“Arts give form to the chaos of life”: Wynton Marsalis

By: Estefanía Romero

The importance of supporting jazz in this moment was highlighted by Wynton Marsalis, founder of the Jazz at Lincoln Orchestra and jazz icon already, during his visit for the Festival Internacional Cervantino 2022 in Mexico.

He claimed that spreading jazz into other countries makes it possible to generate a public conversation on subjects that are essential to all human beings: birth, death, falling in love; as much as to understand the difference between the individual and the group, and how to negotiate as a whole, while being productive.

“Arts give form to the chaos of life”, Marsalis said, as he described his personal purpose in life: to get people together as much as their spirits, towards the art form he represents jazz.



Then he came on to describe the concept of “Universal Humanism”, which he considers vital in jazz. He said that there are two kinds of thought in here; one of them is the narrative of predation, which includes the celebration of the biggest predators, like Julio Cesar, Napoleon, Genghis Kahn, people who move on to destroy and to dominate. Marsalis insisted on this being a fact rather than a judgement coming from himself. In the other hand, there is symbiosis, he added, where we find “the prophets, the religions… Jesus, Budha, those who looked at people in a symbiotic way, whereas the predators are only looking around with hunger.

“And maybe both narratives must coexist to create the right friction to keep things moving in the Universe… I am in the symbiosis side, and jazz is too”, the trumpeter added.

Marsalis pointed at Eugenio Elias, who was sitting next to him, with a physical gesture, to state that both of them are trumpet players, and that his personal attitude is to feel love for that man, and to understand what they both represent.



Moreover, we are always talking about the incredible work of Marsalis as an artist and human rights promoter, so I highlighted that he has also been a cultural correspondent for CBS News, and that he has written six books and a collection of poetry, in my quest to ask him about the importance for young jazz musicians to be involved with other disciplines, to what he answered:

“When I was in high school, between 13-17, there was an experimental school in New Orleans of arts, and my father was the teacher of jazz. Because my father didn’t want to teach me, I was studying classical, but we also had dance, theater, creative writing, everything but film.

Not many students were interested in those arts although anyone could go, but the teachers were fantastic. Also living in a city (New Orleans) where no one cares a thing what they do, nobody cares about creative writing, or jazz, my father would play for four or five people. People always in the community here made people come see these arts, jazz, but the public no.

One of our classes was called “Integrated arts”, all the students of every discipline come together and take a master class from someone from a different place. One day a guy came from Africa, I think Ghana, he played and talked for the youth, and the dancers asked questions about dance, and the musicians asked questions about music, and the theater people asked questions about stage; it would be very interesting. And we stayed in this room for three hours and I thought ‘Maybe I’ll experiment this many times in my life, this type of energy’, but no… I did not, not many times.

I think all the creativity helps everything else. And for the students I’m always encouraging youth, first to develop their intellectual pursue, social understanding and acuity.

I am the Director of Jazz Studies at Julliard, and we have fantastic young students, we’re always writing for dance, working with the theater department, working with early music, like Renaissance music, and we always set up programs with them, to interact with the other students, to work with other teachers, to be in other art’s disciplines, and I’d like to see more of this togetherness.

Also, because of my father and the other music teachers, I had a kind of feeling for art. That was uncommon for someone 17 or 18, Afro American. So when I came to New York I would reach out to all the greatest writers, like Ralph Ellison, or artists like Romare Bearden… Because no one my age was interested in that, they treated me like I was their grandson, or their son. The type of education I would see from them was unbelievable.”



Finally, in terms of what a musician must do to belong to the Jazz at Lincoln Orchestra, Marsalis commented that this is a project immersed in a commercial world, which makes it difficult to know musicians with the kind of required commitment:

“We’re very friendly, but not on the stage”.

He affirmed that most of the parents of his current musicians were jazz musicians as well, so they know the demanding cost for being part of it. As an example, Marsalis said:

“If I give you instructions, it doesn’t mean you have to follow them”.

At this point, the trumpeter explained that to keep things going in transition is difficult, because there must be learning and practice, and playing jazz is more like a ritual you must understand from the inside, rather than the fact of following instructions.