The trumpeter and his Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra perform at the Paramount Theatre Oct. 13.
It’s Monday, Oct. 3, and Wynton Marsalis is riding from Santa Cruz, Calif., where he and his Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra played the night before, to Santa Barbara, where the band plays that night. The tour reaches Seattle on Thursday (Oct. 13).
Marsalis texts a photo: Propped on the dashboard, traffic visible through the windshield, is a sheet of score paper with musical notations from the symphony he’s writing. Next to it is a three-ring binder of manuscript paper with more notations.
“It’s for the New York Philharmonic,” he says.
Earshot Jazz Festival: Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra
7:30 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 13, at the Paramount Theatre, 911 Pine St., Seattle; $45-$125 (877-784-4849 or stgpresents.org).
Marsalis’ work ethic is extraordinary. At 55, the trumpet player, bandleader and composer has won the Pulitzer Prize (the first jazz musician to do so) for his long form work “Blood on the Fields,” notched Grammy Awards for both jazz and classical music two years in a row, recorded more than 40 albums and — perhaps most important — established a permanent home for jazz in New York City at Frederick P. Rose Hall, part of the nonprofit Jazz at Lincoln Center complex he manages at Columbus Circle.
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Marsalis is so busy he couldn’t find time to go to the White House last month to pick up a National Humanities Medal from the president of the United States.
“By the time I found out, we had already booked these gigs,” he explains.
The 15-piece orchestra does keep him busy. Launched in 1987 as a repertory vehicle, it has evolved into a creative force. The band recently issued a recording on the new Blue Engine label, documenting its historic 2010 concert in Havana, Cuba. More recently, the orchestra released a live 2014 recording of Marsalis’ jubilant oratorio, “The Abyssinian Mass,” commissioned to commemorate the 200th anniversary of Harlem’s Abyssinian Baptist Church, featuring Chorale Le Chateau.
In Seattle, the band will probably play selections from its recent piano-centric program, “Handful of Keys” which featured 13-year-old piano phenomenon Joey Alexander performing Bill Evans’ “Very Early.”
“We have never had anybody like that in our music,” says Marsalis, of Alexander. “He’s for real.”
Other selections from that concert also may turn up, says the trumpet player, including an arrangement of “Temperance,” written by the man Marsalis was named after, pianist Wynton Kelly, or Thelonious Monk’s “Rhythm-A-Ning.” They also might play selections from saxophonist Ted Nash’s new “Presidential Suite.”
How does Marsalis keep up this pace?
“The question is not ‘how,’ he says. “The question is ‘why.’ I’m at this stage when I’m wondering why I do it. It’s a lot of work!”
Marsalis’ capacity to be amused by life and his own foibles is one of his most endearing qualities. Neither champions nor detractors would even deny he has a sense of humor.
“Somebody asked me what’s new in jazz,” says the wry New Orleanian, who has spent his entire adult life trying to get Americans to listen to jazz. “I said, ‘What’s new in jazz is that people are going to start listening to it.’”
This time he laughs out loud.
Marsalis has had great success spreading the jazz gospel with the Essentially Ellington education competition, and he doesn’t hesitate to single out Seattle as a beacon.
“We have had 17 appearances by Roosevelt High School and Garfield has had 15,” he says. “A tradition has been established.”
To honor that tradition, the opening two songs at the Paramount will be played by the Roosevelt High School Jazz Band. Mountlake Terrace High School will be represented by a preshow ensemble outdoors and Mount Si High School will have a small ensemble playing in the lobby.
“These kids are fantastic,” says Marsalis, who cordially says goodbye, then returns to writing his score before playing a show that night.