by Gus Lubin

A Marsalis comes to Winston

At 6:30 in the cold night, a 500-yard line stretched out the door of Kenneth R. Williams Auditorium at Winston- Salem State University. The line was composed of high school musicians, WSSU students, old white couples, black families and diverse groups of all sorts. These people represented the latent jazz community of Winston-Salem. After all, everyone who cares about jazz (no offense to the reader) came out for Wynton Marsalis, and came out early. Standing at the front of the line was Warren Moore, a WSSU alumn who saw Marsalis play in Winston-Salem in 2005 and 1993. “I’ve seen him every time, and if he comes another ten times I’ll see him every time,” Moore said. Toward the back of the line I stood between Sami Cherikh, a ninth-grade trombonist at West Forsyth High School, and Christina Placilla and Ryan Peller, two local orchestra instructors. “Just about everyone involved with music that I know is here,” Peller said. Wynton Marsalis is the premier living jazz player. The man is more than a musician, like Barack Obama is more than a politician. Marsalis has to be more than a virtuosic player and genius composer (the modern jazz world is full of both and for them no one cares much); he has to introduce, embody and illuminate jazz. Marsalis was the final musician covered in my undergraduate course on the history of jazz. After Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, Duke, Bird, Trane and Ornette Coleman, there was only Marsalis. His preeminence says a lot about the man; and it also says a lot about the state of jazz. Try naming another modern jazz musician, besides Marsalis’s brother Branford and Clarence Clemmons of the E Street Band. But as the torchbearer of American jazz, Marsalis is neither cocky nor glum. He leads the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra in hundreds of performances and workshops each year across America and the world. It was his idealistic mission that brought Marsalis once more to the humble Camel City. He came out nearly anonymously among 14 guys in black suits and pinkand-white striped ties, sat in the back row with three other trumpeters. The audience recognized his cherubic face anyway, looking like he stepped right out of the poster. Applause subsided and Marsalis introduced the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. “We don’t have a conductor so there will be a lot of looking around to see who’s going to play next,” he joked. Like the president, Marsalis deflects anticipation in a slow, baritone voice. “This is our last night on tour,” he added, “so we’re looking to cut loose tonight.” The set began slowly. The first song was an original composition by Marsalis, which consisted of a brief, full-band chorus, followed by a 16-bar solo from each of the instruments. Jerks of applause followed each solo. But Marsalis teased the concert forward: “We just wanted to show you that everybody here can play.” The second song was a flamenco-inspired Marsalis composition from a Spanish youth festival. The third song was a jazz version of “Itsy Bitsy Spider.” Idiosyncratic and fun, these songs were nonetheless less than the roofraising jazz of my expectations. But cool Marsalis mused: “That clarinet might seem easy but it’s not,” — he whistled a clear note into the microphone — “High note way up in the middle of nowhere.” Then the concert picked up its pace, and the second half was dazzling and hot. Marsalis announced that tonight they would play the music of Thelonious Monk — applause from the audience — who was from North Carolina — more applause — and by the way John Coltrane was also from North Carolina — more applause. The band tore through several Monk songs. Marsalis introduced each with a confident narration, like he was teaching kids, name-dropping and describing the jazz golden age as only he can. The young pianist Dan Nimmer played Monk’s part with great skill, flopping across the keyboard with magic flippers. The rest of the band was equally impressive. Marsalis stood out by the weight of his expectations. In contrast to his cool spoken demeanor, Marsalis played late solos with desperation, squeezing his face into the golden tube while his fingers wrung its neck. The concert ended to a standing ovation, and Marsalis and half of the ensemble returned for an encore. For music man Marsalis, the encore was one more lesson in jazz. This time the octet stood up, four horns to one side and Marsalis and the piano, drum and bass to another. Marsalis swaggered on stage with a derby-hat mute in one hand, like drunken reveler at a New Year’s Eve party. The band played 10 minutes of gutbucket bluesy jazz. The audience, taking Marsalis’s lead, finally let loose, hooting, taking photos and shouting “Yeah!”