Last night Wynton Marsalis came to our residence hall.
Apparently a guy who lives at Goodenough College with us played bass for Wynton or something, and invited him to stop by and talk jazz with some of his housemates. By the time Wynton showed up an hour late for his 6PM discussion, the large common room of our house was packed full with more than 100 people. While we waited for Mr. Marsalis, the Director of the College (the phrase “charming old chap” was invented to describe him) invited any of the many musician residents to come up to the piano and entertain us.
This would’ve been reason enough to show up. The first guy – who by the way was blind – started with an impressive etude on the piano. Then after the thunderous applause and appreciation, he humbly asked if there were any requests. “Piano Man,” someone joked. After the laughter died down, though, he went right into an emotional version of another BJ classic, “Honesty”; singing full out and easily hitting the high notes. It was absurd, but it set the tone, and was followed by other college residents playing pop, jazz and even vaudeville, with an impromptu finale by an older guy who performed a unbelievably moving piece by Chopin.
Finally, Wynton wandered in, bewildered by the attendance, claiming “when he said ‘come to my house,’ I thought it would be five of us sitting around talking about jazz…” But you could tell Wynton was unintimidated by the room, and he sat down at the piano and just started talking about the blues. Turned out he played a decent 12-bar on piano, and as he cycled through the progression, he talked about the birth of blues out of old spirituals, all based on that “A-men” resolution we know so well. Then he talked about how happy the blues actually was: “If I tell you I’m gonna walk down that lonesome road, then that sounds pretty sad. But if I sing it to you like this…” And then he sang very softly, almost in a murmur, “I’m gonna walk… (pause) Down that lonesome road…” Then he laughed, pointing out that the pause is very important in delivering your message in the blues.
Then he decided he’d better play a little trumpet for us lest we get restless. “Nobody wants to hear somebody play trumpet by itself,” he said, and then started to use his left hand to accompany himself while he played a pretty, wandering melody on the trumpet in his right hand. It was pretty frigging amazing.
Anyway, Wynton answered a bunch of questions, and even played a couple numbers with a talented European girl who lives in the college and plays jazz piano. He was very withdrawn in his playing with her. He definitely played a few impressive licks, but I thought it was generally over-respectful. He had claimed earlier that in his youth he was much more of a stage-hog and showman, but that he was now mellowing into a more tactful and terse musician. I think it went a little far with this performance, but it was cool to see this young lady get a chance to play with such a mentor.
A caveat: When I was ten years old, my dad took me to the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. He was writing an article on Ellis Marsalis, believed by many to be one of the most underrated pianists in jazz history. Among Ellis’s greatest contributions to jazz, though, were his students and proteges — not least among them his own boys, Wynton, Branford, Delfeayo and Jason, also Harry Connick, Jr., and Marcus Roberts. At ten years old, I had heard of Wynton, but was hardly star-struck on meeting his family. And Ellis was such an easy-going guy you forgot his immense talent the minute he started talking to you. But Jason and I hit it off immediately. He was only a year younger than me, and we would spend the entire day running through the endless festival parking lots, playing the license plate game (I don’t think we ever did find Alaska). Now and then, we would have to run back to one of the tents where one of his siblings was playing at the festival. And Branford would look out the back of the tent and say, “Jason, get up here!” So he’d run up on the stage, play a couple numbers (he’s 9, remember), and then run back out to meet me behind the tent, eager to hit the parking lots again.
So last night with Wynton, which was already intimate, felt even more so because I felt like I really knew him and his family. At one point, a guy in the audience raised his hand: “I’m a huge fan of your father’s, Wynton, and…” and Wynton just melted. He gushed about his dad for practically 15 minutes, telling stories, imitating him, praising him to the sky. It was really moving, but I realized it was even more so because I felt like I knew Ellis, too. And I guess I do, in a way.