and is something with a strong rhythmic base, people will like it. If it has life in it, or something that reminds people of everyday things, they'll enjoy it. Because they come to the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra for a quality experience, but they also like the virtuosity. People like to be touched, they like to hear emotions in music, but they also like to hear virtuosity. They like well-arranged things, they like to hear the sum of craftsmanship, they like the change of colors -- they like the power of a big band.

You're famous for an eclectic, inclusive approach that brings all that together. But it sounds scary. That's a broad base to cover, and you risk people not liking a lot of the mix.

Well, that's true to the spirit of giving in general. If you invite me two or three times to your home for a meal, you can't cook the same thing every time. You have to get to one of those dishes that you might not be comfortable with. But part of the fact that you can not like something is what makes presenting it enjoyable. It's like that Valentine's Day gift you got for your girlfriend when you were fifteen or sixteen, and you didn't know if she would like it. And there's just the whole tension of that that makes the whole thing ceremonious. If you take that away, it doesn't have the same glow to it.

Publication date: 02/26/04

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