Wynton Marsalis talks Tanglewood, a fateful audition at 17, and his father’s enduring influence
The respective quintets of Wynton Marsalis and his 83-year-old father, pianist Ellis Marsalis, will perform Saturday to help close out the 2018 season at Tanglewood. The younger Marsalis, 56, plans to perform four new compositions of his own, collectively titled “The Integrity Suite,” backed by his longtime rhythm section of pianist Dan Nimmer, bassist Carlos Henriquez, and drummer Ali Jackson. Recent Juilliard graduate Julian Lee, 22, will round out the quintet on tenor saxophone and clarinet. Small-group performances have become a rarity for Marsalis, who usually performs leading the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. But he is no stranger to Tanglewood. Speaking to the Globe by phone this week, he detailed how, in 1979 at age 17, he’d successfully auditioned for the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra and its artistic director, the late composer and conductor Gunther Schuller.
Q. Your performance on Saturday celebrates the New Orleans Tricentennial. Will you play music associated with New Orleans?
A. It’s not really the New Orleans Tricentennial. I mean, it is — but the show is not really like that. It’s just modern jazz. My father’s playing. I don’t know exactly what he’s playing, but we’ll probably play a song or two together, depending on how he feels. You know, my mother passed away last year. It’s good to get him out and playing.
The music we grew up playing is more of a modern music. We played at the family Baptist church marching band in high school, some traditional music, but the music my father and James Black and that generation of musicians played in New Orleans had a different sound. We knew the music of my father and James Black and Kidd Jordan, all these New Orleans musicians. We were always in camps and stuff, studying with them.
Q. Is there a difference when you’re playing in a little club with a small combo versus your shows with the whole orchestra?
A. Yeah, it’s less formal to be in the club. Music always feels differently based on the setting. If you’re comfortable in a concert hall, that can be just as relaxing or as natural as playing in a club. But when you’re late at night in the House of Tribes, everybody is dancing and singing and shouting. With those smaller groups, we always had that feeling. When we played at the Village Vanguard, we had that vibe. I think I make a lot of announcements on that [“Live at the House of Tribes”] recording, and I wanted to have that feeling people had about the music.
Q. Do you think you’ll do much talking from the stage at Tanglewood?
A. Tanglewood is important for me. It changed my understanding of a lot of things. I was auditioned by the great Gunther Schuller, may he rest in peace. And when I came up here, we played Shostakovich’s Fifth under Leonard Bernstein, Prokofiev under Leonard Bernstein. It connected me to the tradition of the Boston Symphony. I learned so much that summer. It was transformative for me as a musician. I’m one of the biggest fans of Tanglewood in the world. Whenever I come to Tanglewood it means a great deal to me.
It’s not because I’m talking to you that I’m saying it. I took the audition totally by accident, and [originally] I wasn’t auditioning for the first Music Center Orchestra; I was auditioning for the younger orchestra. But when the auditions were held in New Orleans, I caught like four buses to get to his audition. It was pouring down rain. It was so far from my house — it was all the way on the other side of town, at the University of New Orleans — and when I got there, I was absolutely soaking wet. Gunther, who was supposed to be doing the audition, wasn’t there. He canceled the audition.
So I still didn’t have something to do that summer. I took my Juilliard audition in New York in March of that year, that’s 1979. Coming back from the Juilliard audition, I got lost and walked by the Wellington Hotel, and there was a sign [announcing Tanglewood Music Center auditions]. It was absolutely random. I walked in, and they were getting ready to stop. So I signed up, I put my age, 17, and the lady who was in the front said, “Oh, you’re 17, you can’t audition for this orchestra. You have to be 18 to get in.” And Gunther Schuller, because he was finished auditioning, said, “Who is this guy?” I said, “I’m a trumpet player, I’m coming from my Juilliard audition.” He looked at my trumpet case and said, “Let him come in and audition.” I was prepared for my Juilliard audition, so I had all my excerpts and everything from them, because I was determined to get out of New Orleans. He saw the thing, said, “Play the Brandenburg Concerto . . .” He said, “Man, you can play. I don’t know what we’re going to do, but let me think about it.” And then they sent me a letter saying I was accepted.
And then through the years, of course, Gunther was a mentor of mine. I would play for him. We would discuss and argue about music. I learned a lot well into manhood. I was so glad to see him at the Brubeck Institute, maybe a year before he died, and I was so happy that I had the opportunity to publicly talk about the impact that he had had on my musicianship. Like a New Orleans kind of thing, it was very impactful for me.
With me it was jazz, you come from New Orleans, believing in the music and also writing so much different music and trying to have an opportunity to participate. I was so fortunate. And also having a philosophical frame of reference, I was able to make a different type of assessment of what was going on. A lot of that came from my father. To see him struggle with the music, it made him be very philosophical about the meaning of it, because he certainly was not making money playing.
Q. A lot of times people want to be a musician, and their parents will say, “Make sure you have a backup plan.” The story is that your dad said, “Make sure you don’t have one, because that way you have to succeed.” Is that true?
A. That’s right. I’ll tell you the whole story. I had received a lot of scholarships — this was back in the time when if a black student made really good grades academically, schools would pursue you. So I had a lot of scholarships not playing music. And all my teachers were saying, “Don’t throw your brain away on music,” because they didn’t respect music. My mama was like, “If you go into music you’re going to struggle just like your daddy did. There’s no money in this. He’s struggled his entire life. You’ve seen it.” I asked my father what he thought I should do, and he said, “Do you really want to do this?” I said, “Nah, I’m going to be a musician.” And he said, “Don’t have nothing to fall back on.”
He was right, because you have to do it. If you have a way to not do it, you’re going to find that way. When I left home I had all my stuff in a box — you know, some jeans, some shirts. My father came and said, “Is that all your stuff in the box?” I was ready to get out of my house, and I said, “Yeah, that’s my stuff.” I was getting kind of testy with him. He said, “Just remember, you can go back to the contents in this box and you’ll be OK.”
Wynton Marsalis Quintet
With a special appearance by the Ellis Marsalis Quintet. At Tanglewood, Koussevitzky Music Shed, Lenox, Sept. 1 at 7 p.m. Tickets $29-$119, 888-266-1200, www.bso.org